Preparing for Chaos – the Life of a Startup

I just finished reading Donovan Campbell’s eye-opening book, “Joker One“, about his harrowing combat tour in Iraq leading a Marine platoon. This book may be the Iraq war equivalent of “Dispatches” which defined Vietnam for my generation.  (Both reminded me why National Service would be a very good idea.)

Campbell describes how he tried to instill in his troops the proper combat mentality.

I’ve paraphrased his speech into the language of a startup.  It’s eerily similar.

Startups are inherently chaos. As a founder you need to prepare yourself to think creatively and independently, because more often than not, conditions on the ground will change so rapidly that the original well-thought-out business plan becomes irrelevant.

If you can’t manage chaos and uncertainty, if you can’t bias yourself for action and if you wait around for someone else to tell you what to do, then your investors and competitors will make your decisions for you and you will run out of money and your company will die.  74HGZA3MZ6SV

Therefore the best way to keep your company alive is to instill in every employee a decisive mindset that can quickly separate the crucial from the irrelevant, synthesize the output, and use this intelligence to create islands of order in the all-out chaos of a startup.

Every potential startup founder should think about their level of comfort operating in chaos and uncertainty.  It may not be for you.

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9 Responses

  1. Concise and priceless; thanks.

  2. Hi Steve,

    I am thoroughly enjoying reading your blog posts, and looking forward to more. I have been in a couple of startups, and am trying to gird myself up to do a couple myself. I really appreciate you sharing your learning.

    What are your thoughts about doing a startup in a down economy? Besides it being harder to get funding, it seems like this would be a good time to get cheap labor, rent, and product. Also, it would be nice to do something that helps this country (but not solely for that reason).

    I am also a pilot, and computer engineer, and love to read stories about sigint and black aircraft programs.

    Thank you,
    Ray Debs

    • Ray,
      The glib answer is yes, it’s a great time to start a company for all the reasons you suggest.
      The realistic answer is that you need to be sure you have the financial resources to see you through what will be an extended downturn. And that you and your significant other have thought through the consequences of financial failure in this economy.
      If you can do that you may find a clearer playing field.


  3. “Both reminded me why National Service would be a very good idea.”

    I’m interested in why you think this is a good idea? It’s not something I’ve heard often from those in the technology sphere.

    • Dave,
      Short answer, is that we’ve run a 36 year social science experiment and the results are in.
      My read is that I don’t think the outcome has been good for the country.
      I can expand if you think there might be general interest on this blog.


  4. Hi Steve,

    Please expound on your thoughts regarding National Service.


    • Steve,

      I’d like to echo Patrick’s desire for more of your perspective on National Service. Our backgrounds are very different… and you have a lot more experience than I 🙂


  5. Would love to read Steve’s views on social science experiments that have been going on in this country for the last 36 years. Especially on where are they likely to get us (the country and the tech industry) in the short-, medium- and long-term.

  6. Thanks a lot, wonderful post.

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