Startup strategy – as taught by the Marines

While in transit to Gambia last month (24+ hours each way), I got the chance to catch up on some reading – including Warfighting, the US Marines’ manual / manifesto for conducting and preparing for conflict (recommended by Keith Rabois, a veteran operator from Paypal & Square). Though not written with startups or personal development in mind, the book ends up being very relevant to both. Startup and war analogies are extremely common (e.g., competitive battles, fighting to survive), but the application of military strategy to startups is, if anything, undervalued.

One of the concepts I found highly applicable was how the Marines deal with uncertainty.  Like operating in an emerging market or disrupting an old one, nearly all decisions in battle must be made with incomplete information.  Teams (and especially their leaders) must be comfortable operating and executing effectively, knowing that their initial understanding of the situation is missing important detail.  The marines try to mitigate this lack of information through four strategies, all of which sound similar to what has become standard startup advice:
– Developing simple, flexible plans that allow for disorder and uncertainty
– Planning for likely contingencies
– Developing standard operating procedures that allow for trust to emerge between commanders and junior officers, without explicit, top-down orders
– Encouraging initiative amongst their subordinates. More specifically – they expect their junior officers to use the informational advantage on the ground to make quick decisions and exploit enemy weaknesses.  This doesn’t mean junior officers aren’t held accountable for their decisions; but the graver sin is unwillingness to take action.

This is only the tip of the iceberg; the book is littered with insightful takes with clear applicability to an early stage business. If you’re looking for a short, good read I’d definitely recommend Warfighting.

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