Brad Feld’s book, Startup Communities: Building An Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City, surprised me. This wasn’t because of the content in the pages, as I’ve been a long time reader of his blog and a consistent fan, but because I don’t think that deploying members of the military are reading his book. Yet they absolutely should be. Here is a book that isn’t on any military counterinsurgency (COIN) reading lists and might be a little off the beaten path of “pre-deployment reading,” but I recommend that military professionals looking to better understand how insurgencies operate read it before they deploy. You can buy it on Amazon here.
I know that some members of the military will look at a book written about how Brad Feld’s “Boulder Thesis” can be used to create a startup community and wonder how that is going to prepare them to fight an insurgency overseas. But before you do that, I’d encourage you to look at the book from a different perspective. Using General Mattis’ Small Unit Leader’s Guide to Counterinsurgency as an example, one of the military’s primary goals is to mobilize the public in support of their cause. This community not only furthers our mission, but also makes it difficult for the insurgent to build and operate in a community that opposes ours. In order to keep this article from becoming too long, I’ll use one concept from Feld’s book to show how it can impact the difference between successful and unsuccessful counter-insurgency campaigns.
One element of a startup community that Feld discusses in the book is the need for clearly defined roles for the different participants. He divides everyone involved in the community into two groups: leaders and feeders. As the names implies, leaders are those who should be tirelessly engaged in growing the group, setting the example for the rest of the community and they must be involved for the long-term in order to keep the group moving forward. In an entrepreneurial community, the leaders have to be entrepreneurs themselves. The second group, Feeders, encompass everyone other than the leaders. Their role is to use whatever assets they have – access to government funding, academic programs, investment dollars, subject matter expertise, etc. – and support the group in whatever way they can. The distinction between Leaders and Feeders, as Feld explains, is crucial to the long-term success of a community.
In chapter 6 of Startup Communities, Feld talks about the danger that exists to a community when a feeder tries to assume a leadership role. He explains why communities fail when a government appointee for economic development, an academic institution or a venture capitalist tries to be the face and the leader of the group, even if they have the best of intentions. Feeders will always struggle to get a sustainable community started because they rarely have experience as an entrepreneur, are focused on short-term gains that can be used in the next election cycle and are balancing the responsibilities of the community with a wealth of other initiatives that require their attention. The concept of leaders and feeders, and their associated roles, can likewise be considered when planning to deploy as part of a COIN campaign.
The danger of feeders assuming leadership roles in a startup community is no different than Marines and Soldiers trying to take the lead on building a community that is supportive of the government and developing the local security forces. Marines can provide the security needed to get a community off the ground and leverage the resources they bring with them to help build that support, but they are only in country for a relatively short period of time and are not going to be around long enough to see the process through in its entirety. A supportive community has to be led by someone who has already earned the respect of the other villagers, by someone who is going to be around for the next 20 years, and by someone truly committed to the cause.
The timing of my reading of Startup Communities, and the relationship between Leaders and Feeders, just coincided with the news coverage of ISIS overrunning Mosul this week and I couldn’t help but think about how we trained the Iraqi Army (IA) and Police (IP) during my deployments. In hindsight, I would characterize my units as being “feeders in name only.” We would tell you that we were there to support the Iraqi Army and that they had the lead in operations, but there were a lot of times we might get frustrated with the slow pace of progress, and on multiple occasions we took over an operation to get it done the right way. There were some instances where the plan developed by the Iraqis might be so flawed that we would take over to make sure that no Marines were hurt due to negligence or blindly following a flawed plan, but we weren’t building a long term capability. We had nothing but the best of intentions and truly thought that our example would help the IA or IP do things better next time, but we often failed to remember that governments don’t exist to create, they exist to support, and confusing these two aspects can do more harm then good.
Development of the local security forces has been one of the conditions for a successful counterinsurgency for a while now, but I don’t know if I completely understood the dynamics of how that relationship should look, or had it explained to me in a way that was truly clear, until reading Feld’s book. One of the benefits of applying business-related concepts to the challenges of a counterinsurgency is that we can provide additional examples and greater context to some of the more technical “how” questions to better define what we are doing, what our role is and what success looks like. These might not be in the traditional military books, since there have only been a limited number of insurgencies in history, but Feld has looked at the effort of countless companies and organizations striving to do the same thing and can offer a different perspective on this issue.
Feld’s Startup Communities is clearly written for a business environment, so it will require some interpretation of the concepts that he identifies in order to apply them to a COIN fight, but it will certainly promote discussion about different ideas and methods to consider when pursuing the most-informed route forward. I believe that you will find not only tangible steps for you to consider in building a community and earning the support of the locals in the book, but also ways to help recognize the actions that insurgents are taking to build a community counter to your efforts, making it worth the read.
If you’re interested, you can buy a copy of Startup Communities: Building An Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City from Amazon.
Want to see other books that we have read and recommend? Take a look at our complete reading list for our other suggestions.