What I learned about negotiation from one game of Settlers of Catan with d.light Co-founder Sam Goldman

An entrepreneur's view on how to negotiate an airtight deal

October 27, 2015

It was a typical rainy Vancouver Friday evening – the kind of night you stay in with a glass of wine and a movie, or in my case a board game. I found myself seated across a table from Sam Goldman, co-founder of Acumen backed company d.light. As a Vancouver+Acumen Chapter leader and keen observer of d.light's growth from a one-product solar lantern company in India to a global solar solutions provider serving millions of customers across the world. Despite his friendly and unassuming nature, Sam is a pioneering social entrepreneur many of us at +Acumen look up to tremendously so I knew there was an incredible amount I could learn from Sam. What I didn't expect to learn was that he's also a cut-throat Settler of Catan and master of negotiation.

This is the story of how I got schooled by Sam Goldman in Settlers of Catan and what I learned about how to negotiate an airtight deal.

My husband and I met Sam shortly after he and his wife moved to Vancouver. We were running the Vancouver+Acumen chapter at the time and were thrilled when Sam agreed to judge our annual social enterprise case competition. In the process, as it often goes with people who are avid ‘settlers’, we learned we were all fans of the board game Settlers of Catan and made a date to play.

For those who haven’t played before, in the game, you take on the role of a new settler, competing to be the first to colonize the island of Catan. The way to become the dominant colony is to build settlements in resource rich areas of the island. Settlers must draw on their negotiation skills to broker trade deals for resources when they find themselves short of one of the five key resources the island yields – lumber, coal, brick, wheat and sheep.

Well into the game, Sam found himself in need of sheep, while I had many. I myself was short on wheat. This is where the negotiations began. Sam offered to trade me resources, other than the much needed wheat (I was saving up to build an even bigger city). I was strong in my position, knowing that he held much of the wheat yielding land and that he’d be my best chance of obtaining wheat. Thinking back on the negotiation training I received in business school, I stood firm and tried to refrain from speaking too much. Finally, Sam conceded - or so I thought. His final offer: “I don’t have any wheat in my hands right now, but I will trade you one sheep for two future wheat.”

I quickly took the deal because I was in need of wheat, and to get two would be even better, so I hastily handed Sam his sheep. On the next roll of the die, the wheat crops were harvested, and I turned to Sam and asked for my wheats.

He calmly explained in his wise, warm tone that the terms of our negotiation were that I would receive a future wheat, and that the exact date in the future had not been set, therefore these particular wheat cards would not be mine. Stunned, I realized my error in failing to negotiate the full terms of the deal including the specific details of our agreement. Sam’s wife joked that playing Settlers of Catan with Sam often requires a yellow legal pad to write down every term of the deal during negotiation

Now, I don’t mean to paint a picture of a ruthless social entrepreneur, on the contrary. Sam is one of the most thoughtful people I’ve met. Upon reflection, I can imagine since founding d.light in 2001, Sam has built his skillset in negotiating, having to find ways to work with governments, community leaders and individuals as he grew the solar product markets in some of the world’s toughest communities; lessons he has now taught me.

When negotiating - Be explicit. Be thorough. And make sure to write everything down.

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