Business Lessons from the Brethren of the Coast

The Brethren of the Coast, more commonly known as pirates, innovated society in several ways and many of their values have continued on today. More importantly, the pirates of the New World were able to find success against overwhelming odds and thrived in an incredibly hostile environment. The stories of their courage and skill almost outnumber the stories of their cruelty. Business is a hostile environment and we would do well to remember some of the lessons the pirates learned.

1. Pirates incentivized daring and courage.

They also provided payment if you took a risk that didn't pan out. For instance, being the first pirate to board an enemy ship gave you an extra 50 gold pieces. If you lost a leg, eye, or finger in the maneuver, you received the 50 gold for being first and you received payment for the injury.

Lesson: Simply rewarding behavior you wish to encourage is not enough. You must also ensure that failure is not a barrier.

2. Pirates had complete internal transparency.

From bonuses to payouts, to the equipment each pirate was expected to bring, to the amount of supplies to outfit each ship, everything was decided upon before starting a raid. After a fight, everything was catalogued to ensure fairness. Problems and tactics were discussed from the captain to the deck swabber. Internal transparency ensured trust throughout the crew and made it easier to react to new opportunities.

Lesson: Letting everyone know where things stand is essential if you want a proactive workforce. Aside from fostering trust, internal transparency ensures that your workforce can handle change, understands exactly what is needed so they can act independently for the good of the company, and increases job satisfaction.

3. Pirates developed their skills.

During their own time, pirates were considered slovenly, lazy, and unable to perform any sort of hard work. And yet, in the same breath, no one could argue with their skill at the sail or in battle. Pirates understood that their next meal came from their abilities to perform better than their opposition. Though they may not have drilled like soldiers, pirates practiced marksmanship, gunnery, sailing, navigation, and a lot more. Knowledge in their jobs made them extremely confident in their abilities to tackle any situation.

Lesson: Never stagnate. Even if your company offers complete job security, everyone should endeavor to learn more.  Greater knowledge and understanding allows you to react faster to changing conditions and disrupting technologies.

4. Pirates created and leveraged reputation.

Pirates understood that reputations could be sharper than a cutlass and more powerful than cannons. Blackbeard was a master of leveraging reputation. He would place slow burning fuses in his hat and beard and light them before a battle. The smoke they gave shrouded his face, making him look like the devil himself. This wrathful visage made victims surrender cargo without firing a shot. Thus, Blackbeard could achieve his goals without a single injured crew member.

Lesson: Simply creating a favorable reputation is not enough. Once you spend the long hours creating the right reputation, you must leverage it. Once your company becomes a thought leader within a topic, use that topic to sell.

Bonus Lesson

It was not the sword to the face, but the dagger in the back that ended the pirates reign.

In the beginning, pirates were a necessary part of the economy. First, they acted as guards for the nations who were “illegally” colonizing the Americas. Second, they were able to take large quantities of goods and sell them to new markets, which generated wealth and also allowed colonies and outposts to have some independency from sponsoring nations in Europe. Goods sold didn’t just include the things we see in the movies, such as jewels and riches, but included items like pitch, metal, rope, food, nails and other building supplies, clothes, etc.

However, pirates also created a level of dissatisfaction with those they helped the most (merchants and farmers). As cash crops began to take root in the Americas, the amount of generated wealth shifted from the pirates to the farmers. Sugar, cotton, tobacco, and other crops not only shifted money, but also shifted power. As an economic force, the powers of Europe sent real navies and armies to protect their colonies instead of relying on the pirates. And thus, this chapter of history was ended.

Lesson: Businesses need to keep an eye out for disruptive technologies and products. The worst form of competition is obsolescence.