At some point, every British schoolkid hears the story of Robert Falcon Scott and his doomed Antarctic expedition. For those who don’t know the tale: in 1910 Scott, a Royal Navy officer, set sail from London with his crew, hoping to become the first people to reach the South pole and plant the Union flag there. At the same time, an experienced Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen left Oslo with the same goal in mind, and a race to the pole ensued.
Scott and his men battled the elements, failing equipment and dwindling supplies. Eventually they were forced to drag their sledges on foot, trekking mile after mile across the ice to reach their goal. After several weeks they finally made it, only to be greeted by the sight of the Norwegian flag. Dispirited, and suffering from the early symptoms of frostbite and scurvy, they began the long walk back. Tragically, none of them would make it, as one by one they succumbed to the cold.
I remember hearing this story presented as a struggle against the odds, a romantic failure for people driven to take on an impossible feat. But this British version of events conveniently sidesteps Amundsen’s story: the team who reached the pole first and made it home safely.
At the time, the British Navy was the largest and most well-funded in the world. Scott had massive resources behind his mission, access to the latest technology and an extensive support team. By contrast, Amundsen’s operation was much smaller, costing about one-tenth as much money to assemble. So why did the former fail while the latter succeeded? The answer can teach us a lot about the potential pitfalls of running a business.
The size and scope of Scott’s mission played a part in its eventual downfall. Just as any modern business must act to satisfy its investors, so too was Scott beholden to the wealthy men in London who bankrolled the expedition. As a result, more and more distracting demands were placed upon him.
The naval leadership wanted to advance British science and engineering – among other things, the mission would involve detailed measurement of Antarctic weather patterns on behalf of the Royal Geographic Society, retrieving an emperor penguin egg for the Natural History Museum, and trialling a new and innovative motorized sled. Meanwhile, the Norwegian expedition had one goal, and one goal only: be the first to reach the pole.
In modern terms, the British expedition was like a high-profile recipient of VC funding, or expensive backing from a major corporation. The Norwegians, by comparison, were a small, lean start-up. Both teams had plenty of experience, bravery and skill. Only one could train those strengths on their target.
Scott’s motorized sleds were the latest thing – a technology that could move faster across the ice, that would one day evolve into the modern snowmobile. But they were untested, and unsuitable for the unique challenges of reaching the pole. One of the heavy sleds broke through the ice and sank as soon as it was unloaded. The others broke down constantly and consumed more fuel than they could carry. Eventually the expedition would have to drag their packs on foot.
Amundsen, by contrast, brought a hundred-strong team of dogs to pull their sleds, just like his Norwegian countrymen had been using to travel through the Arctic circle for hundreds of years.
There’s an important lesson here for small businesses; it’s possible to out-manoeuvre larger competitors by avoiding distractions and staying focused on the goal. When we talk about innovation, we can end up zeroing in on flashy new technology that could do the job better, rather than finding the most efficient way to work with the tools we already have at our disposal. We can get so caught up in the fundraising treadmill that we lose sight of what we can achieve with simple resources.
Of course, plentiful capital and the best R&D will often hold the advantage. But it pays to be aware of when a quick sprint to the finish line is achievable, and might catch your competitors off-guard.