Marathon: What the Greek Victory Teaches about Building Enduring Companies

When the massive Persian invasion fleet arrived at a little Greek village called Marathon in late summer of 490 B.C.E., the Athenians knew they were in a tight spot. Outnumbered at least two to one, and without the feared Spartan warriors by their side (Sparta was observing a religious holiday at the time which prevented them from committing troops until weeks later), the Athenian and Plataean hoplites (Greek foot soldiers) had to find a way to fight off the invaders; if they lost, the Persians would subjugate all of the Greek city-states and much of the classical Greek history revered throughout the western world over the past two millennia would have been written very differently (or not at all). But simply winning one battle at Marathon would not be enough to secure Greek liberty – the Athenians would need to both win the day and throw the invasion force back in the sea.

The Greek army successfully encircled the Persian troops offloaded from their ships in an area full of marshes that prevented the Persian cavalry from landing, but realized quickly that holding the invaders at bay until the Spartans arrived wasn’t going to work – the Persians had superior archers and wreaked havoc from afar. So, the Greeks spread their soldiers out in a single, thin line and advanced, under fire, in protective phalanx formation. The Greeks met stiff resistance in the middle of the line but were able to break the weaker Persian flanks and then both edges of the hoplite formation wheeled around on the stout Persian center, eventually causing a rout as the invaders were forced to flee back to their ships.

The Athenians and Plataeans had just won a huge victory against one of the most powerful empires in the world without assistance from the professional soldiers of Sparta – it should have been cause for great celebration. But, the Persian ships began to sail around the island, headed toward an undefended Athens. For the victorious but exhausted Greeks, the day was not yet over.

Just as winning one battle does not guarantee full victory, being first to market with a successful product does not prevent competitors from entering later, with superior offerings. For example, Netflix, after successfully out-maneuvering a complacent Blockbuster, had to contend with Amazon when it entered the content-streaming business. At the time, Amazon Prime Video was essentially an add-on service designed to justify Prime membership (which provides other benefits, most notably fast shipping on items purchased on amazon.com) and contained far less content than Netflix. It may have been easy for Netflix to continue doing what had been successful before during its campaign against Blockbuster: add more content available to be streamed at any time over the Internet. But what won the first battles would not be enough to win the war against Amazon.

Indeed, the Greeks understood the victory they had won in the marshes at Marathon would be meaningless if they could not beat the Persian ships back to Athens. The mission now: rush back to Athens, in full armor and exhausted from battle, before the invasion fleet arrived. So, the Greeks covered the nearly 24 miles from Marathon to Athens on foot – still a difficult feat today without armor, wearing modern running shoes, and being fully rested – in time to watch the Persians sail away. How did the Greeks achieve such a complete victory? They were prepared to do whatever was required to turn the Persian invasion away, even if that meant pushing the limits of the human body. In short, the Greeks embraced a culture of endurance.

Success in business is really defined by one outcome: building a product or service that someone else is willing to pay for. Many innovative companies are able to address unmet needs with one or two products before competitors enter the market with better solutions, or redefine the market segment altogether (like what Netflix did to Blockbuster in the home movie sector). The companies that enjoy long-term success, however, are willing to do whatever it takes to continuously build new products that people want to buy.

Netflix embodies this culture of endurance well; when Amazon Studios was launched in late 2010 to create original content worth watching (and therefore, worth paying a membership fee for), Netflix offered their first original content to compete (House of Cards, in 2013). We don’t yet know who will win the content-streaming wars, but Netflix has continued to deliver new value as the market shifted: it transitioned from a physical movie rental service, to an online movie streaming company, to creating its own compelling original content.

The most valuable companies understand long-term success is a test of endurance and recognize that the path to product-market fit is not a sprint – it is a marathon.

Adam F. Caplan is the product leader at a rapidly growing digital healthcare IT company.

“And yet it Moves” – Market Timing Lessons from Galileo

Galileo Galilei stood before the Roman Inquisition in 1633 to defend his controversial theory of heliocentrism. Galileo was accused of heresy because he believed, based on his methodical observations (and application of the scientific method) of heavenly bodies, that the Earth orbited around the Sun. Known to be true today, Galileo’s views were completely contrary to the two main pillars of society at the time: Aristotelian philosophy and the Catholic Church. From Aristotle’s perspective on the ground, the Sun, Moon, and stars traveled across the sky – orbiting the Earth. The Bible also gave clear instructions: the Earth was fixed at the center of the universe and did not move. Galileo observed evidence to the contrary.

Through a telescope, a device he perfected, Galileo discovered and tracked the movement of four moons orbiting Jupiter (now named the Galilean moons in his honor). This was proof that there were heavenly bodies orbiting another object besides the Earth – man, therefore, was not at the center of the universe.

Galileo attempted to sell his innovative explanation for man’s place in the universe by translating his observations into a theory easily understood by those that influenced social policy in 17th century Europe – the clergy – in a similar fashion that a Product Owner (PO) communicates business requirements to a development team in a technology company. Most organizations call themselves technology companies these days – more people than ever occupy the PO role and uncover unmet user/market needs, then translate these needs to an engineering team in an easy-to-understand format called user stories. While this methodology is essential to the short term success of a product, there is another component missing.

The Product Manager (PM) must blend the user/business insight and clarity of language that is integral to the PO role with an understanding of the wider market context to shepherd a product toward sustained success. The PM goes one level deeper to understand the current market forces and future trends so that the right product is delivered at the right time. Put simply, a PO solves currently unmet needs while a PM builds a scalable product to solve needs today and in tomorrow’s market. Indeed, timing is everything.

Galileo’s theory was proven correct, but his timing was poor: the Catholic Church was locked in conflict as the Thirty Years’ War (actually a series of wars born from the Protestant Reformation which pitted Catholics against Protestants) raged throughout Europe and heliocentrism threatened the very foundation of Catholicism. Galileo was acting like a PO as he sought to explain the universe without regard for the wider context – the Catholic Church was in no position to entertain a theory that, if true, would totally refute a major tenant of Holy Scripture at a time when the Church was under siege (literally and figuratively). Galileo was found “vehemently suspect of heresy” and his writings were banned for a century.

Of course, Galileo’s failed presentation of evidence for heliocentrism isn’t the only example of an innovative idea that was launched prematurely and without regard for the wider market context.

Makers of Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) correctly identified unmet needs – people in the early 1990s wanted to bring the functionality of a personal computer (contact lists, calendars, word processing, email, etc.) with them as they lived their lives. Advances in computing power enabled companies like Palm and Research in Motion to build products that met needs in the short term. One man, however, saw where the market was headed in the future and built a solution to meet it.

Steve Jobs is now revered for his apparent foresight in guiding Apple to the almost mythical status it enjoys today. Sure, Jobs was a visionary who could inspire people to achieve greatness. But, he also acted like any good PM to understand how unmet needs today should also translate to a scalable solution in the market tomorrow. Jobs recognized that as more people bought and used PDAs they would not only expect more functionality from the devices, PDA users would also want greater connectivity to do more with these increasingly powerful hand-held computers. He knew he needed a large wireless carrier partner to maintain both a cellular and data network that could support the growing market opportunity for the so-called ‘smartphone.’ So, Jobs negotiated a revenue sharing deal with AT&T and the rest, as they say, is history.

Jobs understood current unmet needs in the PDA space, correctly identified larger market trends, built the necessary ecosystem to address those trends, and delivered the iPhone at the right time. Galileo knew his theory of heliocentrism (based on his scientifically-sound observations) was correct but failed to account for the wider context of the challenges facing his most important market – the Catholic Church; Galileo lived out the rest of his days under house arrest.

The Product Owner role is essential for translating unmet needs into solutions today, but the best Product Managers go a step further to ensure products find scalable success in his or her lifetime.

Adam F. Caplan is the product leader at a rapidly growing digital healthcare IT company.

Want to Build Companies and Countries that Change the World? Embrace Diversity

On July 26, 1948 President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 to desegregate the armed forces of the United States. He explained: “it is essential that there be maintained in the armed services of the United States the highest standards of democracy, with equality of treatment and opportunity for all those who serve in our country’s defense.” The United States armed forces had a long history of racial segregation until that point in time, but Truman recognized the country needed to foster greater levels of equality in the military if it was to face down the Soviet Union in the impending Cold War. 69 years later, to the day, President Donald Trump declared that transgender people could no longer serve in the United States military.

Trump’s actions undermine our progress as a country and a people – the most impactful nations have been tolerant of the ‘other,’ just as the most successful companies embrace true diversity.

We cannot succumb to fear of other people because they are different – diversity makes our countries and companies stronger. Luckily, history offers many examples that demonstrate the power of diversity.

By 1279, the Mongol empire started by Genghis Khan stretched from the Pacific Ocean in the east to the Mediterranean Ocean in the west. Not only is the Mongol empire remembered as one of the largest in terms of land area the world has ever seen, it was also remarkably tolerant for its time. Because the Mongols were nomadic and had no experience managing settled towns and cities, they chose to create an inclusive political culture that kept very different groups of conquered people running their own affairs. The Mongols were able to maintain their massive empire by embracing the vast cultural and religious diversity of the civilizations they integrated.

When it came to matters of war and politics, the Mongols often convened an impartial council called a kurultai to bring disparate tribes together and make important decisions. In a similar vein, successful product-oriented companies leverage a Product Council that incorporates diverse perspectives from various department leaders to help make strategic decisions. Essentially, the product leader presents a list of prioritized, strategic options that support the business to the Council. Then, leaders of the different departments (Sales, Marketing, Operations, Customer Success, Engineering, and the CEO) sitting on the Council collaborate and help decide which ideas are worth pursuing.

Successful Product Councils work because they foster healthy discussion across diverse perspectives. For example, Sales might really want a new feature that will allow the company to expand into a new market. But Customer Success knows that same, awesome new feature will also result in a substantial increase in support-related calls. The best Product Councils navigate these diverse viewpoints to make good strategic decisions, like the Mongolian kurultai.

But the most successful companies foster more than just diverse perspectives – they assemble teams with varied experiences and cultural backgrounds. According to Fortune Magazine, “the 50 companies on the 2016 Best Workplaces for Diversity list average 24% higher year-over-year revenue growth than non-list winners.” This is strong evidence that building a culture of inclusiveness has a tangible impact on a company’s bottom line. But, there is more to this story; simply hiring people with diverse backgrounds does not mean a company will realize financial gain. There must be a cultural focus on mutual respect as well.

One of the most influential modern companies, Google, recently completed a large-scale research project (called Project Aristotle) aimed at uncovering the secrets behind optimal team performance. After analyzing vast amounts of data looking for patterns among the highest performing teams across the company’s 57,000+ employees, one commonality rose to the top. Termed psychological safety, Project Aristotle found that the most effective teams at Google created an environment where people felt safe to speak up and share ideas. As The New York Times noted, “Google’s intense data collection and number crunching have led it to the same conclusions that good managers have always known. In the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs.”

To unlock the full benefits of diversity, a company or country must value a culture of mutual respect toward diverse ethnic, cultural, religious, sexual, and political backgrounds. Only then can a truly great vision be achieved.

President Truman understood the United States military had to be desegregated so it could convincingly make the case to the world that American democracy offered equal opportunity for all and was preferable to Soviet communism. The Mongol empire was held together by its inclusive political and social culture. The most successful companies today attract people from varied backgrounds and create an environment that values diverse perspectives.

The lessons of history teach us we are stronger together.

Adam F. Caplan is the product leader at a rapidly growing digital healthcare IT company.

A Rare Breed – Darwin on Selling Innovative Ideas

We Homo sapiens descended from chimpanzees. There is (relatively) little controversy about that statement today, thanks to Englishman Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection. During his life, however, Darwin’s ideas threatened the authority of the most powerful institution – the church. Indeed, Darwin published his book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859 after delaying nearly twenty years, for fear of religious backlash. Still, Darwin was compelled to share his views.

Influential and successful products or ideas present a new world view; truly innovative products or ideas, however, market and sell a new world view to the masses. Darwin weighed the risks associated with spreading his theory against the potential benefits to science and humanity – we are grateful he decided to sell his innovation.

As is often the case in science and business, Darwin did not independently invent his revolutionary idea; Alfred Russel Wallace was actually among the first to advance a theory that all life evolved from earlier ancestors by way of inheriting useful traits from parents who survived to pass on genes – in fact, Wallace influenced Darwin’s own writings and they even collaborated together. Why don’t we celebrate Wallace the way we venerate Darwin?

Darwin was a master salesman and marketer. He was able to package a truly radical idea – that humans were not ‘Created’ in the religious sense but had simply evolved the same way all other species on Earth had – in a consumable format for the masses. Indeed, London bookstores couldn’t keep On the Origin of Species in stock. Darwin managed to unlock another market for his book in America – he leveraged his connections in Boston to print the book there and expand his readership.

The modern business landscape is littered with the remnants of good ideas, good intentions, and burnt out entrepreneurs – just because a business leader has a good idea doesn’t mean it will be successful. Executing a strategy is essential, but if you can’t sell a good idea to a wide audience, it isn’t innovative. Darwin’s theory of evolution was a resounding commercial success and is remembered as a major innovation because he connected with many people on a deeply intimate level to help answer a question we all struggle with: where do we come from?

Of course, innovative ideas or products threaten the major incumbents in a market. In Darwin’s case, this meant facing down the most established provider of human meaning around – the church. Darwin had to withstand intense criticism, especially from close pious friends. But, in the end, even the Church of England pardoned Darwin 150 years after he published On the Origin of Species.

To make the leap from a good idea to an innovative one, a business must sell a new world view to the largest audience. Only then does a market evolve.

Adam F. Caplan is the product leader at a rapidly growing digital healthcare IT company.

Platoon Leaders as Product Managers – Why the Allies Won the Battle for Normandy

Omaha beach - photo by author

It was one of the largest invasion forces ever assembled in human history. 175,000 fighting men, 50,000 vehicles, 5,333 ships, and 11,000 aircraft were prepared to deal the decisive blow to Adolf Hitler in the European Theater during World War Two. The mission was called Operation Overlord and its success would alter the course of history for decades (for more on the historical significance of the moment, check out Stephen E. Ambrose’s comprehensive book D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II).

Hollywood has done a great job over the years immortalizing the battle. But the Allied invasion of Fortress Europe on June 6th, 1944 should have failed. Fortunately, the Allies had prepared their military leaders to act like product managers.

As early as November 3rd, 1943 Hitler knew an Allied invasion was imminent along the German-occupied French coast and, if the invasion was successful, would pose a serious threat to the Nazi Reich. So he put one of Germany’s greatest generals, Field Marshall Eriwn Rommel, in command of the defenses. Rommel quickly realized that Hitler’s so-called Atlantic Wall was nothing more than incomplete fortifications manned mostly by Slavic prisoners pressed into German service against their will. Rommel (who earned the nickname ‘Desert Fox’ while out-maneuvering the British in North Africa) understood that any Allied landing had to be defeated on the beaches – he implemented many of the dangerous hazards American, British, and Canadian troops would encounter on D-Day.  More important than the static fortifications, however, was Rommel’s plan to overwhelm any invasion force with tanks.

Rommel wanted the seven Panzer divisions in the Normandy theater (approximately 70,000 soldiers and hundreds of tanks) placed directly behind the beaches so they could respond swiftly to any landing attempted along the coast. But, even though Rommel had the most direct knowledge of conditions on the ground and experience in maneuver warfare, the German high command overruled his plan and placed many of the German troops much further inland – it would take three days for reinforcements to reach the battlefield. This pattern of top-down decision-making would seal the Nazi’s fate.

Allied military leadership, in contrast, empowered the lowest level leaders (lieutenants commanding platoons of 40 to 50 soldiers) to make critical battlefield decisions without seeking higher approval. To borrow from Jim Collins’s business management ideas, the Allied military strategy centered on getting the right people “on the bus” first so that they could best respond to changing conditions on the ground rapidly.

This idea of building a framework around sound decision-making in stressful situations with incomplete information is very similar to how a good product manager must operate. A product manager is responsible for the success of a product but she can’t be everywhere at the same time – in any given day, a PM could be engaged by conversations with customers about a prototype, discussions with sales and marketing teams about the validity of a new feature in the market, tweaking user experience elements with designers based on feedback, refining product requirements with the development team, ruthlessly prioritizing product requests, or selling internal executives on why a particular long-term vision for a product offering is worth investing in. Suffice it to say, there simply isn’t time to micromanage every detail.

A successful product manager must organize all of these moving parts around a unifying framework. Yes, an effective product leader must establish a compelling vision. But when it comes to actually getting work done, the product manager cannot become a bottleneck and must delegate decisions to other team members. When every team understands the desired outcome, the product manager doesn’t need to be available at all hours of every day to shepherd a product toward success.

In the same vein, all Allied platoon leaders knew every objective they needed to secure on D-Day. When the battlefield devolved into chaos, the Allied platoon leaders didn’t need to check with higher command – they adjusted to changing conditions on the fly and made good decisions.

For example, D-Day began the night before the beach landings when 13,000 Allied paratroopers expected to parachute into clearly-defined landing zones near their objectives (like strategic towns and bridges). Instead, they ended up scattered all across the Normandy coast – individual platoon leaders had to step up and organize ad-hoc units to successfully capture objectives, ensuring the troops coming ashore on the beaches could establish a beachhead.

The Germans, in contrast, had to wait for approval from senior leadership to organize a counterattack. In fact, any strategic military decision during the war had to pass through Hitler, and no one wanted to wake him on the night of the invasion. Worse, the commander who could have mounted an effective counterattack wasn’t available – Rommel went home to celebrate his wife’s birthday on June 5th.

The German centralized command structure severely hindered their ability to respond to the Allied invasion in real-time. Despite Rommel’s sound defensive plan, he wasn’t there to implement it; even if Rommel was present on the battlefield, he was not empowered to adapt the strategy as conditions changed. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme Allied commander of the invasion, understood the tactical edge his platoon leaders had over their German counterparts when he remarked: “[i]n preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable” – when the situation on the battlefield changed, Allied platoon leaders adapted their plans; the Germans waited for approval to launch an already obsolete counterattack strategy.

Allied platoon leaders were crystal-clear about their missions and were empowered to achieve them through whatever means were necessary. Effective product managers know how to define clear objectives for their teams, resulting in sound decisions even when they aren’t present. It should come as no surprise that a successful product will deviate from an early roadmap plan – conditions on the ground are always evolving.

Photo by author

Adam F. Caplan is the product leader at a rapidly growing digital healthcare IT company.

Why?

I get paid to ask this question in my professional life. As a Product Manager, my mission is to unearth valuable problems and then build a business case around intuitive software solutions. To be successful, I’m constantly probing and digging until I understand the root causes behind why a problem exists – only then can our teams work on the right solutions.

I love this work because it blends so many of the things I’m passionate about into one role: leadership, business, technical problem-solving, user empathy, and selling a vision, to name a few.

But above all, I get to be curious. And my curiosity in business (and life) can be traced all the way back to my fascination about history.

As a child, I read about and imagined myself alongside Alexander the Great in Persia, riding with the Mongol horde, at the helm of a Viking longship, storming the Normandy beaches.

History is the story of how we got here. But I had to know why events happened the way that they did – nothing ever happens in a vacuum. Indeed, all of the significant moments of the past were influenced by a number of economic, social, and cultural factors that explain the root causes.

So, why am I creating Aristotle Enterprises (named for Alexander the Great’s tutor, Aristotle – even conquerors need teachers)? Well, this website will help satiate my curiosity about the intersection of the three things I am most passionate: history, business, and product.

I’m excited to explore how the lessons of the past influence tomorrow’s business innovations.

Adam F. Caplan is the product leader at a rapidly growing digital healthcare IT company.

American Visionaries – What the Founding Fathers teach us about Leading Companies

July 4th, 1776 marked a turning point. No longer was this conflict just a struggle for rights between British citizens in the American colonies and the crown – on this day, Thomas Jefferson and his fellow committee members convinced the rest of the Continental Congress to formally approve “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America.”

But signing a Declaration of Independence from the most powerful empire on earth was merely the beginning of an incredibly dangerous endeavor that could have easily ended at the gallows for all involved. Indeed, the fledgling United States of America still had to face seven more years of war, near bankruptcy, and its very first foreign military engagement (for more on this last point, I highly recommend Don Yaeger’s book Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War That Changed American History).

So, how did this new nation weather these trials and emerge as the country we would recognize today? America’s early leaders had a vision for the future worth fighting for, striving for, and dying for.

A vision, according to one definition from Dictonary.com, is “a vivid, imaginative conception or anticipation.” But, America’s leaders needed something more tangible than an “imaginary conception” that would inspire individuals to persevere through the hardship and sacrifice required along the road to the realization of the American dream.

The funny thing is, this strategy of motivating individual people to accomplish great things is the same one that the most successful companies employ.

SpaceX, for example, states unequivocally that its vision is “enabling people to live on other planets.” It is successfully working to accomplish this goal by drastically reducing the cost of launching rockets, thereby removing one of the most significant barriers preventing the human race from becoming a regularly space-faring species: financing the research and technological advances needed to turn that vision into reality. Fine, but why do we need to be a multi-planetary species? Well, according to Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO, this is the only real path to saving humanity.

The most important reason for a company to have an inspiring vision, however, is not to say it is changing the world (or taking us to other worlds). Indeed, the actual vision itself matters less than simply having a vision, a higher purpose.

Every company, cause, or country needs a vision because every individual involved wants his or her work and sacrifice (whether realized consciously or not) to have purpose and meaning. Only when the individuals that comprise the company or cause know why their effort is worthwhile can truly great results be achieved.

What does having a vision that motivates individuals within an organization look like in practice? To extend the space theme a bit further, there is a famous story of President John F. Kennedy asking a janitor at NASA in 1962 during the space race with the U.S.S.R. what he was doing. The janitor replied “well Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

The early leaders of the United States had a vision that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. “ The individuals in the American colonies that bought this vision proved they were capable of a great achievement – a free republic that still stands today, 241 years later.

Want to lead a business to awesome financial results? Give your employees a cause to work toward – you may be surprised what a small group of people can achieve against extremely long odds when everyone knows why his or her work matters.

Adam F. Caplan is the product leader at a rapidly growing digital healthcare IT company.