Startups as a Sport
All Things Venture #062
Hey Everyone! Dez here from All Things Venture. For those of you who don’t know, I played basketball in college. I played 4 years at Cornell, I loved the entirety of my experience (good and bad), and because of that experience the month of March is basically like a second Christmas for me. For me, sports were my first career, and startups are my second. This post is about my perspective on the similarities between successful sports teams, and successful startups.
Here’s some of the similarities I see between startups and sports.:
Buying in on the Mission: The best teams/startups are bought in on the mission. From the MVP, to the last guy/girl off the bench, everyone on the team A) knows the mission and B) believes the mission can be achieved. On the best sports teams I’ve ever been on, there is no doubt that the mission (or goal) is possible. And there also isn’t lip service to the idea of the mission. When people say, “We’re going to win a championship this year,” they have to genuinely believe it.
Championing your Role: We used to have a saying in college, “we’re only as good as the 12th guy” meaning that whether or not you were the MVP or the last guy/girl off the bench - you had a role to play on the team, and you were expected to champion that role. In a startup sense, I view it as the most junior engineer, PM, or sales person bringing the same intensity and focus to their role as does the CEO, and vice versa. You can only go so far playing hero ball, and you’ll only get so far if you can’t trust the last man/woman to make a play.
Mastering the Basics: This took me awhile to understand, but at least in basketball there are a lot of little moments in games that can make a difference. An unforced turnover, a loose ball situation, a missed free throw. These moments are not the most technically complex/challenging, but what is challenging - is doing them the correct way, EVERY SINGLE TIME. In startups, I actually think about this more as fostering a culture that while permissive of mistakes (because they’re going to happen) places a premium/emphasis on doing the little things, the things within the team’s control, perfectly.
Living in the Gym: Some people may hate this point but I think it’s generally true. Before getting to play in college, I used to have this general fear that went like this, “If I wasn’t getting up shots in the gym, some random kid in Idaho was, and they’re going to take my spot at playing D1.” Because of that fear, I spent as much possible time as I could playing basketball. I was a gym rat, and looking back I would rachet my time spent even further, because I know in hindsight - I had more cycles to give. If a startup can convince people to do the equivalent of “living in the gym,” they’re going to be in an extremely competitive position. Albeit, do I think working 100 hour weeks is healthy? No, but I wouldn’t want a team that is counting the hours till they get off at 5 either
The Best Want to Play the Best: There’s a reason why the Final Four this year was four of the most historic programs in NCAA history. Put simply, the best talent wants to play with/and against each other, because they believe that gives them the best chances of winning it all. The same can be applied to startups. The best people want to work w/ the best people, and for further evidence on that thought from someone w/ way more experience than me see below
Encouraging Competition but Resolving Conflict: In business and in sports, I have sat in on some heated moments, and personally, I think that for any business/sports team worth it’s salt – if you DON’T have conflict, that’s a bad sign. Like John Doerr said, “No conflict? No interest.” Innately, I think 99.99% of the people attracted to early-stage startups, are hard wired to compete, so let them! The hard part about internal competition is preventing it from spilling over into direct conflict and being mindful of creating the psychological safety to encourage people to thoughtfully disagree. In sports it’s easy because there are objective measures. Person A scores 47% from three, Person B scores 42% - case closed, but startups are harder. A lot of the necessary decisions are made off of subjective calls w/ little to no available data. I don’t have a good answer for this, but it’s something to be aware of.
Spending time Off the Court: There’s an elusive thing in sports called “chemistry” meaning, how well does this team work together? Do they pick each other up after hard fouls? Do they confront each other when they make mistakes in the moment? Are they having fun doing what they’re doing? The best teams, time and time again – have some form of “chemistry.” In the NBA, the Phoenix Suns probably have the best chemistry this season. Coincidentally, they’re number 1 in the Western Conference. In startups, “chemistry” is the magic that happens after hours. It’s the small traditions that individuals create along the journey, it’s the 1:1 conversations that turn into philosophical discussions on what it means to be happy, it’s the team outings that become part of the lore, the history of the company. These things matter. Getting to know the people you are in the foxhole with is incredibly important, and it can move the needle when times get hard. Your business doesn’t get solely built through slack and stand up meetings. It gets built in hallway conversations, and team offsites, and team celebrations. Spending time with your team “off the court” while challenging to do, can create some of that necesary chemistry to make it through
There’s a thousand other things I missed about how startups and sport intersect, and I’ll probably end up writing more perspectives on this particular topic, but that’s all I got for you guys today. Take it easy everyone, talk soon!!