William H. Sullivan, the U.S. Ambassador to Laos in the 1960’s described commandos: “…you have first of all to be a volunteer; secondly, you have to be prepared to take extraordinary risks, to function outside of the normal chains of command and also to be able to make life and death decisions immediately. It takes a special breed.”
Sullivan should know, since he helped employ hundreds of commandos and special operations forces to organize the CIA’s nine year secrete war in Laos against the communist Pathet Lao and the Vietcong, but more on that latter.
It’s a mistake to actually organize secret wars, especially as a startup. But, the idea of having a few people on your team who are highly versatile and can be dropped into a wide range of situations is a good one.
High-growth startups regularly encounter new challenges and new business needs that they don’t have the people to staff. You launch your amazing product; customers are pounding down the door; and only a few months later, you discover that many of them need consulting help. Who do you send on Monday morning?
Similar situations recur again and again. You’re online community needs community policing. You realize fraud is a big problem in your payment system that needs to be fixed now. You see an opportunity to grow quickly in Europe. A new market segment wants your product but your current sales team isn’t equipped to figure out and implement a new deal structure. The list goes on.
The solution to these problems is to have a few business commandos on your team: multi-functional, versatile, creative problem solvers who are eager to take on problems they’ve never seen before.
This type of a talent usually has a career that shows versatility. For example, they may have engineering training, an MBA, experience in a variety of industries, time spent consulting or as an analyst at a top-tier investment bank, and a history of tacking risks and learning new skills on the fly.
Business commandos give you the flexibility to expand ahead of hiring specialists. When you need to do that new deal in a new market, it may be months before you find, hire, and bring on board someone who will make it repeatable. Business commandos give your company an expansion joint—a way to grow quickly into a new opportunity that you then solidify by backfilling with special purpose talent that can bring consistency and experience to the role.
I grew up doing product marketing, so I tend to hire business commandos into the product marketing team, but that’s not the only place to put them. I’ve seen them in business development, the ranks of executives, and just hanging around the CEO. They are the “A Players” that everyone calls on when you have a problem that needs to get fixed.
Having one or two people who can go start the consulting program, open the office in London, do the unique negotiations with a customer, create the first anti-fraud program, etc. is invaluable.
But you start running into problems if you leave them in one place for too long, which is why this mostly applies to high-growth companies that face one new challenge after another as they grow.
First, the individuals get bored. By their nature they want the excitement of a new challenge. If they don’t feel like they’re stretching, they start talking about moving on.
Second, if one of the new areas turns out to be one you want to continue investing in, you should fill the positions with people who are experienced and committed to that field. Without them, you won’t have the stability that you need, and you’ll find that what started out as a highly effective solution becomes a headache.
It’s also important to put it on the P&L, so to speak, so everyone in the company can see that the new function (consulting, anti-fraud, the London office, etc.) is real and needs everyone’s support.
We didn’t do that in Laos. We left the commandos in for a decade and kept the war secrete. Hundreds of thousands died and ultimately the Pathet Lao won. So the moral is don’t send in commandos if you’re not ready to pull them out or send in troops for the long run.
Actually, that’s stretching the analogy too far.
The moral of the war we fought in Laos during from 1964 – 1973 is that using the CIA to organize secrete wars, prisons, etc. is wrong, and it doesn’t work. Sadly, that lesson is still sinking in.
(Note: See The Ravens by Christopher Robbins for a fascinating account of the war.)