What Missionaries and Cannibals Can Teach You About Running A Business That Nobody Ever Told You

In 2004 Christoph van Nimwegen a cognitive psychologist at Utrecht University began a series of simple but highly revealing experiments to discover what kind of behavior leads to expertise.This experiment is highly relevant to your journey as an entrepreneur, freelancer, or even just a human being. The experiment had two groups of people play a computer game based on the classic logic puzzle called Missionaries and Cannibals.

The Missionaries and Cannibals Puzzle

There are five missionaries and five cannibals on the west bank of a river. There is a boat on the west bank that can hold no more than two people. The missionaries wish to cross to the east bank. But they have a problem: If on either bank the cannibals ever outnumber the missionaries, the outnumbered missionaries will be eaten.


Question: Is there a way for the missionaries to get their wish–to get to the east bank without losing anyone?

You can try the game for yourself if you google for it. It’s not very difficult but requires some try and error in the beginning.

To “win” this game you need to figure out the series of boat trips (sequence) that will allow you to win.

This requires some sort of planning and strategy.

Would you want a computer to help you? Think carefully!

One group worked out the software that provided step-by-step guidance, offering for example which steps are allowed and which not.

The other group got no help at all and had to “figure it out”.

As you can expect, the people using the software were much faster! 

So if you choose to get help from the computer! Wise choice!

But wait. The experiment did not only last a single round.

It was about building expertise.

After playing multiple rounds of the game the people who “figured it out” were much faster, made fewer mistakes than the group with the computer help.

Wait! This changed after a while

What to do before using new software

Think about this when you are looking for an app or new software that will help you and even before you ask somebody for help.

Are you able to figure this out yourself?

Even this might require a little bit more time in the beginning?

Ray Dailio takes about this in his books Principles.

As a successful entrepreneur you need to take second and third order effects into account.

Using Ray Dalio’s Principles: What’s the 3rd order effect of this experiment?

I think you got the point but there was even more revealing about this experiment for your entrepreneurial journey.

Eight month later the same participants were asked to do the experiment again.

The people who had to figure it out, were about twice as fast as their counter parts. 

Twice As Fast 8 Month Later

Using software programs in your company

Be careful about the software you choose to use in your company for recurring tasks.

Always start with simple tools like Word and Excel and your emai client before you start using software to streamline the task!

Get a real good understanding of what it is that you are actually trying to accomplish.

You would not believe how many successful companies there are that basically just relay on excel (or Google Sheets) and email and the program of their choice.

After studying some of the most successful online companies and “gurus” who are clearly successful that was quite revealing to me.

On the other hand. Especially if you are a solopreneur and working alone. There is no point in being good at everything.

For example, I suck at design and don’t have the means yet to hire someone with great graphical knowledge so I still keep the software that I bought on appsumo for this.

But if I’ve wanted to get good at Facebook advertising and develop skill then I better start with using their platform instead of using a service like Adespresso.

(Side Note: As I am writing this I just returned some of the software I bought recently. 🙂

The Bigger Picture: What can we learn from this on a greater scale for building a business?

This is the most important part of this article. Especially if you are just starting out. Don’t look for the easy way to make money online. There is already plenty of competition.

Take your time to figure things out

This is not only much more rewarding for yourself as you are building true competence. It’s also good business advise.

This is even more important if you look at what niche you want to be in

This gets even more important if you look at what niche you want to be in because the 80/20 principle is everywhere and rewards are disproportionate.

This is especially true if you want to build some kind of expert business because doing the same things that everybody else does will get you nowhere!

The best spots are already taken.

To illustrate this point, I created an fictional example.

Let’s imagine a small niche with 100 bloggers making a turnover of 5 Million USD/year

That would mean the best blogger would have an income of about $713,000/year and the least popular blog would make about $13,000/year.

8020 principle

However, we look at the reality in the internet it’s more like a 95/5 distribution, which looks like this:


The best blogger would make almost 1 million $/year.

Of course, this is just a fictional example but I hope you get the point. When you start a business don’t do what everybody else does.

You want to be #1 in your niche.

This requires figuring it out and most of the time “creating your niche”.

Of course, you can and should use best practices of how you should run a business.

You Don’t Want To Be #85

When it comes to creating your product or service you don’t want to be #85 because in this day and age the winner takes it all.

But Martin, “What if I’m just starting out?

Don't start an online business

Really. This is hard. Too hard for most people, when you are just starting out.

There are too many things to learn and handle at once.

Start out by building a core skill first and get paid for it

An example from real life

One of the smartest moves I’ve experienced was from someone in a Facebook group I’ve been part of.

Both of us have been an early user of Kartra, an awesome-all-in-one solution that I use to run my online business.

They launched a few weeks ago.

Before that launch she was trying to build a business in the “mompreneur-space”. A very crowded niche already.

Instead she decided to become best at this new platform for internet marketers.

She offered to help everybody in the group for free building landingpages and email sequences, and connecting it to the WebinarJam webinar platform.

She focused on building her expertise because she knew when the platform would finally launch, there would be huge demand for people wanting help implementing there email autoresponders and products without messing with the technical aspects of this.

When Kartra finally launched attracting 1000’s of customers she was the most known expert in the Facebook group giving her instant credibility.

Afterwards she could charge 4-figure retainers for helping other people moving their business to the new platform and integrating it into WebinarJam.

She took the time building expertise in an area that’s in high demand and changed from being a “guru” into an agency model.

There was basically ZERO completion when she made that move.

It does not matter what everybody else does.

You have to spot your own niche and opportunity and then figure it out.

Aim to be #1 and get good at what you do.

Especially if it’s a high leverage area of your life or business!

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