” The Olympics are a great excuse to be glued to the TV and watch athlete after athlete battle their sport out, working harder in those 14 days than most of us will likely in our *entire* lives ”
As the 2016 Rio Olympics draw to a close, all of us arguably have been riveted to, emotionally moved by, and are in sheer admiration of these Olympic champions before us.
Caveat – I write this more from the lens of a co founder of a VC firm and thus as much as entrepreneur, as fund manager.
Before I dive in, if you haven’t done so already, please take the time to read this excellent article by Karthik (@karthikreddyb) below:
We will each have our personal favorites from Rio’s trials and tribulations; let me briefly touch upon my favorite three –
#1 is – no surprise – Usain Bolt’s “threepeat”, which had almost the entire world rooting for a man who has almost rivaled the great Muhammad Ali’s ability to interconnect the world with a deep respect and adulation for himself and sport more broadly
#2 – every Indian’s heart was beating for PV Sindhu, Sakshi, Dipa and this stellar group of up and comers
#3 – my favorite is Brazil’s (and Barcelona’s) Neymar Jr whose final winning penalty took Brazil to its first ever Olympic soccer gold, banishing the demons of their World Cup 2014 7-1 thrashing by Germany, also preceded by a broken vertebra that ruled him out. Talk about comebacks – a young captain leading a superbly talented, unknown but hard working U-21 team of young Boys of Brazil.
OK, lets cut to the “So What” – wide-eyed admiration of Olympic champions is fine, but why should we care as Founders? What are the parallels and crucially, the differences?
Does 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration hold?
In “Invictus”, Clint Eastwood’s award-winning movie modeled on Nelson Mandela (one of my personal favorites), Morgan Freeman playing the great man challenges the South African rugby captain Franois Pienaar (played by Matt Damon), to win the world cup against all odds, against the formidable New Zealand All Blacks. In a miraculous comeback recovery, the South African Springboks win, inspiring the entire country and (almost) realizing a landmark apartheid-free future. That’s inspiration like none other.
Coming to the famed 28 Olympic medal-winning swimming legend Michael Phelps, it is said he went back to training 8-10 hours every day and to sustain this, consumed as many as 20 eggs and 2 liters of milk as part of his daily diet regimen. Some European countries work 6-7 hour days… a daily dose of 8-10 hours of swimming?? Perspiration personified.
But in entrepreneurship, the 99/1 mix is not as sacrosanct as its not a zero-sum game. Perspiration and perseverance regardless of effort are not enough. Role models that have inspired us, including Steve Jobs and Elon Musk in the West to the Infosys founders and more recently our friendly unicorn founders closer to home, had to hire their first set of team members, land their first customers, strike channel partnerships, and develop their first MVPs by inspiring legions of core followers. Perspiration for a founder is a given – its the price of admission, a hygiene factor – but the sustained ability to inspire others and take them with you is what makes or breaks startups.
Sometimes we need our own Mandela-inspired Francois Pienaar pivotal moments to bounce back and propel forward.
Team above all
Though its outside the Olympics – some helpful lessons from an equally famed, intensely grueling and prestigious sport, the Tour De France. In one of the key mountain climbing stages, eventual winner Chris Froome apparently fell down and had a minor setback. Though other members of his Team Sky West could have battled on and sought pole position, there was a crystal-clear understanding that the one and only mission of every member in their 8-10 strong cycling team was to “protect the leader”. They stopped, went back and helped him on his feet, took care of the injury, and got him back in the race.
A crucial difference between the life of an Olympian and us entrepreneurs is the construct of “peaking”.
Phelps, Bolt, Mo Farah and other champions don’t let up on their training – yet, they have to peak only once every four years (and also in the intermittent world championships).
On the other hand, entrepreneurs have to peak every single day, every single hour. The younger the company, and fewer the founders, there is a real risk of burn out. In a recent visit to the Valley, I was drawn by a keen observation from SaaStr’s Jason Lemkin on challenges faced by B2B SaaS startups. Jason said one his biggest fears is “a brilliant but tired CEO who gets fatigued by the long sales cycles, and eventually burns out”.
I’m not a coach, but one key take away insight is possibly the art and science of peak performance
Mapped this to relevant entrepreneurial functions, some examples
- Pitches – practicing with friendly investors and angels, for early feedback helpful in refining and finalizing it
- Ditto – for customer and BD pitches
- Hire that first head of BD & Sales – and divvy up sales prospects optimally so that you as the ceo/founder is brought in to close key accounts (noting the first 10-12 accounts are almost always best closed by the founder/s)
- First mover is not always an advantage – get your MVP out early, but incorporate market and user feedback iteratively and often; while its difficult to “time the market”, you don’t want to be too early before early adopters even exist
“Always be yourself. Unless you can be Batman – then you should always be Batman”
Phelps. Bolt. And closer to home – Bindra. Sakshi. Sindhu. Hopefully, hundreds if not thousands of young women and men (yes, in THIS order) will be inspired by the gallantry and heroics of our new Olympic champions from India.
Given most of us have literally lived out this recent fortnight via our personal favorite stories, mishaps, and tears (of losing as well as of joy), if one re examines the essence of entrepreneurship, you could think of it as dual purpose –
#1 to first and foremost create value for all stakeholders (customers / users, employees, investors, other stakeholders)
but in equal part,
#2 to inspire (peers, up and comers, everyone from the tiniest district village to the country-at-large) everyone you touch within your company and across your ecosystem
On a recent call with a valley VC, I was surprised the partner spent 10 minutes asking about the team’s corporate governance and ethics – before even getting to revenue growth, cost structure and margins! Usain Bolt has shown that becoming and staying a role model is more than just numbers – he towers not just by his frame but by his clean image that inspires legions of athletes to play fair and yet be supremely competitive, and win.
The Olympic torch draws to an end – a temporary hiatus, before another generation of champions pick it up four years from now.
But as entrepreneurs, every single week has a quarter, a semi and the grand finale thrown into it. If we can draw inspiration from our individual beliefs and role models, “do what we do best”, and go about obsessively solving large-market problems with unique solutions, hopefully our own stories will leave at least a 1/1000th inspirational effect around us.
Never Clip my Wings – Neymar Jr, Brazil’s Olympic soccer captain