Startup Gazelle or Cheetah

Startup = Gazelle. Fallacious analogy?

An oft-quoted statement that I’ve heard about startups says:

Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a lion or gazelle – when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.

I’ve been with startups all my life, and I don’t believe that this is an appropriate analogy. Here’s why:

  1. To outrun a lion, a gazelle needs to replenish it’s energy almost continuously. That’s why you always see gazelle either eating or running, rarely sleeping. That kind of energy into a startup means a constant influx of resources – capital, people, etc. You’ll never see a “bootstrapped” gazelle because they won’t have the food/energy needed to outrun a lion, and they’ll be quickly caught and eaten.
  2. A gazelle’s life is spent eating, running, sh**ting and mating – until it dies, either of old age or torn to bits by a lion. You never see a gazelle stopping to strategize, to try to out-think a lion, to try to fashion some tools to fight the lion. That’s why all the gazelle can do is run – it cannot innovate, and that’s why its evolution is slow (over millions of years instead of a few months) and its mind is tailored to just a few, simple tasks (see above). A startup that’s always running cannot innovate, is not agile, does not growing intellectually and evolves very slowly.
  3. A gazelle is not at the top of the Serengeti’s food chain. Neither is the lion (it’s close to the top though). But the Masai tribe is. That’s because the Masai don’t think about simply out-running the lion – they evolve rapidly, they stop to think, they socialize to strategize, they think about different ways of keeping away the lion – a far more efficient strategy than simply running.
  4. If anything, evolution has taught us that social animals are the most successful on the planet. Humans, wolves, lions, dolphins, ants and many more. Gazelle, on the other hand, are far less social, and therefore much more prone to being caught and killed. This analogy of social bonding is apt for a startup, where socializing with people, getting external ideas, constantly communicating with each other and always maintaining a culture of openness is far better for the company than a closed, uncooperative, “live and let die” culture.
  5. Elephants, hippos, dolphins, wolves, killer whales, ants and humans are at the top of animal kingdom. Many million of years ago, dinosaurs were at the top. Never gazelles. Why are these animals more successful than the others? For two reasons – their size and/or their intelligence. Not their ability to run. The ability to run away from danger or a competitor is not prized in nature because that model simply isn’t scalable. Look at cheetahs; they can outrun any animal in the animal kingdom, but the are near extinction, because their plan to simply outrun their prey, attackers and competitors can only take them so far. To win against their prey, attackers and competitors, the successful animals have devised other, more effective strategies such as bulking up (elephants, hippos, dinosaurs, killer whales), socializing (wolves, dolphins, ants) and tooling/strategizing (humans).
  6. Biologists agree that predatory animals like lions, foxes and wolves are more intelligent than their prey such as deer, rabbits and wildebeest because the former are designed to focus and concentrate on their prey. A dissection of the brains of these animals (and of humans) reveals that they have larger brains, have better skills, are more successful and are more social because of their prey-like natures, and not because of their [lack of] abilities to run or outrun their prey, attackers and competitors.

So what portions of the analogy of a deer are apt to a startup?

  1. Agility. Few animals are as agile as a gazelle. It’s the gazelle’s agility that keeps it alive, not that it’s constantly running.
  2. Keeping ahead of the pack. The original analogy could be modified to state that a gazelle only needs to be faster than the slowest gazelle in the group. However, this analogy applies to all animals, not just gazelles.

Although you can argue that business is about survival of the fittest, even lions show team working tactics – and gazelles never. The most powerful male lions protect the pack but still rely on the faster females to reciprocate and work with other females to catch dinner. As primates, we have developed strategies based on mutual cooperation, respect and social networks so the analogy of outrunning your competition is inappropriate. I think as humans, we understand the benefits of having a plan for the day and discussing tactics before we all run in the wrong direction. If we thought we could always catch dinner by running alone in business we would soon starve.

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