TOPGUN: Good Training for Venture Capital and Entrepreneurship
Top Gun the movie, like many movies loosely based on true stories or real organizations, certainly left us all entertained, and hopefully even a little motivated. The scenes of beach volleyball, testosterone-charged competition, and Maverick’s famous rendition of the Righteous Brothers’ classic were all unforgettable. But Hollywood never lets the truth get in the way of a great story. In reality, the U.S. Navy’s TOPGUN school, formally called the Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor (SFTI) Program, focuses far more on honing already exceptional skills of stand-out aviators and drawing out their true leadership potential.
The similarities to venture capital and entrepreneurship are endless, and TOPGUN offers a model for the discipline, agility and perseverance essential for entrepreneurial success.
The Navy established TOPGUN over 40 years ago for one specific reason: to ensure naval fighter pilots had the precision tactical skill necessary to better maneuver their planes against the enemy in combat. In order to scale, the program was modeled as graduate level instruction designed to train the trainers. After two and a half months of intense training, graduate SFTI’s (aka TOPGUNs) return to their respective fighter squadrons as tactics gurus and then propagate “best practices” throughout the rest of the Naval Strike and Air Warfare community. Armed with the latest recommendations and expertise, new graduates virally disseminate the latest tactics to the rest of the fleet, thus keeping the entire organization sharp. The best TOPGUNs are the best teachers, and they teach by example.
Most successful VCs often come from operational backgrounds as well, and are able to provide mentorship, guidance and first-person experience to their entrepreneurs, not just capital. I also see many similarities between entrepreneurs and fighter pilots. They are both risk-takers, and the good ones have a natural ability to synthesize disparate streams of incomplete information and build comprehensive visualizations of their dynamic and hostile environments. Fighter pilots call this situational awareness, or SA. Having the SA to recognize a flawed strategy isn’t enough. The ability to change course quickly and intelligently, while managing limited and constrained resources, is a necessary skill for both fighter pilots and entrepreneurs to achieve mission success. Fighter pilots have a rule: never run out of airspeed, altitude, and ideas all at the same time. For the entrepreneur, running out of cash and sales simultaneously is obviously not good either.
Entrepreneurship is demanding and requires extraordinary passion and dedication, but that’s not enough. It requires building, mentoring, and motivating strong, cohesive teams to achieve success. Research indicates that entrepreneurs who have succeeded in a prior venture have only a 30 percent chance of success in their next venture. The ability to identify, recruit, and motivate the best team-minded athletes to help move the ball clearly increases these odds. To be sure, mistakes will always be made, but it helps when entrepreneurs have operationally minded investors to mentor and guide them and their team.
Today’s entrepreneurs struggle more than ever with the pressures of unforgiving and competitive markets and rapidly changing environments. Motivating the team during uncertain times; convincing large customers that a small company with nascent technology is a safe bet; articulating the vision to new potential investors—these are all common challenges faced by entrepreneurs. All of us at Claremont Creek Ventures have faced them too. When I’m working with our teams at Claremont Creek, I stress how important it is to remain calm in chaotic situations. Whether in a heated board meeting or a Mach 1+ fighter intercept, it’s the cool mind that can turn challenge into opportunity and ultimately dominate in any situation.
Hollywood attempted to portray TOPGUN’s essence through the actions and experiences of the duo, Maverick and Goose. Left almost unnoticed was the true hero of the story, the veteran instructor (do you remember his call sign?) who motivated young Maverick during his time of uncertainty, thereby unlocking Maverick’s true talent and building an asset for the broader team. In many situations we have found that all of us at Claremont Creek Ventures can do the same for willing entrepreneurs, by helping them navigate through challenging landscapes and ultimately build value.