Startup Lessons from History: Plato

I’m a startup guy that likes to read about history, and spend a lot of time thinking about… well, stuff. This ongoing series is an exploration and tribute to what history can teach us about startups, and perhaps life itself.

Today we return to our ancient philosophers, and one of the more controversial figures at that: Plato. Was he the origin of western philosophy and all rational thinking, or a hack that rambled on endlessly making pointless arguments? Let’s examine.

These posts are long and rich. So enjoy it like a nice bottle of wine. Pour yourself a glass. Don’t just drink to consume. Take a few sips, consider the flavor. Take your time. Share with a friend. Maybe don’t finish the whole bottle at once. Bookmark this and come back to it later. It ages well.

Future sources, ranging from fact to historical fiction, may include famous generals, philosophers, statesmen, and a whole bunch of Romans.

Detail from Raphael painting, supposedly modeled by the aging Leonardo Da Vinci.

Plato

The Republic is one of his cornerstone works, and is presented in the form of a dialogue between his teacher Socrates and various fellow Athenians. It’s unlike anything I’ve read before. What strikes me is how readable and somehow relatable this text is. It was created 2,400 years ago, just think about that for a moment. Egypt still had pharaohs at the time…

“There is nothing which for my part I like better, Cephalus, than conversing with aged men; for I regard them as travellers who have gone a journey which I too may have to go, and of whom I ought to enquire, whether the way is smooth and easy, or rugged and difficult.”

“Nor does the art of horsemanship consider the interests of the art of horsemanship, but the interests of the horse; neither do any other arts care for themselves, for they have no needs; they care only for that which is the subject of their art?”

“Fancy that the shepherd or neatherd fattens or tends the sheep or oxen with a view to their own good and not to the good of himself or his master; and you further imagine that the rulers of states, if they are true rulers, never think of their subjects as sheep, and that they are not studying their own advantage day and night.”

“And how am I to convince you, he said, if you are not already convinced by what I have just said; what more can I do for you? Would you have me put the proof bodily into your souls?”

“Good men do not wish to be openly demanding payment for governing.”

Original papyrus of The Republic by Plato.

“And the result of the whole discussion has been that I know nothing at all.”

“For business is not disposed to wait until the doer of the business is at leisure; but the doer must follow up what he is doing, and make the business his first object.”

“We must infer that all things are produced more plentifully and easily and of a better quality when one man does one thing which is natural to him and does it at the right time, and leaves other things.”

“His mind has a soil deep and fertile, Out of which spring his prudent counsels.”

“Nothing great is easy.”

What is actually hard? Only you can know the right answer. If you have to resort to illegal means, then it’s probably too hard. But remember this: only do great things. Do not waste your capacities and time on futile pursuits. It’s a waste of your talent, and the resources available to you.

Renaissance master Raphael depicts all the ancient wise men of Athens, with Plato and Aristotle top center.

“He will find people there who, seeing the want, undertake the office of salesmen. In well-ordered states they are commonly those who are the weakest in bodily strength, and therefore of little use for any other purpose; their duty is to be in the market, and to give money in exchange for goods to those who desire to sell and to take money from those who desire to buy.”

If you’re doing B2B, the life-blood of your business is your sales team. In most early stage startups, that’s your founding team. The people with the dream, with the passion, are the best to sell. Even without any qualifications in sales. Buyers are callused, and authenticity beats fancy dress and smooth small talk every time.

“No tools will make a man a skilled workman, or master of defence, nor be of any use to him who has not learned how to handle them, and has never bestowed any attention upon them.”

“Tools which would teach men their own use would be beyond price.”

“You know also that the beginning is the most important part of any work, especially in the case of a young and tender thing; for that is the time at which the character is being formed and the desired impression is more readily taken.”

“When a carpenter is ill he asks the physician for a rough and ready cure; an emetic or a purge or a cautery or the knife, — these are his remedies. And if some one prescribes for him a course of dietetics, and tells him that he must swathe and swaddle his head, and all that sort of thing, he replies at once that he has no time to be ill, and that he sees no good in a life which is spent in nursing his disease to the neglect of his customary employment; and therefore bidding good-bye to this sort of physician, he resumes his ordinary habits, and either gets well and lives and does his business, or, if his constitution fails, he dies and has no more trouble.”

However, once you establish this, and hopefully agree amongst your founding team, don’t talk about it again. Worrying puts focus on the negative outcome, when all your energy needs to go into turning it around.

So again, when on the knife-edge, the founder resumes his ordinary habits, and either the company survives, or, if it all burns in ashes, the company dies and the founder has no more trouble.

Plato depicted with his students in the academy.

“Of the harmonies I know nothing, but I want to have one warlike, to sound the note or accent which a brave man utters in the hour of danger and stern resolve, or when his cause is failing, and he is going to wounds or death or is overtaken by some other evil, and at every such crisis meets the blows of fortune with firm step and a determination to endure.”

What words will you utter to the team, when your cause is failing, and your company is going to wounds or death? Will you be able to meet the blows of fortune with firm step? Do you have a dogged determination to endure?

This is what it takes.

“And I can hardly be mistaken in saying that sweet sauces are nowhere mentioned in Homer. In proscribing them, however, he is not singular; all professional athletes are well aware that a man who is to be in good condition should take nothing of the kind.”

“What profit would there be in his life if he were deprived of his occupation?”

“And he ends by becoming a hater of philosophy, uncivilized, never using the weapon of persuasion, he is like a wild beast, all violence and fierceness, and knows no other way of dealing; and he lives in all ignorance and evil conditions, and has no sense of propriety and grace.”

Always care. Always be the good guy. What goes around comes around. Your reputation both as a founder and company matters. It sticks, too. The world is a lot smaller than you think. Never burn bridges. Not with customers. Not with staff. Not with investors. Always take the high road. Always say thank you. Always turn the other cheek. Always walk away from a fight.

“Suppose that we were painting a statue, and some one came up to us and said, Why do you not put the most beautiful colours on the most beautiful parts of the body — the eyes ought to be purple, but you have made them black — to him we might fairly answer, Sir, you would not surely have us beautify the eyes to such a degree that they are no longer eyes; consider rather whether, by giving this and the other features their due proportion, we make the whole beautiful.”

Painting of a scene in Plato’s Symposium by Anselm Feuerbach.

“When a potter becomes rich, will he, think you, any longer take the same pains with his art?”

Wrong. WRONG. Your only real competitive advantage is doing things that don’t scale. Things your bigger competitors can no longer justify, because the spreadsheet model said so. Breaking your product to get new features in the market faster. Selling cheap to eke out competitors from deals. The moment you stop being a startup, is when others start catching up.

Fight against it, tooth and nail. Once you lose it, you’ve gone corporate. Guess what? There are hundreds of founders in the coffee shop phase, thinking about how they’re going to crush you. They’re fired up and full of piss and vinegar. Don’t go soft. Never go soft.

“But, on the other hand, if he has no money, and cannot provide himself with tools or instruments, he will not work equally well himself, nor will he teach his sons or apprentices to work equally well.”

You need a place to live. You have to spend time with your spouse. If you have kids, they need schooling and clothes. You need to eat. You need to exercise. You need to sleep. You can’t afford not to!

“Wealth, I said, and poverty; the one is the parent of luxury and indolence, and the other of meanness and viciousness, and both of discontent.”

“I think, he said, that there is no need to impose laws about them on good men; what regulations are necessary they will find out soon enough for themselves.”

“There are some whom the applause of the multitude has deluded into the belief that they are really statesmen, and these are not much to be admired.”

It’s about your team. It’s the product. It’s your customers. It’s the market. If you see a founder surround himself with yes-men, these are not much to be admired.

Map of ancient Athens circa 500BC, with the temple of Parthenon visible on top of Acropolis hill, above the city.

“Which is the more profitable, to be just and act justly and practise virtue, whether seen or unseen of gods and men, or to be unjust and act unjustly, if only unpunished and unreformed?”

“And can you mention any pursuit of mankind in which the male sex has not all these gifts and qualities in a higher degree than the female? Need I waste time in speaking of the art of weaving, and the management of pancakes and preserves, in which womankind does really appear to be great, and in which for her to be beaten by a man is of all things the most absurd?”

“Would a painter be any the worse because, after having delineated with consummate art an ideal of a perfectly beautiful man, he was unable to show that any such man could ever have existed?”

“Certainly knowledge is a faculty, and the mightiest of all faculties.”

You may not know it when it happens, but you’ll look back at the moment when you stopped pushing, and started settling for how far you got. It was enough. We achieved a lot. F*ck that. Keep pushing. Keep grinding. Never rest on the laurels of success.

“But those who love the truth in each thing are to be called lovers of wisdom and not lovers of opinion.”

You have to build your business on positive feedback, instead of fixing for negative opinions. Money talks. Money is truth. Build for customers that pay. Listen to investors who invest. Everything else is opinion.

“Knowledge which reason herself attains by the power of dialectic, using the hypotheses not as first principles, but only as hypotheses — that is to say, as steps and points of departure into a world which is above hypotheses, in order that she may soar beyond them to the first principle of the whole.”

Electric cars aren’t a business models because batteries are expensive. Are batteries expensive because of physics? Is it a first principle? What is the cost of the raw materials for batteries? Not that expensive. So manufacturing them must be expensive. Why is manufacturing batteries expensive? Is the process already optimized? Are there new economies of scale?

Most things that people say, whether founders or investors, are based on assumptions. Most will never have fact checked their assumptions, because this is what other people have said. It’s in the news. This is how it’s always been. Assumptions are in fact the biggest opportunities, because nobody else is questioning them. Do the math. Do the homework. Check your assumptions.

If you can challenge a fundamental assumption of how the world works, you can change the world.

Roman era mosaic of Plato and students.

“The pilot should not humbly beg the sailors to be commanded by him — that is not the order of nature; neither are ‘the wise to go to the doors of the rich”

“All great attempts are attended with risk; ‘hard is the good,’ as men say.”

“But, said I, one is enough; let there be one man who has a city obedient to his will, and he might bring into existence the ideal polity about which the world is so incredulous.”

To corner a market, to build a winning culture, to disrupt entire industries, to change the world — these are hard things. Very hard things. It has to start with the founder, and the singular vision. If you don’t have a clear vision, how on Earth do you imagine it will happen? It won’t, if you don’t live and breathe that vision from day to day, from year to year.

“He was to be rejected who failed, but he who always came forth pure, like gold tried in the refiner’s fire.”

One is statistical. No matter how many rejections you’ve gotten, the probability of a “YES” is never zero. It could be close, but never zero. If there’s a 1% chance of a “YES”, then try 100 times. Maybe 101 to be safe.

The other is experience. Each rejection is a learning opportunity. Why didn’t the client choose us? Why didn’t they invest? Don’t try to turn a NO into a YES, that never works. But consider the lesson, make your own adjustments, and try again.

“The many, as we say, are seen but not known, and the ideas are known but not seen.”

The greek goddesses have lost their heads, originally part of the Parthenon temple in Athens.

“You are further aware that most people affirm pleasure to be the good, but the finer sort of wits say it is knowledge?”

If however, you happen to value knowledge, pursue science. If you can’t make it as a meaningfully contributing scientist, then try a startup.

“And do you not know, I said, that all mere opinions are bad, and the best of them blind? You would not deny that those who have any true notion without intelligence are only like blind men who feel their way along the road?”

Don’t pivot just to make your investors happy. They aren’t in the trenches with you. Don’t even pivot just to make your team happy. If you have your vision, sometimes it means making unpopular decisions to stay the course. You’re the one carrying the biggest risk, so don’t let others persuade you.

“And there is an absolute beauty and an absolute good, and of other things to which the term ‘many’ is applied there is an absolute; for they may be brought under a single idea, which is called the essence of each.”

There tends to be significant drift from the original product vision as life happens and customers complain, so periodically check in that the core idea is still there. Hopefully, this single idea is directly driving your vision and purpose. If not, then your vision is a figment of your egotistical imagination, and you’ve lost control of your product roadmap. Get back on the horse.

“Let me dare to say — that the perfect guardian must be a philosopher.”

The foundations of Plato’s academy are still in existence in modern Athens, having survived through 2,400 years.

“I grow impatient at the length of your exordium.”

Plato
427BC — 348BC (Athens, Greece)

Read the book

Previous episodes you can check out

Much more to come…

Thanks for reading,
Aki

Is there a favorite quote here? Any other stoic philosophies you live by? Please share so we can benefit, too.