March 11, 2014

Why a Founder Should Be as Prepared as a Marine Sniper

Gentlemen, let me start by telling you the next ten weeks of your life will be the most miserable stretch of your pitiful existence,” the instructor bellowed as he paced back and forth across the cement. My muscles, exhausted from holding my body in the push-up position for what seemed like hours, screamed at me to give up. Through the tops of my eyes I could barely make out the tan, dusty boots of the other instructors, lined up in front of the hut that contained the schoolhouse. “This is the most difficult training that the Marine Corps offers, and is the finest sniper school in the world. You have worked for years to earn a slot to this course, and over the next two and a half months, we’re going to learn which of you truly prepared for the pain we’re about to level on you.”

Of the thirty-two Marines beginning this class with me, every single one of them was the absolute best their platoon had. They were decorated combat veterans with multiple tours; many of them back for their second attempt to pass. Statistics said that over half of us would not graduate, and at that moment I thought I would be in the wrong half.

The instructor stopped pacing and turned to face us. His voice lowered, almost softened, and said, “We are going to push you to your absolute limits. We are going to test your physical stamina in ways you can’t possibly imagine. We’re going to take away your food, your sleep, and probably your sanity. We will make you calculate wind formulas until your mind spins and do our best to turn you on one another. Everything we do will be a test, and the moment you fail to meet the standard, you’re gone. There is no room for error. There is no quitting. …Men, I can only promise you one thing—that if you have the honor of graduating from this school you will be ready; ready to hunt men on the battlefield.”

The instructor was not lying. Sniper School was the hardest experience of my life. But, through it I became prepared physically, mentally and emotionally for the tough combat situations I found in the barren wastelands of Afghanistan. Throughout that seven month tour I encountered countless seemingly insurmountable challenges—from shortages of water, to fierce firefights, to gut-wrenching decisions of critical importance—but not one of those moments caught me without the appropriate mental, emotional, and physical tools to succeed.

What do the rigors of Sniper School and combat, and the challenges of entrepreneurship, have in common? Success in either requires careful, diligent preparation across three spectrums—physical, mental, and emotional.

” …we’re going to learn which of you truly prepared for the pain we’re about to level on you.”

Today as a budding entrepreneur (I am the cofounder of a nationwide nonprofit that rapidly responds to disasters, and the cofounder of a new mobile tech company) I am constantly pushing my physical limits—not the ‘ruck this fifty pound pack across that mountain’ type of limit, but rather the ‘it’s Saturday night at 10 o’clock and I haven’t slept in two days’ type of limit. You see, any entrepreneur worth his or her salt knows what it’s like to have a looming deadline that tests our endurance. What many don’t know, however, is that there’s a better way than another espresso to make sure you don’t collapse onto your keyboard. Physical fitness not only increases our endurance and makes us happier, it also gives us the opportunity to constantly set, work toward, and exceed challenges. It is a consequence-free opportunity to push ourselves to new heights and become accustomed to overcoming challenges—whether it’s a marathon or a hackathon.

Of course super-human endurance is only good if your mind isn’t just a box full of rocks. Mental preparation is critical to success, and it’s a lesson I’ve learned both on the battlefield and in the disaster zone. By no means does this mean that you should become a professional academic; in fact, I’m a proud MBA drop-out. What it means is that we must be fully cognizant of our knowledge gaps, and work voraciously to fill them. While in Afghanistan my sniper team devoured books on past Afghan conflicts, educating ourselves on the history, culture and methodology of the people we were facing. It wasn’t enough to know how to fight; success hinged on our ability to know why. The same can be said for any entrepreneur. Thinking of investing in real estate? Reading “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” and creating a pro forma isn’t enough. To succeed you must dive completely in—what are the school districts like? What shifts in socio-economic demographics have taken place over the last fifteen years? Who are the local elected officials? How might coming decisions (freeway expansion, zoning changes, etc) impact long-term value.

Finally we have the third, and often overlooked leg: emotional preparation. Many people get into entrepreneurship with grandiose dreams of four-hour work weeks and multi-million dollar acquisitions. They read success story after success story in Fast Company and Inc. Magazines…only to gloss over the ten tragedies accompanying each success. The emotional toll on entrepreneurs is both real and debilitating—will I make payroll this month? Are the investors on the board going to force me out? Will I FAIL? Preparing for these emotional stressors is sometimes difficult to conceive, however I have learned one important lesson after two combat tours and two startups: pay as much attention to your relationships as to your work. Time and again while deployed I saw good men become liabilities because they failed to maintain or manage their relationships at home; conversely, my new wife has been a sounding board and emotional bedrock for me the past four years. When things get tough she provides both reason and solace; however, when I fail to put her first I find myself battling my emotional war on two fronts and home is no longer an escape.

Enduring preparation is the key to any long-term success for an entrepreneur. Paying careful attention to each of these pillars—physical, mental, and emotional—makes one stronger, more resilient, and more apt to succeed.