Startup Moments in Cinema: The Last Samurai
The Last Samurai is one of my favorite movies of all time. I love the story, lore and history of Japan. The culture is calming to me, centers me in a way I can’t easily explain. Its so alien to me yet welcomes me. In the Last Samurai we have the classic tale of the fallen war hero dragged back into what he does best.. killing. Along the way he deals with his demons and addictions and of course finds a kindred spirit in the very opposition he is set out to overcome. As the story progresses he finds common ground, a calming newness that welcomes his restless soul and renews him.
Its not to say that building a startup or leading an entrepreneurial lifestyle is exactly like this, though I do think this sense of journey in finding yourself is exactly what hustle is all about.
THEY ARE NOT READY SCENE
The Japanese government insist Nathan “ship” his product, his make shift army he knows isn’t ready. In a classic product manager kind of way, he makes a compelling case as to why the product isn’t ready yet. Everyone in software knows when the product isn’t ready to ship. We’re all pushed to meet more and more unrealistic timelines and ship dates that don’t account for the variable nuance of product development and the human factor. This scene to me is timeless gold. Nathan risks his own life to prove the certainty he possesses. Its a compelling scene I can identify with instantly.
THE FOG OF BATTLE SCENE
Eventually Nathan and his troops get to their moment, destiny arrives. In classic fashion, he gets owned by the samurai much like a startup gets owned by its first encounter with customers. Another classic scene where as the product manager, he does the best he can do taking the full brunt of the attack of the superior force. As product people we can never truly prepare for the onslaught of first time customer experiences. Sure we can test, prep and so on and mitigate our wounds in those first few encounters but Nathan didn’t get do any of that, he went in blind and his troops.. his product.. it died miserably.
I can recall numerous product launches. Ones a client pushed us for, me reliving my Nathan moments. Nervous before the onslaught of would be true experience about to rain down upon me and my crew as we attempted to defend ourselves. Slaughtered is right, you just get destroyed. Its in these moments that entrepreneurs are tested and either become better entrepreneurs or outright fail and go back to their corporate cubical.
Of course a seasoned product manager like Nathan isn’t going to go down without a fight. Hell, he is the product, and he fights no matter the cost. This is the leadership principal that basically instills in me over time. I have had everything go wrong so many times in my career in building prototypes and building startups that I’m managed to tee up a kind of resilient aura of defiance when these situations occur. They actually make me stronger. I get a thousand times more creative as I’m pressured into a corner forcing me to invite a new reality in a microsecond to navigate to the next moment. When you go thru this, its a huge feeling of win. Sure you got your ass kicked but you are still alive.
Nathan is captured and while in isolation begins to detox from his alcohol addiction. Its painful and its a reminder to me the dark times I’ve experienced in doing this whole business thing. Starting up is a lesson in pressure, how much can you take? The drive to stay alive no matter the cost becomes paramount. You battle every day and win some lose some and you start to use tricks and vices to cope with the pressure. I know this feeling. I’ve asked for the sake myself, wanting something to numb me as I go from moment to moment, deadline to deadline. We’re human, its expected.
Much of Last Samurai deals with the rejection of self, the wanting to end, the need to be hurt, to be put down. I think anyone in software development especially a biz owner can relate. Its not like we couldn’t not do this. I can’t explain it, but once you start something, you’re in, you’re addicted. Sure we forge futures unknown but we are always exposed to the flame of stress and building and we welcome any one state of assured certainty of which we rarely get.
NO MIND SCENE
Nathan like any good product manager attempts to understand his new found surroundings. As a result his old way of thinking just isn’t working. One of his new found friends reminds him he’s thinking too much and he must focus on having no mind. Another powerful like minded tale for the world of startups and technology. To me this akin to you can’t anticipate everything in technology and product experience. Everyone tries to over engineer concepts accounting for every aspect of the product to perform in a way that it constantly reinforces the brand, the promise and attempts to overcompensate the negatives. We should all be of no mind when we make things. Build your promise, your big idea but remember every product is participatory, it never exists in a vacuum.
This scene also symbolizes a problem every biz owner faces, too many minds, product, sales, operations, hr, accounting, delivery, experience, brand, we basically fry ourselves thinking of every thing, too many mind, we need more no mind.. its a zen principle.
About to go into battle Nathan is given the armor of the very man he was forced to kill to survive. He has a new renowned sense of conviction yet humbled by it at the same time. He belongs. Something he hasn’t felt in a long time. His enemy is now his friend, his family. This completes the renewal arc. From ashes of despair to rebirth anew in the arms of your supposed enemy. It carries a lot of mixed feelings for me. Powerful in the sense he bears the armor of the man he killed at the start, yet he’s in the home and the embrace of the woman that man was connected with. Its a scene that reminds me of the nature of chaos. You can’t know, until ya know and when ya know then you’ll know. He couldn’t of predicted this outcome. Often in business we’re fine tuned to predict what we think will happen. We grow a super skill that has a knack for protecting us yet at the same time it can disarm us into the variability that is life. Random chance is all too crazy from the typical business mindset, yet is often the very ground from which opportunity is gleamed from.