I’d first met Jim Meeks a year ago through a friend who’s a venture capitalist. A Michigan native, Jim is one of those tall, nice, handsome Midwestern guys you want to bring home to Mom--and even better, he graduated from Harvard University and then Stanford, where he received his MBA. But in between, something tragic happened.
That ‘something’ was September 11th, 2001.
9/11 set Jim on a course he never dreamed of but suddenly felt compelled to do--join the Army and serve in Iraq. Twice he went, once as a platoon leader. The first time around, Jim was hit by an IED blast and came home to remove 120 pieces of shrapnel from his arm. After his final tour, Jim got married, had a baby and was about to get on the battlefield again--only this time, the stakes were remarkably different. Could he meld his Ivy League education with his Iraqi War experience and start a successful company?
Since then, Jim has launched his startup called MOVE Systems, which aims to replace New York City’s iconic hot dog carts with modern, environmentally-friendly mini food carts. When I went to visit his office in Queens, he’d just secured funding from First Data, the lead investor, produced the first prototype of the cart, and was about to hold a press conference with the city announcing the first 500 carts would be delivered by the end of this year.
Things were going well and Jim was bright and cheery as usual. He was also exhausted. Starting a business is nothing compared to putting your life on the frontlines of a war, but as we talked, I couldn’t help hearing similarities between the two. A few times the company nearly ran out of money; Jim was commuting back and forth from Michigan to New York weekly; at one point, he realized he had a 2-month-old newborn, $10,000 in the bank and no income. Those are the kind of war stories you can laugh about after you’ve made your millions. Until then, you’re on the field just trying to survive. Every entrepreneur worth his or her salt can relate to this.
The comparisons got me thinking about how Jim applies what he learned in the Army to his fledgling startup. Turns out, there’s a lot in common. “I still feel like a soldier playing the role of a businessman,” he jokes. Below are the three battle-tested truths about being in a war--both the real and business kind.
1. No Plan Survives First Contact With the Enemy (or the Market). It’s almost inevitable. You start with a bright idea, you recruit your team of founders, you get funding and you build the product. Then you hit the “Go” button and watch as your bright idea floods the market. What happens? It tanks. Consumers hate it. You’re not getting any traction. What do you need to do? You pivot, that’s what you do. And you figure out how to fix your mistakes. That’s exactly what happens on the battlefield, Jim says. “Everyone knows the mission, you take this route, you secure this location and then, what happens the moment you leave the gate? Someone shoots at you from a completely different direction. You have to adjust quickly.” Jim says the easiest way to get around these surprises is to make sure everyone is on board with the plan because once that plan changes, everyone can move seamlessly with the changes.
2. Persistence Is Better Than Brains or Brawn. Like many platoon leaders in Iraq, part of Jim’s job was to win over the locals who were highly suspicious and fearful of America’s presence. Talking to local tribal leaders helped a little; bringing out tanks and humvees made things worse. What really worked was just spending the time to meet with local leaders, families, and showing up everyday to help with community projects. In time, those efforts helped in countering the growing insurgent movement. In business, sometimes it doesn’t matter how smart or aggressive you are; it only matters how persistent you can stay. The path to success is paved with “nos” from investors, partners, consumers, employees. Only the best entrepreneurs use those rejections as fuel. In the beginning, Jim had been told no bank would loan his company money. In a few days, he’ll be closing on his first bank loan.
3. Think Tactically and Strategically at the Same Time. Being a good military commander means knowing how to see the forest and the trees at the same time. You have the long-term goal in mind but you also have to deal with the next mission. Being an entrepreneur is the same. Founders have to think about where they want to take the company in five years while worrying about how they’ll stay funded in the next three months. Jim compares it to being a photographer--you’re constantly zooming in and widening out. Successful entrepreneurs can do both well consistently. In fact, anyone who can do both well will make a great leader.
Jim says he had no clue when he returned home that he’d find himself leading a company. “I really had no idea what I was going to do,” he recalls. “What I learned from being in Iraq was that all the field manuals you read in training all went out the window once you landed. You had to make things up on the fly, think strategically and be creative. My job was to find new approaches to old problems. That was most satisfying to me.” Which is exactly what he’s doing in trying to bring order and technology to the messy world of New York City hot dog carts. Not quite a war zone, but treacherous in its own, unique way.