How a 2500 year old book can help you build a company today

How a 2500 year old book can help you build a company today

By Emil Villumsen

Co-founder of Craft


Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” is a 2500 year old book still used in teaching on military academies and on leadership courses worldwide. Plainly, the thoughts on strategy and leadership still resonates with a 21st-century audience. I’ve collected the best quotes and interpreted how I believe they can apply to building a company in 2017.

Easy readin’!

When to attack

Is the enemy full. Be prepared.
Is the enemy strong. Avoid him.
Attack where he least expect it.
Appear where he least expect it.

= Choose your battles wisely. And be innovative in launching things that give you a competitive advantage.

Planning is key

Victory will go to the one who plan the best ahead.

= You want to be agile, but not without thinking ahead and being strategically clever.

Know yourself

Know yourself and know the enemy and the victory will never be in danger.

= Know your values personally, as a company and where you’re positioned in relation to your competitors’. Make them explicit!

Small victories

In long wars, men get tired. Keep moral high with small victories. Or a quick war.

= This is just as relevant in building a company; achieve small successes to keep morale high. Building a company is hard with lots of failures and small chances of becoming a sustainable company. Use small victories to boost everyone’s motivation.

Five conditions of victory

Know when to fight. And when to not.
Know when many and when few should be put into position.
Have officers and employees with a common will
Be prepared. Expect the unexpected.

= Word.

Win big time

A winning army is like a kilogram on a weight against a gram.

= Be 10x stronger than your nearest competitor.

Strengths and weaknesses

Exhaust a rested enemy
Starve a well fed enemy
Make a secure enemy insecure

= Identify your competitor’s strengths and focus on weakening them.

Crusades can’t be repeated

A winning crusade cannot be repeated. They take form according to the circumstances and their endless variations.

= Each situation is new and you can’t rely on old tactics. Be adaptable and aware that you have to change. You’re never done innovating and disrupting your business model.

Don’t march too quick

March fifty kilometers in double speed and you’ll lose all your commanders.

= If you set the bar too high, morale will get low and people will abandon your project.

Humble words

Humble words combined with high activity is a sign of a commencing attack.
Strong words and an aggressive advancing is a sign of a commencing retreat.

= Companies who appear friendly but with high activity in your field, could be a threat. Companies who act aggressively and move quick might be desparate. 

Peaceful words with no treaty is sign of a conspiracy.

= Your competitors might just be checking you out to copy your moves.


An advantage that is realized but not acted on is a sign of exhaustion

= If your competitors see what you’re achieving, but don’t copy it, it’s a sign of exhaustion.

Loyal troops

If you discipline troops before they’re loyal they’ll despise you

= Create a mission employees are passionate about. Include them before being strict.

Let loyal troops be undisciplined and they’ll become useless in time

= Be a consistent leader

Lead troops with decency and military discipline and you’ll win their trust

= Be kind and strict

Consequent and effective orders create obedience and mutual trust

= Be very kind and very strict

Complicated terrain

If you arrive first in a condemned terrain, you should block it and wait for the enemy.

= If you’re first in a new market, do what you can to keep competitors at bay, but expect them.

If the enemy arrive first and block it, do not follow.

= In a saturated market with strong competitors, do not try to fight them. Find a better market or niche.

If the enemy does not block it, you can follow.

= Competitors who aren’t prepared for competition can definitely be challenged.

Don’t seek recognition

The one who advances without seeking recognition, will retreat without shame

= If you don’t enter wholeheartedly you’ll also be prone to leave quicker. If you enter without the desire to become famous, you won’t get disappointed if you fail.


If he’s generous but cannot lead
If he’s loveable but cannot command
If he’s chaotic and cannot keep order
His men will act as spoiled children

= Leadership is a balance of guiding with heart and discipline

Half the victory

If you know that your enemy is vulnerable but don’t see that your troops cannot attack, you only have half the victory.

= If you don’t have a readied functional team, the competition matters little.

If you know the enemy is vulnerable, and your troops can attack, but don’t see that the terrain is unfit for attack, you only have half the victory.

= If you don’t see that the timing is wrong, you great team and product won’t be sufficient.


Haste is the essence of war. Attack the enemy where he is unprepared. Attack him suddenly and by unexpected routes.

= Lean startup. Be agile and innovative, launch things that your competitors did not expect.

Deceive your soldiers

He should keep his troops in the unknown, deceive their eyes and ears

= Don’t do this as a leader lol.

To win a victory

To win a victory
To obtain a goal
But now to follow up
Is a catastrophic waste