Ambition, Brutality, and Perseverance in the Khan Dynasty series by Conn Iggulden

The rise and decline of the Mongol Empire

Imagine Game of Thrones, without dragons and zombies, and spanning 100 years of actual history. That’s about the simplest description I can offer for Conn Iggulden’s Khan Dynasty series. The five book historical fiction series begins in the late 1100s with the desperate and brutal childhood of Genghis and ends a century later with the ascendency of his grandson, Kublai.

For the sake of storytelling, Iggulden occasionally departs from the historical record (he informs us in the endnotes where he has done so), but otherwise he painstakingly combines the known historical record with his inferences of what might have happened in the remaining gaps.

Highly recommended.

With the exceptions of civilizations in Africa, Australia, and the Americas, the Mongol Empire affected—either through the existential terror that came from the prospect of being conquered (i.e. Western Europe and South Asia) or from having actually been conquered (everyone else) every civilization. No empire ever grew so fast or ruled so much.

Some quotes from the series:

Courage cannot be left like bones in a bag. It must be brought out and shown the light again and again, growing stronger each time. If you think it will keep for the times you need its you are wrong, It is like any other part of your strength. If you ignore it, the bag will be empty when you need it most.

Book 2

“Genghis did not allow fools to be promoted, and that was a matter of pride for Ho Sa [a conscript, who was initially reluctant and later served enthusiastically]. He rode with the greatest army in the world, as a warrior and a leader. It was no small thing for a man, being trusted.

“How much weight can a man carry without being too slow to fight?” [Reminded me of Eustace Conway‘s quip, “The more you know, the less you carry.”]

Book 3

“We strive and we suffer because we know through those things that we are alive.”

“All that matters is what we do now. We are our only judges…”

Book 4

“Take hold of your life with both hands and crush it to you, my lord. You will not have another in this world.”

If he had learned anything in manhood, it was that it didn’t matter what other people thought of him—even the ones he respected. In the end, he would patch together a life, with its sorry errors and triumphs, just as they had.

Book 5

No worthy goal should come easily, he told himself. Suffering created value.

Somehow, as the years passed, Yao Shu had lost sight of his first ambitions. It was strange how a man could forget himself in the thousand tasks of a day.

Good decisions were never made in anger.

…he would not explain himself to one who would never understand what he was trying to do.

“It matters that we use what we are given, for just our brief time in the sun…. It’s all you can say, when the end comes: ‘I did not waste my time.’ I think that matters. I think it may be all that matters.”

$400 snack closets

$400/mo snack closet
My new co-working neighbor’s $400 per month snack closet

If I launch another software company in which remote work isn’t a big part of our culture (I don’t think I’d do this, but if I did), I’d be looking to the South’s secondary and tertiary markets: Greenville, Rome, Chattanooga, Birmingham.

Why would I look elsewhere? Because I have always had an odd interest in the expense side of a startup’s income statement.

Here’s my observation about what’s happening right now in Atlanta:

A Bay Area startup raises a $5M seed round and immediately opens an Atlanta office because our city is awesome and there is no more talent on the West Coast. They maintain their Palo Alto HQ because they want to be close to investors. Their CEO’s key metrics are 1) dollars invested and 2) headcount. They are going to make the world a better place, and their first step on the path to world-changing is to rent a snack closet for $400/mo in an ATL co-working space.* Their investors have to put the money to work, so paying attention to the expense side is not only quaint, but it’s counterproductive.

More and more Bay Area companies follow suit. Soon, even Atlantans begin adopting the growth-without-regard-to-cost mindset. Institutional investors have the money, and Atlanta seems like a good place to put it. Over time, rents and wages rise to levels not supportable by profit-generating businesses, so the entrepreneurs leading them react by embracing remote work and/or moving HQs to Birmingham, Chattanooga, Greenville, etc.

Eventually, the dialog in the Atlanta startup community stops referencing things like profit, churn, fully-loaded CAC, or really any metric that might be indicative of true value creation for customers and owners. All the talk turns to investment rounds, new office square footage, and hiring plans.

The Atlanta scene drifts away from being entrepreneur-oriented and increasingly exists to serve the interests of bankers, institutional investors, lawyers, and real estate developers. Atlanta stops being a good place for the ambitious young entrepreneurs who want to retain a big stake in their new ventures. “Founders” have less and less skin-in-the-game and they begin to look a lot more like early employees than entrepreneurs.

Flash forward twenty years: Elsewhere in the South’s wonderfully livable secondary and tertiary markets, yeoman entrepreneurs have been creating real and enduring value. The Bay Area is now home to luxurious and thinly staffed HQs for investors and their portfolio companies’ C-suites. Actual business operations happen here in Atlanta, but Atlanta’s leaders are struggling to find talent. Fortunately, great people and a strong startup culture has emerged in places like Birmingham, Chattanooga, and Greenville, so the Atlanta satellites start opening satellite-satellites.

* A friend once relayed something he heard from the owner of several storage facilities: “Give me any address in the entire country. My team can tell me with uncanny precision exactly how many 5x10s to build, how many 10x10s, how many 10x20s, and how many of each should be conditioned. I will know how much it will cost to build the facility, exactly how much to charge for each unit, and how quickly the place will reach 90% occupancy. I can tell you all of that, but what I can’t tell you is why someone will pay me $125 per month to store $25 worth of crap.”

What works for big doesn’t always (or often) work for small


Early in my career, I thought seasoned executives from especially big companies could really help small companies become big. I assumed the systems and processes—from the software they used to how they recruited and hired to the manner in which they built their products—must naturally be better because the company was so big. Surely that must have been how they got big! Through painful (and expensive) trial and error, I quickly learned that what works well for big doesn’t always (or even often) work well for small.

Scale matters: A two person development team needs to work differently than a ten person development team. Many of the things that make an enterprise sales executive effective are different than what breeds success for an SMB sales executive. A ten person company with a relatively small amount of leads can’t effectively leverage a marketing automation solution. Worse, implementing one will probably hurt their marketing (as it did ours—we adopted it, then ditched it, and later returned to it once we reached a scale where we could not longer function without it).

So when you’re small, doing what works well for big companies can be downright dangerous.

The same warning is relevant for all sorts of organizations—from families to cities to nations. The allure of complexity is dangerous. Patrick Lencioni makes this case for families in The 3 Big Questions for a Frantic Family. Kirkpatrick Sale makes this case for institutions in Human Scale and Human Scale Revisited. Leon Krier makes this case for cities in The Architecture of Community.

When you are small, be small. Embrace the advantages. You understand every facet of your business and can make quick decisions. You can easily communicate to everyone in the company. You’re nimble.

Don’t shoulder big company systems until your small company processes aren’t working anymore. And when you are looking for inspiration, avoid people who only have big company experience. Talk to the folks who have taken something from smaller than you are now to twice your size. They have fought successfully in the same arena in which you’re battling now.