5 "Military Secrets" Behind Steve Blank's Entrepreneurial Success

Why the famed entrepreneur and author credits the military for advantages his civilian counterparts just didn't have.

For years, entrepreneur and author Steve Blank kept a secret from the people he worked with in Silicon Valley, he told me recently. The secret was that he'd first learned about technology and leadership in the U.S. Air Force.

If you're into entrepreneurship and customer development, you probably know Blank.

He's credited along with his former student, author Eric Ries, with developing the lean start-up paradigm. He's a serial entrepreneur who had big failures (Rock Star Games) and great successes (Epihpany, sold for $329 million in 2005), and a best-selling author in his own right. (His books, The Four Steps to the Epiphany and The Startup Owner's Manual are perennial Amazon bestsellers.)

Blank also writes columns for Inc.com. In reading one of his latest entries, I noticed that he'd served in the military. When I called afterward to ask about his experience in uniform--and whether it had any measurable impact on his later entrepreneurial success--he was eager to talk.

(I'm pretty convinced that military experience can offer fantastic, if misunderstood, preparation for life as an entrepreneur. I got some great responses to my recent column on the subject, and I'm always eager to hear about more of these stories. So feel free to reach out to me here.)

Airman Blank

As Blank tells the story, his military career began in 1971, after he dropped out of Michigan State, hitchhiked to Florida, and got a job at a Miami airport. He "fell in love with avionics," and enlisted in the Air Force to learn more about the field. He served for four years, including a year in Thailand repairing aircraft.

Afterward, he kept quiet about the experience, at least after he stopped working for big military and intelligence contractors and entered the world of start-ups. In the post-Vietnam era, he explained, there was little upside to mentioning a stint in uniform.

"It was very different than today. To say it wasn't respected was an understatement," Blank told me. "You did not advertise that you were ex-military in Silicon Valley."

Nevertheless, that military experience was Blank's secret advantage, he told me, a place where he'd "learned some of the best things I learned in my life." Here are five ways Blank said the military prepared him to become a successful entrepreneur.

1. Technical Training

Transferability of military training to civilian workforce skills is a huge issue in veterans affairs these days. Not all military specialties are created equally, but in Blank's case, he says his military training was a path to success in Silicon Valley.

"The Air Force at the time had the best vocational school in the world. They taught hundreds of thousands of airmen," he said. "We were at the bleeding edge of electronics."

His training also showed that he had a gut feeling for how systems worked.

"I learned I had great pattern recognition skills. If you're a tech, you can do it by the manual, or you can recognize over time that the manual doesn't teach you. That turned out to be my strength," he said.

2. Creative Problem-Solving

Creative people find a way to shine in spite of rigid environments, and the military can be a real proving ground for that skill. Blank said he realized what he'd learned when he returned to college after the Air Force and was trying to register for classes.

"I'm standing in line again like 'I'm going to get my fourth choice?'" Blank said. "[The heck with] this. I'd spent four years scrounging parts and figuring ways around red tape, all for the good of the country. I remember laughing like, 'you call this a bureaucracy?'"

He turned to his military schmoozing and scrounging skills, and emerged from registration with all of his first-choice classes.

3. Recognizing Opportunity

Blank threw the military maxim, "don't volunteer for anything" to the wind, and instead raised his hand just about every time someone asked.

"Ten percent of the time you wound up cleaning latrines, but the other 90 percent of the time I got to do amazing [stuff]," he said.

That included being stationed for a time at Homestead Air Force Base in Florida (considered a plumb assignment), serving in Southeast Asia, working on some of the most advanced avionics around, and even flying at times on board combat aircraft.

He saw later how the combination of experiences affected him: "Playing it safe is the antithesis of entrepreneurship."

4. Responsibility

In his book, Making the Corps, Tom Ricks described putting his life in the hands of a 22-year-old Marine on a patrol in Somalia. In his Washington office, he marveled, he wouldn't have let a 22-year-old "run the copying machine without adult supervision."

Blank discovered first-hand how that worked. "If you operated well in chaos, you got 'promoted,'" Blank told me. "By the time I was 19, I was managing 15 people. It wasn't because I had the rank. I was still a single- or two-striper then. But I was good at it."

5. Perspective

Blank is the first to admit he wasn't often in direct physical danger when he was in uniform. There were a few incidents when he was an in-flight repairman aboard an AC-130 gunship that came under North Vietnamese anti-aircraft fire, but by and large his job involved fixing airplanes, not getting shot at.

Still, he told me about the moment it suddenly clicked in his mind he was connected to a real life-and-death enterprise. He was working on a plane when he saw a group of airmen congregating at an empty revetment nearby, where an A-7D close support aircraft was normally parked.

"I wandered over, young and stupid and thinking this is a party," Blank recalled. The plane had been shot down, and the pilot was dead.

Fast-forward a few years: When Blank faced tough days in the first companies he started, he said he would think back to that moment. Failure is a relative term.

"You can describe that until you're blue in the face, but unless you've lived through it you never had the context," Blank said. "If you were anywhere near a combat zone--then, or now if you were in Iraq or Afghanistan--failing had a very different connotation."

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