Special Forces, Entrepreneurship: The P.A.C.E. Business Plan
by E.M. Burlingame
To quote one of my more colorful and influential Special Forces instructors during the train up for SF selection, who we will call ‘Mike’, “Have a plan. And have a plan for your plan… because you are ignorant and your first plan sucks.”
In the old days of Silicon Valley it was required to have a detailed business plan before pursuing external investment. However, in today’s ultra-high paced startup environment, a formal, 55-70 page business plan, with requisite 3 year pro forma, is no longer relevant. This does not mean you don’t need a business plan at all, but rather you need a brief plan which allows for clear direction and purpose while not setting the strategy so specifically your company can not be nimble in the rapidly changing and evolving marketplace. And as Mike would say, “Always have a backup plan for your plan.”
SF training teaches Operators to conduct extensive and in-depth planning for every single engagement members undertake. Which plan, resulting in a formal CONOP “Concept of Operations”, must be reviewed and approved up through several layers of approval authority before any mission can be conducted. However, once the base plan has been approved, changes on the battlefield requiring plan modification do not require a major rewrite.
This capacity for mid-stream changes has been baked into SF planning and arises from the awareness that despite the most detailed planning, the members of an ODA “Operational Detachment Alpha”, startup team of SF, often find they must rapidly adjust to current reality, battlefield truth.
The strength of SF planning is that these situation dependent dynamic adjustments do not require a complete rewrite of the base or master CONOP with all that is required being a FRAGO “Fragmentary Order”. The FRAGO is a modification or addendum to the base plan related to the specific mission being conducted. While still requiring detailed analysis and planning, the research and planning required for the FRAGO is not as involved as that for the base or master CONOP.
With extensive training and constant application in the operating environment, every SF Operator is capable of quickly developing a FRAGO due to another fundamental aspect of SF planning. This is PACE planning, which leads to every plan developed in fact being composed of four related but independent plans.
Collectively these plans are called the PACE plan. The independent yet heavily interdependent four-layered PACE planning is composed of the following:
Primary – Accomplishing mission if everything goes as planned –
Broken into sections, the Primary is a very detailed plan including commander’s intent, situational awareness of friendlies, enemies and the operating environment, resources, movement with phase lines, abort criteria, communications plans, instructions to subordinate and attached elements, and identification of possible contingencies with mitigation factors.
Alternate – Accomplishing mission if things change in predicted ways –
Each section of the Primary has an Alternate, which is for when things don’t go as planned but adjust in predetermined ways. The Alternate plan, designed around previously identified potential environmental changes, is designed to allow for adjustments to the Primary plan enabling success of the original objective.
Contingency – Recovering assets when things go sideways –
As with the Alternate and Emergency plan, each section possesses a Contingency Plan, for when things have gone bad to such a degree it is now more a matter of recovering something at all rather than accomplishing the original mission.
Emergency – Surviving when everything fails catastrophically –
Just as is implied in the name, the Emergency plan is the one engaged when every other plan has failed, when success is measured in survival and recovery rates.
It is this four layered planning, consisting of a base CONOP and the FRAGO’s thereto, all built around PACE planning, which provides the SFODA the ability to realize mission success and recovery of assets in ultra-high Risk and ultra-high Uncertainty environments. Startup management teams should conduct this same level of PACE planning in the ultra-high Risk and ultra-high Uncertainty battlespace of startups. That is, while a traditional business plan is no longer applicable, when pitching an investor or when providing for investor and partner-client-vendor relations, the startup team yet needs to demonstrate a PACE plan.
Some would argue this four-layered planning distracts management from concentrating on their core business, or that providing investors-partners-allies with alternative scenarios reduces the confidence management has a clear and precise objective. This isn’t true of course. As with Special Forces planning, Commander’s Intent, sic, the vision-mission-goals of the startup, the desired end-state, is always the unifying force driving all layers of planning.
When pitching to Emerio, or any potential investor, have every confidence your product-service and model will work, have a well thought out and researched plan of attack. But have a plan for your plan, not as Mike would say, “Because you suck” rather because things always change. And have a full, four-layered PACE plan for each critical aspect of your business, because sometimes things do not only change they change in rapid and asset destroying ways.
At most basic your PACE planning should include a plan for business success under ideal conditions, for less than ideal conditions, as well as recovery of minimal asset value in the event of dramatic changes and the ability to survive to fight another day if things go horrendously wrong. And as no business is a singular entity, but rather a composite of internal entities working collaboratively to a shared objective, and as things change rapidly in the environment of each singular entity, just as with an ODA and the SF battlespace, ensure your PACE planning is conducted by each major entity within your company specific to their contributions to the overall success of the venture.
This article first appeared in The Havok Journal on 28 August 2015.
E.M. Burlingame is a Silicon Valley techpreneur and later Private Equity investor and Investment Banker with emphasis on very early-stage technology companies. Having recently completed active duty service with 1st BN 1st Special Forces Group, EM is now serving with 20th. EM is currently Founder of the Honos Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to empowering local entrepreneurship in violence repressed areas and Founder and Managing Director of Emerio Group, an early-stage investment advisory. Following a degree in Strategic Studies and Defense Analysis at Norwich, EM is now pursuing PhD studies in Interdisciplinary Engineering, with an emphasis on Computational Engineering at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.