There’s a story about Hernando Cortez who landed his ships in Mexico in 1519 in order conquer the Aztec empire. Cortez was totally committed and allowed himself no option of turning back. In the story it’s said that Cortez – in order to leave no option to flee – burned their own ships. This same story is told by numerous websites (and probably books as well) and it is used to prove that you should ‘burn your ships’ in order to succeed – since you have no option to retreat.
I disagree with this piece of advice in this format.
First of all, when I first heard about the story I thought that it probably has been twisted somehow and I wasn’t even sure if it happened. I made a quick search on google and found interesting point. According to JSTOR (scholarly journal archive) Cortez didn’t actually burn his ships. He did destroy the ships – but didn’t burn them. Some people might think this is semantics, but in my opinion it proves how easily stories change when they are told over and over.
This small part of the story is not the reason why I disagree with the advice of burning the ships. Basically I believe it’s too easy to give advice of ‘burning the ships’ to young people who end up getting in big debt and wasting lots of time, nerves and might even end up ruining the rest of their lives.
Sun Tzu – historical Chinese figure – has also mentioned similar advice, although he was talking about desperate situations. Here’s a quote from translated Sun Tzu’s book The Art of War:
Throw the troops into a position from which there is no escape and even faced with death they will not flee. In a desperate situation they fear nothing; when there is no way out they stand firm”
It’s worth remembering that Sun Tzu is talking about desperate situations and basically about one final way to motivate soldiers. Sun Tzu was not recommending taking young kids and throwing them on the battlefield – in order to motivate them to win. He was not using this as the first way to motivate soldiers. He wrote about it as the last way to motivate.
Yet some authors give the impression that ‘burning the ships’ is a must. This advice for any young kid is – in my opinion – a dangerous one. I don’t recommend people to burn the ships. I personally have found a much better to first experiment in a small scale.
There’s also another story – which also points why this advice is for experienced people. There’s a story about Persians trying to conquer Greek city. To stop the Persians and give Greek city-states time to combine forces, King Leonidas of Sparta led a small detachment of Spartans and Greek allies to the pass at Thermopylae. Leonidas formed his phalanx of 7,000 men to defend the pass in depth, facing Persian army of 250,000 men. They managed to delay the Persians enough.
This Greek story shows us one very interesting point: it was King Leonidas who stayed there. King. It was not young kids who had never touched swords before. It was the king.
Similarly it shouldn’t be the young, inexperienced but enthusiastic indie game developers or internet marketers who should burn the ships. It could be the older, experienced AAA businessman with connections and knowledge who could use this piece of advice. I’m not saying that it’s automatically good advice for experienced people, but I would say that whoever possesses greats skills in marketing, selling, business, production and has experience on being an entrepreneur is in a a bit better position to ‘burn the ships’. I don’t think burning the ships should mean taking big debt, I personally recommend working harder and saving money for couple of years or building the business slowly but steadily by taking baby steps.
I think that it’s too easy to get the impression that you can automatically make money by doing games or having an online business. I really recommend new developers to try first selling games or products by other people, and learning how it goes for you. If it’s easy for somebody else, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it would be easy to you.
Here’s a quick checklist for you to know whether you should burn the ships or not:
- Unless you have already build an online business (or several of them) – you should not burn the ships.
- If you have a great idea that simply needs to be done – you should not burn the ships.
- If you are making the next hit MMORPG game – you should not burn the ships.
- If you don’t know what ROI means – you should not burn the ships.
- If you tend to procrastinate – don’t burn the ships.
- If you have started lots of new things, but finished just few – don’t burn the ships.
- If you don’t seem to find enough time for building your business – don’t burn the ships, because there are ways to find and make time if you really want.
- Before you have sold something online – you should not burn the ships.
- Before you have grown a long beard – you should not burn the ships (Basically – older and more exprienced people might have lived enough years to have enough knowledge).
- Before you have tried to work extra hard (without harming relationships with your family or others), saved money, lived 50% cheaper for at least 5 years – you should not burn the ships.
- Before you have focused on building a business for 5-10 years (not building a product – but a business, they are two different things) and earned real money from it – you should not burn the ships
- Unless you have extraordinary skills in marketing, sales, business, game production, people skills – you should not burn the ships.
Then the last and most important item to check:
- If you need to read a checklist about burning the ships or not – you should not burn the ships.
Bottom line: don’t burn the ships, take baby steps instead
I really think burning the ships is not a good idea. I strongly recommend taking baby steps, experimenting with smaller ‘bets’, saving money, living frugally, learning marketing & sales and building business (not just building the products) slowly but steadily.
Those with white belts in Karate won’t go first fight against those white black belts – without getting beaten.