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What does GIGN (French SWAT) and great startup founders have in common ?

Well, a lot I think. In case you don’t know, GIGN is a special operations unit of the French Armed Forces. It is part of the National Gendarmerie and is trained to perform counter-terrorist and hostage rescue missions in France or anywhere else in the world. It is the GIGN that stormed and rescued the 220 passengers from the hijacked Air France flight AF8969 in Marignane Airport in 1994.

GIGN entering an aircraft
French SWAT team, GIGN entering an aircraft during exercise


The Mission

First of all, I think the GIGN and great startup founders share a common mission statement: Make the world a better place.

This mission goes beyond anything, including money. A GIGN officer’s monthly averge salary is USD3250, to put his own life at stake everyday in order to save others. I guess it is not really what you can call a great deal. contrary to popular belief, for startup founders, the risk/reward ratio isn’t that great either. Of course, you often hear a lot about the success stories of Instagram, DrawSomething, BuddyMedia and the likes, but the reality is that most startups actually fail.

Most of startup founders could actually make much more money by landing a job at any big corporation. Founding a startup often means working your ass off, dealing with a high amount of stress with no guaranteed paycheck at the end of the month for a sustainable period of time. As Steve Jobs said “It’s a lot of hard work and worrying, constantly and if you don’t love it, you gonna fail”.

This is also true for GIGN officers: They are empowered by their mission to make the world a safer place. It is this mission that give them the strength and courage to enter an aircraft hijacked by terrorists armed with deadly weapons. Believing in a great mission allows people to move mountains.


Continuous training & practice

No one is born a hero, there’s just training, training and training. The GIGN training in itself so hard compared to other forms of combat training. Statistics has it that in total 7 people who have passed away in GIGN, 5 of them lost their life during training.  In spite of its size (389 members), GIGN training expenses per head are almost 10 times higher than the average military training budget. This is justified because GIGN is called for situations where risk is abnormally high with an infinitely small room for error.

High risk and small room for error is also what characterize startups. While there’s no “training program” before founding a startup (not to my knowledge), most skills required to be a great startup founder are not innate and need to be practiced over and over. Negotiation skills are learnt by negotiating and failing, not by books.

I’ve read tons of books about negotiation and none actually helped as much as my previous experiences and several failures. To fail and learn from failures is the path to eventually succeed.


Tir de confiance (Firing of trust)
Tir de confiance – Firing of trust on a teammate with a .357 Magnum

Flawless teamwork

GIGN draws its force in flawless teamwork. There is no such thing as a one-man hero. GIGN team is made of pairs who always work and train together. The pair must be able to predict each other’s reactions under any circumstances.

To ensure a perfect teamwork, mutual trust is strongly developed and tested with the “tir de confiance” test where one has to aim & shoot a clay pigeon attached on his teammate’s bullet proof vest. Team  communication is also emphasized during all the training process since an excellent team coordination is required to succeed in any mission.

As Paul Graham wrote on his blog “not having a co-founder is a problem. A startup is too much for one person to bear.” which I couldn’t agree more. I would add that having the wrong co-founder is an even greater problem. Your co-founder is going to be the person you are going to spend 12-14 hours a day with for the next years of your life.

Great founders value great communication with transparency, consistency, relevancy and frequency. The magic occurs by looking at how one behaves. Nothing is worse than working with someone that says one thing and does otherwise. Say what you do and do what you say. The same goes with the team.

Jim Collins found out that great companies are usually run by executives taking personal responsibility for failures and credit their team for successes. Great players use the word “we” with successes and “I” with failures.


Focus & master emotions

Everyone experiences fear, but raiding a hijacked plane or starting a business may sound quite different even though both require a great ability to deal with fear of failure.

Everybody does experience a bad day, worry, fear or anger from time to time. If most people are usually victims of their emotions, great leaders will turn them to their advantage. Easier said than done but again, this is not innate and can definitely be learnt and improved. Great leaders need passion, but a passion that is controlled and rationalized.

Passion for a business will vanish sometimes. In such moments, a mediocre founder will want to give up and start something new. A great founder will know that such moments happen and will keep going. This is not about with faking emotions, because it is not; it is about calibrating the outburst of genuine emotions for the right reasons.

One great example about focus is the story of Robert Kiyosaki, former Marine gunship pilot during the Vietnam War. During one of his in-flight training, his instructor started to hit Kiyosaki’s helmet with a stick relentlessly. After a while, Kiyosaki got mad and asked his instructor what he was doing. His instructor replied that on the battlefield, being able to fly is not enough, one must be able to pilot while being fired at on his mission no matter what was going around. Without focus, you were dead meat.

For startups this is also true, given a small team and funds, lost of focus (or no focus) can be deadly. While large firms can afford to get this wrong, that’s often not the case for startup. While great startup leaders must be able to pivot sometimes, remember, a pivot is a change in strategy, not in vision.


Even if starting a business is hard, remember that at least, you can’t die.



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