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Management Lessons from the 18th Century Buccaneers

Treasure_in_the_Moonlight-1We’ve written four books about business management, the latest being  The Pocket Small Business Owner’s Guide to Business Plans. This year our novel Treasure in the Moonlight was released, a suspenseful adventure blending a contemporary treasure hunt with 18th century pirate lore.

While researching the novel, we discovered that pirate captains, just like modern-day CEOs, employed time-tested management techniques that made them successful. The buccaneers defined success as capturing more treasure than competitors (maximizing ROI), building a cohesive, well-trained crew (maximizing productivity) and of course avoiding being captured by the Royal Navy and hanged (voted out by the Board of Directors).

Granting Severance Pay
In these times when cutting staff or “downsizing” is unfortunately a go-to strategy for so many CEOs who lack the strategic vision to raise revenues instead, we forget that severance pay wasn’t always the norm. Our 18th century pirates, again, were ahead of the curve. The concept of marooning meant that crew members deemed to be expendable or broke the rules set forth by the captain, were dropped off at a deserted island with a small supply of food–enough to survive until they found food sources on the island. Maybe. Nowadays, employees deemed expendable are escorted out of the building and given a small amount of money–enough to survive until they get another job. Maybe.

Don’t Cut Corners When It Comes to Equipment Maintenance
Pirates, being in the transportation business, had to make sure their ships were in top condition. The wooden hulls of ships were subject to damage from sea worms and could become encrusted with barnacles, seaweed and other debris that slowed the ship’s sailing speed. Smart captains took the time to careen their ships, which meant putting them ashore so damage to the hull could be repaired. This of course took time away from capturing prizes at sea, but the penalty for lax maintenance could be not being able to evade a superior, more heavily armed ship in battle or catch up to a potential “prey.”

Project a Powerful Image with Your Company Logo
For pirate ships, the logo was displayed in the form of the flag they flew, the legendary Jolly Roger. The image they sought to convey was that they were dangerous. Their goal was to get the opposing ships to surrender at the mere sight of the flag. They used many different images and colors to accomplish this. The most famous and feared pirates were known for their flags’ distinctive logos. Captain Edward Low for example used a chilling image of a blood red skeleton on a black background. Swords and skulls were popular on these logos. An hourglass was also a popular symbol, conveying to an enemy ship, “Your time is up.”

A Relaxed Dress Code Leads to Greater Productivity
The uniforms of the Royal Navy from the 1700’s were designed to help maintain strict discipline. Pirate captains took another approach, letting crews wear whatever made them comfortable so they could perform their work under the hot Caribbean sun. They often wore loose fitting white shirts and plain trousers, and of course a hat. On board ship they often went barefoot. The captains themselves expressed their individuality through how they dressed. Some were quite flamboyant, wearing red sashes, silk shirts and velvet jackets. In the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films, Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow wears a red bandana and has long dreadlocks festooned with beads and trinkets. He ties his long beard into twists, as real-life pirate Blackbeard did in order to look fearsome. It worked.

The Pirates Live On…
History books tell us that pirates were mostly eradicated in the Americas by the late 18th century, but that is not entirely accurate. Actually they just evolved into what today we call venture capitalists.

The venture capitalists we have met in the course of our business careers and while writing two books about business finance, taught us how piracy works on a practical basis. Yes, the pirate captains’ concept of “no prey, no pay” is very much alive today.

Of course these modern-day pirates chant, “Yo Ho Ho and a bottle of Merlot.”

Other than that, and the fact venture capitalists aren’t the colorful dressers that pirate ship captains were, they are quite similar to the 18th century buccaneers depicted in our book, Treasure in the Moonlight.


Brian Hill and Dee Power are co-founders of Profit Dynamics Inc., a consulting firm that has been helping business owners plan their companies and write their business plans since 1997. They are the authors of “Inside Secrets to Venture Capital,” “Attracting Capital from Angels,” and “The Pocket Small Business Owner’s Guide to Business Plans.”
Their website is www.capital-connection.com.


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