Five incredible lessons for startups from the sporting world
Anyone who has started something will usually concur it is a very lonely pursuit. The absence of any precedent, the need to reinstall belief on nearly a weekly, daily and sometimes an hourly basis, the disappointment of finding that every day the final destination might be turning out to be a bit further than anticipated, all conspire to make the entrepreneurial voyage, one beset with doubts and difficulties at most times.
Then there is always the feeling that one can really talk to no one else. Others rarely understand the predicament of a pioneer. Many, ensconced in more conservative surroundings, frown upon the detour from the norm. Quite a few actively evangelize a quiet return to stability. Hence, the avenues from where inspiration and empathy can be eked out begin to dry up faster than the opponent’s chances of winning a point, once he decides to slug it out from the baseline against Rafael Nadal.
Perhaps this is where the other domains of human interest, have to play a much bigger starring role. And few offer as many goose pimple laden moments and evocative parallel insights, as the world of sport. However merely viewing sport, as only a pleasant diversion and a stress busting alternative, is not doing full justice to its potential in stirring cerebral and emotional responses. One has to look slightly beyond and make the effort of drawing connections with one’s own dilemma. It is only then that experience of consuming sport, truly begins to rewrite a balance sheet which is just about taking shape.
Here are but a few ‘power plays’, which dwell on looking more deeply at the stories behind the sporting performance.
1. Never let the self-belief waver
The legendary boxer Sugar Ray Robinson once said,
To be a champ, you have to believe in yourself, even when no one else will.
Growing up in utter poverty in an America where race was still an issue, Sugar Ray was usually confronted with situations, where the door was slammed shut on him. But ambition frequently can surmount the most obstinate barriers; and by the end of his career that spanned the welterweight and middleweight divisions, he was regarded by many experts, as 'pound for pound'-to be quite simply the greatest boxer that ever lived. Over a 25 year boxing stint, which was a miracle in itself; Robinson was often the underdog in the later stages of his career. But a burning self-belief always helped him overcome the odds.
Everyone can do with a healthy dose of self-belief. It is the ultimate tonic for success. This is especially truer when starting out on one’s own.
There is an interesting anecdote about Ted Turner. Early on in his career (before he founded CNN), he used to turn up with ten different ideas every meeting. And if they were ingloriously shot down, he used to match the same number and intent, the very next day. He had the immense self-belief; that he would eventually come up with something which would pass muster.
People who tread a different and pioneering path recognize the familiarity of this situation. The absence of past knowledge; gives enough fodder for diverse parties, from competitors to the media to their own workforce, to keep building up 'clouds of doubt', about the success of the operation. But as many great innovative companies across the world show-almost in synchronized unison-the ability to always push the frontiers of the domain; comes coupled with a willingness to have faith in oneself, when no one else will.
2. Design the right preparatory experience
The legendary military strategist Sun Tzu famously remarked, “Every battle is won before it is fought.”
The Australians came down to India in 1998, at the peak of Shane Warne's prowess. The series was billed as a clash between the two maestros. Warne, the magical leg spinner, who had tangled numerous batsmen around the world in a web of intrigue; and Sachin, the batting genius, who seemed set to obliterate every record in the history of the game.
Sachin had spent the previous month at the nets, getting some of the best exponents of spin in the country to continuously bowl the oppressive 'leg stump line', that Warne would have been certain to unleash against him. Starting from the very first ball he faced from Warne that season, which he promptly dispatched into the stands, this contest was destined to have only one winner!
At times, the simulation of an impending difficult situation; goes a long way in ensuring success in any entrepreneurial venture.
This process might start with the playing out of 'mental movies' and 'thought experiments' (as Einstein would have called them) in one's mind; as to how the situation will unfold. Simulation might also involve actually speaking with the prospective audience beforehand, to get a drift of their response. It could entail role playing (either internally or involving people from outside) to gauge their change in behavior in the new scenario. It might also demand conducting pilot runs in test markets, as indicative of the final battle ground, as is possible.
The advantage of having a rehearsal in a business scenario; is that it allows one to anticipate possible pitfalls and develop alternate strategies. Frequently the team powering the startup is rather blinkered by a certain approach, and it takes only the reality of the marketplace, to show its shortcomings. Often this can come too late. Hence having some idea of these impending obstacles, does allow everyone involved to have the proverbial Plan B (and C and D…) in the armory.
Eventually be it organizational or individual; opportunity–business or otherwise, always tends to favor the prepared mind.
3. Always lead with authenticity
Hours before the World Cup Final match against West Germany in 1986, Diego Maradona called for a team meeting. In a tournament utterly dominated by him performing at his unparalleled best, Maradona’s compatriots wondered what exactly he would tell them. They were taken completely by surprise when he broke down uncontrollably in tears. In between sobs, he is believed to have said things such as, "Come to me mother, give me love, because I am so frightened…"
That single moment, told the young and inexperienced Argentine team, that even someone as astonishingly gifted as Maradona was scared of what was to follow. It was, therefore, fine to be afraid; and that this (most importantly) was a match where he would really need their help.
The talk seemed to have a rousing effect on the Argentine team, in terms of their performance on the pitch. They played out of their skins to win Argentina its second World Cup in truly heartwarming fashion.
Howard Schulz, the CEO of Starbucks, once spoke of the power of ‘using authentic experiences’ to inspire those around.
‘Authentic’ is a word which is becoming increasingly important, in the context of conversations around leadership. Employees always want to see the genuine side of their leaders. The ability to convey emotions, whatever they may be, then makes this whole relationship a lot more real. It helps the leader make a very personal connection with her team.
Hence a display of vulnerability, on the part of the founder, might be the healthiest thing for the smooth functioning of the startup. It sends out a message of candor. It seeds an attitude of asking for help when overwhelmed. It tells employees that it is fine to admit openly that a situation is difficult. It enables the leader to build a very strong, deep and personal bond with her team. And when that happens, usually no goal is an impossible one.
4. Look to turn things around
Dick Fosbury made everyone sit up and take notice of his gold medal performance in the high jump at the 1968 Olympics at Mexico. This was because he literally turned the established jumping technique on its head, by successfully inventing a new one-‘the Fosbury flop’.
As a student, Fosbury had trouble with the prevalent straddle technique of jumping. In this method, the jumper used to approach the bar with his chest facing it, then went over one leg at a time, like one getting onto a horse. Due to an injury, Fosbury was unable to master this approach with any success. He rapidly began experimenting, until he devised his own unique method. In the Fosbury flop, the jumper has his back to the bar when he begins his leap. He goes over the bar head first and then kicks his legs over it. Today this technique is the dominant one, used by leading high jumpers across the world.
It is also a wonderful metaphor pertinent to the corporate world, about how things can be turned around. How a seeming disadvantage can sometimes be converted into a competitive advantage. This is an aspect of even more critical importance in entrepreneurial ventures where one often starts with limited resources. This reality often necessitates the effort of looking at the newer perspectives emerging out of bleak situations.
Ben and Jerry’s, the legendary brand of ice cream, actually benefitted from one of the founders having a slight taste insensitivity problem. Hence the process of getting him to sample newer variants; led to them significantly turning up the volume on its fruity taste, by putting in more generous chunks. This clear and discernible differentiation in taste, helped immensely in the company getting an initial salience and impetus.
Every startup is saddled with its own share of difficulties and pitfalls. But an attitude, of incessantly trying to turn things around, can make the crucial difference between what moviegoers would call a hit or a flop.
5. Consciously develop the right partnerships
India has frequently courted, ‘double glory’ in tennis of late. Well at least at the doubles events to be more precise.
First Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi coming together as a pair to win a score of slams, and then later repeating the feat with several different partners. Of late Sania Mirza has also cornered some prestigious titles on the circuit, thanks to her prowess at doubles play.
Perhaps we are coded for teamwork because India has also been fortunate enough, to witness several other such partnerships that are truly music to the ears. Shankar Jaikishan, Laxmikant Pyarelal, Kalyanji Anandji and currently teams like Vishal Shekhar, Shankar Ehsan Loy; clearly show us that collaboration is certainly the way to hit the high notes.
Apple benefitted immensely, from the complementary talents of its two founders. The visionary zeal of Steve Jobs, coupled with the technological acumen and wizardry of Steve Wozniak. The diversity of their founders ensured, that Apple became one of the most celebrated creative ventures of all time.
However partnerships also entail, that even if diversity is there and needs to be encouraged; points on which both parties concur unequivocally, are also critical. An understanding of whose turf ends where, a feeling of mutual respect, a common vision for this union, the inclination to share power, profit and glory unselfishly; all these and more, become absolute imperatives for the partnership to prosper.
The great doubles teams in tennis; display firsthand the merit of partnering with someone having truly complementary skills. And just as the power of one player, gets effectively harnessed by the touch of his partner, pioneers also need to appreciate they cannot be strong at everything. Which is why, it is always nice to have someone to cover your back.
These are but a few examples, where the juxtaposition of sporting influence with the entrepreneurial challenge at hand, can result in fresh insights for consideration. Surely the discerning mind which has learnt to seek such will uncover many more. The attempt has been to seed a fresh new habit and an energized perspective, to the rigor of strategic thinking when it comes to pioneering ventures. Startups have often been called a whole different ball game by many. It is perhaps only fitting that they begin to learn to borrow inspiration from the wide world of sport.