Startup Advisories

Understanding strategies in Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Many I am sure are familiar with Sun Zi’s Art of War, but knowing the Romance of the Three Kingdoms (RTK) is actually another great era of excellent military strategies and negotiations that we can all learn from. It is a very deep long novel set in one of historical China’s turbulent times at the end of the Han dynasty (280 AD).

RTK has been galvanised into PC and console games by Koei and television drama series produced. Many are also familiar with the famous “Red Cliff” movie. At that time, China had many warring parties, of which it consolidated into three kingdoms (Shu, Wu and Wei) and from here, we can learn many interesting strategies as an entrepreneur. I will highlight just a few given that there are so many strategies to learn from. I cannot claim to be an expert and I know of many other fanatics and experts out there, so feel free to comment and share your strategies at the end of the post.

1. Shu Kingdom and the Oath of Peach Garden

I find start-ups similar to the Shu Kingdom. Unlike Wu and Wei which had resources and dynasties behind them, Shu was started by band of three sworn brothers Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei, who swore for a common goal of restoring the Han dynasty. Liu Bei became the emperor of Shu (because of his royalty lineage) and his brothers took senior military general roles. To build Shu, the brothers stood by each other, despite how terrible the odds were. They were literally kingdomless until after the Red Cliff battle.

Strategy to learn – Is there a common goal and vision that entrepreneurs and their co-founders have? Have the founders the conviction to go through the tough times and stand by each other, or do they disagree and drop off at the next stop?
The three sworn brothers had no resources except their talents and skills. They were always on borrowed land. But they were resourceful and fortune gave them the strategist Zhuge Liang. Is your start-up being resourceful in the way of getting things done? Have there been unconventional methods to speed things up? Are you seeking out the best advisors for yourselves?

2. Three visits to get Zhuge Liang

At Xinye, Liu Bei was informed that Zhuge Liang, a famous strategist, was nearby and was advised to pay him a visit. For the first two times, Zhuge Liang was not around and that aroused Zhang Fei to be very angry and said it is no point to continue the chase for Zhuge Liang. At the third time, Zhuge Liang was sleeping and Liu Bei had to wait patiently to speak with him. It eventually paid off and Zhuge Liang joined Liu Bei.

Strategy to learn – Achieving a goal may not be so easy. It does not mean the door was shut a few times means you give up. At times, your co-founders may say it is a waste of time and there is no point pursuing a certain objective. It takes time for the opportunity to be ready for you. Don’t feel discouraged when you didn’t achieve it the first time. Keep at it and persist.

3. The Shu-Wu alliance at Red Cliff

The Wei kingdom ruled the north and was coming down to conquer the south to a tune of one million men! That was frightening. Goliath was on its way. Shu recognised they were too weak to withstand such a fight. Wu was critical to the battle of Red Cliff as they were seamen and very skilled at naval battles which turn the tide of battle. Zhuge Liang of Shu, in his fluent ways of speaking, beat the bunch of negative minded advisors at Wu and convinced Sun Quan (third generation leader of the Wu kingdom) to join the fight to repel Wei.

Strategy to learn – As a start-up, you can associate yourself with Shu. Often than not, there is always a Wei competitor (huge and full of resources), all out to win the entire market (think Rocket Internet). There are other slightly larger complimentary firms like Wu (medium sized, dynasty, traditional but with core competencies) with many layers of management who are bureaucratic and difficult. Sometimes, you have to recognise that you cannot fight Goliath and all his might of armies. Plan out strategic alliances. It takes the art and strategy of good negotiation to convince the boss of a Wu company to work out a partnership, but it is necessary to do so to help ensure you can fend off the fight for market share.

4. Hiring of Huang Zhong

Huang Zhong was the fourth of the “Five Tiger Generals of Shu”, a 75 year old venerable general who was full of feisty energy he could challenge General Guan Yu in battle. Zhuge Liang recognised his talents despite his age. Post Red Cliff, Huang Zhong refused to surrender to Shu as he was loyal to his lord, but finally gave in after an internal mutiny happened and his lord was assassinated. Huang Zhong joined two other Tiger Generals, Zhang Fei and Zhao Yun, in the battle for Chengdu, Shu’s eventual capital.

Strategy to learn – Talents come in all forms and may not be what you like them to be. We all have our own prejudices and if we fail to look past that, we might be missing an excellent person to form our ranks in our company. Zhuge Liang knew that in order to continue conquering cities, he needed more qualified generals to take lead, even how old the person may be.

5. Placing Guan Yu in charge of Jingzhou

Post Red Cliff, Shu kingdom was happily conquering the southern prefecture Jingzhou, but they needed to head westwards to establish their capital at Chengdu. Guan Yu was placed in charge to defend their newly gained lands.

Strategy to learn – You may have reached good traction in one market and ready to head off to expand into another one. In this age of communications and cheap flights, you can move relatively fast between cities, but it is always critical to have a trusted general to take care of the existing established market or an established office which you have created. Don’t place a brand new person who doesn’t know your culture or management style. This will give you a focus to build a new market.

6. Building up your Chengdu

Zhuge Liang proposed Liu Bei to conquer Chengdu and make it the capital of Shu. It was relatively difficult to conquer as it sat in a valley blocked by mountains which was difficult for armies to cross. It also had abundant arable land to build crops and build an economy. That will give Shu the economic and military power to fight against Wei should they return.

Strategy to learn – Where is your Chengdu today? It is the market which you are able to get good and easy profits from, or the vertical that you have chosen that makes the easiest revenue streams. Make that a core business and grow on that and direct your resources on it. Ensure that you have good USPs to defend that market. Use that as your base to build up and grow into other difficult verticals or markets.

If you have read this far, I am happy that you have not fallen asleep! The Three Kingdoms are very rich in strategies and many are applicable in today’s businesses. I am sure there are many books out there which explains the tactics and ideas far better than I do.

I hope this has triggered your mind in your planning. Please feel free to share any favourite stories of which you applied in your business!

Note: The writer was a game addict to Romance of the Three Kingdoms PC game series from Koei for 25 years and watched 2 versions of the 100-episode drama television series. He uses the Three Kingdoms strategies at times for the gameplan of his businesses.

This article is the fifth of the ‘Startup Advisory Clinic’ Series, where I delve into the state of engineering and its community in Singapore.

This article first appeared on Tech in Asia.