Your Company Needs an Enemy

Many of the great leaders in history recognized that nothing unites people like a common enemy. This has been true in politics (warring against other parties and nations) and in religion (warring against Satan and other religions). The same has been true in industry, to build great companies, especially in startups. Smart CEO’s focus every employee… every shareholder… every ally…every resource…on killing a common enemy.

This enemy cannot be a common problem or an abstract object. Saying your company is focused on killing “inefficiency,” or “high costs,” or “user frustration,” is like saying you want to kill poverty or disease. It sounds nice. It’s a noble goal. It might make people feel good about the grand mission, but it won’t energize or galvanize them. It won’t focus them on the immediate; or inspire them to extraordinary action. The enemy must be real and they must be an immediate threat.

The enemy can be an entire company (perhaps a fiercely competitive startup in your space), a division of a larger company, or the product line of another company. It’s you or them. You either need to kill them, bring them to heel, or get them to surrender (acquire them). You can be merciful or merciless, but either way, your company needs to vanquish the enemy to win.

Some of you might remember the browser wars. Microsoft killed Netscape. You can argue their goal was to create a better browser, not kill Netscape. But I know people who worked at Microsoft at the time and their goal was to kill Netscape. Period. They even had pictures of Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale hung up in their cubes with a target drawn around him and took turns throwing darts at it. Victors need villains. Some ex-Microsoftees have told me that focusing relentlessly on killing Netscape enabled the company to turn on a dime, and perhaps saved it from being vanquished itself as the Internet era dawned.

In one of my startups, we were focused on killing our main competitor and we knew they were focused 100% on killing us. Only one solution would win in the marketplace. They won, but not before a long and bloody battle, well fought on both sides. Like Netscape vs Microsoft, we were David and our competitor was Goliath. Like Microsoft in the browser wars, our competitor woke up before it was too late and named us as the enemy, with the goal of putting us out of business. David doesn’t always win. This is an example of why it is just as important for big companies to identify their main startup enemy and focus on killing them, as much as it is an example of startups vanquishing Goliaths.

There are a few very important drivers created by having a real, tangible enemy:

First, there is no time to fight amongst yourselves. With no external enemy to focus on, people naturally start killing themselves. I saw this in one of my startups when we were the first-movers in our space and virtually had no competition. The executive team squabbled amongst themselves, each trying to jockey for more power and control. Once we had an enemy, we united. Having a real enemy and declaring war also helps to manage a squirrely board. No CEO gets replaced in the heat of the battle. S/he gets more money and support.

Second, when you have an enemy that threatens your livelihood, self-interest kicks in and a great sense of urgency is magically created among your entire team. The prospect of having to find another job, or worse, having to go to work for your hated enemy after they acquire you (in a hostile takeover), has a way of motivating everyone in the company. Control your freedom and destiny, or have them controlled by your enemy.

Third, a common enemy helps a company to find its identity and define its values.You begin to clearly distinguish yourself in the market. You discover what you are really working for. You find your voice. You attract allies. You know what you are fighting for…how far you are willing to go…and what you will die for (professionally-speaking). Without an enemy, your team is just doing their jobs and collecting their paychecks.

A word of caution. You can’t invent an enemy. The enemy must be real and it must be formidable. That shouldn’t be a problem because capitalism creates them like crazy. Stop calling them “frenemies” and stop this nonsense about “coopetition.” Call them what they are: Enemies. Identify the one that poses the biggest threat, then focus everyone associated with your company on killing them. Then identify another. You’ll be amazed at what you can conquer — perhaps an entire industry.

Michael O'Donnell
About the author: 

Michael O’Donnell is a Principal at StartupBiz.com, a Miami-based firm helping startups become viable businesses. His prior credentials include executive roles with iCopyright and Ask-Me Multimedia, as well as service with several Boards and NFPs.  Mr. O’Donnell has authored a number of publications and holds U.S. patents in the licensing, copyright and authorship arenas.  Follow him on LinkedIn.