[Olympic DayDreams] Don’t write off the Startup Anthony Ervins!

Somewhere in an old khakhi bag in my parents’ Chennai home, there is a notebook that has a log of every (yeah, every!) event in the 1984 Olympics and the medalists. That’s how stats obsessed and sports obsessed I was to be between the ages of 10 and 17, possibly like some other Indian boys in that post-TV, pre-Internet era. So, when I landed in the US in 1999, and saw that the packaging of the Olympics by NBC (the channel that has a lock on the broadcasts there) was entirely around storytelling, a younger me thought it was American TV marketing gone soppy.

As the personal mission in life has gradually shifted to Blume and our tagline having evolved to “Stories Imagined, Stories Scripted”, the present consistent theme in my pursuits and beliefs is that we all live for the stories in our life – either scripting them or watching them unfold, fictional or otherwise.

The Olympic spirit resonates with this buried heart murmur more than most other stories, given its stage and grandeur. Four-year cycles, 100’s of nations, 1000’s of athletes, struggles, losses, tragedies, and victories – what’s not to love! The stories are going to come tumbling out if you’re paying attention.

Anthony Ervin

Anthony Ervin!

I’d forgotten the name, entirely (ironically, I remember Gary Hall, who shared the gold with him in 2000), until I read it in the papers this morning. He won the same event after 16 years! And which one? The 50m freestyle! – the “fastest man in the swimming pool” event!

Ervin was 19 when he tied Hall for the 50m gold in Sydney 2000. I was in disbelief seeing the bullet points in the article today (so, to the extent that I can fact check in Wiki and elsewhere on the Internet, I did)

  • Gave up swimming in 2003
  • Worked in a tattoo parlor (adequate proof on his upper torso)
  • Auctioned off his 2000 Gold Medal for a (2004) tsunami victims charity
  • Went into depression and attempted to kill himself
  • Came back to the pool and trained and qualified for 2012 and ended 5th
  • Comes back to Rio 2016 and wins the Gold, at the ages of 35 – eclipsing Phelps, literally overnight, as the oldest individual Olympic winner in the pool

(source: Wikipedia)

Amongst the randomly selected viewing of the 2016 Rio Olympics, I also caught a woman’s 25m shooting final – won by a determined young Greek woman: Anna Koraki. While she held her nerve against her German competitor for Gold, the story that enthralled me was already done: the Bronze medalist from Switzerland, Heidi Gerber; who had just beaten her much younger competitor, the world No 1 from China. Heidi is 47; and had started shooting for the first time when she was 39! (source: TV commentary; she also competed in both shooting events in 2012 and 2016 and this Bronze was her only top 25 finish in those 4 attempts)

Heidi Gerber

Cut to the startup scene: We have plenty of the more oft-quoted stereotype – of young, bright and supercharged founding teams, freshly minted with academic markers and/or an alum credential from a fancy larger startup brand, who are now embarking on a new “cool” journey.  And these hot startups are the ones that get most html pages or reams of newsprint devoted to them. Proof of any hotness = funding by VCs and nothing else. But why? It takes many years and sometimes over a decade to convert that original spark of success (of a funding round) to real revenues and a real business.

The minute the tough stretches hit these startups and their founders, all the ‘cool’ news outlets stop reporting! Now, imagine that these founders were even “less sexy” (if I may be pardoned for the phrase for our friends in the >40 year old founder group)! Somehow, there doesn’t seem to be enough respect for surviving many wars and battles and coming to the daily morning startup fight week after week, year after year.

The number of times I’ve heard the “less sexy” bias play out towards some of our founders leaves me numbed – it’s less subtle and more overt. The startup world will be quick to write off and move on, as it always seems to be the easier thing to do in our 21st century A.D.D-lives.

There are two possible versions usually at play. Either there’s a spark in the startup Olympian, who touches a pinnacle and then retreats into a struggle, but doesn’t give up. Or the founders are considered too old or unfashionable to back. Do not write off the Anthony Ervin in your pipeline or the Heidi Gerber in your portfolio! And founders – be the Anthony Ervin that you are capable of becoming!

When we’re done with Fund I and all its success stories and exits, I promise you there will be a grand piece celebrating all the Anthony Ervins and Heidi Gerbers in our portfolio! (As I finish editing this, there is an Uzbek finalist in the vault – Oksana – who just finished her possible final performance ever, at the age of 41, in her 7th straight Olympics)  Hail the Olympic spirit and may there be many such stories in our fledgling Indian startup ecosystem.

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