Newton on Business

Newton's Laws of Motion are great business advice.

Sir Issac did a lot in his lifetime. There was his work with optics, gravity, inventing calculus, and the whole Newtonian physics thing.

I’m a businessperson, teacher, consultant, and writer. I’m not a physicist but buried in Newton’s laws of motion is some great business advice.

Newton’s three laws of motion create the foundation for anybody who wants to get into or thrive in business, to build a blue ocean. He all but created a roadmap centuries before anybody else was systematically working through these ideas.


Law #1. Objects at rest stay at rest. Objects in motion stay in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an external force.

Law #2. The acceleration of an object is directly related to the net force and inversely related to its mass.

Law #3. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Let’s dig deeper.

Law #1. Objects at rest stay at rest. Objects in motion stay in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an external force.

This rule gives us two great insights.

Objects at rest.

The first seems intuitive but is all too often ignored. It’s arguably the #1 cause of premature business death: your business won’t start itself.

Your new idea, in business or anything else, is an object at rest and unless you put energy into it then it’s going to stay at rest. The only person who will make your brilliant idea move along is you.

There is no one size fits all roadmap, there is no guarantee, no magic formula. This isn’t a job where you’re guaranteed a paycheck or anything else besides the satisfaction of knowing that, whether things work out well or not, that you’ve done your best.

Contrary to what most people say there is a participation trophy in business: experience. Whether you lose a fortune or make a mint knowing you went for it, that you didn’t remain an object at rest, is an enormous reward.

Objects in motion.

I’m often asked how some big businesses stay solvent. Their management skills are underwhelming, their product mix stale, and, on execution, they “walk like flies in the ointment” as my grandma used to say. They’re big, slow, and honestly kinda’ stupid.

There’s even a management consulting term to justify setting up an organization like this, to not do much anything at all … heavily matrixed. Management consultants made it up and those same consultants are, in hindsight, rethinking whether it’s a good idea.

A brief definition of how it’s supposed to work: heavily matrixed organizations require people to work for more than one manager, bouncing between projects. This is actually a good idea if put into use well, which it seldom is.

In real life, heavily matrixed organizations mean there are countless managers involved in a project, too many to make a decision, which is the point. This slows down the ability of anybody to actually get anything done besides minor product line extensions. Especially because some of those matrixed managers see stopping a project as an achievement.

I’ve heard senior people, backed by human resources officials, say “results don’t matter” and actually mean it.

So … why would a business purposefully put in place an organization to slow things down? Because the business is an object in motion and comfortable with their speed and direction. They want things to continue exactly as is and set up a management plan to make it so.

Which brings us to the second part of the rule: “unless acted on by an external force.” This the core of the late Prof. Clayton Christensen’s disruption theory, the heart of The Innovator’s Dilemma. If you don’t disrupt your own business, somebody else eventually will. Of course, “eventually” can be a really long time.

Law #2. The acceleration of an object is directly related to the net force and inversely related to its mass.

I have seven years of post-secondary education, an undergraduate and JD degree, and I work at one of the best business schools in the world. I’m surrounded by teachers, many of them the very best. But one of the very best I remember is my high-school government teacher, Constance K. Holland (she always used the K).

Mrs. Holland marched with Martin Luther King and believed she could make a real difference in the lives of her students. She cared. And she had one signature line, “You won’t learn by osmosis.” That is, you have to do the work.

You have to do the work.

When I consult, I mainly work with people who want to start something new. Some are inside other businesses and others are startups but they all are looking for new opportunities, for blue oceans.

Now, blue ocean opportunities aren’t necessarily big businesses but they do have potential. And anybody working on a new product or service is, by definition, starting at or near zero (in the case of existing big businesses they may even have some headwinds thanks to blockers).

If you have no momentum and you are starting something potentially big you need a lot more net force than you need for something already going.

You have to put in more work and, oftentimes, more capital too.

That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doomed without investors; some of the very best businesses are bootstrapped. But it does mean that if you bootstrap a business you won’t be able to take out much even if the business does great; you’ll have to reinvest in it for some time.

Similarly, if you have an ongoing business and simply want to give it a nudge, less effort is required.

I teach and advise many people and, to get a feel for what people are saying, I read lots. This morning, before writing, this I saw yet another person with a “great startup” pleading they don’t have enough time to do something or other. Stop. If you don’t have enough time, you are not going to get your business moving. It won’t happen by osmosis.

If you want to make something big and meaningful you’re going to have to give a big push. Since you’re starting from zero, be prepared and accept the mountain you’re about to climb. Embrace it.

Ever wondered why insanely rich people keep working? Because that pushing is addictive. It brings Bezos into the office and has Musk sleeping there. It’s why Warren Buffet hasn’t retired long ago. Why Bill Gates is constantly working. They’re gym junkies except that their gym is an office building. You need to adopt the same work ethic if you plan to get something going.

Law #3. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Your competitors aren’t nice.

You may create a product or service to make them irrelevant but the moment they see what you’ve done they won’t be irrelevant much longer.

That doesn’t mean they’ll be mean to you; on the contrary, they may act extremely nice to you. In fact, one of the very worst pieces of business advice I’ve ever seen — that I will write a whole post on because it’s so bad — is “always be kind and supportive.” Your friends will tell you when you have a problem; your enemies will be kind and supportive and guide you right off a cliff.

Do not expect competitors to sit still. Do not believe investors have your best interests at heart. Don’t think that potential strategic partners aren’t just trying to feel you out and steal your work. That doesn’t mean avoid them; you can’t and even if you could, you shouldn’t. But it does mean be careful. See everything they do as an equal and opposite reaction. Few will sit idly by as you make their offering irrelevant.

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Be ready for it because if you do the work and create something meaningful and important and profitable they will come for it.