If you live and breathe entrepreneurship, chances are you've read some of the better books out there on the subject. There are memoirs such as Sam Walton's Made in America and Richard Branson's Losing My Virginity, along with how-to books, such as Guy Kawasaki's Art of the Start, Eric Ries's The Lean Startup, and the many, many works by Michael E. Berger.
Still, for my money, the best book ever written about entrepreneurship isn't even about business. It's not instructional. It includes no steps to follow or goals to strive for.
That said, it's not a work of fiction, either.
It's The Great Escape, by Paul Brickhill, which is a true-life account of how 76 captured Allied airmen broke out of a German prison camp during World War II.
Wait--what? The Great Escape?
Absolutely. Because entrepreneurship itself doesn't have anything to do with money. Instead, it's a style of leadership and finding ways to build something out of nothing.
As Harvard Business School puts it, entrepreneurship is, "the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled."
Break it down, and that means true entrepreneurship is about three things: Identifying solutions to deeply felt customer problems; acquiring required resources; and executing.
Of course, there's usually a profit motive. And of course, new and emerging ventures are responsible for most net job growth in the United States. But, money is an ancillary benefit (or perhaps more realistically, a factor in determining which entrepreneurial opportunities to pursue).
All of which brings us back to The Great Escape.
The story is simple and true: Allied pilots kept breaking out of German Luftwaffe prison camps, so the Germans transferred hundreds of the most troublesome prisoners to Stalag Luft III, a supposedly escape-proof camp. Undeterred, the prisoners developed an ambitious plan to stage a breakout that would dwarf every previous effort.
Let's look at what the prisoners did from an entrepreneurship perspective:
First, they identified solutions to a deeply felt problem.
Actually, they had two main goals. They wanted to escape and try to make their way home, but they also wanted tie up as much of the German war effort as possible with the task of confining and tracking down prisoners. The solution: Break out more than 200 prisoners all at once, by digging three massive tunnels deep below the camp.
Second, they acquired the resources they needed.
Starting with almost nothing, the prisoners became master scroungers. When the Germans inventoried the camp afterward, they found prisoners had built the giant tunnels, and to produce everything from civilian clothing and fake German uniforms to forged identity papers, maps, and compasses. Among the missing loot they'd used were:
- 4,000 bed boards
- 90 full double bunk beds
- 635 mattresses
- 192 bed covers
- 161 pillow cases
- 52 tables built to accommodate 20 men each
- 10 smaller tables
- 34 chairs and 76 benches
- 1219 knives, 478 spoons, and 582 forks
- 69 lamps, 246 water cans, and 30 shovels
- 1,000 feet of electric wire and 600 feet (180 m) of rope
- 3424 towels, 1,700 blankets, and my personal favorite: 1,400 empty tins of powdered milk.
Of course the Germans had inadvertently given the Allied prisoners one of the most important required resources--talented people--by confining all of the most experienced Allied escape artists together.
Finally, they had to execute.
The prisoners demonstrated nothing if not focus. The overall effort took the toil of 600 men, working every day and night for more than a year. They managed to stage a massive, secret construction project right under the Germans' noses. Even the story of how they managed to hide thousands of pounds of excavated ground is a tale of ingenuity and drive.
In the end, while the plan called for 200 men to break out, only 76 escaped through one of the tunnels on March 24, 1944 before the German guards saw what was happening.
There is a tragic ending: Only three made it all the way to friendly territory, and of the remainder who were captured, the Nazis murdered 50 as a reprisal and a warning against other escape attempts. Among those killed was the true leader of the scheme, a South African-born pilot named Roger Bushell.
However, the survivors (and the hundreds in the camp who had helped prepare the attempt) later said that forcing the Germans to dedicate thousands of men and tons of material to tracking them down buoyed their spirits during the rest of their confinement.
Come on: Is it really about entrepreneurship?
I understand that it's a bit different to think of a book about a World War II prison break as a guide to entrepreneurship.
Of course, many of the survivors of Stalag Luft III went on to demonstrate success and leadership in many fields, including some who showed impressive entrepreneurial skills. The list includes people who went on to become popular writers, actors, and college professors, high-ranking military and government officials, the CEO of an airline and the head of a frozen food company, and one of the first TV weathermen.
The real point of the story for entrepreneurs, however, is the spirit and the inspiration.
I know it works for me: If I catch myself thinking that an opportunity is too difficult to achieve, or that there's no way I could come up with the required resources, I think of this story. A group of men organized this massive enterprise, starting with nothing, right under the noses of the Nazi war machine.
In light of that, what really holds any of us back from believing or achieving?