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As a Marine, I trained and served in some of the hottest and crappiest places in the world. I was with 3rd Battalion 6th Marines, and deployed for the Battle of Marjah in Helmand, Afghanistan. During the six years I was in the Marine Corps, I learned a lot of lessons that have served me well in many aspects of civilian life; but they have served me best in my endeavor to be a successful entrepreneur. It may not seem like a straight line from serving in the military to building a business, but I’ve found that I often use lessons I learned in my military service (except for digging chest-deep “fighting holes” in the woods, I’ve never used that particular one).
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I am a serial entrepreneur, serial because I haven’t gotten it right yet and keep trying. Launching my newest venture — a parking enforcement device called the Barnacle — is just the kind of leap that my military career prepared me to take. Besides the competitive, problem-solving mindset that Marine training sets us up for (e.g. there is no job too big or too hard), here are some key lessons that I think about as I work to get this business off the ground. If you’ve served in the military, you may recognize these five insights, but they should apply to anyone who’s working to launch a business.
1. Do more with less.
As Marines, we’re taught how to accomplish seemingly impossible tasks using teamwork and what we carried in with us. Most Marines put MacGyver to shame when it comes to finding unique solutions to problems. This is especially true in the field (training or deployed); it’s amazing what you can do with an E-tool (small shovel), some rope and epic boredom.
At a startup, or in any entrepreneurial endeavor, it’s important to stay lean and be able to quickly adjust as the situation develops. And for every task or necessary job function, first figure it out yourself. That way, you’ll understand the complexity of the task and can properly staff it and manage it. Being versatile, able to wear many hats and pivot quickly based on the situation are some important traits of a good entrepreneur.
2. Adapt and overcome.
Similar to lesson No. 1, this is a philosophy about dealing with change that we learn as an absolute necessity in the military. If you run into an obstacle or screw something up, don’t whine and cry or try to blame someone else. First: Own it (a good saying: “take a knee and punch yourself in the face”). You miscalculated or made a mistake or whatever — so what? The next step is to figure out a way over, around or through the problem. Focus on the solution, not the problem, move past it and your business will be smarter and likely stronger because of it.
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3. Luck favors the prepared.
Show up early. Do your homework. Take the extra time to do it right. These are things that are good advice no matter what your profession, but they are especially important when you are running a business. I wish I had learned them before high school or college — I would have benefited so much more from my formal education if I had understood that being prepared is half the battle. I suspect that looking back many people may agree.
Planning and preparing are crucial to being successful in a dynamic environment. You only have to go to the field once without enough baby wipes to really learn that lesson. Or God forbid, not enough energy drinks and tobacco. So make a plan, but don’t forget the previous lesson: You still must be prepared to adjust the plan. The marketplace can be really unpredictable. No one can correctly anticipate everything that’s going to happen, so if you’re forced to adapt, just change up your plan and get on with it.
4. Don’t be a jerk.
So much of what it takes to be part of a successful team — or to just work with other people in any capacity — is related to being easy to get along with. In the Marines, we are often working in close quarters in really uncomfortable settings (like a chest deep fighting hole, and, oh yeah, it’s probably raining), and if you can’t get along in the group, you’re not going to be able to effective leader or member of the team. But if you find yourself in a place where you can’t avoid butting heads, at a minimum: don’t be a jerk.
That is not to say that, especially when forging ahead to build something, there isn’t a time and a place to be aggressive. There are times when we have no choice but to take the gloves off (another lesson well-learned by Marines). But it’s just as important to recognize that most of the time you can get more done by being for something rather than against it. Being polite and courteous goes a long way — i.e., those “ma’ams” and “sirs” that become second nature in the military really do help in business.
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5. In the absence of leadership, find the enemy and kill them.
This is one of my favorite sayings, and it really boils down the problem-solving mentality of the Marine Corps. It doesn’t apply just to combat — it’s applicable to everything. On the battlefield, it means the literal enemy combatant, but for a business, the enemy could be a marketplace or personnel crisis, a cash flow problem or a product delay. If your actions are not geared toward solving that problem — slaying that "enemy" — then chances are you are probably not going to.
And here’s my final piece of advice: Don’t be afraid to take the leap; don’t listen to naysayers (in the wise words of Taylor Swift: “haters gonna hate, hate, hate”). And don’t think of taking the leap as a choice between succeed or fail; think of it as a choice between succeed or learn something. Even if this idea, this business, this venture doesn’t pan out, there are lessons that you will take away that make sure the next one does.