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Startups want *operators* – what about Special Forces?

First thread:  I try to go out of my way to help current and recent military members to transition to civilian jobs and careers.  I remember how tough it can be to translate the very rich experiences I had in the Navy to something that most employers could understand.  And it’s usually tougher the longer you stay in the military.

Second thread:  What I see pretty much each day at Techstars is the value that startups place in execution.  The people who can consistently get things done and fight their way through difficult situations are hugely valued.  They can get far more done per dollar and thus have a greater chance to both survive and thrive given each incremental investment dollar.

These two threads collided for me today.

Special Forces?

I’ve gotten to know a few different special forces operators in my time during and after the military.  My boss for about a year was a Navy SEAL that went on to command a Navy SEAL team.  They’re both tremendous individuals, but also strangely normal people, too.

Today I met a Special Forces operator, with over ten years in the SAS.  (Equivalent to Delta Force, SEAL Team Six, etc.)  He’s a really smart and accomplished individual, who for years has done nothing but operate.  He’s gone on virtually no notice to countries where he and a team would be required to evaluate current situations, make plans, and execute those plans, often under tight time pressure and imperfect information.  And in places where if you screw up, you (and others) could die.

This person is also interested in branching out from the traditional security/policy/government roles that recent military retirees often fall into.  (This is a bit unusual, but I think very highly for him in proactively thinking and researching how to make the switch.)

I think this particular person is a specific example of a broader idea.  Special forces operators regularly “retire” from the military in their 20s, 30s, and 40s with incredible expertise, but often little commercial experience.  So while the guy I talked to today could probably easily step into a COO role and has the operational expertise to warrant the role, his lack of direct business experience means that he wouldn’t ever be reviewed.  It feels like the world of startups is missing out on a category of potential key employees, that could radically improve their chances for survival, because they can’t translate individuals’ military experience into something startups understand.

(Side notes: Techstars operates Patriot Boot Camp for US military and military veterans, and I think highly of the program.  We’ve also invested in at least one company that was founded by a Navy SEAL: FitDeck, founded by Phil Black, which went through the Nike+ Accelerator, powered by Techstars.)

My questions

Broadly – How can/should startups think about hiring people with non-traditional operations expertise?  Would startups be willing to hire special forces operators?  Would they be willing to take someone on for a 3-6 month trial to evaluate their operations ability?  What would it take for startups to seriously consider special forces operators on a regular basis?

Specifically – What roles should a person like this consider?  What are the job titles he should be on the lookout for?  Should he go get an MBA and use that to help transition?


I would love to hear your thoughts.

  • Ben Brabyn

    Great questions Jed! Here are my suggested answers:

    1 – How to hire ex-military operators
    Military training and experience provide unique opportunities to develop the adaptability, teamworking skills, determination, comfort in uncertainty and analytical rigour that mark out a great startup operator. For plenty of evidence look at the role of military veterans (and military technologies) in startups in the US and Israel.

    Better still – these people are relatively easy to hire – you can engage them through many networks on LinkedIn, resettlement agencies and volunteer organisations like (disclosure – I’m one of their volunteers). As seasoned public servants they are used to working hard for modest remuneration, so consider what will really motivate them. Finally, beware of frauds. A surprising number of people create fictitious military backgrounds – check their networks to ensure you’re not employing a fantasist.

    2 – What roles should a service leaver consider?
    When I left the Royal Marines in 2000 I looked first for a role that would give me a quick guided tour of the private sector – and help future employers and investors to understand me. Management consultancy and investment banking both seemed to fit and I was offered a job at JP Morgan. Sure enough I had the opportunity to learn about several different industries very quickly. I started my first business a year after leaving the Corps, blending my new professional experience with my military background and co-founding with a friend who I had met during Commando training. I combined this with doing an MBA to fill in some of my skills gaps and as a hedge in case the startup failed.

    This combination worked well for me – consolidating military experience in a large civilian firm, then starting up while continuing education if possible. Helping employers and investors understand in their own terms what your background means is a high priority, so understanding their perspective and needs is essential.

    Several of us were invited to talk about this at the British Library in 2012 – here’s a link:

  • Hi Jed,

    I’ve recently left the forces (not ex Special Forces though I’m afraid) and founded my own startup called Enswarm. I have already met a few other ex forces guys who have done the same but as you say, none so far from the Special Forces.

    To answer some of your questions, would I ever hire an SF operator? Yes definitely in the future, but we are in the very early stages of our business and not hiring yet.

    I would say that SF guys are probably not thinking about the startup route too much when they leave. The career transition/resettlement process didn’t even mention the possibility of trying to join a startup when I left 2 years ago, it’s all aimed at starting your own business or getting a more normal job. If that is still the case it may be worth trying to get involved in the career transition process to let people know that the startup world is an exciting place to be, and they don’t have to come up with the initial idea.

    On the roles front, operators tend to be generalists so they would be suited to COO/CEO roles where their teamwork skills are best suited. I’m happy to have a coffee with the individual that you talk about if you want to give him my details.

  • Jed,
    We launched The Bunker here at 1871/ Chicago to help early stage veteran owned companies. There is more about that here: Hit me up at and let’s collaborate. Thanks for all you do for fellow veterans.