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Colin Clark

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Pirates and Successful Startups-Many Similarities!

“Pirates and startups?” you ask.  ”Colin’s definitely lost it – too much time in ND.”  But wait, read a little bit of this and then tell me what you think.

I love to scuba dive.  And I love history.  Much of the scuba diving I do is in the Caribbean where there’s a rich history of piracy there.  I’m reading a book called, “The Sea Rover’s Practice,” by Benerson Little, a Naval SEAL.  The title’s a good pick because during the time from 1630-1730, often referred to as the “Golden Age of Piracy,” there were many ruffians about – pirates, buccaners, privateers, freebooters, filibusters, crusiders, and corsairs.  And as different as they all were, they had one thing in common.


Above all, the most significant commonality amongst all sea rovers was the personal, material gain by force of arms upon the sea.  So, despite group predispositions to different countries, navy’s, and such – they all just wanted to get rich.  Sound familiar?  Why do you bust your backside for the ‘this is bestest Twitter client ever man!” startup, working long hours, forsaking relationships and health?  For the ping pong table in the lunchroom?  Methinks not.


Most sea rovers chose to take calculated risks in their search for plunder.  Certainly their skill, cunning, and bravery would sometimes allow them to take bigger prizes.  But for speed and agility, most rover’s boats were smaller and carried few guns.  This made them faster and more maneuverable than their targets.  So, if these rovers didn’t have the ships, guns, funding and men that their targets did, how were they so successful?  Images of the NoSQL camp confronting Oracle & MySQL come to mind here.


So, how were these rovers so successful.  Seems it all boils down to a couple very important tactics supporting a goal – $$:

  1. The Surprise Attack
  2. Using a Ruse
  3. Effective Use of Limited Resources/Intelligence
  4. Speed & Mobility
  5. Strategy & Management

If you look at this list and think some don’t apply, remember Facebook and how they provided all of these wonderful capabilities to you for free.  While they were selling all of your data out the back of of the store (Ruse).  Of maybe the fact that you can use GMAIL now to make free voip calls (Surprise).  And there’s always the basecamphq.com guys who run a multi-million dollar business with less than 20 employee (Effective Use of Limited Resources).

Rovers needed the ability to outsmart their targets, they used smaller, faster ships for this purpose – most successful campaigns were conducted via sloops – much smaller than a ship.  But it allowed the gang much greater maneuverability and the option to either pursue or run and hide to fight another day.  Today, in the age of the lean startup, we call that a Pivot (Speed & Mobility).

But the single most important item on the list above, Strategy, really dictated all the others.  Above all else, the rovers had a plan.  And they stuck to it.  There was the ship’s charter – why were they here and where where they going?  Your compliance with the charter was recorded in the ships documents – you had to read and agree to it before joining on.  Rovers had a well defined compensation plan, and the first realization of stock options ever – each crew member, according to their position, was granted a share of the plunder.  Rovers provided insurance, if you were injured during a campaign, you were compensated according to the  seriousness of the injury.  But one thing, and probably the most effective, was that the crew elected their captain.  And if that captain didn’t deliver on the goods, or failed to lead (like out in front with cutlass and pistols blazing), they were replaced.  Sure, the captain might be able to fire a few mates first, shifting the blame.  But in the end the CEO could only fire so many VP of Sales before finally taking responsibility for the failed mission.  Through effective Management, the pursuit of the charter’s goals were pursued relentlessly.


Is your company a band of Pirates?  Are your goals aligned with your shipmates?  Is your startup governed by a charter?  What is your strategy?  And how will you amplify your strengths in the face of larger, more well financed, entrenched competitors?  The rovers knew what to do.  Do you?  Does your captain have the crew’s faith or is a mutiny on the horizon?


It’s important to note that many rovers ended life poorer than they began.  And that for all their extraordinary efforts worthy of book and film, that many also were hanged or died in prison.  Maybe there’s even something for venture capitalists to learn from the Golden Age of Piracy.


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Colin Clark is the CTO for Cloud Event Processing, Inc. and is widely regarded as a thought leader and pioneer in both Complex Event Processing and its application within Capital Markets.

Follow Colin on Twitter at http:\\twitter.com\EventCloudPro to learn more about cloud based event processing using map/reduce, complex event processing, and event driven pattern matching agents. You can also send topic suggestions or questions to colin@cloudeventprocessing.com