This week’s essay is inspired by my reading the book Engineers of Victory by Paul Kennedy. I am very well read in military history from the Civil War through Vietnam, which you regular followers will know I find more instructive on management and leadership principles than most business books on those topics. Kennedy’s book has no surprises, but it looks at the progress of World War II through the lens of the successive trials, engineering advances, and organizational achievements that contributed to the Allied victory. The war was ultimately won by the bravery and sacrifice of millions of soldiers, but, in absorbing this particular book I am in renewed awe of how much was accomplished in approximately six years. That is a long time in terms of human suffering, but the word “scale” hardly does justice to its vast scope in what history will record as a relatively short time.
I often suggest that startup founders should think big, on the theory that’s it’s just as easy to tackle a large problem or market as a small one. Deciding to do that conserves your precious time for its highest and best use. The Allied forces in WW II didn’t get to make a decision of when or how big; the aggressor forced them to respond. But, in the modern startup world you do have the tools to move swiftly toward a goal of consequence if you so choose.
First of all, realize that as a tech entrepreneur you are always the beneficiary of history. Every venture in which I’ve been involved as a founder, investor, advisor, board member, or just a bystander, whether it worked as planned or not, created technology advances that had some influence over what came next. More important, all of them created careers for talented people to have a chance to catch successive waves of innovation. Georgia Tech formally brands itself as “Creating the Next” – ideas, technology, and leaders, and that positioning is duly earned. By engaging in startups, you are part of the march of history and not just an isolated incident on the road to progress. Give yourself proper credit.
But, you must decide to get after your business idea with military-like aggression. Dallying around for a decade and never quite reaching an exit not only ruins the math of investor ROI, it allows progress to pass you by. The barriers to entry in most tech startups are relatively low. Even in life sciences, where the dollars at risk are often massive, the latest cure for a disease is unlikely to be the only one. The longer you linger, the more complicated your space will become and the harder it will be for you to stand out as a clear winner.
The timing for Operation Overlord was set at the Tehran Conference at the end of November, 1943, which was the first such meeting including Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin. As you well know, D-Day was accomplished only about 6 months after that. What were some of the pre-conditions that made the Normandy landings achievable? I’ll just mention a few, in case you plan to read the book. First, the Allies learned how to conduct amphibious attacks on well defended beaches in North Africa and then especially in the three major invasions of the Italian coast at Salerno, Calabria and Taranto in 1943 prior to the Tehran Conference. These were not practice drills or experiments, but they taught the generals much about what would or would not work against the Wehrmacht defenders. With this compendium of field experience as a guide, the planning for Normandy could proceed on a better trajectory. Second, the Allies needed total air and sea superiority, including eliminating U-boats. This was accomplished. Third, the logistics had to be in place to support the massive movement of men, machines, arms, and ammo across the Channel and into France. The best engineering minds had to be sure that, once set in motion, the invasion could not stall. The second, third, fourth, and later waves of troops and materiel were going to arrive on a timetable, and the pathfinders absolutely and quickly had to fight their way inland to make room. It was not like sitting in line at a traffic light; the truck behind you was coming through whether you moved or not. Fourth on my list is that the Allies attributed much of their success to a unified command structure. One thing that earlier excursions had proven in spades was that all authority had to flow from one commander responsible for the theater of operation. Dwight Eisenhower met that challenge. The massive number of ships, planes, and troops arriving off Normandy early on June 6 all had to be in position and perfectly coordinated with each other for the whole operation to succeed. There was extreme wisdom in addressing that need by organizing for it. The D-Day landings were, in a word, orchestrated.
The fog of war threw many wrinkles into the execution of WW II strategies from that day forward, but you know the objective was achieved in Europe less than a year later. You can see the analogies to the startup process. You believe the importance of talking with customers, testing, trial and error, and learning by doing. You know that you need to move fast. And, you accept that you have to be the one person in charge and take the applause or the blame as appropriate from one event to the next. Given the incomprehensible magnitude of what Eisenhower accomplished in a couple of years, surely you can decide to get your business on the beachhead in far less time than that. You have competitors with whom you are engaged in business combat, but you’re not being shot at. The pressure is rather different when bullets wing.
Let’s emphasize that notion of unified command one more time. All my essays inevitably touch on people issues in a startup. Startups succeed because they are led to that outcome. They don’t just happen. They are never any better than the top leadership. Management is a textbook subject; leadership is a gift. You get the opportunity to be an entrepreneur when you demonstrate that gift in whatever you do and when you, as a result, develop a cadre of believers in your work. You can attract talent. You can raise money. You can make customers swoon. There’s no guarantee that in the end you’ll produce a winner in the ever risky world of startups, but the odds will be in your favor when you have the ability to recruit and lead a motivated team.
Choose to accompany your leadership with appropriate orchestration. Leaders may not be good managers. They may not be detail oriented. They may have skipped the class on protecting the cap table. If that sounds like you, find someone with those strengths who complements your being out front. This is yet another manner of improving your odds. You owe that service to those who are trusting you.
And, just make sure you can deliver. Decide to take the execution risk out of your company by paying attention or finding someone who pays attention to making your product or service meet user expectations. You win the war when you win each day’s conquest for customers, both in finding new ones and in retaining the current ones.
Kennedy’s concluding chapter emphasizes that no one factor can be said to have on its own determined the outcome of WW II. He attributes the result as much as anything to a culture of innovation that was established by Allied political and military leadership. Great ideas were often happenstance and came from inside and outside the armed services. The bias was to give them fair examination and employ them in any aspect of the conflict where they could prove advantageous. His list of examples is quite long. There’s a lesson for founders in that. Keep listening while you lead; you never know where the next breakthrough will magically appear.
You and I may not bring to a close a world war, but we can decide to be the creators of important history in our chosen fields of technology.