Movie BusinessGet Out of the Library and Start-up: What Indiana Jones can Teach Us about Being a Start-up

A hallmark movie in the action-adventure genre, the Indiana Jones franchise brings together the trifecta of movie legends: George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford. Harrison Ford stars as Dr. Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones, Jr. but that’s quite a mouthful so we’ll stick to Indy; and just in case, push comes to shove, let’s settle for Indiana Jones. Indiana Jones, a fictional professor of archeology with a real mouthful of a name, needless to say, to date, remains one of the most iconic movie heroes of all time.

Now, have you ever imagined yourself being similar to this iconic character of Indiana Jones? No? You’re probably thinking, “Why would I do that?” After all, you are not a globe-trotting archaeologist who jumps from one adventure to the next. That you might not be, but, believe me, if you are a start-up founder, you’re probably closer to Indiana Jones than you think. “How?”, you ask. “Well, let’s get to it.”, I say.

Indiana Jones' Has Aged Terribly

Almost any start-up founder would talk of their unwavering belief in their product or service. That, after all, is the prime reason behind founding the aforementioned start-up; and, many a time, the one reason why founders take their start-up to oblivion while ignoring that nobody in the market wants their product/service. Does this ring a bell? “I had it in my hand,” says Indiana Jones to Marcus Brody while blatantly ignoring the end number of times he almost died trying to find his glory. But this cockiness, this being ‘dead-sure’, true as it might be in characterizing a start-up founder, isn’t what I want you to take from Indiana Jones. It is much more than that. I want you to look at his mentality and philosophy and not his actions.

And there’s one quote that will put this into perspective for you. But first, I’ll set up the scene: It’s 1936 and we’re in Cairo, Egypt. We’re near the site of an archaeological dig attempting to discover the Ark of the Covenant. Indiana Jones correctly identifies the location to dig and sneaks around the Nazis to use a medallion to identify the Ark’s resting place. Indy is successful but then the Nazis discover them and take the Ark, placing it on a truck headed for Berlin. Indy comes up with a plan.

The following plays out in the next scene as Indy discusses with his team what their next steps are:

IndianaMeet me at Omar’s. Be ready for me. I’m going after that truck.
IndianaI don’t know. I’m making this up as I go.

With that quote, specifically the final line, “I don’t know. I’m making this up as I go”; and the following truck sequence, we know everything we need to know about what drives Indy. He is the protagonist of the story, but unlike the heroes in most other movies, he doesn’t have all the answers or knows what to do. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? This is exactly how most start-up founders are. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been in business for 40 years or 40 minutes because I know we are all in the same boat. You might have experience; you might have an idea of what to do and might even try to do it, but really, you’re just making it up as you go and hoping that you make the right decisions. In all honestly, no one has the power of precognition and only in hindsight will you know if a decision was either right or wrong.

You will not always have all the answers or know everything there is to know but still, you try your best to move forward. This is exactly what Indy does: he has a plan; he doesn’t know how he will execute it or what the steps involved are; but he starts and tries; and then, he tries some more. In the aforementioned chase scene as well, we see Indy use a horse to jump onto a truck carrying the Ark. He gets punched numerous times, he is shot at, his head smashes into the dash, he is thrown outside the truck, from the front of the truck he makes his way to the back of the trucker from under it, he is dragged behind the truck and makes his way back to the cabin to kick out the driver and take the truck away, yada-yada. Now, a lot happens in this sequence and if you haven’t seen it, I recommended jumping over to YouTube and checking it out. But the point I am trying to make is: at no point does Indy say, “Whatever! I’ve had enough and I quit”. He doesn’t get punched in the face and say, “That’s enough, I made the wrong decision, I’m leaving.” He gets hit and adapts his plan. He thinks on his feet and figures out his steps to move forward. You could even say he’s being very agile. He keeps his goal in mind: to get the Ark away from the Nazis. And he is relentless in that pursuit.

Not knowing what you’re doing and moving forward may seem like something you should not do. In fact, that’s legit advice: move forward only when you know what you are going to do. Without a goal or target in mind, instead of moving forward, you’ll be moving all over the place and never really make any progress. Indy could have thrown the first person off the truck and then gotten off himself and continued to fight them. But, would that serve is his goal and keep him moving forward? No! it wouldn’t! His goal was to get the Ark and for that, he needed to move forward.

We’ve spoken to over 60 different businesses owners for the DevReady Podcast. Some of them were experts with established businesses and others were start-ups at various different stages. Regardless, there was one common thread that bound each of those business owners: each person had a goal in mind when starting out; no one knew all the answers but they made decisions and moved towards the goal that they set for the company.

Indiana Jones, in trying to show his disapproval towards a common misconception about finding treasure, says, “We do not follow maps to buried treasure, And X never, ever marks the spot.” The goal for a start-up can be compared to a treasure; and like in a treasure map, there is no path set in stone that would take a start-up to success. A start-up owner or a business founder can only decide which path to take along the way and hope for the best. In doing so, they’d make many decisions: some of those decisions would turn out to be the wrong ones while others would turn out to be the right ones. But they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the right and wrong decisions at that point in time. And neither will you. What you need to learn from them is the fact that the wrong decisions did not prevent them from moving forward and trying to execute their plan. In fact, the wrong decisions helped them pivot, adapt, and move forward with the learnings of what didn’t work. That is what allowed them to have a little bit more knowledge to hopefully make a better decision next time.

Somewhere down the line, you might have gotten an impression that my goal in writing this article is to propose that as a start-up founder you make decisions with a blindfold and move forward at the drop of a hat. If that is the case, I can see how you might have arrived at that conclusion. We never see Indy calculate his options and think of a few different possibilities. Well, if he had done that, for starters, it would make for a quite boring movie. And we wouldn’t want that, would we now? But allow me to iterate that our real world is slightly different from the world Lucas created where a smooth-talking, leather-jacket-wearing, satchel-carrying, bullwhip-whipping archaeologist seeks adventures outside the four walls of a library. The real world has real problems and in order to be a real start-up founder whose goal is to provide solutions to those real problems you need to identify the possible paths; you need to weigh the available options and then decide which path to actually take going forward. Along the journey, even if you find that it was the wrong decision and it didn’t work for you, don’t let that stop you or demoralise you. Use the learning from that to make a better decision or look at things through a different lens and see what new possibilities are out there.

Willie Scott’s character in the Temple of Doom was as a damsel in distress and her saying, “We’re surrounded; the entire place is crawling with living things,” is met with Indy’s quick reply, “That’s why they call it the jungle, sweetheart.” Well, the business world is a jungle of sorts and there are all kinds of problems in this jungle but it wouldn’t hurt for you to know that you are not Willie, you are not a damsel in distress. You are you—a goal-oriented start-up founder who knows what they have gotten themselves into and is willing to learn from the decisions that went wrong along the way and move forward.

It is extremely unlikely that you will make all the right decisions and be an actual overnight success. An overnight success is nothing without the years of effort put in and the hundreds of right and wrong decisions made along the way. In the case of Indy and the truck chase, he succeeds because he keeps trying. He doesn’t stop every time there’s a challenge or he doesn’t just hang up his boots every single time he makes a wrong choice and it leads him down a wrong path. He just keeps on keeping on. Granted, all of that happened in a movie. In a super-condensed timeframe over the course of a movie, we see his overnight success but we have no idea what he’s gone through to get to that point. And this resonates with the story of any other start-up.

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Now we can see how thinking you’re like Indiana Jones isn’t a bad thing. Indy has the mentality and philosophy that a start-up founder should have. He knows enough to admit he doesn’t know what he’s doing, he knows he doesn’t have all the answers but he knows what he wants to achieve and makes moves and decisions to drive his actions towards those goals. That’s all you’d need to do as a start-up founder or a business owner. The Grail Knight says, “He chose…poorly” after Walter Donovan takes a swig from the biggest and fanciest chalice he can find only to age to his death, and then decompose and crumble into dust in a matter of seconds. So, don’t choose poorly and even if you do, remember, wrong decisions are made so that you can learn from them and push forward regardless.
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