4 Ways to Run a Startup Like a Navy SEAL Team

I recently read the book Lone Survivor. It is the story of a 4-member Navy SEAL team sent on a mission in Afghanistan. 3 of the 4 were killed during the operation, and 16 more were killed trying to rescue them, making it the worst special operations catastrophe in history. The author, Marcus Luttrell, is the lone surviver. He tells the story not only of the operation and his survival, but also how he became a SEAL. As I learned how the military selects and trains SEALs, I realized that the startup companies I’m involved in would be more successful if I, and those I work with, operated more like Navy SEALs.


Here are 4 ways that startup teams can operate more like Navy SEALs.

1. Only work with “A” players

Startups can’t be successful with dead weight. It may feel heartless to get rid of a “B” player, but it’s worse to allow them to drag down the rest of the team. “A" players want to work with other “A” players, and you won’t be able to retain or recruit “A” players if you keep the “B” players.

The Navy SEAL qualification program is designed to weed out all but the top “A” players. Anything less than the best can threaten lives during a mission.

After eight weeks of Navy boot camp, aspiring SEALs go through several weeks of training in part designed to weed out all but the best. Luttrell’s group started with 164. It was down to 111 after 2 weeks and 54 by the start of the infamous Hell Week. Only 32 survived 6 days of constant training and only a few hours of total sleep.

I’m not suggesting that you put your team through something like Hell Week, but you can recognize those who don’t step up to the pressures of building a startup. You can recognize those who don’t bring top performance every day.

2. Train diligently 

Navy SEALs go through months of qualification and training before embarking on their first mission. Between missions they are constantly trained on all aspects of their duties, including fitness, weapons, hand-to-hand combat, etc.

Startups can’t afford to send their employees to months of training before putting them to work. However, they choose team members who have been well trained through education and past experience. They can also make training a part of their day-to-day activities for minimal time and cost.

One startup I work with has an “Education Plan.” All employees are authorized and strongly encouraged to spend a half hour per day, at work, studying educational material related to their job, such as books, trade magazines, etc. Education meetings are usually held monthly where one team member will spend up to an hour training the rest of the team on a relevant topic, such as by reviewing a book they have read.

Every Monday morning the entire team joins a conference call to report on progress from the past week and discuss plans for the upcoming week. Often they will hold “PK” (product knowledge) sessions at the end of these meetings. One team member will train the rest of the team on one of the company’s products so everyone will become familiar with all products.

3. Tackle the toughest challenges

Navy SEALs are brought in for the toughest missions because they are so carefully selected and well-trained. They face these challenges with confidence and courage because they know they are prepared and no one else can handle it.

To be successful and make a difference in the world, startup teams should be willing to tackle the toughest challenges. The low-hanging fruit in business was plucked long ago.

Elon Musk is a courageous entrepreneur. He was part of the Paypal startup team that disrupted the lucrative payments industry. Now he is tackling three incredibly difficult challenges (and succeeding) - commercial space travel, electric automobiles, and high-speed trains.

4. Never give up because it’s too hard

I added “because it’s too hard” because saying “never give up” without qualification can be dangerous. There are times when it’s good and necessary to change direction. It’s not wise to throw good time and money into a hopeless venture.

However, in many cases startups simply need to weather the tough times with confidence and courage. The history of any successful company that I’m aware of includes many ups and downs and even near-death experiences.

Most of us know the basics of Apple’s history. Michael Dell famously said in 1997, when asked what he would do to fix the struggling company, that he would shut it down and give the money back to shareholders.

In its early years, Google executives bet the company on an ad deal with AOL. If the deal had gone wrong, the company could have gone down with it. Instead, the deal became the foundation of its core business: search advertising.


Most startups don’t have the resources or time to replicate the Navy SEAL experience for their teams. However, startups can learn and apply principles from the Navy SEAL program. They can become an elite team that has the respect of competitors, customers, vendors, and shareholders.

Question: What other lessons can we learn from Navy SEALs?