EC: Sun Tzu And Entrepreneurship

Published at Entrepreneur Country.

This season’s Entrepreneur Country Forum held at the Royal Institution of Britain is named in part after the Chinese General Sun Tzu, famed for his work, the art of war. Except in this case, as the title suggests, focus in on the art of being an entrepreneur.

Having visited China on more than 25 occasions with one of my previous start-ups, not once had any of our Chinese partners referred to Sun Tzu. Suffice to say that many adopted various strategies in search of seeking commercial victory.

The following summary shares strategies, insights, guidance and experience of a diverse set of entrepreneurs – Davids and Goliaths – giving us a taste of what they faced, what they overcome, and more importantly, what lessons we can learn from their respective efforts.



Sherry Roberts, CEO, The Longest Stay

Sherry spoke about the road to success, the journey we all take. How often we begin seeking one objective, but with time and learned information, the course may change, resulting in an outcome otherwise unexpected. She began seeking a property but ended up with an on-line furniture business. She imparted two messages, the importance of a team that can deliver in the absence of the CEO, and the need to always be open to new ideas.

Moreover Sherry shared her belief in a higher power, believing that everything happens for a reason, thus balancing what the vast majority of humanity believe: to strive hard for success in this life and the next.



Andrea Febbraio, Co-Founder & VP Sales, Teads

Andrea began with an amusing anecdote of how one of his earliest jobs to the US was under the guise of being a sommelier so as you meet the requirement of US immigration laws. Luck he opined, gives you a push enabling you to then pursue an opportunity. Content is king, distribution is queen. Andrea then progressed to compare a start-up to a rock band where some suffered lead singer/ceo syndrome. The point being that no matter where an organisation is in it’s lifecycle, team members should always remain humble, no matter their successes.

One key message was that brands are scared to advertise on mobile as they currently struggle to identify who owns the device. This I personally found strange as many who watch adverts on TV will simply look away, and on recorded programs will simply fast forward. Many more utilize ad-blocking software on their computers to avoid adverts, up to a third of all adverts on-line are subject to click fraud (using bots), and similar tools are available for mobile. Meaning, that if anything brands should be more concerned about how the end consumer is uninterested in the way adverts are being pushed to them instead of having reservations about one medium over another.

We then had a short sales pitch from GE Capital where a message was delivered that GE are ‘builders, not (just) bankers.’ In of itself an excellent concept thought given that at the lower end of the spectrum they may work with companies with a £1-2 revenue, I’m personally not sure how relevant the pitch was to many in the audience.



Julie Meyer, CEO, Ariadne Capital

Julie put across the need to know one’s competition. The Davids are revenue generating algorithms, while the Goliaths bring you scale. The example of Uber and how their success has prompted Google into exploring a similar service demonstrated that innovation comes from every stage of business, and that often the start-up innovators can inspire established business. Julie also touched on consumer data encouraging businesses to discover better ways to use such data to build and grow their propositions.



Mark Kanji, CEO, Aptivation

Mark demonstrated the fullness of the entrepreneurial spirit when sharing how his company went from 0 to 50 members of staff despite having no revenues. The ability to bring people on board to a project based on the potential of future earnings is a talent in of itself, but one which also reflects the foresight of those willing to be involved in an idea from inception seeking commensurate rewards in the long-term. Since the company has generated £14 million in revenues in two years. One interesting offering is their Test Pilot program, a platform that will enable brands to demo solutions; something I am looking forward to reading more about.

Crucially, Mark made an extremely interesting remark regarding the financial services sector and the data that they collect: ‘If they know so much about me, why aren’t they helping me more?’ A genuinely valid question, and one which will enable innovators in this space to deliver a better service to both financial institutions and the end customer.



Rt Hon Francis Maude, Minister for Cabinet Office

Perhaps one of the best speeches by a government minster I have heard of late, Francis spoke of the need to do ‘More, better, for less.’ With digital being 20x cheaper than business by post, and 50x cheaper than in person, Francis stressed the direction to ‘Configure what we do around the needs of the consumer.’ An example was given on how a query to the department of works and pensions for disability could be processed in ten minutes instead of the current ten weeks. Moreover, the digital services that are being trialed and launched by the government are literally leading the world as we are on the forefront of thought and action. The objective? To make Britain one of the safest places in the world to do business on-line.



John Taysom, Board Member, The Web Science Trust

The government he opined, has no right to know what I like, while companies have no right to know who I am – unless I as an individual opt to share such information. The future of data, is more data. And as an enabler who drove advertising to provide free content, John stressed that data is not neutral, rather, it is collected, meaning that priorities have been identified resulting in specific outcomes.

As John relayed that 30% of the $140 billion in advertising on-line lost due to fraud though the use of bots, my initial thoughts are that not only is the current methodology of internet-mobile advertising flawed, but valuable brand resources are being wasted while the consumer is equally subjected to forms of advertising which they find unpleasant.

One extremely useful quote shared by John from the IAB is that commerce doesn’t need your identity specifically to function, instead, it needs to know which group you belong to; and of course when you as an individual move from group to group. That is to say that there is a separation between you and your identity as an individual, along with your rights to privacy, vs you as an individual in a particular group of people who share a particular interest and thus may be more receptive to specific forms of targeted advertising.



Darren Thomson, VP & Head of EMEA Marketing, Symantec

Darren touched upon the race to digitization pointing out the need to distinguish between technological and social implications. For example, that there are 7 billion people today but 9 billion connected devices, which is projected to jump to 50 billion connected devices by 2020. And in terms of information, today there are 7.9 zettabytes of data, equating to every word spoken by every person since the dawn of humanity being digitized.

From a holistic perspective, Darren touched on the ever-asked question: what technology can bring us vs what we should actually do. That is to say that just because we can do something, does it mean that we should?



Kathleen Schneider, SVP Marketing, Criteo

Katheleen shared that on average there are 3 internet enabled devices per home in the UK and that the contribution of mobile towards e-commerce should not be underestimated, sharing that in the US mobile vs tablet accounted for 53% of retail sales. Further, world-wide, mobile accounts for 30% of on-line retail sales. Consumers do shop across screens and that 70% of Facebook’s add-revenue is from mobile.



Peter Barnes, Exec Director Enterprise Systems, Dell UK

Peter shared the changing process within in Dell, that is how the organised adopted change to determine what they sell and to whom they sell, which today translates to 1.39 systems being sold every second: impressive. Described by it’s founder as the world’s largest start-up, Peter shared how internally Dell has a system in place which encourages a culture of innovation – something more corporate would be better to include for a good idea can not only come from anyone within a company, but that idea could add meaningful value.



Marjorie Leonidas, MD, TaggstarUK

Marjorie introduced the business where pop-ups appear over items in a store identifying how many are looking at an item currently on sale and how many items have been bought. This simple but useful tool enables the consumer browsing a site to get a better understanding of how others are discovering and responding to the information that they see. The information is delivered in real-time and personally, while I have yet to experience it first hand, I rather like this idea.



Vicky Brock, CEO, Clear Returns

Vicky opened with the astonishing figure that one third of fashion items are returned to stores, a statistic rising to 60% for shoppers in Germany. She estimates the returns market to be in excess of £500 million and has redefined the process opining that a sale is not a sale until something is actually kept. Vicky has a Predictive Data Technology Platform which is not meant to punish the end customer but to better enable retailers to manage their supply chain.



Mark Simmers, CEO, Celtic Renewables

Mark began with an entertaining thought that while our planet is something that we need to have, renewables should be about profit, implying that the focus on the former i.e. preserving the planet, has shifted focus away from commercially viable renewable businesses. Their business proposition is a biofuel which is created from the by-products of the Scottish Malt Whisky industry. With global ambitions, given for example the Whisky manufacturing in Japan and India, I personally found their business proposition quite interesting.



Nigel Chadwick, CEO, Stream Technologies

In a single sentence, Nigel’s foresight has enabled the company to develop a solution which, with integration of machine-2-machine devices, is one of the leading solutions that enables the Internet of things world-wide. Given the scale of the Internet of things I personally believe his company is massively under-valued given the potential and capability they can offer and look forward to reading more about Stream Technologies pushing the boundaries.



John Pelton MBE, Strategic Projects Director, Crossrail

The perfect way to end the day, John shared details of Crossrail from the 250 meter long platforms (that’s a quarter of a kilometer!!!) and 200 meter long trains, to the dept to which digital systems play a part in the project and how each individual system will have to work with every other system when hey flip the switch on.

John also claimed that they are he first project in Europe to run an innovations program as part of the project, that enables any person, anywhere within the organisation, be they employees or contractors, to suggest innovations.

Best of all however was John’s response to a member of the audience on the disruption caused by Crossrail which you can watch here.


In all, the day provided fantastic insight into what it is to be an entrepreneur. And while there was a focus on bring together the David and Goliaths of this world, where innovation by the former can benefit from the scale of the latter, one of my personal favourite quotes from Sun Tzu reads:

“To fight and conquer in all our battles is not supreme excellence, supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemies resistance without fighting.” – That is to say that with the right ideas-technologies and solutions, particularly in this digital era with different barriers to entry, we are perfectly capable of reaching our (and our competitors) market without challenging the competitor directly. As Sun Tzu also said, “Pretend inferiority and encourage his arrogance,” and you will succeed. Which is of course the story of David vs Golliath – who says you need to visit China, to learn the wisdom of the Chinese 🙂



And finally a thank you to our host for the day Amit Pau, MD, Ariadne Capital.


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