Technology Startups As Military Special Forces

Anyone who works in a remotely corporate environment has no doubt heard a bunch of (often ridiculous) military metaphors describing business-as-usual. We’re divided into “squads” and talk about “strategic thinking” and “tactical mistakes”. We develop “mission statements” (more about that later) and managers demand that we “go in for the kill”, all the while referring to their top executives as their “Generals” and modeling the hierarchy of their companies around the command structures seen in the military. While a lot of this is just the strange glorification of business (and war), it turns out that some of it makes a lot of sense (on a very metaphorical level), and might just be evolving right along with military tactics. John Robb has done some amazing work analyzing the application of open source concepts to warfare, I’m going to do something like the opposite and look at applying special forces operating concepts to technology startups.

I recently finished reading Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice, by (Vice Admiral) William H. McRaven, who credited as organizing and executing the mission that brought down Osama bin Laden. He is now the Commander of US Special Operations Command, so he’s somewhat of an authority on the subject. While reading the book (which is a really interesting read in its own right, I highly recommend it), I couldn’t help but notice a lot of corollaries between what I was reading and the structure and function of tech startups (and perhaps smaller units within larger technology companies). Let’s look at how Special Operations Warfare compares to working at a startup.

Before I get started, I want to say right up front that I have the utmost respect for the folks who work in special operations (of all types). Obviously drawing comparisons between them and a bunch of 20/30-something geeks who sit in front of computers all day and night is a little asinine, but bear with me. I think there are some interesting things to be learned from how they operate, and some useful mental models to be used from how they have refined their operations over time.

Right from the first page, I found myself highlighting sections that could just as easily come from a “How To Crush It In A Silicon Valley Startup” book with a few wording changes. Here are a few choice quotes:

A successful special operation defies conventional wisdom by using a small force to defeat a much larger or well-entrenched opponent.

An inherent weakness in special forces is their lack of firepower relative to a large conventional force. Consequently when they lose relative superiority, they lose the initiative, and the stronger form of warfare generally prevails.

All special operations are conducted against fortified positions.

There are three elements of simplicity critical to success: limiting the number of objectives, good intelligence, and innovation.

Once relative superiority is achieved, it must be sustained in order to guarantee victory.

The book gives a really fascinating breakdown of eight different special operations throughout history, and distills their lessons down to 6 Principles of Special Operations. If you’re not as interested in the military history side of things then you can just read the first (“The Theory of Special Operations”) and last (“Conclusion”) chapters and get the most applicable parts in condensed form. Here are McRaven’s Principles:

  1. Simplicity
  2. Security
  3. Repetition
  4. Surprise
  5. Speed
  6. Purpose

Let’s look at each of those in order, and see how they do (and don’t) apply to technology startups.

Principles of Special Operations

1. Simplicity

Limiting the objectives to only what is essential focuses the training, limits the number of personnel required, reduces the time on target, and decreases the number of “moving parts.”

McRaven refers to Simplicity as “the most crucial, and yet sometimes the most difficult, principle with which to comply.” He’s not kidding. Far too many startups fail because they can’t maintain their focus. They get started solving one small, important problem, and end up trying to solve everything around it. In special forces operations, he further defines 3 critical aspects of simplicity: limiting the number of objectives, good intelligence, and innovation.

For startups, those 3 factors of simplicity sound like suitable fore-runners for success. Startups must limit the number of things they try to accomplish, because resources are always limited and focus is required to allocate them effectively. By keeping things simple and targeted  they can ensure that they do one thing really well, rather than a number of things poorly.

Good intelligence could be seen simply as doing a bit of market research. “We’re going to create this amazing web app that allows you to post 140-character messages to the web, and people can choose to follow your messages!” “Oh, someone did that already”. Given the increasingly open nature of business, I don’t see this as being so much about corporate espionage type intelligence so much as understanding your users, and the market space within which you operate.

How about innovation? Isn’t that the big one? That’s what is generally touted as one of the key things that lets startups exist at all. Coming up with some innovative new way of doing something, or an entirely new and innovative product/service is the reason most startups exist in the first place. Without this, you’re just a small, under-resourced version of something that someone else is already doing better. Also in the innovation sphere is making use of other new technologies that might be emerging or upcoming. Startups tend to be more flexible about rolling new technologies into their products and pivoting faster to fully integrate new approaches and ideas.

2. Security

The purpose of tight security is to prevent the enemy from gaining an advantage through foreknowledge of the impending attack.

Interestingly, tech startups seem to have largely forgone this principle in recent years in favor of a more open and collaborative approach with their users. Perhaps this is a side-effect of the nature of their business, which is obviously vastly different to that of special forces. Some level of security is still normally maintained within startups while they are working towards new features, or an acquisition or some other major business milestone, but during normal operations they seem to rely more on their speed and ability to quickly iterate to keep them ahead of their opposition.

In the last decade it has become a joke for a startup to be “in stealth”, meaning that they’re working on something but it’s not public knowledge yet. While this is still perhaps the case in the lead-up to a minimum viable product (MVP), that lead time tends to be so short now as to be almost non-existent for many startups. With that timeline reduced to almost zero, the need for security is minimized because the time during which a leak could be damaging is almost eliminated.

3. Repetition

Since most special operations are thought of as discrete, one-off units of work, there is the possibility to prepare for them using very specific, repetitive training. While this doesn’t directly apply to most start ups on a macro level, it most certainly does on a micro level. On an individual basis, if you have access to employees or founders who have executed on the specific skill sets you need in your start up, then your chances for success increase dramatically. Finding well-trained, experienced operators means that your people already have that repetitive training, and they don’t need to get it “on mission”, while you are trying to achieve your specific goals.

Drilling down further, you will recognize that some of the things you need to do, at a technology level, have been done before. Linux exists, as does Apache/nginx. No need to write an operating system and then a web server  There are code libraries to do things like make HTTP requests, handle MVC architectures and provide iterators over collections of data objects while persisting them to permanent storage such as a database. All in the cloud. You don’t need to re-invent all of those things. The nature of repetition means that other folks have solved these problems, and usually that means they’ve also shared their solutions. Capitalizing on these solutions to repetitive problems means gaining the economies of scale that go along with those solutions and all of the iterations they’ve already been through. They are force multipliers that mean your small team doesn’t waste its time working on something that’s already been solved, and isn’t core to your mission anyway.

4. Surprise

Similar to Security, most tech startups don’t rely as heavily on Surprise as they do on the other Principles, but it can still be seen to play a part. McRaven says that “in a special operation surprise is gained through deception, timing, and taking advantage of the enemy’s vulnerabilities.” While deception probably doesn’t play as much of a part, timing and vulnerabilities definitely do. Timing for a startup can be a huge advantage when it refers to their ability to work day and night plus weekends, skip holidays and work through periods when more traditional companies are tied to their workforce’s expectations of time off and a regular, 9-5 work week. Adding to those vulnerabilities, most larger companies are held to their existing lines of business and often have high fixed costs (salaries, office space, marketing budgets) which they must continue to cover while they attempt to keep up with startups who operate on a ramen-budget out of a local cafe by day and a living room by night. Until they hit some critical mass, a startup is likely to fly “under the radar” of any competitive analysis or market research that more entrenched organizations might even be doing, thus appearing to hit them “by surprise”.

5. Speed

This is one Principle where tech startups and special forces really align cleanly. Because of the size of most teams on startups, and because they tend to have a lot less technological debt and bureaucratic red-tape, they are able to iterate and pivot a lot faster than is usually the case in traditional companies. This speed means that when they spot an opportunity, or recognize a flaw in their approach, they are more easily able to change direction and deal with a new strategy. By contrast, bigger companies, or those which have been around longer and have accumulated more technical debt, tend to lumber and struggle to course-correct under their own weight.

McRaven commonly refers to both relative superiority (“a condition that exists when an attacking force, generally smaller, gains a decisive advantage over a larger or well-defended enemy”) and area of vulnerability (“a function of mission completion over time. The longer it takes to gain relative superiority, the larger area of vulnerability, and hence the greater the frictions of war”). Maximizing speed allows startups to gain relative superiority as quickly as possible (and re-gain it repeatedly as time passes), and to minimize their area of vulnerability once identified.

6. Purpose

In a well-run startup, a sense of purpose and drive is clear amongst all employees. People are willing to work late/nights, spend all of their time with their colleagues, and their work becomes their passion. All employees are working towards a clearly articulated/understood goal, and all decisions are made with regards to that mission. As McRaven states:

Purpose is understanding and then executing the prime objective of the mission regardless of emerging obstacles or opportunities.

All too often though, startups fall prey to not having a clearly defined goal or mission, and end up thrashing around, not knowing what success is, and thus by definition ending in failure. Ironically, McRaven makes reference to something that most corporate workers would be familiar with, the classic “mission statement”. Apparently this is another concept that the business world has hijacked from military history, although the business version tends to be watered down and ambiguous. In special operations:

This mission statement should be crafted to ensure that in the heat of battle, no matter what else happens, the individual soldier understands the primary objective.

A startup should strive to provide such clarity to its employees, ideally on both a macro (company) and micro (project-specific) level.

In addition to clearly understood goals, employees/founders in a startup often have something that corporate workers don’t necessarily have: equity and a sense of ownership. Even if they don’t truly have equity, early employees are likely to have a much higher sense of ownership and feeling of family and camaraderie than their corporate equivalents due to the smaller, more intimate arrangement of a startup. This creates much more buy-in and desire to succeed than when someone is employed at the bottom of a seemingly endless corporate ladder. The sense of purpose created in this environment can help to guide employees through times of doubt towards their shared goal.

Relative Superiority Graph

In analyzing special forces operations, McRaven devised what he refers to as the Relative Superiority Graph. This visual tool creates a graphical representation of a special operation, showing key points such as the point of vulnerability (“the point in a mission when the attacking force reaches the enemy’s first line of defenses”), the area of vulnerability and when relative superiority is achieved. This tool helps make sense of an operation and what went right (and wrong) along the road to mission completion or failure.

Relative Superiority Graph

Relative Superiority Graph

In addition to just providing the visual tool, McRaven discusses ways to use the graph to understand risk mitigation and how different planning decisions influence mission success. He looks at how a mission planner may reduce their area of vulnerability to increase the probability of mission success, discussing strategies such as:

  • Entering the engagement with relative superiority (and sustaining it),
  • Moving the point at which the attacking force becomes vulnerable, and
  • Limiting what constitutes mission completion.

While not all of these may be applicable for startups, merely attempting to use this tool can provide a new level of understanding for a startup. Using the graph to explore options and trade offs can provide insight into how decisions are likely to affect mission success/business success.

Application of the Principles

Now that we have a framework within which to place tech startups, what can we learn from it? Other than just looking at startups in a novel light, there are a few key principles here which seem to apply very powerfully to startups, and which can be leveraged to increase their likelihood of success. Since running a startup is a longer term proposition (hopefully!) than a once-off special operation, there are some differences to be taken into consideration, but some of the principles still apply very powerfully.

  1. Simplicity — This is a key concept for startups. Limit the objectives. Minimize the manpower required. Innovate. If a startup can truly do all of these things while providing value to their users, then they’re in a very good position to succeed. McRaven includes innovative use of technologies in this principle, which is potentially a big disruptor for startups. Since they don’t have a technical debt or entrenched ways of doing things, they are able to grab new technologies (or develop them from the ground up) and apply them towards solving problems a lot faster than a larger organization might.
  2. Speed — Speed is possibly the startup’s biggest advantage over the larger, traditional corporations they compete with. It is crucial that speed be maintained (and exploited) for a startup to compete. Anything that can be done to increase speed, or to allow employees to operate more fluidly should be considered. Since in a startup we are not normally talking about life or death situations, remember that perfect is the enemy of good, and getting something done quickly, which is “good enough” is often just that — good enough.
  3. Purpose — Aligning purpose and creating buy-in and ownership ensure that all members of the team are making decisions with a shared goal in mind. It provides a measuring stick against which to judge all opportunities and decisions, and gives employees something to point to when justifying why things are being done (or not done) on a daily basis. This level of clarity ensures that everyone is on the same page, and that decisions can be made swiftly and with conviction.

While the Relative Superiority Graph might not be valuable on a daily basis, in its full visual form the concept provides value through its representation of what is going on with a startup in relation to its business environment and some idea of success (mission completion). When those involved can visualize (and perhaps even diagram) their state over time, including their area of vulnerability, it can help them to re-focus their attention on important matters and reduce that area of vulnerability. Since there is likely no full idea of “mission completion”, they are driving towards a moving target, but they can still use the concept of the graph to understand how decisions they make are trade offs between relative superiority and success over time.

While larger organizations are probably closer cousins to full-scale military operations from a logistics perspective, we now see a lot of those companies attempting to recapture the “special forces edge” by splitting off smaller teams of employees who operate independently. This strategy may well prove effective, provided those smaller teams are given enough autonomy and support to operate as a true “special force”. In that case, all of the above concepts will apply, but with the addition of a full-scale backup force (the entire organization) which can come in to provide support for a more traditional “holding pattern” or long-term “war”. If they are tied to the traditional hierarchy then they are likely to fail on some, if not all of the Principles.

I would be interested to hear what other folks think of this application of special forces theory to technology startups. Complete waste of time? Interesting but useless metaphor? Powerful framework for management? Let’s discuss.

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