Sun Tzu and small business

By Bryan Clayton

I have spent 15 years operating a large-scale landscape operation. I grew it from a one-man operation to over 100 employees. This past year I completed the exhausting journey of navigating the company through successful acquisition by a respected national organization. Reflecting on the challenges of founding, growing, and selling my business, there were many instances that felt like outright warfare. As business leaders we must seek guidance and inspiration for tactical and strategic thinking when it comes to business strategy.

One of the most compelling and insightful texts ever written on the subject of tactical strategy is Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Despite having been written more than 2500 years ago, Sun Tzu’s manuscript has been heralded for centuries by military generals for its insights on warfare planning and logical strategy. Sun Tzu’s teachings have also since been applied by masses of armchair soldiers and leaders in the business world.

Surprisingly, there are many teachings in The Art of War that can help small business owners have clarity of mission, clarity of strategy, and most importantly, clarity of their purpose as to why they are in business in the first place.

Here are a few lessons gleaned from the book—knowledge I wish I had implemented in my business long ago.

Sun Tzu Says, “Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy with no fighting.

It can be tempting to attack your competition by battling them on pricing or trying to woo their customers by taking them out to nice lunches. Sun Tzu would advise us to instead focus on out-serving the competition with custom, superior service for your clientele by addressing where your competition is weak. This is how long-lasting competitive advantage in constructed. Be victorious in the marketplace and build your company without ever fighting. Simply out serve your competitors by exploiting their weaknesses and avoiding their strengths.

Sun Tzu Says, “No ruler should put troops into the field merely to gratify his own spleen; no general should fight a battle simply out of pique.”

Don’t go after your competitors’ customers because the competition has ticked you off. Plan out your strategy for smart competition; stay calm, cool, and collected, and then focus on your company’s strengths. Do not alter your strategic plan just because your competitor has irritated you. Do not guide your company from a standpoint of your personal gain or gratification; your organization is a living, breathing thing much bigger than yourself.

It might seem silly for small business owners to apply ancient Chinese warfare strategy to the business marketplace; however, these elements are compelling if implemented into the outlook and leadership of your company. These are the values by which companies with lasting impact are built. Here is an illustration for more of Sun Tzu’s philosophies as they apply to small business.


Guest poster Bryan Clayton, is a serial entrepreneur, and co-founder of GreenPal.

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