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New Business Boot Camp

ISpheres is training to take on the next economy from the toughest school on earth.

The NASDAQ is plummeting as a changing economy’s gale-force winds batter the IPO market. Venture capitalists everywhere are running for shelter, and the Fed is busy battening down the hatches. In short, these storm conditions make it an inauspicious time to launch a business.

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Is iSpheres worried?

No, said company cofounder Bart O’Brien. With discipline in training his troops prior to launch and a battle plan that’s been thoroughly tested before deployment, O’Brien thinks iSpheres, an Oakland, California-based enterprise software company, has what it takes to meet whatever challenges the forthcoming economy has to offer.

And just to make sure that his staff is prepared, O’Brien hired ex-Navy SEAL Alden Mills to inculcate recruits in military best practices so that the entire team is ready for launch.

An industry veteran himself, O’Brien earned his stripes launching Calico Commerce Inc. in 1996. He met Mills as the young officer was finishing an MBA program at Carnegie Mellon University. O’Brien was less impressed with Mills’s newly acquired business credentials than with his leadership skills.

In his seven-year run as a SEAL team platoon leader, Mills had been in charge of a team of combat swimmers responsible for launching and recovering open minisubs from host submarines in the depths of icy, treacherous waters. At 21, he was already leading teams of men and women, some almost twice his age, on missions that are widely regarded as the toughest on earth.

O’Brien thought that SEAL-honed agility and teamwork was the perfect background for a person who would help him navigate the perilous undertow of a startup business.

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As a small company, iSpheres needs to be steadfast and disciplined to ensure success in uncertain times. But as an 80-person organization, it also can operate with the speed and effectiveness of an elite team. Here are some of the Navy-influenced leadership practices and key principles that inform iSphere’s strategy:

Rigorous Training and Education

Upon arrival in a submarine team, new SEALS are routed through important aspects of their ship or sub so that they can become familiar with every operation and understand what their mission will be during critical times. ISpheres also has a training program run by its “Tiger Team,” which educates new hires on every part of the organization, including its mission, processes, and products. Learning how an organized team runs from the outset leads to greater team precision and skill, and avoids wasting critical time later.

Mission Statement and Vision

SEAL teams derive discipline and mission from the Navy’s higher vision. At iSpheres, core values are shaped by all of its team members, and each department participates in writing the company’s mission statement — as well as identifying personal goals therein. Mills sits down with new hires to discuss their goals and expectations from the outset.

A Team-Driven Approach Wins

Teamwork is the only route to victory in any team,” says Mills. “In a SEAL team, ‘Rambo’ is a four-letter word. Superstars are punished and removed when they succeed at the expense of their team.”

The open-space design of iSpheres’s Oakland office means that O’Brien, Mills, and other top executives sit among team members. In addition, iSpheres takes extra measures to reward entire teams for departmental successes. A team-driven focus is critical to the company’s culture. An employee who understands his strategic importance — who understand how he can have impact on a company — is more likely to stay, O’Brien says. The strategy seems to be working: ISpheres has had an extremely high retention rate.

Attitude Is a Major Factor in Success

Mills attributes his success in SEAL training and career to the power of a positive attitude. “The reason that some midshipmen don’t graduate has nothing to do with how fast they swim or run,” he says. “It’s their broken will and negative outlook.” O’Brien and Mills agreed that some of the major factors they look for in prospective hires are their attitude, personality, and life experiences.

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Communication Is Critical

Situation reports (“SitReps”), such as those Mills filed each week as a SEAL, are completed weekly at iSpheres. These reports inform each team member what part she plays in the company as a whole, build trust and morale among departments, and avoid alienation and team weakening.

Contact Alden Mills and Bart O’Brien via email (bobrien@ispheres.com, amills@ispheres.com). Visit iSpheres on the Web (www.ispheres.com).