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 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.


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, 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.