So I came across this video about Stoffle today. Stoffle is a South African honey badger who ‘lives with’ a guy named Brian Jones, a wildlife conservationist at Kruger National Park, who has a soft spot for these so-called ‘bad boys’ of the animal kingdom.
Here’s the video about the little rascal 👇🏻
The first thing I learned from the video is that honey badgers are one of most fearless animals on the planet. They don’t shy away from getting into random fights with just about anything — from venomous snakes 🐍 to full-grown lions 🦁.
The clip starts right after Stoffle has gotten himself into trouble again by climbing into the lion cage, to ATTACK the poor lion!
‘He “won” the first round (I think more because the Lion was so surprised that this thing was attacking him and didn’t defend himself fully, but it counts), but he did it again and got f*%#d up’
Ok, so honey badgers are pretty bad ass. But they are not just fearless, but also astonishingly clever as the BBC narrator puts it: ‘considering their small size, honey badgers have remarkably big brains’. Obviously, fearlessness and high intelligence are crucial startup founder attributes.
But that’s not what I want to talk about here. Rather, what impresses me so much about Stoffle is his craftiness and perseverance as an escape artist.
To understand what I’m talking about, let’s have a closer look at how Stoffleis refusing to accept the status quo.
The initial ‘growth hack’ of the unprepared incumbent
The video starts off with Stoffle’s “master” Brian (Stoffle soon teaches us that he doesn’t really have a master) recounting how he first tried to reign in the resourceful honey badger (mainly for Stoffle’s own safety… remember, like any decent startup founder, he’s a feisty little lion fighter that tends to overestimate himself).
So Brian’s first plan is:
- to introduce Stoffle to a female play mate, Hammy, to help him ‘work off steam’; and
- to put him behind some kind of mesh fence.
Obviously, Stoffle will have none of that. He quickly makes Hammy his co-founder and devises a pretty elaborate plan for outsmarting the system:
‘It didn’t work. Stoffle soon devised a plan for opening up the gate, which has two bolts. He would get the female to go up. She would go up, open the first gate. He’d hold the gate and say ‘Woman, get up, I’m pulling open, you open up’. She goes up to the top, she pulls the second one out. And then he pulls it open, he waits for her to get down, and then they escape together.’
So essentially, Stoffle ends up pulling a badger’s ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ on Brian.
So what does this South African badger’s escape escapades got to do with startup founders you may ask? 🤔
Incumbents naturally have a habit of keeping both existing competitors and new challengers in an implicit or explicit ‘lockdown’. Whether it’s through access control, platform restrictions or long-term, capital intensive contracting. The objective of the incumbent is to keep competitors in their place and intruders out.
However, the incumbent’s control system may be loosely designed at this first stage, as the incumbent doesn’t fully acknowledge the attack surface or the craftiness of the attacker. Just like Brian underestimated honey badger Stoffle’s willingness to live a life in freedom, Ebay underestimated PayPal’s willingness to dominate online payments, Excite underestimated Google’s ability to dominate intent-based search, Craigslist underestimated Airbnb’s ability to feature iterate on the home sharing category. The list goes on.
The first phase of any successful startup thus revolves around the founder finding a loop hole through an initial ‘growth hack’ and to find some capable partners in crime. Paypal famously piggybacked on Ebay’s growth by ambushing their checkout counter. Airbnb famously grew by siphoning supply off of Craigslist’s rental category and pushing their supply back onto Craigslist.
For consumer-facing startups, this initial growth hack often revolves around finding a cost effective distribution channel, also known as keeping CAC low. I wrote about the direct-to-consumer space, where the growth hack phase typically revolves around identifying underpriced attention, such as Dollar Shave Club’s viral video or many of the DTC’s influencer campaigns.
Growth hacking doesn’t need to involve just digital channels though, just the most cost effective ones. Most recently, we’ve seen the fintech unicorn Brex growth hacking underpriced attention by taking out $300k in physical billboards to find a distribution sweet spot for their corporate credit cards.
Phase n+1: escaping the black hole of hyper competition
So far so good, we’ve talked about the initial growth hack. That’s impressive to pull off for sure. But as we will learn, what sets apart the great founders is their ability to keep outrunning the gatekeepers over time.
Back to Stoffle and Brian: Brian has now been alerted to what he’s dealing with. He’s started to realize that Stoffle is a different kind of animal, requiring special attention:
‘Whatever Brian did to keep him in, Stoffle was hell-bent on getting out. In the end, and at great expense, Brian had no choice but to build his own badger Alcatraz. Mr. Stottle, the days of your escape are over.’
Unlike other wild animals that may retrench when cornered into captivity, that’s when Stoffle really manages to rise to the occasion. It’s when we get to see the true scope of this honey badger’s craftiness. He comes up with a whole range of schemes to outsmart old Brian. First he uses tree branches to escape. Then he digs up rocks and rolls them with his back feet to the wall to neatly pile them up high enough to escape. Then he makes himself mud balls to pile up next to the wall. Then it’s the gardener’s rake. Every time Brian catches up and shuts him down, the badger has already found the next loophole.
Stoffle just doesn’t take ‘No’ for an answers, instead he keeps scheming until he’s over that wall.
Now back to the tech startups and incumbents that try to keep them on a short leash. After the initial growth hack, the sleeping bear has been awoken. Like Brian building his ‘badger Alcatratz’, the incumbents will try to reign in the intruder and build their own systems around the new entrant’s solutions.
In the case of PayPal, Reid Hoffman recounts the point at which Ebay executives awoke to the threat of PayPal and started to gear up by acquiring a competitor and building out their own solution:
‘Ebay executives were miffed to see us ambushing their checkout counter. Granted, we made their users happy and accelerated the sales cycle on the site. But, who were we to siphon off Ebay’s business? So began a very strange dance between frenemies. It kind of reminds me of those unusual animal pairings that you see on a nature show. It’s an old story. I can almost hear David Attenborough narrating the scene. […] We knew we were in trouble when EBay bought a rival online payment service called Billpoint and directly integrated it into EBay.’
This is especially critical where the initial growth hack entails use of the incumbent’s platform. The incumbent may exert platform dominance, either by erecting walled gardens, see the recent controvery around Spotify and the Apple Store, or by actively policing the intruders, such as Craigslist shutting down Airbnb’s bot that would pre-fill their forms and cross-post to Craigslist.
This second phase, when the incumbent actively tries to erect fences left and right, is the time to shine for startup founders and where the marthon runners are distinguished from the one trick ponies. It is also this point, where Peter Thiel’s escape velocity has to be established for the startup to survive:
I do think that for a really valuable business you have at some point try to achieve escape velocity from the competition. You have to race really hard to scale fast, but the benefit is that you’re achieving escape velocity from the black hole that is hyper competition.
What do we learn from this?
We should all try to be a bit more like Stoffle: fearless, smart and crafty. Craftiness means that you use whatever tools you have available at any point in time to deal with the many challenges thrown at you. Whether it’s mud, rocks or sticks, use whatever it takes to get out of that black hole of hypercompetition.
Stay safe out there guys and stay crafty and relentless like Stoffle.