Burn the Boats

Twice in recent weeks, I have spoken with pre-funding entrepreneurs with excellent plans and prospects who failed to embrace an essential rule of entrepreneurship: “burn the boats.” Famed conquistador Hernán Cortés literally burned his boats to make success an imperative as he arrived at Vera Cruz in 1519 CE. I first learned of this expression in the context of the attitude required for a US tech company to successfully enter the Japanese market. It applies dramatically more so to would-be entrepreneurs. Being an entrepreneur is about not fitting in—at least not by mainstream societal standards. It’s about challenging the norm; daring to be different; aspiring to greatness. And so the entrepreneur faces myriad, “keep out,” “danger” and “turn back” signs along the road to success. Most of these come in the form of well-intentioned (typically from family and friends) advising caution, taking safer routes. Some represent insidious attempts by people who—for whatever selfish reasons—wish mediocrity upon us rather than success.


To succeed, hopeful entrepreneurs must “burn the boats.” Create the reality that here is no turning back. As Jedi Master Yoda coaches young Luke Skywalker, “Do, or do not. There is no try.” Commit. Cut off escape. Create the imperative of success. Tell as many people as possible that the boats are burned. By communicating that to your sphere, the social fabric around you switches from timidity and caution to offering unflagging support to you in your venture because you’ve made it clear you’re basically effed if you don’t succeed.


Many a would-be entrepreneur naturally gravitate toward a “safe” approach of a hedged bet, or a built-in “plan b.” I maintain that doing so, while “prudent” and “responsible” by most people’s standards, naturally compromises prospects for entrepreneurial success. That’s because “most people” aren’t entrepreneurs. It’s not easy; if it was, everyone would do it.


Failing to burn the boats reverberates not only in your social network, but in your business context as well. Customers, without knowing so consciously, will detect and respond in a way appropriate to tentative commitment. Candidate investors doubly so. Advisors—who contribute their valuable time more out of love of the game than rational expectation of remuneration—will hold back from giving as much as they might, again responding in kind to a perceived less-than-100-percent committed entrepreneur.


So, if you really want to be an entrepreneur, go burn your boats. Make it life or death. Make every day real. Go for it!

2 Responses to “Burn the Boats”

  1. Anthony Kuhn says:

    Pretty extreme stuff, and although it worked for Cortez, I would hazard to guess that for the many other adventurers/entrepreneurs who “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” they sunk their ship. Maybe they even hoisted themselves on their own petard? I would have to agree that cutting off all means of going back puts a strong onus on the crew to go forward, but sometimes the destination is not success, but ruination!

  2. jdunham says:

    Thanks for the comment and the thought. Destination, or target-focus, presents another of the big challenges facing entrepreneurs. Few successful entrepreneurs end up doing exactly what they set out to do. The importance of paying attention to the road signs and making mid-course corrections will be the subject of a future post.

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