Our recent national security class at Stanford, Technology, Innovation, and Modern War was designed to give students insights on how the onslaught of new technologies like AI, machine learning, autonomy, cyber, access to space, biotech, hypersonics, and others have the potential to radically change how countries fight and deter threats.
With 20+ guest speakers, including two Secretaries of Defense, Generals, Admirals and Policy makers, the class emphasized that winning future conflicts requires more than just adopting new technology and developing new weapon systems. It calls for a revolution in thinking about how these technologies can be adopted and integrated into weapons and other defense platforms, and more importantly, how they can create new operational and organizational concepts that will change the way we fight.
By the end of the class there were five surprises.
- One was a continuous refrain from senior DoD leadership that new tech, weapons, and operational concepts are insufficient to guarantee the U.S. will prevail in a great power conflict. In fact, these new technologies/weapons change the odds against us.
- Secondly, our senior military leadership recognizes that now more than ever we can’t go it alone. We need allies – existing and new ones. And that depends on a reinvigorated State Department and renewed emphasis on diplomacy in general.
Unstated by any of our speakers but painfully clear by class end were three other surprises:
- Our national security is now inexorably intertwined with commercial technology and is hindered by our lack of an integrated strategy at the highest level.
- Our adversaries have exploited the boundaries and borders between our defense, commercial and economic interests.
- Our current approaches – both in the past and current administration – to innovation across the government are piecemeal, incremental, increasingly less relevant and insufficient.
A few takeaways from our speakers. If you’re in the DoD and conversant with the National Defense and Military strategies and have read Chris Brose’s book The Kill Chain, none of this will come as a surprise. But for the rest of you, here they are:
- The 2018 National Defense Strategy focused the DoD on Great Power competition. It called out China as a peer competitor to America, pursuing its goal of global dominance. At the same time, Russia has reemerged as a regional power.
- For the last two decades, while we were focused on combating terrorism, China has explicitly developed weapons and operational concepts to target every one of our advantages- in weapon systems and operational concepts, but also in alliances, economic and diplomatic power.
- Unfortunately, China has succeeded – many of our most exquisite systems on sea, in space or in other places are at risk. A majority of these weapons have now become legacy systems eating up future budget and resources.
- Rapid innovation in new technologies – cyber, AI, autonomy, access to space, drones, 5G, biotech, quantum, microelectronics, etc. – are no longer being led by military/government labs, but instead come from commercial vendors – many of them Chinese. The result is that unlike the last 75 years, the DOD can no longer predict or control future technologies and threats.
- A surprise for many of us was the tacit acknowledgment from our military and defense leaders that we cannot win a war alone, without allies. These senior leaders emphasized the importance of a more collaborative embrace of existing allies and creation of new ones. They put a premium on diplomacy, and the need for a better funded and robust State Department.
- The result is that for the first time in almost a century, the U.S. is no longer guaranteed to win the next war.
The good news is every one of our military and civilian speakers conceptually understands all of this. And even better, all want to change the status quo. However …
Most are coming to the conclusion that the DoD is at a crossroads: Substantive and sustained changes in the DoD size, structure, policies, processes, practices, technologies, and culture are needed.
- For example, our requirements and acquisition systems are driven by a 70-year-old model predicated on predicting the future (both threats and technology) and delivering solutions decades out; and optimized for lifecycle costs, not rapid innovation or disposable systems.
- In the last four years we modernized the acquisition process, but it remains hindered by the requirements processes from the services, which still result in 88 Major Defense Acquisition Programs – where we spend our acquisition dollars – to buy legacy systems mostly built for past threats.
- Some hints of the future force came from multiple speakers. Admiral Lorin Selby, the Chief of Naval Research, for example, had a compelling vision of the future fleet and an expanded industrial base.
- The DoD has over 75 incubators and accelerators. We lead the world in demos of new technology but not in deployed systems. Few of these innovation activities have resulted in a major program of record. The DoD is making the right baby steps but needs to quickly focus on scaling innovation. This, of course, will require the difficult conversation of what legacy systems will be retired.
- DoD’s relationship with startups and commercial companies driving these new technologies is hindered by a lack of understanding of their own and their investors’ interests. Venture capital and startups have institutionalized disruptive innovation. In the U.S. they spend $ 150 billion a year to fund new ventures that can move with the speed and urgency that the DoD now requires. While we’ve made progress, a radical reinvention of our civil/military innovation relationship is necessary if we want to keep abreast of our adversaries. This should include:
- A Civil-Military Alliance driven by incentives not coercion. By public-private partnerships not government control. Private industry – from Primes to startups – incentivized at scale will ensure our leadership in science, in industry and in new technologies.
- Reduce the dependence on bespoke and exquisite systems. Rapidly bring commercial technology into the DoD while adding proprietary defense components
- Create new technology ecosystems around DoD technology needs by encouraging commercial interoperability around DoD standards. Awards and contracts to each new ecosystem.
- Encourage and incentivize dual-use startups, scale-ups, and companies
- Overhaul Federal Labs and Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs) to promote collaboration at scale with startups and venture investors
- Each service should pick 1-2 startup/scale-up winners and buy heavily
- Pentagon leadership will need to be selected on the ability to innovate – empower the innovation insurgents and elevate risk takers that understand technology.
- We’ve failed to engage the rest of the populace in our mission. Americans – including extraordinarily talented students from our top universities — are ready and willing to serve in some capacity. We’ve shown little interest in providing the incentives and expanding the opportunities required to make that happen.
However, these observations about changes needed in the DoD surfaced a much bigger problem, one that civilian leadership has not yet acknowledged: National security is now inexorably intertwined with commercial technology and is hindered by our lack of a national industrial and economic policy. There is an urgent need for an integrated strategy and policies.
These are not problems of technology. They’re problems of organizational design, incentives, out of the box thinking and national will.
The American people will need to demand more of their government and elected officials. The status quo will need to be broken. Substantive change will require new ideas, not better versions of the ones we have. For example:
- The new Biden senior White House organizational structure still treats technology as a standalone issue. That’s a status quo position and a losing hand. We need to recognize that the boundaries between our defense, commercial and economic interests are interrelated.
- We need to build the innovation capacity across the interagency- coordinated and synchronized by senior executive branch leadership. One way of implementing this would be creating a political appointee in key government agencies that acts as the interagency single point of innovation leadership cutting across organizations including but not limited to the DoD, National Security Council, Council of Economic Advisors, OMB, FCC, and OSTP.
- Create a new Deputy National Security Advisor to coordinate and synchronize innovation and industrial policies across these multiple agencies
- With real influence and responsibility on budget, trade policy, and alliance strategy
- Specifically coordinate national policies of 5G, AI, machine learning, autonomy, cyber, access to space, biotech, hypersonics, microelectronics, etc.
- Owns Civil/Military alliance for engaging and incentivizing new entrants and incumbents and protecting civil assets
- Sits on the National Security Council and National Economic Council
These changes will require Congress, defense contractors and the executive branch to pull in the same direction to change that equation.
The good news is that we have all the tools needed to succeed, we just need the willpower. And we must not forget what’s at stake. Democracies, while messy, are a force for good. Self-determination with codified freedoms is the most moral system of organization mankind has developed. Getting the reforms we examined in this class is essential to the preservation of democracy and maximization of peace. It is most certainly a noble endeavor.
In future articles we’re going to offer specific solutions to transform the DoD to face the challenges ahead, not behind.
Steve, Joe, and Raj
In a month, I’ll be celebrating my six-year anniversary as a writer. I’ve managed to use writing to build a six-figure income for the past…
In my role as a mentor to aspiring entrepreneurs, I find that most have the technical challenges well understood, but many are a bit short on some basic street smarts, or basic business realities. Thus I often recommend that before you kick off your own business, you join another startup or existing business to see how things really work. Even the best college degree is not a substitute.
For certain, passionately chasing a big financial opportunity in an area you have little street experience is a recipe for disappointment. I will certainly admit that starting and running a business is not rocket science, and you can learn many of the basics in any business school, but here are key additional business realities from my own experience that can lead to downfall:
You can start a business, but it takes a team to grow it. You alone will never find enough hours in a day to keep with all the challenges of sales, support, and scaling the business, in addition to developing and delivering your solution. Actually, building and nurturing the right team is the hard part, requiring communication, hiring, and leadership.
Jeff Bezos readily admits that his first career in a Wall Street-based investment banking firm gave him some keen insights into business realities, before a fear of regret and a personal passion led him to create Amazon, now the largest ecommerce site in the world.
Your leadership skills do not develop without effort. Unless you have a proven track record from a prior career, or experience leading teams in some other context, you can expect stumbles and a long learning curve to lead a team. It starts with documenting and communicating a real purpose and mission in terms everyone can get excited about.
Intellectual property is required for a competitive edge. You may think that patents and copyrights are not required, since your products are so innovative, but you will find that competitors are quick to copy your idea if you don’t protect it. In addition, most investors won’t give you money for scaling if you don’t have a strong property base.
Although Elon Musk doesn’t talk about it very much, he owns over 350 patents through Tesla, just one of his many companies. In addition to locking in his leadership position in electric vehicles, he has also used his patents to negotiate faster growth in his market.
Strategic planning is a required ongoing investment. If you wait for a growth crisis to kick off your next step, it’s probably too late. Planning for the future must be a regular activity, not just an early-stage or once-a-year event. Change happens every day, and it takes time and effort to prepare you for the next step. Survival requires regular updates.
Even the best solutions require marketing to survive. With information overload due to the Internet, you need to find your customers, rather than assume they will find you. That first burst of customers via word-of-mouth or a viral video won’t sustain your growth. Start with a range of platforms, including social media, advertising, and a great website.
Most investors I know have heard many passionate entrepreneurs chanting “If we build it, they will come” in lieu of a credible marketing plan. Let me assure you that companies without marketing plans don’t get the attention of either investors or customers.
Don’t under-estimate or ignore your competitors. As an angel investor myself, I’ve often heard the argument that your solution has no competition. My answer is that no competitors means no market, or you haven’t looked. Neither is good. I want to hear how your offering stands out, and how you have a plan to stay ahead of the crowd.
Having an innovative solution is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for starting and succeeding in business. You also need the required skills for leadership, planning, operations, and growth, many of which are best acquired from business experience, rather than academia.
These street smarts, if you acquire them early, can save you a lifetime of pain. It pays to build relationships with an advisor or mentor, or work in the real business world for a while, before you strike out on your own journey. It’s more fun to enjoy and see positive results from your efforts, than to spend your life trying to catch up.
*** First published on Inc.com on 12/15/2020 ***
How many entrepreneurs do you know that “almost” made it big? Startups are very risky, and most fail. Yet entrepreneurship is one of the fastest growing trends in business today. Surveys show that entrepreneurs are among the happiest people in the world, despite the challenges. Yet it would pay real dividends to know at the start what separates the “also-rans” from the winners.
As an advisor to many entrepreneurs and startups, I’m always looking for early signs that usually lead to an “almost” success, but I have found them hard to pin down. Maybe that’s the reason I was intrigued by the classic book, “Almost: 12 Electric Months Chasing A Silicon Valley Dream,” from Hap Klopp and Brian Tarcy. It’s a true story of “almost” at Ardica Technologies in Silicon Valley.
Even startups with a cast of gifted geniuses and seasoned entrepreneurs can easily fall victim to these malaises. Here are the key lessons from this story and my experience that I believe every entrepreneur should take to heart:
- Invention without commercialization is not a business. Your technology may be amazing and the opportunity huge, but these alone don’t ensure a business success. It still requires solution delivery, a team working together, and customers with money to spend. Make sure you are building what customers want, rather than what you can build.
- Running short on money often leads to bad decisions. Vendors and most people on your team need to keep getting paid, or their loyalty quickly shifts to retribution. Crisis survival decisions can easily be counter-strategic and lead to product and people credibility gaps. Soliciting timely and adequate funding is more critical than development.
- Multiple cultures cannot co-exist in a single company. Culture is simply “the way we do things around here,” and it trumps strategy every time. Everyone on the team must share the same purpose, values, and goals. Culture clash can be some people driven by technology and others by customers. The founder sets the culture by words and actions.
- Startup leaders must exhibit trust and transparency. Successful entrepreneurs must create and maintain an environment of team trust to build loyalty and commitment. They need to focus on people behaviors, rather than personalities, to engender trust. Then they “say what they mean and mean what they say” all the time every time to prove it.
- Team conflict that turns into friction will slow you down. The best startup teams don’t shy away from healthy debates between team members or founders. That’s the way smart people with innovative insights make real change happen. But heated debates can generate so much emotion and friction that the entire team becomes dysfunctional.
- No amount of passion will save a solution that is not ready. If you solution doesn’t work, or exhibits quality problems in the marketplace, no amount of determination or expertise will save you. For high technology solutions, almost working is failing. Founders need to be realists, to understand when to pivot and when to fall back in recovery mode.
- Get rich quick is not a viable startup strategy. Entrepreneurs driven primarily by money are usually disappointed, which can cause them to give up too early or set poor goals. Seth Godin once said that overnight success in startups takes about six years, and Seth is an optimist. Make sure you enjoy the journey as well as the destination.
- Failing to plan is planning to fail. Like the old refrain, if you don’t know where you’re going, you will probably end up somewhere else. If you don’t formally communicate a plan, everyone will follow their own default, killing the teamwork and productivity you need to survive. No startup is so simple that everyone knows what is in your head.
These are all crucial business lessons that are best learned by reading, not repeating. If you see the symptoms in your own startup, there still may be time for recovery, or it may be time to jump ship before disaster strikes. If it’s too late for you, then at least take consolation in the fact that failure in a startup is not a career-ending disgrace, and should be worn as a badge of honor.
What will you remember most when you look back on 2020?
While all of our stories are different, if you were an entrepreneur or small business owner, you may remember this year as one full of great changes in business and leadership due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And while there is never an ideal time to be faced with an unprecedented event, COVID-19 brought out the best in entrepreneurs and business leaders around the world.
Here are a few unforgettable lessons that entrepreneurs learned and mastered during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020:
Your business must be agile and you must have the ability to pivot
Businesses did not make it out of 2020 by maintaining the status quo. Companies in industries hit hardest by the pandemic knew they needed to pivot into offerings where they could meet the needs of consumers as they sheltered in place.
This kind of agile thinking helped entrepreneurs to pivot across all industries: Breweries began distilling hand sanitizer and fashion houses sewed masks. Some local restaurants utilized their inventory in unique ways and sold basic pantry essentials to patrons who couldn’t dine indoors. Even eco-friendly toilet paper startups saw a boom in business as toilet paper was bought in bulk.
Agility was also critical for brick-and-mortar businesses, as so many restaurants were forced to close their indoor dining options entirely, or were made to operate at a limited capacity based on ever-changing public health orders. Sit-down restaurants and coffee shops, for example, have been able to create new methods for customers to continue to frequent their establishments. There has been a rise in curbside delivery and takeout options available to consumers this year, as businesses have been swift to create websites and mobile apps to reach patrons.
This year, it became absolutely critical for startups and small businesses to have an online presence, for consumers to be up-to-date on operations and policies, but more importantly, to make purchases.
Related: Planning on Starting up in the New Year? Here’s What You Can Learn From the Resilient Entrepreneurs of 2020
Health and safety measures are critical
Over the course of 2020, startups and small businesses have closed and reopened a number of times. Entrepreneurs understand what it means to follow safety preparation checklists that reflect our new normal, in addition to standard OSHA guidelines.
Cleanliness is now considered a huge part of safety within businesses of all sizes, for both staff and customers. Moving forward in 2021 and beyond, there will continue to be an emphasis on ways that businesses can create a collective effort that helps customers feel as safe as possible when visiting and shopping at a brick-and-mortar storefront.
For more tips on continuing to keep your employees and customers safe, listen to our WJR Business Beat segment on best practices for maintaining health and safety during the pandemic.
You must embrace a customer-first mindset to succeed
Despite social distancing measures, small businesses found ways to grow closer to customers throughout 2020. They developed new, hands-off methods for purchasing their products, and online communication was increased through a number of avenues, ranging from e-newsletters to social media updates about any changes customers should be aware of.
In 2021 and beyond, entrepreneurs will continue to adapt to meet customer needs. If you’re not sure how to develop a customer-first mindset, one of the simplest ways to get started is to actually ask your customers.
A customer-first mindset requires feedback, and customer feedback enables entrepreneurs to do better and to keep doing better. Beyond continuously improving the customer experience, regular feedback helps startups establish better relationships with their customers.
In a post-pandemic world, customers will remember the businesses that were there for them through the toughest times, and they will be mindful to shop with those businesses. When you take the time to embrace a customer-first mindset, you are investing in relationships and building trust that can last a lifetime.
The post 3 Vital Startup Lessons Learned From the COVID-19 Pandemic appeared first on StartupNation.