The Proper Guide To Building As You Go

We business owners take inspiration wherever it comes. As a guy who plays a lot of board games, I’ve learned to pull wisdom from the tabletop.

Allow me to share with you my Catan-as-business-strategy ideas that I recently posted to Twitter. This is a bit nerdy, so hang with me if you will and it might make you wiser business owners.

Catan is a simple resource gathering game. You start with some buildings that give you some stuff, and you use the stuff to buy more buildings which then give you more stuff. It’s all about gathering and building.

When you start the game, you place two buildings. For me, to apply the analogy, those two buildings are my law license in Texas and the Lawyer Forward brand. 

The buildings touch 3 different hexes that have the potential to give you resources. When someone rolls the dice and they land on a number that corresponds to a hex you’re touching, you get a resource.

Similarly, the law license and Lawyer Forward generate something when they’re “rolled.” Maybe they generate money, or influence, or social connections… whatever you decide is the capital that your businesses produce.

Not all hexes are the same. Some are more likely to be rolled than others. You play the odds. Catan helps you see which numbers are most likely to be rolled, so you try to get those spots, but you never know how the dice will land

Success in the game requires long-term thinking. You have to spend resources to either upgrade buildings or build new ones. Either gets you points and more resources. Similarly, I’m convinced that nearly every business will generate assets if you stick with it long enough.

The real question with Catan (and business) is whether you should upgrade buildings (double down and invest in a business’ growth) and/or expand to other parts of the board and build new buildings (start a new business or vertical). 

Upgrading a building not only gets you a point, but nearby hexes produce double results. Similarly, investing more in your business will lead to more of whatever resource it generates. The trouble is that doubling down is a risky strategy if you’re next to unlikely hexes.

A law firm is a cash machine. Really. If you put the time in, you’ll get money out. But it’s far less profitable than other business models, mainly because of the time requirements. It’s a slow-and-steady business.

But it’s where my building is right now. As much as I might resist it, the license is an asset. Me ignoring that building has cost me money. Same with Lawyer Forward. The dice rolls haven’t worked out to give me the game in two moves, so I’ve underutilized them. Dumb.

There are so many reasons you might be unsatisfied with the placement of your first buildings. Maybe the dice aren’t coming up with your numbers, and maybe you see everyone else’s less likely spots hitting. It makes you want to tear it all down and start over. You can’t.

So you see what your building is producing or is likely to produce, and you plan out your strategy. If it’s near a 6 or 8 (the most likely spots), doubling down and upgrading that building makes perfect sense. If it’s not, maybe you should build elsewhere.

Here’s the thing to remember about any board game (and the reason this analogy helps me): the game is not out to get you. It is not a moral agent. It provides the raw materials for your choices, as Epictetus put it. You can’t get mad at the setup, or complain about the roll of the dice. You just have to adjust.

I’ve tried to move my buildings so many times, chasing the hexes that seem to be getting the rolls. I’ve been so emotional about it. Repositioning your buildings is illegal in the game, and for good reason. It’s the gambler’s fallacy. A 3 may have come up the last 4 rolls, but that has no bearing on the next roll. Don’t chase it.

That’s why we’ve changed our focus this year. We’ll do what’s needed to get the available resources from the family and estates practice in Rockport and from Lawyer Forward, and to expand to other spots on the board only when we’ve paid the resource dues.

Just a few more points on this tortured analogy. First, the robber. In the game, the robber randomly moves. If he lands on one of your hexes, it’ll stop producing resources and you’ll have resources taken from you if you’re holding too many. The robber sucks, but he makes sure you act rather than sit back and watch.

He’s also just part of the game. He lands randomly, not as a moral agent. No one is out to get you. A lot of robber-like things will happen to your business. Rockport was hit with a hurricane and my firm, along with lots of other local businesses, shut down for months. That is what it is. Prepare for that by building elsewhere before he comes. Diversify and spend resources wisely as soon as you can.

Second, the game allows you to trade resources with other players. Do this liberally early on. Other players have things you need, and you have things they need. In the game of life, there’s no single winner, so help them. Give them what they need and know it will come back to you. (An advanced tip, however: later in the game, giving all the time is unwise. Similarly, once you’ve reached a certain level of success, everyone will want a piece of you. Be wise about when to say “no.”)

Finally, Catan allows you to buy development cards. They’re basically risky unknowns. You trade resources for a chance at either a point or some other advantage in the game. Some are worth more than others. Anyone who’s played the game knows you should get some of those cards, but not spend everything on the unknown. Innovate, but be wise.

In summary: Use the buildings you have, gather resources, and build out from there. Only upgrade if you’re on a good spot, and only spread out once you’ve paid your dues. That’s my Catan-inspired advice.

This may seem cute or distracting, but you need to think of your business as you would a board game, rather than as an extension of you. You are not your business. As I’ve tried to detach myself emotionally from that idea, I’ve been able to stay more focused and less depressed. I just have to keep rolling the dice, staying focused on the long term. and I’ll win this game.

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