8 Lessons for Start-ups from Genghis Khan!

I could not put down Conn Iggulden’s five volume, historical fiction series on Genghis Khan and his successors all the way up to Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan’s grandson. Genghis Khan was of course, brutal in his conquests and annihilated those that opposed him. It was the 13th century and building empires was the name of the game at that time.

















Just to get an idea of the scale of Genghis Khan’s conquests and the extent of his empire, here’s an animated GIF of the growth of his empire.



You can see that from a small nation in Mongolia, the Genghis Khan empire grows and grows in all directions and by the end of the 13th century, Genghis Khan’s successors have split the whole empire into their own Khanates that they ruled.

Genghis Khan’s approaches, strategies and tactics hold quite a few valuable lessons for start-ups, and entrepreneurs! Here are eight such lessons:

1. Empires can be built from bootstraps!

Genghis Khan (Great Emperor) was called Temujin before he was given that title. Temujin was the ultimate bootstrap! Yasugei, Temujin’s father dies when he is poisoned by a rival tribe when he is the leader of his Wolves tribe. A treacherous second in command to Yasugei leaves Temujin, his brothers, and his mother with nothing in the deep freeze that is the Mongolian winter. They could have all died due to exposure to cold and hunger. Temujin, even though he is the third son in his family, keeps them all alive by killing marmots and what little wild life they could find nearby and hunt with crude bows and arrows they fashion from sticks. From there, he builds a tribe of his own and this empire building does not stop till it extends from Russia in the West to China in the East, Mongolia in the upper north to Afghanistan and Kabul in the South. Yes! Empires can be built from bootstrapped companies. Oracle and Microsoft were ones! In fact, they were not even the first in their categories at the time they were bootstrapped!

2. Give your people, a Mission! Don’t give them just products to build!

Temujin had the unenviable task of uniting a variety of constantly warring, nomadic tribes in Central Asia into a single huge army, and conquer other lands. The Western Xia and Jin dynasties (modern day China) had looked down upon all these tribes for centuries, and played one against the other, always keeping them down. Genghis initially tried to reach out to Ala-uddin Mohammed, the Shah of the Khwarzemid empire to his East (modern day Iran) in friendship wanting trade. The Shah again looks down upon Genghis as the leader of vile, nomadic, godless tribes and a nobody. He sends him back the head of the Genghis emissary. Genghis makes these multiple insults the fire in the belly of all of the nomadic tribes with a common mission  – To show them all that they are a single people, mongols and not to be trifled with!  Startups may have products they build at any time but there is always a larger mission, some profound disruption that they want to effect! facebook’s objective is not have a social network but to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.  Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Genghis’ larger mission was to  teach the world to take the Mongolian Tribes seriously! What’s yours?

3. Organize in small, empowered teams! Unify command but delegate responsibilities to carefully selected true leaders!

Genghis Khan commanded armies that had many hundreds of thousands of soldiers. But they were organized in small teams with leaders respected and selected by the members themselves. Ten men were organized into an Arban.  Ten arbans made a Jagun, a unit of hundred men. Ten Jaguns made a Minghaan, a thousand. Ten Minghaans made a Tuman of ten thousand soldiers. A tuman was led by an Orlok or an Eagle (equivalent of a field marshal). The leaders of these units were always informed of what Genghis Khan wants very precisely (always asked to repeat instructions back when verbal!) in broad terms but were free to make decisions locally as they see fit! For their time, they had fairly sophisticated communication mechanisms. Every 25 miles across 3000+ miles of their empire they had relay stations with messengers and horses, ready to go. They pioneered the use of flags to signal high level decisions and during the night used fire signals for it! Time and again you see how this agility of decision making helped them defeat armies much larger than themselves. In the battlefield, larger armies were unclear as to what they needed to do, waiting for decisions to come down the command structure only to be defeated by empowered but much smaller groups of Genghis’ soldiers! Product companies, especially growing software start-ups can learn a lot from this! Development teams larger than ten people suffer from communication problems and slow down a lot. Break down groups of tasks into self-contained units that can be done by smaller teams but coordinated as a whole.

4. Embrace Diversity

As Genghis Khan’s empire expands to include the Chinese in Western Xia and Jin, Tibet and Islamic Countries to his West, he needed to make his empire more tolerant of religious and linguistic diversity. Genghis Khan makes diversity and inclusion part of his modus operandi. This helps him make use of the diverse skills that the Chinese and the Muslims bring towards his own goals, simply because they all have different approaches to solving the same set of problems! Nothing could be more applicable to entrepreneurs or start-ups! Highly capable people are found in every group (the classic Normal Distribution or the Bell Curve). Embracing diversity and hiring the best people in multiple distributions help you put together a superb team. Rather than hire people that are available locally, reaching out and hiring people from multiple remote locations help you assemble this diverse group of people. Diversity also helps you bring in people who had have different life experiences, see problems differently and come up with more creative solutions than a homogeneous group of people who may all think alike!

 5. Merit over all else!

Genghis had a mix of next-in-commands, some his brothers, many others, he picked up over time simply because of their abilities and treated them all alike. Tsubodai is one such person who catches Genghis’ eye because of his skills in the battlefield. Tsubodai rises all the way to the position of an Orlok or Field Marshal. Genghis sends his sons to be trained by Tsubodai, completely under his control, with no questions asked. Merit is the only thing that matters to Genghis Khan. Founders may have been with a start-up since the very beginning,  They may need to perform their functions along with people hired for other leadership positions because of their sales, marketing or product management expertise. At that time merit should be the only thing that matters.

6. Recognize other skills and utilize them appropriately!

Genghis Khan realizes that one of his brothers, Temuge is too soft and weak to be a soldier and a commander. However, he recognizes that Temuge has very good organizational skills and makes him the administrative and logistical commander. Temuge capably organizes food and shelter logistics for the various invasion campaigns that Genghis takes on. Food and Shelter are more important to huge armies than weapons, especially in the cold plains in Central Asia! Great lessons for start-ups. As they grow, some key people may outgrow their responsibilities but may be more suitable for other crucial functions within the company given their skills. They could contribute in previously unforeseen ways!

7. Look for things that can disrupt you when you are disrupting someone else!

The Khan dynasty flourished with their superior expertise with the bow and arrows!  They were disrupting armies larger than themselves purely by their grace and skill with which they let loose deadly arrows every six seconds, from a fast moving horse, while standing up on the stirrups! However, the Jin dynasty to the East was making increasing use of gunpowder, cannons and muskets!  The Khans realized how deadly and disruptive these new technologies could be in warfare and how bows and arrows are useless against them!  They immediately create experimental regiments, bring in Jin expertise and waste no time in assimilating these into their methods! While you are happily disrupting some industry with your start-up, be on the look out for something that could disrupt you! Are you sure there are none at any moment?

8. Size Does Not Matter! Strategy Does!

Genghis Khan repeatedly takes on armies much, much larger than his own. Everytime he defeats them not with head-on battles but with clever strategies! The Khan army retreats feigning defeat, only to be surrounded on two other sides by his divisions that pop up suddenly, circle them on all sides, cuts off their retreat and slaughters them. They invade Hungary and Russia in winter when they don’t expect them! They attack the Shah’s elephants with arrows in their legs, making them crazy and run amok trampling their own army! Great lesson for startups that are disrupting a market that has established and large competitors. Like Genghis’ enemies, competitors may be large, decision making slow to react to disruptions. Size does not matter, clear differentiation and strategic disruption can help you beat even the largest competitors! So if you are not #1 in your category, what is your differentiation? What are your strategies?

Genghis Khan’s history has always been told by those he conquered and not surprisingly, shown him only in a bad light! Common-sense informs us that for him to gather, coalesce, keep in line, and motivate huge armies like he did, he must have had superb management approaches. He could not have achieved his empire much less manage them for a century, if he did not! However books like Conn Iggulden’s and Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World are bringing to light many of these positive aspects of his rule. Importantly it provides start-ups and entrepreneurs useful lessons to learn from!

Make good better. Good is our teacher, and so bad is wrong – Genghis Khan