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12 Lessons in Entrepreneurship From Medieval Empire Builders in India

12 Lessons in Entrepreneurship From Medieval Empire Builders in India

January 04, 2020 1 Comment

Hello Everyone, 
Since it is new year and many of us start a new year with a lot of personal and professional goals, I thought I will share some entrepreneurial inspiration. Hence, this post. Hope you enjoy it. Also, don't forget to check out the P:S at the bottom!! 

Some time back, I was reading the history of Mughal empire in India (1526 - 1707 AD) and it suddenly struck me that there are parallels between modern businesses and medieval empires. An empire can be thought of as a big corporation and land can be considered as a proxy for currency. When you think of land as currency, then it makes immediate sense why the various rulers were always fighting. More land means more resources, resulting in a bigger army and hence a greater advantage over everyone else. The Mughal empire at its peak could be compared with a Google or Amazon of today with immense resources at its command and having hundreds of really competent people as the generals. Since, in those days, there were no rich uncles funding dreams of world domination, a would-be founder of an empire could be compared with a bootstrapped entrepreneur and we could derive important lessons in entrepreneurship by studying the lives of these medieval founders. With that in mind, I looked at the lives of Babur, Sher Shah Suri and Shivaji Maharaj - founders of Mughal dynasty, Sur dynasty and Maratha Kingdom respectively. Below are some of the lessons I gleaned from the lives of these empire builders. 
  1. Failure is never final – Babur’s father died when he was 12 leaving him the ruler of a small principality in Central Asia. Babur’s tiny realm was surrounded by his numerous uncles and cousins. For the next 20 years, Babur fought with his uncles, cousins and other enemies to grow his realm but in vain. He won Samarkand 3 times but lost it every time soon after. In-fact, he initially lost his original kingdom and spent years in exile, poverty and humiliation until he won Kabul and got a second base. Frustrated by his inability to gain decisive advantage in Central Asia, Babur finally turned his eyes to the Indian Subcontinent and that is where he finally achieved the greatest success of his life. This leads us to the very first lesson for an entrepreneur – Failure is never final. If at first you don’t succeed, don’t despair, ‘pivot’ and turn your eyes to new areas and you may yet succeed. The initial 20-year struggle is what turned Babur into a battle-hardened warrior and led to his victory when he finally turned attention to new lands. 
  1. Bring a new weapon to the fight – During his battles in Central Asia, Babur built a relationship with Ottoman Turks who taught him the use of matchlocks and cannons in a field battle. That knowledge is what Babur brought to India. 
When Babur marched on to Delhi, he had a much smaller army than the Sultan of Delhi (roughly outnumbered 4:1). He could not have taken on the numerically stronger Sultan in an open field. So, he stopped at the town of Panipat. He used the town as his right flank, dug trenches on his left flank and placed the cannons in the center. The intent was to prevent the Sultan’s big army from encircling his small army and instead force the big army into a narrow funnel. The Sultan also understood the tactic and did not attack. Both armies camped face to face for 9 days and Babur almost despaired. Then his luck turned. An advance patrol party of Babur ended up entangling with the Sultan’s forces and was routed. The Sultan suddenly grew confident and attacked Babur’s narrow center. His forces got funneled and Babur’s cannons boomed to devastating effect. The battle was over in 5 hours and the Sultan of Delhi became the only ruler of Delhi ever to die on the battlefield.
This battle actually teaches us 2 lessons. This was the first time that mobile cannons had been used in a field battle in India and they ended up being deadly effective. The first lesson is that when you fight a stronger opponent, you either bring a new weapon to the fight or you use an old weapon in a new way. 
  1. A good general always fights on a battlefield of his choice - And, the second really important lesson from the above battle is that the choice of a battlefield matters, and a good general always, always fights on a battlefield of his choice. You never fight a stronger opponent on a battlefield which plays to their strength. We will encounter this principle multiple times especially in the life of Shivaji.   
  1. Dig the trenches – Babur established the Mughal dynasty, but he died before he could consolidate his empire. Babur was a hardened warrior. In contrast, his son, Humayun, was a good man but was not even a patch on his father. Humayun was challenged by another upstart, Sher Shah Suri. 
Hailing from a family of horse traders and abandoned by his father, Sher Shah was brought up in poverty. Originally named Farid, Sher Shah (literally meaning ‘Lion King’) got his nickname when in his youth he single-handedly killed a tiger. He rose through the ranks serving local rulers till he got the opportunity and became a ruler himself. 
Humayun got worried about Sher Shah’s rising power and came to attack him. Both armies faced each other across a small river near the town of Chausa. Humayun was not quite ready for the fight yet. So, he sent a messenger to Sher Shah to negotiate. When the messenger arrived at Shar Shah’s camp, he found Sher Shah among his soldiers with a spade in hand literally digging the trenches in the summer heat. Sher Shah saw the messenger, came out of the trench, wiped himself, and then sat down on the bare ground to listen to the messenger. That brings us to the lesson # 4. When you are a resource poor founder, you don’t get to sit on a throne and give orders. You have to literally dig the trenches along with your team because that is how you command their respect. 
  1. All is fair in love and war – Sher Shah was a cautious man and a master strategist who did not believe in shedding blood if he could avoid it. Humayun was negotiating as he was waiting for reinforcements, but Sher Shah was waiting for the rains. The rains came and the ground became soggy and Humayun’s cannons became immobile. Without firing a shot, Sher Shah neutralized his stronger enemy’s biggest strength. Then, he made his move. He agreed to some sort of a peace deal and got Humayun to drop his guard. One night, he raised camp and started marching his army away as if leaving. He went some distance away, turned his army around and at full gallop attacked the barely awake Mughals. Thousands drowned trying to flee. Humayun himself barely survived and the crown of Delhi passed on to Sher Shah. You can draw your own lesson here but regardless of whether you play fair or not, don’t expect everyone else to play fair all the time. In addition, we again observe the importance of the choice of when and where to fight on the eventual result of the battle.  
  1. When not to delegate aka when to lead from the front – Sher Shah was a great administrator, but he died quickly. Humayun came back, won back his empire and the Mughal empire continued for next 150 years. In the time of Humayun’s great-great grandson, Aurangzeb, Mughal empire was at its peak and stretched from modern Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar in the east and from Himalayas down to the Indian ocean. That is when a challenger arose to fight the Mughals. His name was Shivaji. 
Brought up by a strong, practically single mother, Shivaji grew up in the hard scrabble, mountainous region of western India. He spent his childhood roaming the mountains with his supposedly good for nothing ‘maval’ friends. Gradually, he gathered some of his ‘maval’ friends and started taking over the local forts. As his power grew, the powerful regional kingdom grew worried and sent their veteran general, Afzal Khan at the head of a strong force. 
Afzal Khan pinned down Shivaji in his fort. However, he did not have the tools to successfully win the fort. Negotiations were opened. A meeting between Shivaji and Afzal Khan was organized at a special tent outside the fort. Shivaji got wind that Afzal Khan intended to kill him at the meeting. When Shivaji reached the tent, Afzal Khan rose to greet him. Afzal Khan was a bear of a man. He grabbed the diminutive Shivaji in a bear hug and tried to stab him. But, Shivaji was prepared and was wearing body armor which deflected the stab attempt. In addition, Shivaji was carrying, hidden in his hand, metal tiger claws. Suddenly, the tables were turned and Shivaji used the metal claws to get the better of Afzal Khan. Shortly thereafter, Shivaji’s forces attacked Afzal Khan’s now leaderless army and routed it. 
This brings us to lesson # 6. When you are faced with a mortal enemy like Afzal Khan, you, the founder, don’t get to delegate it. Scary as it may be, you have to go and kill your biggest problem, your Afzal Khan, on your own. No one else will do that for you.  
  1. Look for diamonds in the rough – When Shivaji went to meet Afzal Khan, he was allowed to take only one bodyguard with him. Shivaji chose his trusted lieutenant, Jivaji Mahale to go with him. Jivaji used to be a street performer and was famous for his skill with dandpatta, the gauntlet sword. When fighting broke out between Shivaji and Afzal Khan, Afzal called out to his guards for help. It was Jivaji who singlehandedly held of all of Afzal’s bodyguards. That has given rise to the Maratha saying, होता जिवा म्हणून वाचला शिवा (translated as ‘Jiva was there, that is why Shiva lived’). 
Ladies and gentlemen, stop and take a moment here to think about it. For all his bravery, Shivaji would not have survived that day if he didn’t have Jivaji at his back and Jivaji was someone who Shivaji discovered doing rope tricks at a marriage procession! And, that goes to the core of hiring as a founder. You don’t worry about hiring the ‘best generals’ because the best generals are already working for the big empire, the Googles of the world, and you, the poor founder, don’t have the money to lure them away. Instead, you have to look for the underappreciated diamonds in the rough. You have to focus on people who are not just competent but who see something in you and truly believe in you. As a poor founder, you need true believers who will fight for you even when you don’t have anything left to give them. And, that kind of loyalty is not bought, it is earned. So, dear wannabe founders, find your soul, find your integrity and use it to gather your band of merry men & women. 
(Lest you think that this used to happen only in the hoary past, a contemporary example is that of Pandora where the company ran out of money, but the 50 strong team worked without pay for 2 years just because of their sheer belief in the founder.) 
  1. Plan, Plan, Plan and then Plan some more – Shivaji’s life is littered with acts of daring but if you look closely, they are in reality flawlessly executed plans. Shivaji never did anything without planning everything to the nth detail. 
As Shivaji’s power kept growing, it attracted the attention of Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb. He sent his uncle, Shaista Khan at the head of a 150,000 strong army. There was no way Shivaji could take on that big an army. He withdrew and Shaista Khan took Shivaji’s capital city and occupied his palace. And, that was Shaista’s mistake, for Shivaji knew all the secret routes into and out of the palace. 
Shivaji and his soldiers disguised as a marriage party and re-entered the city. Then, they entered the palace through the secret routes and attacked the occupiers in the middle of the night. Shaista Khan did not know what hit him and barely survived losing his thumb in the process. One can imagine the extent of planning which would have gone into this raid. In addition, we can again see the importance of the choice of battlefield to amplify your advantages.
  1. The biggest weapon is your mind – After the embarrassment of Shaista Khan, the Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb, sent his best general, Raja Jai Singh to subdue Shivaji. Raja Jai Singh was a consummate soldier as well as a diplomat. He pushed Shivaji so hard that Shivaji had to negotiate and give up 2/3rd of his forts. In addition, Raja Jai Singh convinced Shivaji to join the Mughals. Shivaji and his son went to the Mughal emperor’s court. Aurangzeb made Shivaji a noble but gave him a lowly rank. When Shivaji protested, Aurangzeb got him arrested and threw him into prison. 
Separated from his people and imprisoned in the heavily guarded capital of the Mughal emperor, Shivaji did not have many options. Thus, pinned down, Shivaji resorted to stratagem. He faked an illness. Word was spread that Shivaji was dying. To please the deities, Shivaji started distributing big baskets of fruits and sweets every day. Then one day, Shivaji and his son hid themselves in the big fruit baskets and escaped from captivity. 
That brings us to lesson # 9. Lot of people think that the biggest competitive advantage is the latest tech. Not quite correct. The biggest weapon which you have is your mind. Don’t be afraid of using it. 
(A contemporary example is that of AirBnb founders who were drowning in credit card debt and sold re-packaged ‘Barack O’ & ‘Captain McCain’ cereals to get out of debt).
  1. Constancy is the characteristic of a donkey – One thing we notice in the lives of Babur, Sher Shah and Shivaji is the ever-shifting alliances. One day someone is the enemy and second day they are allied with them. For Shivaji, Mughal’s were his biggest enemy, yet we see that Shivaji allied with Mughals multiple times and even fought alongside them. He even agreed to become a Mughal noble once. This brings us to lesson # 10. Constancy is the characteristic of a donkey. There are no permanent enemies only interests. When faced with mortal threats, don’t be a donkey. Change your mind when needed. Don’t die. Survive and give yourself the chance to succeed another day. 
  1. Be daring, not a daredevil – Shivaji was one of the boldest, most daring leaders of all time. But his boldness was always underpinned by immaculate planning and the intense loyalty he generated in his men through his personal integrity. That is how he punched way above what his hard scrabble homeland otherwise allowed. In contrast, Shivaji’s son was brave but he carried a dare-devil attitude. He neither had his father’s planning nor his integrity. He could not command similar level of loyalty. All his personal bravery came for naught.  He was betrayed by his own relatives, captured and executed. That brings us to lesson #11. Be daring like Shivaji, don’t be a daredevil like his son, otherwise you might lose your head. 
  1. Know thyself, know thy enemy – If we think about the above examples closely, we realize that the success achieved by Babur, Sher Shah or Shivaji was not the result of blind luck or just bravery or even superior weaponry. Very often the victory came from an astute understanding of their own as well as their enemy’s strength & weaknesses. They developed strategies based on this astute understanding and executed flawlessly. Therefore, I will end with this quote not from Medieval India but from Ancient China. For lesson #12, I quote the Chinese general, Sun Tzu from ‘The Art of War’ – 

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”                                                                    
That, then, my friends, is my wish for you. May you know yourself and your enemy, and May you win every battle you choose to fight in 2020. Happy New Year. 
Dream on, 
Kapil Dev Singh
The guy still trying to establish the Mishmi Takin empire 

P:S - Since it is winter time now, we are offering a great deal on the jackets. If you get any of our excellent jackets, we will offer you our superb, lightweight, wind resistant, fleece lined Misti jacket worth $150 for free. The offer is valid till end of January. Just add Misti to the cart and use the code FREEMISTI at checkout.  


P:P:S - The above blog is mostly based on the book - 'Emperors of the Peacock Throne' by Abraham Eraly. Rest is wikipedia.  


Photo Credit - Oil painting by Shrikant and Gautam S Chougule. 

1 Response


May 12, 2020

The blog is written awesome but from whom u are telling something to learn, for them you have to give respect. Instead of writing the name as Shivaji you should change it to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj.
You have to give respect the Great Warrior.

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