Startup lessons from Novak Djokovic

There is a lot to draw inspiration from in the story of tennis champion Novak Djokovic, or The Joker. Here are some lessons from this player’s life.

Even by his high standards, Novak Djokovic has had an absolutely extraordinary year. Winning the first three slams, he is now in pole position to complete a calendar Grand Slam; if he does that at the US Open, he will also emerge as the most successful male player in tennis history.

There’s a lot to draw inspiration from, in the story of this champion player from Serbia. Someone who gained initial fame by mimicking the actions of his fellow players has now offered up a saga of excellence, and many could gain a lot by imitating. And that applies far beyond purely the tennis world.

Don’t just dream big

When he was six years old, Djokovic saw Pete Sampras win Wimbledon on television in his home. It was a defining moment for him. He immediately went about making a replica trophy for himself, with available materials. What is interesting in this anecdote is not that the young Serb was motivated by those images on TV, many others are around the world when viewing events almost every single day.

What set him apart is that he acted upon his dream immediately. And even if it seemed like a small step in hindsight, it sowed important seeds of belief in what was to follow.

Having the dream is a very important first step in the storyline of any startup. But making the dream seem real, even at an early stage, is something which often gets overlooked. This can happen through a host of rituals.

Getting to know people in the field one wants to be in, makes it more accessible and less formidable. Educating oneself formally and informally, prepares the cerebral muscle and spirit which will be tested soon. Testing the waters on a small scale, goes a long way in understanding what it will take.

Richard Branson experimented with the idea of starting an airline when once stranded at an airport because a flight was cancelled. He chartered a plane, sold tickets to fellow passengers, turned in a profit, and had garnered invaluable learning. Eventually, it was all about sighting a ‘virgin’ opportunity; and starting the boarding process on it early on.

Make the most of what you have

Growing up, Djokovic found himself practising a lot against the backyard wall of his home. Perhaps conditions in war-ravaged Serbia at that time, were not conducive to travelling around to play against partners as much as he would have wanted. But that did not stop him from his routine.

In fact, the sheer monotony with which everything he used to throw at the wall was unerringly returned, something that is reflected in many of his opponent’s viewpoints on the Serb’s game today. It seems one has to win the point several times over against Djokovic because everything just keeps coming back. That surely leaves many banging their head against the wall.

Interestingly, this aspect of utilising scarce resources to the hilt, also runs through the legend of many startups.

The presence of a ‘bootstrapping mindset’ is perhaps a necessary condition for the success of any new enterprise. The priceless ability to make more out of very less enables these organisations to stretch what they have till reinforcements arrive.

Infosys started out of a room in Narayan Murthy’s house. The initial funding came from the savings of its founding members. But a few decades later, one of India’s greatest startup stories, it occupies several rooms across the world, both in terms of physical space and conversations. It has generated revenues massively disproportionate to its ‘seed capital’. Put another way, the ability to get more out of very little has truly borne fruit.

There’s no downside to starting late

Relatively speaking, Djokovic came to the fore much after his famed rivals — Federer and Nadal. For a long while, it was the big two. It was only many years later that this was expanded to the big three in tennis. They had already won multiple Grand Slams at the time he won his first.

But as is his forte, he revels in making progress when behind. Over the last decade, especially the last five years, he made giant strides. Now, he is level with them in terms of Grand Slam count. Even five years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine this.

Previously, it was all about being first in the market. Then, as Ries and Trout would concur, it was all about being first in the mind. Now, in this technologically adept era, it can be argued, it is all about getting it right. When that happens deficits in market position can be easily overcome.

Facebook was not the first major social media network. There were others like Orkut and Myspace. But Facebook probably benefitted from where these two went wrong, and was able to adapt and improve its offering. The result has been an ongoing brand legacy that has surely left a mark.

Embrace contrasting ideas

Djokovic has now won six Wimbledon titles. That’s more than nearly all the great grass court exponents who have graced the game, barring two. This is an even more astounding statistic when one considers that 10 years ago, his game was not suited to grass.

Being essentially a baseliner, he was not naturally at home on that surface, the manner in which serve volleyers or all court players are. But he brilliantly adapted. One of the most interesting things he did, was associate with out and out grass court exponents like Boris Becker and recently Goran Ivanisevic.

Both these men would have brought very diverse perspectives to his game, especially when it came to his thinking on grass. And that’s perhaps what helped Djokovic have a field day on this surface.

Often companies get extremely set in the way they look at things. This is especially true of the thinking of leaders. Previous success tends to blinker their thought process.

They are often, and understandably, reluctant to rock the boat. But it is only when an element of disruption is introduced in the organisational think tank; that much-needed vitality gets added to its cerebral muscle.

This can sometimes be achieved by welcoming people from diverse spheres as intellectual resources. The example of Bill Campbell-who previously coached a college football team, and then went on to mentor several Silicon Valley CEO’s, is a compelling case in point. Even great organisations need a different perspective from time to time to score their own touchdowns.

Don’t bother about popularity

Quite surprisingly, and for a long time, Djokovic didn’t exactly have the crowd on his side. This especially used to come to the fore when he was up against his biggest two rivals. It must have hurt.

However, he always transformed this into extra motivation and fought even harder. Thankfully, these days, his sterling exploits have ensured his following is growing rapidly, and he finds more voices cheering his way than before.

A lack of support is what every founder has to go through. Entrepreneurs are used to various people-from family members to industry experts, telling them why something can’t be done. Why they are bound to fail. How, going away from the security of a job, is a very bad move.

However, this very human urge to prove others wrong, can stoke their determination and drive. The satisfaction of seeing someone eat their words at times is the greatest reward of one’s endeavour.

Dhirubhai Ambani was told by various experts setting up a refinery in Jamnagar would take 36 months. When he cited his ambition of completing this earlier, they scoffed. After it was set up in a record 18 months, his detractors had been truly silenced. And that was the slickest outcome of them all.

In the end, from starting up a career in a country with scarce tennis resources to kindling a legend and folklore which now threatens to surpass them all, Djokovic, called The Joker by many, informs all those starting in various other fields of life, about what it takes to be the undisputed king.

He shows that it is not about the cards we are dealt, but what we do with them which matters. And that attitude ensures even if one begins with jokers, one can be left holding all the aces.

Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)


Updates from around the world