Founder's Mentality Blog
Founders of great insurgent companies are restless. They are leading a revolution and are not content to be constrained by industry boundaries. This makes their mission limitless—they have no ability to declare victory because there is always another market to conquer.
This sense of a limitless horizon is one of the defining characteristics of insurgency, which, along with frontline obsession and an owner mindset, are key elements of Founder’s Mentality (see Figure 1).
The most sustainably profitable companies nurture and maintain three traits
Insurgency typically comprises three elements:
- The team is at war against their industry on behalf of underserved customers. This means every employee understands the company’s bold mission, and can answer the big “why?”—“Why does the company exist?”
- The leadership team embraces “spiky” capabilities—being world class at those things that really matter for customers and decidedly average at the rest.
- The leaders have the limitless horizon described above. They refuse to be defined by or constrained within the industry in which they first competed.
A classic example of a limitless horizon is Larry Page’s continuous effort to avoid defining Google as a search engine company (as such, it is the dominant incumbent) and instead view it as a technology company in its very first chapter, with less than 1% of 1% of the technology market. But to illustrate limitless horizon further, let’s take a look at another example.
Discovery, a company South Africa, has redefined South African healthcare and is now setting its sights on the rest of the planet, and on other financial sectors. Adrian Gore founded Discovery in 1992 with a very clear insurgent mission: Making people healthier and enhancing and protecting their lives. As a leader in wellness behavioral change, Discovery has grown to nearly 6 million customers worldwide.
Here’s Adrian on the limitless horizons of Discovery:
“We’re here to make people healthier. And we’ll do it by rewarding our customers as they change their behaviors in ways that will help them lead longer and healthier lives. This was a completely different approach than anyone in our industry was taking at the time, and we think [it] has created a revolution. And our people understand it: We are here to help people live more years. It is an amazing ambition to give the world more human years, from which great things will emerge. And we can and have applied this mission to different kinds of insurance and now different financial products. We are in the early chapters of a revolutionary story.”
To be frank, the idea of limitless horizons is tricky for most companies. As Chris Zook and I pointed out almost 15 years ago in our book Profit from the Core, managers of the highest-performing companies ruthlessly focus on their core business, with the goal of being the market leader. But we also noted that these companies are constantly pushing against the edges of business definition, redefining the markets in which they compete. Focus brings leadership, and with leadership comes the ability to redefine industries.
Companies with a strong sense of insurgency have a bold mission to disrupt their industries. They focus on a few capabilities and spike—choosing to excel narrowly vs. pursue average performance everywhere. And with this disruptive mission and spiky capabilities, their leaders don’t feel constrained in the industries in which they compete—instead, they redefine those industries or move beyond them. As Adrian said, these companies are in the early chapters of a revolutionary story.