In January 2016, after 8 years in the British Military, I left to enter the crazy world of startups. Over the past 8 months, I have pivoted three times from my original idea. That’s a lot in a short space of time, but it has helped me find product market fit. I can attribute some of this speed to my military background. There is a lot of advice out there from the military that can be used for business and vice versa, but here are some direct lessons I believe the military can teach the pre seed startup:
No soldier is going to follow you to into combat unless he/she knows why they are doing it. When I started my first company, KitShare (an Air BnB for surfboards, skis, etc.), I hadn’t given the concept much thought until an investor asked me why I was doing what I was doing, and I realized “to make money” wasn’t a good reason.
Really drill into this because even if you haven’t got employees, your investors and your customers need to know your ‘Why?’, or the reason behind your company. I thought hard and found that the reason I wanted to start a company was that I believe in the value of personal development that adventurous sports can bring to people. With that, I was able to create a clear mission: ‘to give everyone access to adventure sports’;this, in turn, caused me to pivot to a class cass for surfboards, skis, etc. called Adventure Pass.
I then went even further and pledged that a percentage of my profits would go to sponsoring disadvantaged and disabled kids on outward bound courses. You see a real, honest, ‘Why?’ is much easier to get behind; it helps investors, it helps employees, and it helps customers give you their confidence.
The OODA Loop
In warfare, one of the key tenants of any plan to defeat your enemy is getting inside their OODA loop. OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. An example of OODA in combat would be: 1. You observe a shot being fired. 2. You orient to where you think the shot came from. 3. You decide to fire back 4. You fire back.
Now imagine that as you were orienting, another shot was fired from somewhere different — someone is going through the OODA cycle faster than you and therefore, holds the initiative.
The obvious use for this in business with regard your competition, is that, if you can get inside their OODA loop, you will be dictating where your market is going and always be the first to move. OODA can also help with your customer’s journey: 1. How are they going to observe your product? 2. How easy is it for them to orient to your site/shop? 3. How can you make them decide to buy? 4. How easy can you make the buying process?
If you are in your customer’s OODA loop, you are constantly satisfying them and gaining their loyalty.
Obviously, the way to get ahead in the military and business is good intelligence. On my two tours of Afghanistan, I was focused on getting HUMINT (human intelligence) from local tribesmen. I could not have done this without lots and lots of tea.
In startups, you need people who want to buy your product, but you need to know what they want first. This is best done over a cup of tea, beer, coffee, etc. It is not just a low cost per click on Facebook ads.
I spent two days in an airport in Geneva talking to people who were going skiing about one of my pivots (Geneva Ski Store). I spent two months in hostels around South America talking to travelers about Adventure Pass. Getting to know your customer is both intelligence and intelligent. Until you do, don’t invest in building or buying anything.
So, get out there and drink more!
The similarities to launching a product and launching an operation are quite stark. You need to have gathered as much intelligence as possible (talked to your customers); you need to have warned the right people (investors); you need to have prepared the battleground (PR); and, you need to have decided on what is most crucial to success (conversions, emails, posts). But one thing that I have seen friends with startups fail at is ‘War Gaming’, or, essentially going through as many eventualities as possible and deciding what you will do if this or that happens.
Do it with your business: imagine a scenario where your whole market shifts to a different demographic – are you ready to cater for it? What will you need to do differently? How much will it cost? How does that effect your ROI or your CAC? Will it be worth it?
You won’t regret doing this with your team for an afternoon, as it makes you more nimble than your competitors and builds confidence in your product. You never know; war gaming could lead you to that golden pivot.
Modern warfare is not of the WW2 variety where there is an enemy to your front and you’re advancing toward them. Modern warfare is ‘360 degrees’, and the prize is not taking a hill or defeating a brigade – the prize is the population. You have to win the hearts and minds of the population; they have to think you are better than the enemy. The way you do this is by proving your worth in a small area. . You secure one village, provide them with healthcare, education, safe access to commercial centres etc. If you do it well in one village , news will spread to the next and you create what is called an ‘inkspot’ effect.
In business, Paul Graham of Y Combinator, says you need to prove your idea in the narrowest vertical possible first and grow from there. I prefer the term inkspot because there are things that each village (vertical) wants – identifying what people want is key before you select where to start.
Clausewitz, the Prussian general and military theorist, coined the phrase Schwerpunkt. It refers to the enemy’s centre of gravity or control. Clausewitz postulated that you can defeat any enemy with minimal casualties not by engaging the enemy head on, but simply destroying their Schwerpunkt. Without that control, there is no cohesion and therefore, no resistance.
In business, I like to think of the Schwerpunkt as the customer who should want my product or service, but when I speak to them, is fiercely resistant to it. It’s hard for founders to see issues with their product, but these people see them immediately. So you need to find these people, listen to them, adapt your product to work for them, and, in so doing, shatter any resistance they may have towards purchasing it.