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How Playing StarCraft Can Teach You About Startups and Life

albertc44 profile image Al Chen Updated on ・10 min read

This post originally appeared here.

It's rare to read an article that keeps me thinking about the article days and weeks later; even rarer for it to inspire me to write an article of my own. What was the subject of this earth-shattering article, you ask? None other than the RTS (real-time strategy) computer game StarCraft II.

Shopify CEO loves StarCraft

This article from Mike from his "Non-GAAP Thoughts" newsletter talks about the business lessons Tobi Lutke (CEO of Shopify) learned from playing StarCraft. Mike also provides his own analysis of Shopify's business strategy and how it resembles different strategies you'll encounter playing StarCraft. After reading this article, I of course Googled instances where Tobi publicly talks about StarCraft, and my favorite gem of a video is this one:

Tobi is probably the highest profile business person who talks publicly about StarCraft. In Mike's article, Mike compares Shopify's success with the creep feature of the Zerg race. Amazon may be the e-commerce giant, but Shopify is growing bottoms up by allowing anyone to "spawn" their own online store using Shopify as their backbone. The Zerg race, as Mike describes, is hard to defeat later in a game of StarCraft which foreshadows Shopify's future as an e-commerce technology player.

Others talking about StarCraft and business strategies

Tobi's love for StarCraft is made apparent on various podcasts, articles, and recently livestreams (as shown from the video above). Some business reporters have taken notice and pose some facetious questions about what this means for Shopify as a business:

As a shoddy StarCraft player myself, I know enough about the game to understand why business and startup folks draw analogies from the game to their professional lives. A quick Google search for "StarCraft and business" will yield some very well-written articles discussing the game and business that would compete with a business strategy article you might find in Forbes.

The classic article about this topic is from Charlie Cheever, co-founder of Quora. He wrote an answer to the question: "What are some lessons learned through playing StarCraft that are useful in real life?" on Quora, of course. The answer is worth reading in its entirety, but here are the main takeaways:

  • There's no substitute for taking a lot of actions.
  • Macro is usually more important than micro but at critical moments, micromanagement can mean the difference between massive success and disastrous failure.
  • There is usually more than one way to accomplish something.
  • Timing is critical.
  • Execution is first order more important than strategy but there's also a ceiling on how well something can be executed, and then strategy matters.
  • Long term success is usually achieved by getting a small advantage and then using that to get some other kind of advantage.
  • Talent is a prerequisite for being top notch at most things, but in almost any field, no one gets really good at anything without putting in more focused effort and time than other people.
  • Different people (/units) are good at different things.
  • If you are better than your competition, you want the game to go on longer.
  • It's not one big thing but a bunch of little things that add up.

If you didn't know this post was about an RTS computer game, you might assume that these strategies are straight from the latest NY Times bestseller list of business books. The fact a diversity of lessons can be learned from StarCraft keeps me playing the game for more than 20+ years. Granted, I don't play as much as my younger days, I'm able to draw on more years of work experience to see the analogies between the game and my professional life.

Iterate or die

Perhaps no other lesson rings more true than this: constantly iterate. If you're working on a startup, iterating has probably been ingrained into your DNA. Courtland Allen, founder of the Indie Hackers community, talks about the fast iteration cycle in StarCraft in this Software Engineering Daily episode. You are constantly pushing forward and defending. Trying new strategies while sticking to the tried-and-true methods that you've learned from other more experienced players. The big difference between a startup and StarCraft is this:

One year of making decisions at a startup is compressed to 5 minutes of gameplay in StarCraft.

Lucky for us, you can experiment with new build orders, unique armies for offense, and counter attacks without the fear of losing real money, alienating your friends and family, and sleep. I take that back. Gaming addiction is real, but let's assume we're casual gamers just curious about how StarCraft can teach us about a word that has become so popular in startupland: failure.

You have to lose (a lot) to ever be a winner. As you get better the matchup will try to move you up the ladder to people who are your equal or better in ability. - Giovanni Dannato

This quote is from another blog post about life lessons learned from StarCraft, and is one of my favorite lessons I've gleaned from the game. You can lose over and over again, and each loss is another chance to learn about what you did or didn't do that contributed to the loss. You might have spent all this time building up your economy (gathering resources in the game to build other buildings and units), and didn't spend enough time building an army to attack your opponent. You lose the game, adjust, and come back stronger the next game.

It's easy to criticize when things don't go right in business or startups, and more difficult to celebrate the wins. The losses, however, give you the best chance to learn and practice so you can come back stronger on your next venture. In between losses though, changing your beliefs about the right build order and army composition is critical to getting better at the game. Perhaps Tobi thought about challenging Amazon 14 years ago, and didn't see much success. Instead, he iterated and built the plumbing for hundreds of thousands of little Amazons around the world to solidify Shopify's position in the e-commerce industry.

Trough of sorrow

Another perennial startup phrase coined by the infamous Paul Graham: Trough of Sorrow. Startup founders have probably seen and experienced versions of this cycle:

I see this cycle play out in most of my games because I'm not as good as my co-workers whom I play with. One of Charlie's lessons mentioned above resonates with me: If you are better than your competition, you want the game to go on longer. The games where I usually do the best are the ones that last 5 minutes or less and I "rush" my opponent. In StarCraft, rushing means you build the bare bones of what you need to launch an offensive attack, and take your modicum of an army and try to submit your opponent into tapping out. This strategy can backfire, of course, because your opponent may have enough units to defend your attack, and respond with a counter attack. If the game lasts longer than 5 minutes, that's where I experience the trough of sorrow where I lose small skirmishes here and there, and never build enough buildings and units to last late in the game.

When you launch your startup, there's a wave of euphoria that comes with the big press release or TechCrunch article. Maybe your competition doesn't have the resources or units to respond, and they fold quickly (or drag out the inevitable). While the following chart shows the fall of yellow cabs in NYC over a few years, Uber and Lyft clearly launched and never looked back:

Most startups never make it past the TechCrunch of Initiation phase and die off during the trough of sorrow. If I had to compare a long game of StarCraft to the startup cycle, here's how I would break it down:

Maintaining balance in a fast-paced environment

I think it's extremely tough to maintain a work-life balance when working for yourself or at a fast-paced startup. Responsibilities and projects change daily and your ability to react and work under pressure is tested.

You have to move quickly.

This is one of the lessons from this Business Insider article from the Young Entrepreneur Council. Taking the Startup Curve above as context, being able to move quickly in the Trough of Sorrow and Wiggles of False Hope in StarCraft is where I struggle the most.

As you are building out your economy and units, you may engage with small battles and skirmishes and not only do you have to move quickly (literally clicking your mouse and hitting keys on your keyboard), you have to make the right decisions in the heat of the moment or else you can quickly lose your army and the game. During these moments, I will forget to A-click, siege my tanks at the wrong time, or click around maniacally on the game map to respond to an oncoming attack. These momentsーaka "micro" in StarCraft"ーdefine the outcome of the game and it's something I want to get better at.

Back to the Trough of Sorrow and Charlie's lesson about wanting games to go longer if you are better than the competition, the longer games are difficult because during those 5-10 minutes of "sorrow," I constantly ask myself: "what should I be doing right now?" The right answer is build more units and gather more resources. But what do I do with those units? Am I building the right number and diversity of units? Should I send them to a certain part of the map? Should I talk to my teammates and see what they want to do?

As you're working through the Trough of Sorrow on your startup, is working on SEO the right strategy? Which partnerships should you focus on? Do you start fundraising? These are all questions you ask yourself and the common answer many founders will say is "we're going to do everything." In my experience, leaning into one strategyーlet's say SEOーand working on writing good quality content, getting backlinks, and owning your niche online is the best way to go. Along the way, you'll respond to new competitors and entrants, but you are focused on learning along the way to improve that one strategy.

This quote from one of my favorite YouTube channels about StarCraft says it best:

I'm going to talk more generally on how to learn. How do you get better? The most important thing is not about winning or losing; but about improving. The only person you should be beating repeatedly is yourself. - Winter

In startup world, you don't have the luxury of "losing" just to improve. You can run out of cash, stop fixing bugs, and there is no next game. If you have a bit of runway, you can focus on improving and try various strategies for growth until you find the one that works for your business.

StarCraft and life

This is where the story can get a bit fluffy and confirmation bias sets in.

I sent Mike's article to a friend of mine who also plays StarCraft, and he made a comment about Tobi playing StarCraft worth reflecting on. He said something along the lines of:

I would love to be a billionaire one day and be able to say that the one thing that contributed to my success was StarCraft.

If Tobi wasn't a billionaire and CEO of an amazing company, would people be as enamored with his stories about StarCraft? If he were to draw parallels between knitting, or jiu jitsu, or some other "hobby" with his success as a CEO, would we be convinced by the argument? Maybe.

For StarCraft fans who play casually, there's a mystique about the game that makes it easy to bridge the lessons from the game to real life. My favorite story about one casual StarCraft gamer's foray into the StarCraft community is this article by Paul Miller. His sentiment about watching games of StarCraft is spot on:

When two top players clash, something beautiful happens. There are little impossible moments, where the physical limitations of the computer interface fall away, and armies appear to be an extension of each player's mind. The battles’ tidal ebb and flow and scrappy tug-of-war over every inch of the map make a pixel vs. pixel war between aliens and humans suddenly seem like the most natural, vital thing in the world.

After you read that article, it's difficult not be moved by the community enthusiasm behind the game. Maybe for some, it's just a game. For others, it's so much more:

From the community

If you've made it this far, my guess is you play StarCraft, or wanted to find a way to procrastinate at work today and why not read about how a computer game might be able to teach me about running a business? Either way, this Quora thread is full of gems on how the game has caused people to re-think and examine their lives and careers. The game definitely has for me.

Some final quotes:

The losses that taught you something, is more valuable than the wins you learned nothing from. I know it sounds like some cheesy motivational quote from a bad Facebook post, but Starcraft honestly influenced the way I deal with small defeats in life. - teefax

I've learnt that you can always 'macro' out of situations and it's never over. I kind of think about life as one big long macro game and if I fuck up it's ok cause I know I can always get myself back in the game. - ZephyrBluu

While my peers have a special NES-honed tolerance for frustration, my typical game cycle involves obsessing over a title, reading the reviews, buying a copy, playing for a few hours, and never touching the game again. StarCraft II broke that cycle, but it also threatened to break me. - Paul Miller

Bonus

Once in a while, my colleagues and I have our StarCraft games cast by a professional StarCraft caster (check out his YouTube channel). Got permission from my team to post this replay and would appreciate any critiques on my gameplay (my handle is bertman).

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albertc44 profile

Al Chen

@albertc44

Former Googler. Live and die in spreadsheets. Building solutions at Coda.io.

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