During the last 10 years I have invested, advised and founded startups in New York City. I have also spent a significant amount of that time patrolling its streets as a member of the Auxiliary Unit of the New York Police Department.
The Auxiliary Unit of the NYPD dates back to 1951 when New York State passed the Defense Emergency Act whereby citizens would be trained to help the police in case of an emergency or natural disaster. In 1967 these volunteers were put under the direct command of the NYPD and the division was named the Auxiliary Police. Auxiliary Police Officers increase the public's perception of police presence by patrolling in police cars, on foot and on bicycle. We act as a second set of eyes and ears on the streets, though we are not supposed to engage when a crime is in progress. Unfortunately that is not always a choice Auxiliary Officers have. Since becoming an official part of the NYPD, seven Auxiliary Officers have been killed in the line of duty. What the Auxiliary Units do each day, of course, pales in comparison to the work that regular NYPD Officers do in protecting and serving our great city. Watching the regular NYPD and being part of my unit for so long taught me several valuable lessons that I have had the opportunity to apply as I have worked with startups.
Keep calm -- There is not much that can rattle an Officer of the NYPD. They have seen it all and they are prepared for most eventualities. Somehow, when you have had a gun in your face in an actual life or death situation, the site going down for a few minutes doesn't seem like that big a deal. Most situations are not life or death and they need to be approached calmly and thoughtfully. Startups hit road blocks all the time. As a founder you have to guide your team right through the obstacles you will inevitably face. You can't panic. You need to listen, get the facts, and chart the best course of action. If your site goes down, remain calm. If your first and only customer leaves, remain calm. If your investors won't support your next round, remain calm. You will figure out a better solution if you react calmly and methodically. After all, you don't have a gun to your head.
Have a plan -- Do you know why you never see police officers run? Two reasons: First, when people see a cop run, they tend to follow and see what's going on. That creates a more dangerous situation as now the Officers have to worry about protecting more people from whatever dangerous situation they are moving towards. Second, the Officers are discussing what they just heard from central dispatch and what each will do when they arrive on scene. They are establishing a plan of action based on the information they have. The NYPD always has a plan, because if they don't, people die. Startups need to do the same. You need to allocate the scarce resources you have available. You need to prioritize your roadmap to ensure you are creating the most value possible. You need to budget and understand what your contingency plans are for different scenarios. Startups die because they run out of money and they haven't shown enough traction for someone to give them more. If you always have a plan you are less like to see your startup die.
Call in backup -- "The NYPD never loses a fight because they have the biggest force on the streets." My commanding officer told me that once and it just makes sense. No matter how big the group of bad guys are, they can't get on a radio and have hundreds of well-trained people rushing to their aid in minutes. The NYPD can, and so can a startup ... well, minus the guns. Startups are hard and the challenges we face sometimes seem daunting. Too often founders try to solve these challenges on their own thinking no one else can understand. Founders that don't ask for help often fail. You should never be afraid to call in backup. This means your investors, your advisers, fellow founders - all stand ready to provide whatever aid you need. When an officer faces a threat of any kind, his first move is always to call into central, advise of location, the situation, and ask for help if needed. Founders should do the same.
While we never literally have a gun to our heads, our lives on the line, or put in front of any real danger, startups are hard. Walking the beat in the 19th Precinct of the NYPD for nine years taught me to keep calm, have a plan and always call in backup when needed. While a startups' challenges are not as dangerous, we should be no less prepared for them as they come.