Startup lessons from the Lord of the Rings

While re-reading LOTR after a long time, I couldn’t help but notice a number of parallels between the epic and likely story of many a startup. To fans of the trilogy, a startup can seem a lot like the Fellowship of the Ring (the people, not the book). Small team, fighting against all odds, on a mission to save the world from whatever they think is ailing it (from the serious, like public transport, to the inability of messaging someone just one word). And as in the Fellowship (the book, not the people), a startup will no doubt go through great adventures, often coming to the brink of ruin before rising again to be gloriously successful (though, mostly not).

Entrepreneurs thus, can potentially learn a fair bit from the books, if they look closely. And having learned from the Fellowship, they can potentially deal with their own Saurons, their own Sarumans, and their own Gollums much better. Let’s look at a few of these lessons. This list is of course, by no means exhaustive.

(Some of these are obvious. Tying it back to LOTR is a fun exercise if not the most enlightening)

Lesson 1: The chances of success are low. But non-zero, if the team is ‘true’


Lesson 2: Trust is essential


Something that Gandalf tells the traitor Saruman when he rejects Gandalf’s offer of clemency after the ruin of Isengard. While the treacherous might always be distrustful, the always distrustful will almost certainly always appear to be treacherous. You give no better cause for suspicion to someone than by being constantly suspicious of everyone yourself. At the best, it gives the impression that you have actually something to hide, and the worst, it will most certainly make people not trust your own leadership (and thus, not want to work with you). But…

Lesson 3: Do not forget mistakes, others’, and more importantly, your own

gandalf 2

Lesson 4: You are most likely not the exception that will defy the rule


Yes, most startups fail. Even those led by visionaries, with kickass teams. It takes an incredible amount of hard work, in addition to good fortune (good timing, for one) to make a startup work. And far too many things can go wrong on the way. Having confidence is great, yet you don’t want blind faith to cloud reality. “The market for X is great right now”, “We will raise funding easily”, and “we’re different because “. In the wise words of a great man, “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time – but not all of the people all of the time”. An addendum to that: It is easiest to fool yourself into believing something that is happy fantasy at best, and disingenuous at worst. Be wary of your own mind, it will play tricks on you.

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