I have played sports my entire life. I love being physically active, competition, and the comradery of team sports. As I got older and didn’t have those, I got lazy and rarely worked out. Even though I had a gym membership, I rarely went and saw my dues more as a fat tax. I still loved playing pick up games, but hated that I got winded so easily or barely had the strength t compete at any previous level. I decided to stop being a lazy fatty and get myself back into shape. So I decided to train and complete a half marathon. When I started training, I was barely able to finish a light 4 mile run and be ruined. I know that sounds like more than most people which is true, but I used to play basketball, baseball, ice hockey, soccer, cross country, etc for hours on end day in and day out. Few weeks in a got a stress fracture in my ankle so had to completely stop for 3 weeks. Still was able to complete the half marathon and by the end that terrible 4 mile seemed like a warmup. At the same time I was training for a half marathon, my brother was training for and completed a sprint triathlon. Being the ever competitive little brother I am, I decided that I was going to also run a triathlon because I can’t have him doing something I haven’t. I have been training and doing them ever since.
That’s a nice story Tim, but what does that have to do with anything related to a startup? I didn’t put a correlation together until I was in the middle of training for my latest race and realized that there is an incredible amount of similarities between training for a triathlon and building a startup. I will try my best to keep things concise and not overuse allegory, but no promises.
The first place to start is with the different events: Swim, Bike Run. I absolutely LOVE swimming. I could do it everyday and it doesn’t take much effort to convince me to do a swim workout. I get very intense with my swim workouts and try to push myself. Biking is also very enjoyable to me and relaxing. It is definitely not hard to jump on my bike and ride around the bay on a sunny day. The perks of living in one of the best cities in the world. Lastly, we have the run. That evil bastard that ends an otherwise enjoyable time. Distance running is definitely not one of my favorite things. It is very easy for me to skip run workouts and the smallest bit of adversity and I can be found drinking a beer and eating nachos instead of running. With that said, there are three different levels that the events these events correlate from a macro to micro perspective.
The first global level has to do with the general population in terms of careers they choose. If you were to poll average triathletes and have them rank the order of events they enjoy most, the order would go Run, Bike, Swim. This order ranks the event with the least amount adversity first and the one with the most adversity last. Running has the least amount of unknown risk. You can see everything in front of you, you set the pace, and the worst injuries you can reasonably expect is cramps, muscle strains, and possible stress fractures. All of these injuries can be mitigated through proper preparation. It is a comfort zone and people can easily adjust based on the current conditions. This is the career path most people take. The safe corporate route where you can foresee the path you will be taking, make adjustments, and people are happy and excel greatly. The failure is minimal. The next event bike adds some more risk into the mix. You have higher speeds, relying on specialized equipment, and have to deal with unknown road conditions. The people who choose a career in this area enjoy the excitement of the extra risk, but still want to see the road ahead. While it can be dangerous, keeping aware of the road ahead helps you avoid major injury. Crashing(failing) in the bike area can be very painful and take a longer time to heal. There is a small safety net to protect you. Now we move to the swim. This area is where startups founders thrive. They stand on the shore, look out into the open ocean, and jump right in. People enjoy swimming in a pool which is the same as honing an idea. Most people will stay in the pool and not venture out because they don’t want to risk it. There is a high level of risk and uncertainty with an open water swim. There isn’t a safety net, you stop swimming you drown. You can’t see the bottom, have to deal with uncertain water conditions, and the underlining fear that a shark might jump up and bite you(I consider this the unknown startup killer that can strike even though you’ve done your best to prepare). Participating in this area scares the majority of people. I can’t explain why I love swimming in the open ocean the same way I can’t explain why I love working with startups. To me, its simply fun and I love doing it. 1500m swim in 4-6 ft swells with a strong current on a foggy day… sign me up!
Now that you are ready to get out of the swimming pool and try out your idea in open water, you reach the next correlation level. This level is more about the balance of training. I classify each area like this: Swim-What I want to be doing, Bike-What I enjoy doing and gets me to what I want to do, and Run-Everything else that I don’t enjoy doing, but is necessary to reach my goal. Swim training(working on my startup idea) is what I enjoy most and I want to spend as much time doing this as possible. The problem is that realistically you can’t initially focus on just your startup right out of the gate. Waking up one morning and coming up with an idea, then quitting your job that day to focus 100% on your startup is a REALLY bad idea. There are many validation steps that you need to go through before making that leap. You can not get to the finish line without the bike and run. The bike consists of my consulting work, part time job, outside activities and startup related events. I enjoy doing these things and they are necessary to being successful and keeping some semblance of sanity. They are a distraction to working on my startup, but allow for some security while honing my startup idea. They also help prepare me better as I learn about startup issues that might come up for me through my clients, other work, and from talking to other founders. This is highly valuable. Lastly is the run. This is everything that I do not necessarily enjoy that distracts from working on my startup but is in my best interest to do. Things here include paying bills, working on other jobs(Yes, work goes in here too), social distractions(weddings, family events, etc), and my own faults(procrastination, lazy days, etc). Not going into a startup bubble at the expense of those who care about you and your sanity is a difficult thing to do and requires dedicated effort. The key is to keep your training balanced and make planned, dedicated workouts that cover each area. It is very easy to get distracted by any of the three areas. Go into the startup bubble and forget about a work meeting or to write a report. Get too caught up worrying about bills or playing a mindless video game for too long. The worst one is getting too comfortable with the things you enjoy doing that you spend all your time there and not working on your startup. Balancing training is the 2nd hardest part of any startup venture.
If training is the 2nd hardest part, that means the hardest part is making the final jump and doing your startup full time, right? The answer is somewhat yes and no, but mostly no. This is why…
The final correlation level is Race Day! You’ve done the training, you’ve honed your idea, now its time to put up or shut up. The initial fear/hard part is making the decision to race. If you’ve properly trained, the race is the easy part and far easier than the training. There are always nerves on race day. First time triathletes are the same as first time founders. They have trained, but have no experience to know if their training was enough or prepared them for the race. The only way to find out is to race and see how you do. My first startup, I thought I had plenty of training and could do it on a whim. That failed miserably and the same goes for many people who are excellent, successful people in other careers and jump in thinking that success over there equals instant success in a startup. The race is merciless and exposes every weakness you have. You can hide faults very easily while training. That is not the case during the race. There is a clock, other competitors, and spectators all eagerly watching to see if you have what it takes to succeed. It is very stressful and scary to be exposed like that in a public manner. Nobody likes to have their faults exposed and exploited, especially with friends and family supporting and watching. Failing to finish a race(complete startup failure) or finishing below expectations(marginal startup success) leads to the hardest part of any startup venture…
The hardest part boils down to what now. You’ve completed a short triathlon and were marginally successful. Are you content with this or do you want more? Did you fail completely and miserably? Will you never race again or heal your wounds to try it again? This is where the field gets separated from people who like the idea of building a startup and those who love building startups. Many people go back to their safe zones after experience the pain of failure whether in training or during a race. Failing is never easy and always stings. Successful entrepreneurs embrace the pain. They take what you’ve learned from the race and go back into training to race again this time with better results and more experience. Whether its a stress fracture in my ankle or crashing at 25mph on my bike, the only thing I was focused on was getting back to the race and quitting wasn’t an option. It was very frustrating losing an entire race season due to my bike crash, but I couldn’t avoid it and would’ve been worse to jump in before I was healed. I have failed, crashed, and simply not finished well in my previous startups. Each time I go back into training, improve my training routine, and get ready for the next race day. This is the attribute of successful founders. Setting the goal of crossing the finish line and then getting to work on training.
So everyone who read this long thing and want to develop your startup. Discover what you love to do, train hard, and race!