Go is the founder’s game

I’m currently about two months into founding a company, and, on an unrelated note, I just purchased my first really nice Go board (if you’re not familiar, you’ll probably want to read a bit about Go before continuing). It’s a new game to my wife, so I was explaining some of the basic principles to her this evening, and I was forcibly struck with the similarities to founding a company.

Opportunity cost

Each stone you place on the board during a game can only achieve certain objectives. It may limit the an opponent’s liberties (opportunities for advancement), it may offer your more liberties (sometimes more than one), it might strengthen your established positions, or it might conquer new territory. However, each piece you put down means giving up on other options: sometimes forever, if an opponent takes that place on the board. The best moves are those which do several of these at once.

I find this exactly corresponds to thinking about my business. Every hour I spend on one task is taken away from all the other tasks I might have spent time on. As in the game, it’s very easy spend time on things which are valuable, but not valuable enough. To be most successful, I use the Objectives & Key Results system (from Measure What Matters) to scan the board as a whole (i.e., make goals for the upcoming quarter), and my Getting Things Done (GTD) weekly review to zoom into the details (i.e., select projects and next actions) to pick the best moves I can.

Done is better than perfect

In the game, you often find yourself with a formation (a connected sequence of stones) which is in danger (i.e., about to be captured). In order to save that formation, you need to keep adding stones to it until it is out of danger. However, it’s very tempting to keep adding more stones to make it safer and safer, even though it’s no longer in grave danger (just mild peril). In the meantime, opportunity cost catches up with you. It would have been better to make it “safe enough” and then turn your attention to other, more strategically important, moves.

This is a constant struggle as I work though decisions about my business, since my natural tendency is to make everything “perfect”. For each project I undertake, I challenge myself to find the correct state of “doneness” for the current stage of my business: which is nearly always far, far less than “perfect”. I put “perfect” in quotes because, in the context of getting my business off the ground, taking “perfect” to mean “polished to the utmost degree” is the wrong definition. In this context, the real definition should be “polished to the minimal degree necessary to unlock progress on something more important”.

Keep all the balls in the air

The challenge created by the last principle is that you rapidly wind up with many vulnerable formations on the board at once. With each move, you need to consider each formation to see if it’s in danger of getting taken, or has an opening to extend it to capture new territory. In many cases, an opportunity to start an entirely new formation arises unexpectedly, and now you have one more thing to juggle.

Particularly as a solo founder, this is a daily balancing act. I use my GTD project list to constantly remind myself of the many, varied, projects I have on my plate, and update my action lists daily to deliberately choose which are going to get my attention on a particular day. As I do this, I often choose based upon which important priority hasn’t gotten my attention in a while. Taking this time to reflect is particularly important for me as a technical founder because writing code feels so productive, and therefore can easily absorb an out-sized portion of my time. So, I personally need the constant reminder to keep all the balls in the air: especially those more outside my comfort zone.

Mistakes and sunk costs

Go is a game of capturing territory, and sudden reversals are common. You may be working on building up a certain formation, only to find that your opponent has outflanked you, and that formation is suddenly in danger. If you’re not thoughtful and cautious, it’s very tempting to keep playing more and more stones racing to protect that formation, only to lose it anyway in the end.

The uncertain nature of a new venture means this is a constant danger for my business as well. I need to make a dozen key decisions (and loads more little ones) each week. Most of those are made with too little data, too little expertise, and not remotely enough time to acquire either. Unsurprisingly, those decisions are sometimes sub-optimal, and occasionally terribly wrong. The skill I’m constantly striving to hone is to recognize those mistakes as early as possible: often by seeking out and actually listening to hard feedback. Then, if I discover I’m on the wrong course, to swallow my pride and immediately stop throwing more time and money at it.

Recognizing a lost cause

Most games of Go don’t actually get played all the way until all the stones are on the board. At any point, either player can “pass” on their turn if they don’t think there’s anything productive they can do (it is quite possible to decrease your final score by playing too many stones). If the opponent agrees that there’s nothing productive left to do, then they also pass, and the game is over. I’ve sometimes conceded games where I’ve badly misjudged something within 10 minutes of play (a very short game!). The silver lining is that the sooner you recognize a particular game is over, the sooner you can move on to a game where you’ve got better chances.

Launching a new product starts with a huge pile of hypotheses about what customers want, what they’ll pay, how many people actually want it, etc. And, of course, almost no actual data. The goal, then, is to keep testing hypotheses and converting them into real knowledge of your product, your customers, and your business model. In the happy case, you prove your hypotheses correct, and the business thrives. In the not-so-happy case, you keep finding your hypotheses are incorrect, and eventually, you need to admit that this particular product idea doesn’t have a future. If you’re quick enough to do this, then you might have enough time and money left to try again (and, if you’re extremely good at this, even another time or two after that!).

✧✧✧

Of course, many games rely on these principles to some degree or another. And, it’s entirely possible that my current situation makes me see these principles in everything I do. However, I really do think that Go requires these principles so constantly, and to such a stark, obvious degree that it really is the “founder’s game”.

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