If you’ve read The Hunger Games* you know that it’s a story about a young girl, Katniss Everdeen and her fellow competitor, Peeta Mellark. They’re forced to participate in a brutal competition with 22 other young citizens from different districts in their country, in which the winner is the last person alive.
One could draw the comparison between The Hunger Games and the dog-eat-dog world of small business, but there are other (less violent) lessons to be learned as well.
Spoiler alert: If you haven’t read the book there are a few plot details revealed here. But nothing that will spoil it for you overall. Read the book. Or go see the movie. Really – it’s well worth your time. In the meantime, here are 4 business lessons that we learned from the book and upcoming movie.
Know your odds and develop a strategy to beat them
In The Hunger Games, Effie Trinket, the escort for the combatants, tells them, “May the odds be ever in your favor!” This is particularly ironic since the odds aren’t ever in their favor: only one person in twenty-four will finish the games alive.
Your new business has better odds but you probably shouldn’t be too nonchalant about its success; according to the U.S. Small Business Administration, 30 percent of new businesses will fail within the first two years; 50 percent fail within five years. This doesn’t mean that you should throw your hands in the air and give up – you just need to recognize the reality of your situation and strategize in order to succeed. It’s not enough to just find some product and a retail space and slap an “open for business” sign on the door. You need to have a good, solid business strategy in order to survive.
Have you thoroughly researched your market and your competition? In the Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta watch old tapes of previous games to note strategies that past winners used successfully. They carefully analyze their competitors at the training center and they both come up with different strategies to survive. Olympic hopefuls do the same thing. And NBA players. And NFL players. And baseball players. And tennis players. You get the idea. Apparently, it works.
Find mentors and colleagues – even if it’s your competition
Katniss and Peeta have Haymitch, a blustering, cranky alcoholic and past winner of the games. Though at times he’s not the best mentor (it’s hard to mentor when you’re constantly passing out), he still imparts some great advice. A typical strategy for Hunger Games participants is to grab gear and food from the cornucopia at the beginning of the games in order to have supplies for survival. Haymitch advises Katniss to bypass the cache of goods because he knows she can feed herself by hunting and can also take advantage of another skill: tree climbing. Katniss is able to avoid the melee at the cornucopia and hide in the trees, which keeps her alive.
While you probably won’t be climbing trees, you can benefit by having a mentor, too. Sometimes other people see talents and skills that you aren’t able to see yourself. The traditional advice might not always be the best advice; a good mentor will be able to show you some detours that will increase your odds of success. Try to find a mentor who has built a successful small business and is willing to share his knowledge with you – your local Chamber of Commerce or another business networking group would be a good place to look.
It’s also worthwhile to network with other small business owners, including those whose businesses are your competition. You don’t have to give away any trade secrets – just get to know others and see what they’re doing that works well, and what mistakes they are making that you can avoid. At the very least, you’ll feel like you aren’t alone. Katniss makes an alliance with Rue during the games and quickly discovers the biggest benefit of the relationship, “I realize, for the first time, how very lonely I’ve been in the arena. How comforting the presence of another human being can be.” You don’t need to be lonely – get out there and make some small business owner friends.
Project an image of a successful business owner.
It’s all about image. For the participants of the Hunger Games, projecting the right image can mean survival. Viewers of the games can contribute money that can be used to send the contestants gifts such as food, medicine and weapons. To endear themselves to viewers, Peeta and Katniss pretend that they’re a romantic couple. Projecting the image of a young couple in love works well, and they receive numerous gifts.
You want to project an image that will endear you to your customers. Though you might feel stressed and harried, if you come across as patient, warm and caring your customers will feel like contributing money to your business.
Fear is a common theme both for new business owners and the characters in The Hunger Games. Like any sixteen-year-old who’s been dropped into an arena full of people who want to kill her, Katniss is terrified. But she realizes the importance of masking her fear. She doesn’t want the other contestants to see her weakness, so she hides it in order to avoid targeted as an easy kill: “Panic begins to set in. I can’t stay here. Flight is essential.”…” But I can’t let my fear show.”
Starting a new business is terrifying. You’ve just dropped yourself into an arena full of competition that might be happy to see you fail. Sure, your fledgling business might be vulnerable and you might feel like you have no idea what you’re doing, but you can project an image of confidence and success. You’ve heard the phrase, “fake it ‘til you make it.” It’s great advice.
Playing it safe isn’t always the best strategy
The residents of District 12 (the book’s name for local cities) are kept “safe” by an electrified fence that lines the perimeter. They aren’t allowed to hunt or gather food, but are instead sent shipments of food from the Capitol. It’s never quite enough food, but it’s a steady, consistent subsistence. Katniss isn’t willing to rely solely on the Capitol so she finds a way to get through the fence in order to hunt and gather other food for her family. She comes up with a tongue-in-cheek slogan for her hometown: “District 12: Where you can starve to death in safety.”
You can find yourself starving to death in safety if you aren’t occasionally willing to take risks. Try something new: offer a new product, come up with a new marketing strategy, think of a new way to participate in your community. Instead of sticking with the status quo, look at what your competitors aren’t doing and try it.
*Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. Scholastic Press, 2010.