Early-stage startups are a lot like pirates. They both lack formal processes, and are willing to question and even break rules to “steal” from incumbents (market share and booty respectively). This adaptability is critical in the early stages of building a great company.
if you succeed as a pirate, your stockpiles of treasure will grow. The territories you control will widen. You’ll need more manpower to protect all that booty and patrol all that terrain. Once you move from the early stages of blitzscaling to the Village (100 - 999 employees), City (1,000 - 9,999 employees) and Nation (10,000+employees) stages, you’ll lose the ability you enjoyed as a pirate to communicate and collaborate effectively on an ad hoc basis, and you’ll have to trade in your Jolly Roger for the flag of legitimate, disciplined navy.
~ Reid Hoffman On Pirates & Navies
This is an excellent essay on how team cultures evolve from the early days of an organization to later stages.
Most startups recognize the value to being small. Small means innovation, nimbleness, focus, and outcome as opposed to process, internal communications, and meetings.
There is irony here, bc when Pirates are successful they must become the Navy to scale. Successful leaders realize that they need to keep the positives of staying small, while building in the virtues of bigness.
For many startups, there is a ton of value to being small - small means agility, innovation, and outcome focus. Getting large means keeping the positives of staying small while building in the value of bigness (repetition, process, infrastructure).
Maybe I’ve never successfully walked that line, or maybe I’ve been on teams that transition from Pirate to Navy too soon… but I’ve always felt like I’ve identified a bit more with Pirate startup culture than Navy startup culture. Piracy is agility, and in a networked world, agility is strength. Piracy is hunger to get shit done, and when agency is alpha, that is strength.
I’d welcome stories of successful pirates, or pirates scaling their culture, in the comments below.