Startups are like a game of chess: what to do now and next?

Startups need to out-manoeuvre the uncertainty hanging over them from COVID-19, but what to do now and next? The containment policies aimed at controlling it have changed how we work. As startups juggle a range of new priorities and challenges, founders must act quickly and lay a foundation for the future.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has forever changed our experiences―as customers, employees, citizens, humans – and our attitudes and behaviours are changing as a result. Once the immediate threat of the virus has passed, what will have changed in the way we think and behave, and how will that affect the way we design, communicate, build and run our startups?

History shows crises can cause fundamental shifts in social attitudes and beliefs, which pave the way for new thinking, ways of working, and consumer needs and behaviours, some of which persist in the long run. How then can startups prepare for a post crisis world, rather than hunkering down and simply waiting for a return?

Entrepreneurs follow their instinct, driven by curiosity, leading to the conversion of new ideas into new products and services, moving from imagination to impact, from innovation to invoice. For innovation to flourish in these uncertain times, both freedom and discipline must be present – freedom to imagine what is possible and discipline to turn ideas into action. Now if freedom and discipline are to be a duality rather than a dichotomy, how do you get the balance right?

Garry Kasparov, Grandmaster and World Chess Champion shares how he combined disruptive and disciplined approaches to bring him success in chess – a result of calculation, foresight and intuition. His book How life imitates chess is a must read for chess players and entrepreneurs alike.

It’s about having the vision to see your moves ahead, but you don’t need to appreciate chess to enjoy this book. Kasparov highlights long-term strategy, short-term gains, being creative in the ‘middle game’ in terms of chess, and how important decision-making is at any stage of the game. We do need to think ahead in business, if not for ten moves, but at least truly think through options and the consequences – that’s not calculating, it’s common sense.

Chess is really about psychology and intuition because the mathematics get complex very quickly. For me, the main take away of chess to startups is the ability to execute strategy, which can be exploited through practice and repetition. Kasparov illustrates that the subtle and intricate potential moves that lie within the 64 squares of a chessboard are totally applicable to business, and how the game can help you step back and evaluate yourself to identify you strengths and weaknesses and thus better your game.

Kasparov is probably the greatest chess player of all time. His 120 games in a three-year struggle against Anatoly Karpov was one of the most intense head-to-head rivalries in chess history. Nobody has played chess so aggressively at such a high level for so long.

So what are the entrepreneurial learnings we can take from Kasparov’s thinking, to help reboot us from the doldrums of coronavirus?

The first phase in a chess game: the opening The purpose of the opening isn’t just to get through it, it’s to set the stage for the type of middle game you want. This can also mean manoeuvring for the type of game your opponent doesn’t want. The openings are the only phase in which there is the possibility of unique application, you can find something that no one else has found. Be first, and be brave is the lesson for startups.

The second phase: the middle game What sort of middle game is our opening going to lead to? Is it one we are prepared for? We must also play the middle game with an eye on the endgame.

After a bad opening, there is hope for the middle game. After a bad middle game, there is hope for the endgame. But once you are in the endgame, the moment of truth has arrived. In business, it’s important to have a strategy, tactics and a game plan.

Decision-making: understand the rationale behind every move Chess is the gymnasium of the mind. We all make our decisions based on a combination of analysis and experience. For your startup, take a similar wider view so that we can evaluate the deeper consequences of our tactical decisions.

The best move The best next move on the board might be so obvious that it’s not necessary to spend time working out the details, especially if time is of the essence. However, often when we assume something is obvious and react hastily we make a mistake due to complacency.

Chess is the struggle against the error. More often we should break routine by doing more analysis, not less. These are the moments when your instincts tell you that there is something lurking below the surface, but take a moment to validate.

Dream a little, don’t settle automatically for routine solutions The paradox of chess is that there is a routine set down my mathematics to make a strong move based on its objective merits. But recall Kasparov was a combination of freedom and discipline, sober evaluation and calculation mixed with outlandish ideas.

Avoid the crowd. Do your own thinking independently. Be the chess player, not the chess piece. For a startup, you won’t find new ways of solving problems unless you seek to do so, and have the nerve to try them when you find them – but ensure flair doesn’t mean you make fateful blunders.

The future is a result of the decisions you make in the present  Tactics is knowing what to do when there is something to do; strategy is knowing what to do when there is nothing to do. A chess Grandmaster makes the best moves because they are based on what they want the board to look like in twenty moves ahead.

This doesn’t require the calculation of countless twenty-move variations, but an evaluation where their fortunes lie in the position and establishes objectives. They work out the step-by-step moves to accomplish those aims.

Have a game plan Chess is rarely a game of ideal moves. Almost always, a player faces a series of difficult consequences whichever move he makes. When you see a good move, look for a better one.

Too often we set a goal and head straight for it without considering all the steps that will be required to achieve it. If you work without long-term goals your decisions will become purely reactive and you’ll be playing your opponent’s game, not your own.

In startup life, as you jump from one new thing to the next you will be pulled off course, caught up in what’s right in front of you, instead of what you need to achieve. Have a vision of success, clarity and focus in your strategy.

Intuition & analysis Half the variations which are calculated in a chess game turn out to be completely superfluous. Unfortunately, no one knows in advance which half. Even the most honed intuition can’t entirely do without analysis. Intuition is where it all comes together – our experience, knowledge and judgement – or even hunches. 

But it doesn’t matter how far ahead you see if you don’t understand what you are looking at before you, so combine the two. No matter how much practice you have and how much you trust your gut instincts, analysis is essential.

Attack An attack doesn’t have to be all or nothing, or lightning quick. Sustained pressure can be very effective, and creating long-term positions can lead to a win in the long run. One of the qualities of a great attacker is to get the maximum out of a position without overstepping and trying to achieve more than what is possible.

Going on the front-foot requires perfect timing as well as nerve. The window of opportunity is often very small, as with most dynamic situations, so balance opportunity with rationale – back to the combination of freedom and discipline in your game plan.

Initiative Once you have the initiative you must exploit it. Kasparov reminds us that the player with the advantage is obliged to attack or his advantage will be lost. In business, a lead in initiative can be converted into a sustainable position. In both chess and in your startup, being a step ahead means we can keep our competition off balance, shifting and moving in order to provoke weaknesses.

Chess is eminently and emphatically the philosopher’s game, so let’s translate Kasparov’s chess strategies, into a clear startup strategy for the current crisis:

Hope is not a strategy. Create a real plan together with your co-founders and investors and look the truth straight in the eye. Things could get worse before they get better again. Make sure that your team see eye-to-eye on the vision you have and the measures that you will take in the next weeks and months.

Know your exposure Your first step is to identify areas of vulnerability, and decide which of these can be mitigated early. Have a solid financial model and run financial scenarios – think about what happens if your revenue drops 50%. Can you extend your runway? Plan to stay as lean as possible. This will further help you to know when to pull the trigger on major changes as things play out. Stay optimistic but realistic.

Check in with your thinking Make sure you are transparent during times of uncertainty and that you give your team and investors comfort. Do not make decisions without them, even if you can do so from a legal standpoint. Make sure they are part of the process.

Try to stick to the long-term plan Do not lose focus of your long-term goals, you shouldn’t let short-term external forces unnecessarily influence your path. I know, it can be tough when conditions deteriorate, but staying focused on long-term goals can help you with a frame of reference by which to measure short-term decisions.

Stay disciplined This is good advice always — not just for downturns. Use this time to establish a culture of discipline for all conditions. Be helpful, smart, and prudent. With an established culture of discipline, you will be in a better position for any shock to the business and it will bring your team closer together.

This is a challenging time. When people talk about entrepreneurship being tough, this is what they mean. It’s a true rollercoaster ride. But remember, it’s also a time to grow, and shine. Chess is the struggle against the error, one bad move nullifies the previous twenty good ones, the blunders are all there out on the board waiting to be made – as they are in the maelstrom we are in now.

Chess is a mental game, it requires vision, tenacity, thoughtfulness, and multiple tactics. From this, take the thinking that in a startup we can look for ways to experiment and to push the boundaries of our capacity in different areas, it really is a combination of disruptive and disciplined approaches, just what’s needed to move your startup strategy forward in these challenging times.

get in touch today

Contact us