10 Startup lessons I learnt at the Indian Military Academy.

10 Startup lessons I learnt at the Indian Military Academy.

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IMA Passing Out Parade.

I spent years waiting for the day I graduated from school so I could join the Army. I spent 7 years preparing; spending weekends learning martial arts, shooting, trekking, training; excelling at the NCC.

Fast forward 4 years, a graduate degree in Applied Physics, a 6 day long interview process in the chilly city of Allahabad, I finally got a call-letter to join the most prestigious Indian Military Academy in Dehradun.

Captain of the house of Khetarpal said over 100,000 people applied that year. 187 were chosen to serve; to serve the country, to serve in war and to serve in peace. Never had I had a more memorable and proud moment in my life.


I spent months there strengthening my strengths and diminishing my weaknesses. But then disaster struck, I broke my leg and lost the opportunity to serve 2nd PARA — the commandos regiment, one of the toughest to get into.

I left and created companies; failed at many and excelled at creating value for the market I focused in, along with 900 team members. Then I managed funds; with a mix of failed and successful returns.

But the gentleman and the officer never left my soul, I lived like an Army officer, out of uniform.

I think startups are much like the Army, you know. You fight for what you believe in and you need an army of believers to achieve it, challenging the status quo.

1. Fieldcraft:
One of the things I loved learning in Academy (and trying my best in startups) is field craft. It’s a basic requirement to be a good soldier and a good entrepreneur.

So — what is fieldcraft?

Fieldcraft is the basic military skill to operate stealthily and the methods used to do so, which can differ during day or night and due to weather or terrain.

These skills include camouflage, land and water navigation, understanding the difference between concealment from view and cover from small arms’ fire, using the terrain and its features to mask ground movement, obstacle crossing, selecting good firing positions, lying up positions, camping positions, effective observation, camouflage penetration, counter-surveillance, detecting enemy-fire directionality and range, survival, evasion, and escape techniques.

Good fieldcraft is especially important for the effectiveness and survival of infantry soldiers, snipers, special forces, reconnaissance and sabotage teams. Efficient fieldcraft is only possible by spending time, effort, and attention to memorize battlefield details, infiltration and escape routes, construction and employment of hiding positions, enemy force doctrines and equipment.

Much like bootstrapping, eh?

2. Obey first:
I think this is the first thing my trainers taught me. Your second names and schools don’t matter. You better obey before you command. It is an important part of the process. If you are not mentally ready to start a startup, work with one. You’ll notice the difference. It’s easier to lead and be respected by a bigger audience once you put your feet in their shoes.

3. Titles don’t matter:
One of the many things I learned in the Army and while working in and with startups is that job titles don’t matter. You are going to war with a soldier (who is not an officer) who has spent 30 years in the army; which means he has 30 years of knowledge on tactics and strategy. You, however, are JUST a young 21 year old officer, with some Magna cum Laude in Military Strategy and a Masters Degree in Advanced Leadership. Working with a knowledgeable team is a blessing in a startup. Listen to them, allow freedom to speak, understand the context — you are ready to scale.

4. First, your country, your startup, the people you command:

The IMA Manifesto — Kris Nair (poster designed by SpaceCadetNoodle)

This is wisdom I follow, it sits proud on a wall in my home. It is from the first Passing-out Commencement speech made by Field Marshal Philip Chetwode, the Founder of the Indian Military Academy.


5. Feedback, honest and brutal, feedback:
One of the things the Army and its training establishments are famous/infamous for is its training — some people say it’s brutal, a no-mercy-kind-a-place — I think it is imperative. To train future leaders, honest and brutally honest feedback while you learn is extremely important. In war, there aren’t too many opportunities to make a wrong decision and get away with it.

I think one thing I apply to life whether in the army or a start-up is rigor. Ship fast, or die..

6. Focus, discipline:
I don’t have to elaborate on this, right? As a start-up, you are always listening to the market and customer — sometimes it is tough to keep the focus. You add more features, you cut some. You are a fan of one of the most abused word called ‘pivot’ and do things because you like the word ‘pivot’. STOP. FOCUS.

7. Be a ‘T’ individual, specializations are for insects:
One thing you learn at the Academy is that specialization is for insects. You need to master at atleast 5 or 6 verticals — like we all do in our own startups. As Founders, we even do goddamn accounting.

Be a ‘T’ individual — be vertically knowledgeable at one skill — excel at it. Be good at a bunch of other skills too, even if it is an inch deep.

8. Speak less, do more:
That.

9. Listen to everyone, but trust your own judgment above all:
Because you know your business, more than your investors and press.

10. Gentleman. Officer. Entrepreneur.
Like Army, Entrepreneurship is not a career. It is a way of life.

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