There's a lot that real-life startups can take away from the Emmy-nominated fantasy series.
The acclaimed HBO series Game of Thrones—which is up for 19 awards at tonight’s Emmys—provides interesting commentary on the modern state of politics and warfare. But speaking as the founder of an online folder printing company, I’ve noticed that the show also demonstrates some valuable lessons for first-time entrepreneurs.
These might not help you become king of a fantasy kingdom, but they’ve been invaluable to me throughout my more than a decade of successful entrepreneurship.
(Reader beware: This article contains several spoilers.)
Lesson #1: Knowledge is power
In Westeros: The Game of Thrones characters who are most likely to survive are the ones with the best information: Where would Varys be without his network of spies gathering secrets from all across the Seven Kingdoms, for example? Would Cersei and Littlefinger still be around if they didn’t have dirt on their enemies?
In your business: Knowledge is your best asset. But that doesn’t mean you need to train swaths of children to uncover your competitors’ deep, dark secrets a la Varys. You simply must to get to know your industry inside and out, so that you can identify what it is that you can provide your consumers that others aren’t already providing. When you understand your field and the needs that aren’t being met, you’ll be better positioned to fulfill those needs.
For me, recognizing an unmet need was the impetus for starting my own company. After discovering that those seeking custom presentation folders faced extremely limited choices, I set out to provide materials of more variety and greater quality.
Lesson #2: Unearned confidence can be dangerous.
In Westeros: Pride often precedes a fall. Ruthless, arrogant King Joffrey mocks his enemies and abuses his subjects in a display of power and privilege, only to be poisoned at his own wedding. Viserys Targaryen shamelessly proclaims his superiority to the people around him, one of whom happens to be a powerful warlord who “crowns” him with molten gold. Even fan favorite Oberyn meets a messy, head-crushy end when he lets his careless bravado get the better of him.
In your business: Know the difference between confidence and an overgrown ego. Starting a successful business requires boldness, determination, and trust in your own abilities and resources, but be careful not to let it turn into hubris. Make sure your actions are grounded in fact or reason; check yourself against someone you trust before making any rash moves. Overconfident people take risks that they can’t afford, and they often don’t listen to their peers’ good advice (“Trust me, Oberyn, wear a helmet”).
Back when my company was first beginning, I did a lot of different odd jobs on the side. A friend of mine told me that I should concentrate on my core competency: custom printed folders. I didn’t listen to that advice, and it ended up losing my business money in the long run. Once I started concentrating on folders, the company grew much stronger.
Lesson #3: A good mentor helps secure your success.
In Westeros: Each of the Stark children has flourished with the help of mentors, albeit unconventional ones. Arya Stark learned swordplay from her “dance instructor” Syrio; Bran has developed his psychic powers with the help of mysterious companion Jojen; and even Sansa seems to have picked up some lessons in court intrigue from Littlefinger.
In your business: Reaching out to a mentor can be a little scary, since it means acknowledging your own weaknesses as an entrepreneur. But remember that the person helping to guide you probably achieved their success with the help of a mentor of their own. When you make the choice to work for yourself, the only people you have to turn to for guidance are those who have already done the same.
Many of my friends are successful business owners, so I make it a point to consult with them periodically. Learning from their experiences helps me to avoid common pitfalls and ensure that my company is running as efficiently as possible.
Mentors aren’t just there to make you feel good about the work that you’re doing, though; they should have enough experience to tell you when you’re doing something wrong. Sometimes the advice that you need most comes from someone as bluntly honest as the Hound—though ideally, your mentor will be a bit more supportive.