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Profile of a Terrorist Entrepreneur


Pakistani media seems obsessed with stories of terrorism and gun-slinging, self-blowing terrorists. While it’s an unfortunate reality that the country and its people have had to brave this problem sporadically – more often in remote troubled areas – the media hype that follows even the smallest incidence leads people to believe that Pakistan is about to disintegrate into oblivion.

Why don’t the more pervasive, more heartening, more joyful, uplifting and inspiring stories from the biggest cities to the smallest towns captivate the airwaves like the negative news items do? I don’t know the answer to that question. I can only guess that it provides TV shows, newspapers and other electronic media outlets a larger and more engaged audience. So I am going to ride that bandwagon and leverage that interest to get my point across!

The Terrorist Entrepreneur

Terrorist leaders and entrepreneurs share a lot of common traits. While the motives, results, repercussions and aftermath are very different, the profile of a terrorist mastermind that blows up a building with a bomb is not much different from that of an entrepreneur that blows people’s socks off with an innovative product or service. Building a pervasive terrorist network needs many skills also necessary for building a high-growth business.

Here is what’s common between a terrorist and an entrepreneur and constitutes what I call the Profile of a Terrorist Entrepreneur.

The Terrorist Entrepreneur is Fearless

To me, the young, impressionable and gullible lad, sweet talked by a terrorist mastermind into blowing himself up in a crowded street is as much a victim of terrorism as the people who lose their lives in the incident. The real terrorist, the mastermind behind the attack, is fearless. He has no fear of God. He has no fear of State. He has no fear of retribution.

A successful entrepreneur must be fearless as well. The one thing that most commonly stands between a successful entrepreneur and a person who will get kicked around all his life into becoming what others want him to be, is the fear of failure. Entrepreneurs know that this is not an impregnable hurdle. They face it, embrace it and celebrate it. I paraphrase Dave McClure, the famous North American entrepreneur and investor, “Entrepreneurs say ‘f**k you’ to the fear of failure and to anyone who tries to intimidate them into not following their hearts and dreams.”

The Terrorist Entrepreneur is Perceptive

Terrorists are keen observers of events, people, places and circumstances and very adept at extracting intelligence out of this data. These insights and perception play a pivotal role in the meticulous planning of an attack as well as growing their terrorist network.

Similarly, it takes a lot of savvy, heightened awareness and good judgement to identify a viable business opportunity and figure out how it can be transformed into a high growth business model. Entrepreneurs are therefore extremely perceptive individuals who can foresee the potential in solving a problem they experienced themselves or reported by someone around them. These same insights also serve to fuel their passion and lay the foundation of a startup. Entrepreneurs use their perceptive powers to dream and craft a vision that will guide them through the rest of their entrepreneurial journey.

The Terrorist Entrepreneur is Informed

Information and resulting intelligence are a terrorist’s biggest assets. They know their marks and targets, schedules, preferences, alternatives, processes, procedures, strengths, weaknesses and threats of and from anyone and anything involved in and related to a planned attack. They are always aware of who is saying what and doing what, where and when even within their own organization.

After identifying a viable business opportunity, entrepreneurs similarly need to accumulate intelligence about their venture. Market size, customer preferences and behavior, competitive landscape, pricing options, decision makers and key influencers in the market as well as at prospective customers, potential partners, distribution options, legal and regulatory landscape, etc; all such things need to be known to succeed in this high-risk, high-rewards business. This information needs to be validated by actually getting out of the building and interacting with potential customers. Lousy entrepreneurs are informed by untested hypotheses about their businesses. Good ones extract intelligence out of market-validated assumptions.

The Terrorist Entrepreneur is Charismatic

Terrorists are charmers. How else does one recruit someone to hurt other fellow human beings? Their promises may be false and dreams wayward, but they have the charisma to infect other gullible and impressionable people with their own twisted version of the reality and a delusive vision of a bright and prosperous future for their dependents here in the world and for them in the hereafter.

Entrepreneurs need to be charismatic also. It takes a lot of charm and drawing power to sell one’s vision to co-founders, employees, partners, investors and early customers. Entrepreneurs are not necessarily the most articulate but they are very good communicators and very passionate about their vision. Good ones need to learn to connect with people and infect them with that passion, energy and vision of the future. This is especially relevant during the early days of a startup when financial resources are constrained or absent and a strong founding team that complements the founder, needs to be brought together to grow a startup to a stage where it’s investment ready.

The Terrorist Entrepreneur is Lean

Except for perhaps a rare exception, ever heard of a terrorist getting caught operating out of a fancy office, driving luxury cars, recruiting beyond their means or needs, or sending ten men to do the job that one can accomplish? Terrorist outfits are lean operations often known to expend their resources only when and where they are most needed. Arguably, this is done out of necessity and the need to maintain their cover.

Steve Blank and Eric Ries have done a lot of work to reduce the art in building a business and replace it with a scientific approach. They call it the The Lean Startup. I am a big fan of their work and I think all entrepreneurs need to embrace the methodology as well. A lean startup is not a cheap business, but one that is more methodical and scientific about growing the organization with a keen sense of order and priorities. I have seen so many entrepreneurs start developing a product in a vacuum only to discover there never existed a market for what they have built. A lean entrepreneur, on the contrary, recognizes the value of customer discovery and validating his hypothesis about the business model very early on in the business’ life-cycle. A lean entrepreneur is more prudent with the startup’s resources and extracts the most value out of its every asset. Grab Eric Ries’ excellent book titled The Lean Startup to learn more about how to become a lean entrepreneur.

The Terrorist Entrepreneur is Resourceful

Unarguably, terrorists are extremely resourceful and are able to muster a lot of support, capital, people, illegal assets and intelligence to execute their vicious plans. They are even able to reach and communicate with media and get their heinous messages out to the masses.

Growing a business requires resourcefulness as well. Not just to build a world-class team but also to reach out to investors, partners and customers as well. A good network is one of the most crucial assets of an entrepreneur, but more importantly, the ability to leverage that network effectively can be the difference between a failed and a successful startup. An entrepreneur will have to tap into his friends and family network to raise initial seed money for the venture. He will need to tap into the college or professional network to recruit good talent. He will need to be knowledgeable about tools and resources needed by his venture. He will leverage his contacts to approach business partners and investors for the startup. An entrepreneur is constantly fire-fighting and improvising and making the best out of every situation. All of this requires resourcefulness of mind, ideas, people and assets.

The Terrorist Entrepreneur is Tenacious

One of the most common traits of terrorists is their tenacity. They are relentless in their pursuit of chaos and destruction. They don’t like to fail. They plan meticulously and from what I have gathered from watching news bits about various terrorist attacks, they always have Plan Bs and Plan Cs.

High-growth businesses require unyielding and strong-willed drivers with nerves of steel. While they need meticulous planning, even more importantly, they need leaders who have the agility to quickly react and adapt to constant feedback from the market. Conception of a business to an IPO or exit is almost always a very long roller-coaster ride with high highs and very low lows. Good entrepreneurs have the tenacity to absorb all the shocks and shield the rest of the organization from the bumps of that journey. If charm and resourcefulness don’t work, great entrepreneurs scramble and hustle and will their way out of all the crap that’s slung at their dream. Great entrepreneurs say ‘f**k you’ and keep marching ahead!

The Terrorist Entrepreneur is Ostentatious

I don’t know any terrorists personally so I may be making a giant leap here based on the Hollywood portrayal of these animals, but I believe that most terrorists are egotistical maniacs, even the ones that stay out of limelight or lurk in the shadows. Not only that, they are also aware of leveraging the ‘brand’ of their terrorist outfit to strike more fear into the hearts and minds of the populace they target. I keep hearing news bits about multiple terrorist organizations claiming responsibility for a terror incident and I can’t help but wonder that it’s a ploy to further build their brand, get in the media and terrorize more people.

Good entrepreneurs are good marketers for their businesses. Great ones even build their own personal brand which makes them more resourceful and more likely to realize their dream. I have seen less startups fail due to lack of resources, and many more flounder because either a market for their product or service did not exist or the team couldn’t reach that market effectively. Although a great product or service is a prerequisite, successful entrepreneurs are adept at crafting great complementary stories to help market those products more effectively. Good entrepreneurs build brands and are ostentatious about their vision, their products, their team and their company, almost to the extent of being pretentious at times. And that’s not a bad thing. I know of an entrepreneur who started marketing his business the day he conceived it using keyword and search marketing that would lead an interested prospect to an under construction page with just an email sign-up form. He was able to gauge interest in the idea and build a contact list of prospective customers he could target for beta testing later.

The Terrorist Entrepreneur is Patient

We have all heard stories of terrorist sleeper cells where they lay low for months or years and try to blend in with the local community, only to be ‘activated’ later to fulfill their mission. Terrorists are seemingly very patient individuals.

The high school I went to had a motto: Perseverance Commands Success. Almost all successful entrepreneurs I know of seem to subscribe to that mantra. Building a business is not the same as building a product. While products can be built in weeks or months using a lot of open source tools and frameworks out there and employing one of the many RAD and Agile development methodologies, businesses are built over years, without exception. Successful entrepreneurs are not crap shooters, they are chess players and think and act long term. While there is constant fire-fighting and scrambling at a start-up, the one thing that must remain constant is the long term vision of the leader as long as the market feedback keeps reinforcing it. And that’s an important point. It’s pivotal for a good leader to be aware of the fine line behind which he must persevere and beyond which he must pivot and adapt. The only way to know where that line draws is to be in constant touch with the market and customers.

The Terrorist Entrepreneur is Caring

Yeah, this one is likely to raise most eyebrows. Admittedly, I picked it up from watching a Pakistani movie that shows this terrorist leader inducting a young boy into his organization. He acts like the father the boy wished he had. He was generous, caring and showed a lot of love to the young recruit, albeit all fake. The real thing terrorists care about is their ideology, albeit misplaced.

A successful entrepreneur, on the other hand, needs to love for real. He needs to care for his company, his employees, his business partners, his investors and most importantly, his customers. The hallmark of all successful, long running, profitable businesses has been customer service and the loyalty that accompanies happy customers. Many times, even though a business has great products and is able to market them effectively, it is not able to sustain its growth, primarily because it is unable to build customer loyalty to its brand and products, and nothing accomplishes that better than a customer who feels he is cared for by the business. Successful businesses shoot for 25-40% of their revenue to come from repeat customers. Companies, like Zappos, best known for their customer loyalty attract more than 75% of their business from repeat customers. Their tag line? Powered by Service.

Parting Thoughts

My objective, if it’s still unclear, is not to glorify terrorists or terrorism or defend their heinous acts or ideologies. Let it be very clear that I condemn them wholeheartedly. Instead I want to use the attention, that anything that has to do with terrorism, draws to get across to budding entrepreneurs and share with them the qualities that make a successful business leader.

And to various security agencies mining all internet content and communication to search for terrorists, I have this to say. I do not know, nor have I ever known any terrorist, except for perhaps my 3 year old son who can be pretty terrorizing at times. My knowledge of their profile attributes is solely drawn from watching movies and news bits on national television. Please don’t come after me!

Khurram Zafar (19 Posts)

Executive Director, LUMS Center for Entrepreneurship | ex-CIO at Lahore Stock Exchange | Senior Policy Adviser, Government of Punjab | Visiting Faculty, Entrepreneurship, Graduate School of Computer Science, Information Technology University of Punjab | Board Member, Plan9 Technology Incubator | Entrepreneur | Tech & Agri Investor | Poker Player | Poet | Magician | Dad of three | Follow me on Twitter by clicking here!


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