Over the course of 10 years, the team at Marvel crafted engaging stories in an unprecedented way where each movie was a chapter in a larger overall story. That story culminated in 2019’s Avengers Endgame, which brought to a close three different phases of movies where the villain of the overarching story, Thanos, was presented as a complex character who had utmost conviction in his ideas and beliefs. I would have never thought even for a second that I’d be getting lessons to run start-ups and businesses from Thanos (Marvel Cinematic Universe greatest villain).
I believe there are many lessons that any start-up founder or small business owner could learn from Thanos and his approach. If we put aside the fact that Thanos was presented as a villain, we can learn what to do and what not to do from his actions. I’ve listed down 4 lessons that start-ups and businesses can learn from Thanos.
1. Your idea needs to be a solution, not just another idea.
It all starts with an idea.
The idea is not just an idea, but the solution to a problem. If your idea does not encompass a solution to a problem, then you will try to force the market fit to your idea, and you will not succeed. This spark of your idea must turn into an ember that people will want to keep alive. In order to do so, you’ll have to provide a solution to a problem that people want to be solved.
Let’s take the humble toothpaste tube as an example of a solution to a problem that no one wants to solve. There is wastage in each packet of toothpaste. You use it daily; and, you might squeeze the tube or roll it up to try and utilise everything inside. When you get to the point where you squeeze and only a tiny bit comes out, you usually just toss that tube in the bin and open a new one.
Developing a product that would ensure that you used 100% of the toothpaste in that tube would save people some money throughout their lives. However, it is not really a problem for the majority of people. I guess so!
2. Research, research and more research.
Many start-up founders believe in their idea so much that they will invest everything they have into developing the right kind of product and then fail as there are not enough customers who ‘care’ to make the business sustainable.
Our business coach Thanos is like one of those founders!
He identified that the Universe is finite, and its resources are finite. He experienced the consequences of this problem firsthand on his home planet of Titan, where resources were running out.
His problem, definitely is, orders of magnitude when compared to the toothpaste. However, he also, in a nutshell, came up with a solution that had no customer base. Thanos proposed that they should eliminate half of the population from the universe, indiscriminately and randomly, so as to ensure an abundance of resources for the other half.
Now, this is a ridiculous idea to us, but he did have logic in his thinking and with all his will and might, he persevered until he was successful in ridding the Universe of half of all life and then ultimately failed when the Avengers undid that action and brought everyone back.
This was a solution to a problem, but it was a solution that no one wanted.
Given how stubborn and intimidating Thanos was, he was wholly driven to achieving his goal. So much so that he ended up sacrificing a lot to achieve it; his sacrifice of his beloved daughter, Gamora, in return for the Soul Stone, being the ultimate one.
This is exactly what many start-up founders do.
Start-ups are risky in nature but the founders have a sense of delayed gratification—that if they give their all, one day, they would reap the benefits. This is easier said than done as no amount of sacrifice guarantees future success.
3. Right people on the bus, wrong people off the bus.
A better approach, and one that we see start-up founders fail to do, is to assemble a team of advisors, people we can bounce ideas off of and ask for assistance from.
Thanos had a trusted team, but they did his bidding. I am not sure if Ebony Maw or Proxima Midnight ever took Thanos aside and said,
“Hey boss, do you think you might be approaching this solution the wrong way?”
In the case of Thanos, he could have done something to increase resources rather than destroying half of all life and just delay the process. But he believed in his conviction so much and surrounded himself with ‘Yes’ people rather than people he could listen to and be advised by.
This is a common problem we find with start-ups.
In our DevReady Podcast, we have interviewed now over 32 start-up founders and a common thread among non-tech founders is that they wish they had the support of a tech co-founder or a CTO type advisor onboard to assist with the direction, ideation, and other areas involved whilst developing software.
Many founders are either trying to do it on their own or have no funding to get people involved. If the idea seems reasonable enough, they can get some people to work for sweat equity and provide some assistance. But having the right people by your side can make all the difference.
4. Being a leader is not the same as boss.
It seems Thanos isn’t the only one with blind conviction. Iron Man is a natural leader and takes charge of any situation he is in. He felt pressured to take the lead and devise a plan to try to defeat Thanos. It wasn’t much of a plan, as pointed out by Starlord,
“I like your plan. Except, it sucks. So let me do the plan, and that way it might be really good.”
But that did not happen.
Instead of being a one-dimensional leader and believing in his idea so much, he could have listened to the Starlord because we found out at the end of the battle that the Starlord came up with a plan which could have defeated Thanos and allowed them to remove the Infinity Gauntlet. This ability to listen to others and take their opinions on board is critical to a start-up founder as we do not know it all and should listen to others.
As a start-up founder, you need to assemble your advisors, board of directors and eventually team members and you will learn to lead your team moving forward. If you have never been a manager or leader before, this can be challenging. It can still be challenging if even you have, however, you need to ensure your team works together towards a common goal. Having effort put into different places by the team and constantly chopping and changing direction will not move you towards your goal and ultimately prevent you from succeeding.
Your team won’t be split up like the Avengers were, but they might as well be if the cultural fit isn’t there or if they’re not working as a team and trying to collectively solve a problem. You might have multiple failed attempts in getting the right team or the right product and each attempt may feel like Thanos’ Snap. But if the solution is worth creating and the problem worth solving, you should not give up, just like the Avengers, who, by the time of Avengers Endgame, started to work together again and invented a form of time-travel to be able to undo the Snap and bring everyone back to life.
In Endgame, the team had a problem to solve, half of all life in the universe was killed and there were no Infinity Stones available to undo the Snap. They did not give up and had a solution in mind: they needed to have the Infinity Stones to be able to reverse the Snap and bring people back to life. They invented a solution to the problem and achieve their outcome.
Their solution was time travel.
Now I am not saying that you will invent some crazy idea like time-travel but when you try to get your product to market and fail, you can see your first failure either as a learning point and continue or as a failure point and quit. If you do not quit, you will re-assess your problem and outcome and devise another solution to achieve it just like the Avengers.
Even with that lightbulb idea of using Time Travel, it was not a one-person solution, the idea was conceived, then developed and pushed to the market. The Avengers were working together as a team, Ant-Man provided the spark, Professor Hulk experimented with the idea, but they had to bring Iron Man back in to solve the technical problems. Then once the technical problems were solved they still needed to come together as a team to plan and action the actual time heist.
In Endgame, a Past Thanos (as the Present Thanos was killed. It is time-travel, so, there are two Thanos’s in the film) was able to learn everything that had happened during Infinity War. If you are the kind of person who believes that mistakes are a learning moment, you would do what Thanos did not. You would try to come up with another solution to the problem and try again.
Thanos did not do that and where were those advisors, really? He attempted to regain the infinity gauntlet with all the stones and snap his fingers again and kill half of all life in the universe. In the movie, the Avengers undo the Snap but do not know if it worked and then Thanos attacks. After the first mini-battle, all the heroes and more enter the battlefield and assemble as one team, directing their energy to solve the problem in front of them.
He almost defeated them but Iron Man got the stones, snapped his fingers and destroyed Thanos and all his forces. They win, but not without sacrifice. Thanos did not learn from his mistakes and tried to repeat the exact same solution, get the stones and snap his fingers, and just like other people who do not learn from their mistakes.
While the Avengers learnt from theirs and confronted him as a united team and even defeated him.
The parallels between Thanos and a failed start-up are easy to make and hopefully, you, as a start-up founder reading this you can understand what Thanos did was wrong, and the Avengers eventually did right. If you ask me what is 1 sentence takeaway from 4 lessons that start-ups and businesses can learn from Thanos is below:
Focus on your outcome, create a solution that matters and assemble the right team.
Your checklist of 4 snapping lessons that start-ups and businesses can learn from Thanos