Core Startup Lessons From The Marines And Peace Corps


A version of this article previously appeared on Forbes.

Craig Harris, Co-Founder and CEO of HG Data, knows first-hand that it is possible to recruit top talent, without the benefit of a lot of cash or equity. Early in his career, Craig spent nearly 4 years with the Peace Corps in Paraguay, creating an agro-forestry farm that remains in operation over 20-years later.

Entrepreneurs can learn much from successful, yet cash-strapped organizations, such as the Peace Corps and the Marines,  especially when it comes to attracting, retaining and motivating employees.

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Make Money Not Strife

At first glance, the Marine Corps and the Peace Corps do not appear the least bit similar. One is primarily populated by nationalistic conservatives while the other is comprised of one-world liberals.

Despite the divergent personalities that are typically attracted to these groups, their cultures are surprisingly similar. Both organizations foster a high level of esprit de corps and unify their respective teams toward the accomplishment of a common goal, while paying salaries which are far below market rates. Neither institutions offers their employees stock options, free snacks or on-site dry cleaning.

The following chart depicts the characteristics shared by these otherwise disparate organizations.

The Marine and Peace Corps Share A Surprising Number of Organizational Characteristics


Sense of Purpose, Mission Clarity & Group Identity

One of the most obvious similarities between the Marines and the Peace Corps is that everyone understands and identifies with their organization’s overarching mission, which engenders a powerful sense of purpose that motivates the team to persevere. The clarity of the group’s mission eliminates ambiguity and allows each member to focus on how they can contribute to the fulfillment of the organization’s mission, even when they are under extreme stress, fatigue and duress.

The existence of a common enemy also helps bring both organizations together. The Peace Corps’ enemy might be diphtheria, cholera or the lack of adequate shelter. The Marines’ enemy is often more easily identifiable.

The focus on defeating a common enemy under arduous conditions engenders tremendous camaraderie. The feeling of “we are all in this together” is a binding force that money cannot buy.

The respective groups’ slogans also offer clues as to their shared sense of purpose: “The toughest job you will ever love” and “It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure” are interchangeable between the Peace Corps and the Marines’ close cousin, the US Army.

The Marines’ slogan, “The few, the proud, the Marines,” similarly reinforces the group’s identity, declaring, “We’re an elite organization of high achievers.”

You may not be able to send your employees to Zimbabwe in order to satisfy their sense of philanthropy, but there certainly are things you can do within your organization to make it “more than a job.”

Not every startup can claim to be world-changing, but when possible, reinforce the greater good that your venture is fostering. For instance, with GoToMeeting and GoToMyPC, we relished the fact that we allowed working parents to spend more time with their children by traveling less and working remotely from home. Helping busy professionals address their work/life balance may not “save the world,” but we were proud to make a positive difference in the lives of millions of people.

Educational Opportunities

The educational opportunities afforded members of the Marines and Peace Corps are usually outside a traditional classroom setting. Both organizations enable members to gain life skills they can utilize for the remainder of their professional careers.

Both corps learned long ago that people learn and grow professionally when they are given the chance to solve problems on their own, rather than follow a recipe. Although it is impossible to teach someone how to solve all the problems they will encounter at your startup, you can instill within your employees the courage and confidence they will need to autonomously solve problems as they arise. Not everyone will thrive in such an environment, which is why hiring autonomous, self-directed individuals is especially important during your venture’s early stages.

Craig Harris launched his entrepreneurial career while working in Paraguay. In his words, “My crazy idea, which was my first entrepreneurial endeavor, was to create a demonstration farm. This allowed my village farmers to become the agricultural extensionists to others.”

This audacious plan required Craig and his fellow volunteers to coax a local land owner to donate 100 acres. It also involved securing a one million dollar grant from a large European foundation and persuading ten other Peace Corps volunteers to put in $5,000 each. The knowledge Craig acquired while creating the farm formed the basis of his first venture, which was focused on helping non-profits improve their fundraising capabilities.

Personal Fulfillment and Ability To Make An Impact

Both Marine and the Peace Corps members have ample opportunities to gain professional and personal fulfillment by repeatedly seeing the direct impact of their efforts. In the case of a soldier, it might be saving the life of comrade. For a member of the Peace Corps, it could be saving the life of a villager by administering antibiotics or generating potable water.

Craig’s experience was no exception. According to Mr. Harris, “For the first year, it was hard… I was trying to earn the farmers’ trust. My second year was just an absolutely phenomenal experience. It (the farming program) really took off like wild fire. The most magical part of my experience was when the leaders in my village would meet with other farmers and they would tell them about these new techniques.”  

Another way to make a low-paying, difficult job more rewarding is to foster an environment that allows employees to reach their personal potential. For instance, allow employees to take on as much responsibility as they can effectively manage.

Bill Hewlett and David Packard understood this principle at a time when most organizations relied on a highly centralized management structure. They realized that HP’s employees and customers would both benefit from an organization in which responsibility was delegated as close to the customer as possible. According to Mr. Packard, “…our success depends in large part on giving the responsibility to the level where it can be exercised effectively, usually on the lowest possible level of the organization, the level nearest the customer.”

The Marine Corps is a rank-driven, hierarchical organization. At first blush, it may seem antithetical to the typical startup. However, when confronting their enemy, soldiers are empowered to define the specific tactics necessary to carry out the overarching strategic goals defined by the generals. For instance, a squad may be given the strategic order to “take that hill;” however, the manner in which the hill is taken is left up to the squadron commander and his or her troops.

Lousy Cash Compensation, No Equity, No Bonuses

Numerous studies have shown that cash compensation is a temporal motivational tool. In the near-term, it can positively impact morale and enhance productivity. However, in the long run, most employees are more motivated by non-cash factors, such as personal growth, the “meaning” inherent in the organization’s mission and non-cash “trophies” which publicly validate their efforts.

In addition to the strong sense of unity and pride associated with exclusivity and the sense of accomplishment from helping to achieve the group’s mission, the Marines and Peace Corps offer their employees other forms of non-cash compensation. For instance, the Peace Corps afford their volunteers the chance to travel to remote locales. Marines have access to various subsidized living allowances covering food, healthcare and housing. They also have the opportunity to engage in activities unattainable in the private sector, such operating sophisticated weaponry, planes and exotic vehicles which cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Although your employees cannot land a jet on an aircraft carrier or change the lives of thousands of Paraguayan famers, you can allow them to take on responsibilities that would be out of reach at a larger organization. For instance, at one of my startups, I was able to lead an initial public offering while I was in my mid-30s. I had no prior experience and frankly I did a heck of a lot of on-the-job learning (and I had a lot of help along the way). At a big company, I would not have been entrusted to lead such an effort. Look for similar opportunities for your employees to “punch above their weight class.”

Love Ain’t Free, But It Can’t Be Bought

You cannot buy your way to success when recruiting employees for your startup. However, you can establish a culture in which employees are motivated by the shared sense of purpose and the organization’s overall mission.

If the Peace Corps can motivate volunteers to travel across the world and endure extreme personal discomfort and the Marine Corps can inspire people to place their lives in harm’s way, you certainly can devise a culture, mission and compensation structure that motivates your startup team without breaking the bank.

Follow my startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse. I’ll never tweet about salsa dancing, ponies or that killer burrito I am about to devour – just startup stuff. 

Image : jon_a_ross via Flickr

John Greathouse

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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