Commandos, Infantry, and Police

the three distinct groups of people that define the lifetime of a company: Commandos, Infantry, and Police

  • This is a great analogy, and a useful framework to think about the startup vs. BigCo question.
  • Largely derived from the book Accidental Empires
  • I’m almost certainly somewhere between “commando” and “infantry”, and decidedly not anywhere near “police”.


Whether invading countries or markets, the first wave of troops to see battle are the commandos. Woz and Jobs were the commandos of the Apple II

Commandos parachute behind enemy lines or quietly crawl ashore at night. A start-up’s biggest advantage is speed, and speed is what commandos live for. They work hard, fast, and cheap, though often with a low level of professionalism, which is okay, too, because professionalism is expensive.

Their job is to do lots of damage with surprise and teamwork, establishing a beachhead before the enemy is even aware that they exist. Ideally, they do this by building the prototype of a product that is so creative, so exactly correct for its purpose that by its very existence it leads to the destruction of other products. They make creativity a destructive act.


Grouping offshore as the commandos do their work is the second wave of soldiers, the infantry. These are the people who hit the beach en masse and slog out the early victory, building on the start given them by the commandos.

The second-wave troops take the prototype, test it, refine it, make it manufacturable, write the manuals, market it, and ideally produce a profit. Because there are so many more of these soldiers and their duties are so varied, they require an infrastructure of rules and procedures for getting things done – all the stuff that commandos hate.

For just this reason, soldiers of the second wave, while they can work with the first wave, generally don’t trust them, though the commandos don’t even notice this fact, since by this time they are bored and already looking for the door.


What happens then is that the commandos and the infantry head off in the direction of Berlin or Baghdad, advancing into new territories, performing their same jobs again and again, though each time in a slightly different way.

But there is still a need for a military presence in the territory they leave behind, which they have liberated. These third-wave troops hate change. They aren’t troops at all but police.

They want to fuel growth by adding people and building economies and empires of scale. AT&T, IBM, and practically all other big, old, successful industrial companies are examples of third-wave enterprises.

They can’t even remember their first- and second-wave founders.


You really need all three groups through the lifecycle of a project.

Having the wrong group (commandos) at the wrong time (maintenance) can hurt you a lot more than it helps.

It’s easy to dismiss the commandos. After all, most of business and warfare is conventional. But without commandos, you’d never get on the beach at all.

It’s in the transitions between these waves of troops that peril lies for computer start-ups. The company founder and charismatic leader of the Invasion is usually a commando, which means that he or she thrills to the idea of parachuting in and slashing throats but can’t imagine running a mature organization that deals with the problems of customers or even with the problems of its own growing base of employees.

First-wave types have trouble, too, accepting the drudgery that comes with being the boss of a high-tech start-up. Richard Leeds worked at Advanced Micro Devices and then Microsoft before starting his own small software company near Seattle. One day a programmer came to report that the toilet was plugged in the men’s room. “Tell the office manager,” Leeds said. “It’s her job to handle things like that.” “I can’t tell her,” said the programmer, shyly. “She’s a woman.” Richard Leeds, CEO, fixed the toilet.

Apple chairman John Sculley is a third-wave leader of a second-wave company, which explains the many problems he has had over the years finding a focus for himself and for Apple. Sculley has been faking it.