Why Entrepreneurs Love Endurance Sports

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If you don’t have answers to your problems after a four-hour run, you ain’t getting them.
– Christopher McDougall (Born To Run)

As I prepared for my first marathon last year, people kept asking me why I was running the race. What compelled me to spend all my free time running (and at the time fundraising for CCFA). While there were personal reasons for this specific race, what was apparent is that a ton of my fellow entrepreneurs had done or were preparing to do some endurance activity themselves. From mountaineering to marathons to triathlons – it was clear that the entrepreneurially inclined also have a higher than normal participation rate in endurance sports.

What is it about pushing yourself to physical limits that appeals to us? Some say it’s the same drive and motivation to succeed that lead them to entrepreneurship in the first place. Honestly that’s just not it. Certainly the skills and character needed for professional success helps someone complete their chosen activity – but it’s not the “why”. After 6 months of reflection and a few more races, it’s become apparent that the thing I seek is myself. The voice in my head that becomes even more introspective, even more truthful. It’s a place to reconcile the decisions of my past and their results and think through the decisions I currently face in a physical and emotional place that has been stripped bare of its armor.

The startup environment is so emotionally and physically demanding that we develop protection, both from the outside world and from ourselves. There is something about bumping up against your physical limits that breaks down even the strongest armor.

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Not Everyone Needs To Take The Same Risks

When a person really desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person to realize his dream.
–Paulo Coelho (The Alchemist)

Last week I read a couple posts about hiring MBAs into startups by Ed Zimmerman and Phin Barnes. They took a thoughtful look at hiring and funding MBAs, with both largely ending up on the “it ultimately depends – but I’m usually extra cautious about it” answer. My view is a little more nuanced view, in that I think that most MBAs should ignore the startup hype and go after the big roles at corporates that they dream about. Much like a Rabbi telling the wannabe convert to get stuffed 3 times before welcoming  them into the fold, founders should push the limits of potential MBA candidates.

If they don’t do the startup thing, it’s totally ok! Other people do not need to define success, or their life, the way that a startup founder does. It makes me extremely upset when I see startups poopooing other people’s career goals as not valiant. It is perfectly acceptable, and more logical, to make a conscious effort to de-risk career choices. Hell, in the depths of the dark days there isn’t a single startup founder who makes it past the “just messing around stage” that doesn’t rethink their own huge risk taking. Over the past year I’ve had more than my share of dark days, many of which had me thinking how to seriously de-risk.

When an MBA decides to take on the extra risk, they can be a huge asset. Many MBAs have an element of unrestrained ambition that makes them a force when deployed in the right way. They will give up all other aspects of their life for professional success, throw personal relationships out the door and maybe even sacrifice their own health. They also usually have the intelligence and attitude to be a key contributor to the team. The problem, as both Phin and Ed point out, is that they are usually wired to take safe bets and seek out status, security and prestige. As a founder, you question their motives for wanting to be involved, worse you fear that they’ll jump ship when something shinier comes along.  If you can find one that truly wants to be involved, they usually have something to prove and that kind of fire translates into an employee that will be very hard to stop.

So when an MBA comes looking for startup opportunities as their modern “safety school” equivalent, they get shown the door.  If you put up every roadblock and they knock them down one by one and are relentless because either your idea or your team is something they need to be a part of, then open up and use their fire to your benefit.

Not Everyone Needs To Take The Same Risks

The 5 Dysfunctions Of a Team

Hate a liar more than I hate thief.
A thief is only after my salary
a liar is after my reality.

– 50 Cent (I’m A Hustler)

One of the lessons from school that has shaped my thinking about team building is the “5 Dysfunctions Of A Team” concept. It’s a powerful lens by which to view the culture you are building and something that I’m constantly reminded about. Here is the pyramid:

five-dysfunctions-pyramid

This obviously doesn’t require a lot of explanation. Suffice it to say that as you are building your team, or scaling it up, think a lot about how you baseline those relationships and nurture trust, encourage dissent, promote commitment all while keeping people accountable and humble.

Culture is the most important advantage a startup can have. Sometimes it’s easy to lose track of that, something I learned the hard way. A long time ago I had this paper up in my office, when I setup my new office it’s getting its prominent spot back.

The 5 Dysfunctions Of a Team

I’m an Entrepreneur (just don’t call me a startup)

This is a guest post by Patrick Stinus, a co-founder of Seventh Element , a management consulting firm that provides “Fortune 100 tools to small businesses” to help them grow and increase profitability.

I was recently on the phone catching up with Joel and it dawned on me that while we’re both entrepreneurs, we operate in completely different worlds. If you were to ask, 99.9% of people they would see very little differences in our stories. We both worked in the GE “fast track” program which promised us lives of success and the “the American Dream”. We both left it behind to start our own businesses, take a shot at changing the world and do work that makes us truly happy. The difference is that I’m not trying to launch a startup, I’m starting an agency.

Start”ups”, especially ones that focus on technology, are what most people envision when they think about when you quit your job to “follow your dreams.” They’re typified by years of living on Ramen noodles, working 70 hour weeks, bootstrapping and sometimes pimping yourself to private money. They are designed to cheaply and quickly create a completely new (or incredibly better) product or service. It takes time without revenue to develop new products.

Agencies are businesses whose core value proposition is the skill set of its employees. I co-founded Seventh Element to bring the business management tools we perfected at GE to small businesses. We skipped the long, costly, and iterative product development phase and went straight to clocking billable hours to our clients. We can leverage our corporate pedigree to potential clients and make money within the first month of existence.

If you graph the profits of successful startups, they follow an exponential curve, where they bumble along for a long time making very little money and then get traction and “pop.” Since these businesses have such high-profit margins, which aren’t tied to hours available to bill, they have the potential to create hugely scaleable businesses which can be sold for hundreds of millions of dollars. The agency model theoretically starts with respectable profits on day one and grows in a modest, linear, path as it bill more hours and hires more talent that can be billed. An agency is far less risky, but is much less scaleable.

I am not trying to oversimplify the challenges our agency has faced, or imply that leaving a steady job for an agency is more (or less) respectable than a startup. The fact is that agencies have a good chance of making reasonable money, and startups have a low chance of making stupid money. If you do the rough math, the upside is similar. Owning a business is a personal decision, and the money is just one piece of the puzzle. Their isn’t a right or wrong way to do things, but keep this comparison in mind if you are deciding on starting your own business.

I’m an Entrepreneur (just don’t call me a startup)

Rejection is my yardstick of success

I get rejected a lot. Not only do I get rejected a lot, but I get rejected in a lot of different ways, too. I get rejected with unanswered “cold call” emails, and by politely worded “not interested” responses and everything in between.  I get a constant stream of rejection and when it’s not making me depressed, I savor it as much as the success.  Getting told no tells me that I’m pushing for more than I deserve and its a good yardstick for measuring just how far I’m pushing the envelope.

I want to be clear though that rejection and failure aren’t the same thing.  In his last blog post, Andy Ellwood talks about the benefits of failing spectacularly as a way of overcoming one’s fear of failure in general and becoming a better entrepreneur.  Not purposely failing, but doing something you half expect to fail with the confidence and purpose of something who thinks they will succeed.  Rejection is a very similar concept but where rejection is generally a private occurrence, failure tends to be an embarrassing public event.  Instead of publicly realizing you are wrong, rejection are a series of small failures that test your personal resolve to continue and teaches you what works and what doesn’t.  If a big named entrepreneur or other VIP doesn’t respond to my emails its not a failure, its a learning opportunity.  What did I do differently with those that did respond? It also indicates that I’m pushing the boundaries of what I’m able to accomplish.  Chris Dixon summed it up really well in a recent blog post when he said “if you aren’t rejected on a daily basis you aren’t trying hard enough.”

The rejection comes in many forms.  First there is the blatant rejection, the emails that read “I’m not interested” or some other polite variety of this statement.  These slide right off my back, since the vast majority of these responses come from smaller potential customers, never from potential mentors.   There is also the not so blatant “my schedule is really busy for the next few weeks, how about you follow-up with me then” which tells me they are clearly not interested, but luckily for them I’m a persistent little guy and I mark the date on my calendar for a follow-up.  Then there are the ones that never respond.  The worst though, are the ones that respond to setup a meeting but then either continually push it back or don’t show up.

For all the rejection, there is a ton of success.  To me, networking is both a quality game and a quantity game.  Remind anyone of dating?  You never know where a relationship will lead, so I try to maximize my volume of meetings with the best people possible. The more rejection I receive, the more fantastic connections I’ve likely made.  In other words it all goes back to Edison and his amazing lightbulb. Over one thousand failed experiments, each in its own way revealed a little more of the puzzle that, when finally complete, changed the world.  As Edison said, genius is indeed “10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.”

Rejection is my yardstick of success

Biggie Smalls is keeping us motivated

I’m just, tryin to stay above water y’know
Just stay busy, stay workin
Puff told me like, the key to this joint
The key to staying, on top of things
is treat everything like it’s your first project, knah what I’m sayin?
Like it’s your first day like back when you was an intern
Like, that’s how you try to treat things like, just stay hungry

– Notorious B.I.G (My 1st Song)

When we were working at GE, there was a persistent feeling of progress because plans were set, the team had week-by-week goals and everyone was trying to exceed expectations for the next milestone.  The key to success was keeping your team motivated, helping everyone overcome roadblocks and managing your executive clients so your team could focus on the work.

That world couldn’t be farther from being a bootstrapping entrepreneur.  We now do everything that our teams use to do, plus all the administrative stuff we couldn’t even have imagined.  Most of the time we’re doing things for the first time, so we’re largely just guessing on how to to get it done.  Heck, we’ll be really lucky if we’re even heading in the right direction.  This week we dealt with everything from changes to the facebook API, to branding and reviewing trademark law.

It’s an emotional roller-coaster and we’ve started to do things to replace the pat’s on the back we used to get and the milestones we use to be given.  First we’ve been bouncing our ideas and questions off some great mentors.  They’re excitement for the project makes us feel great, but we always end up doubling our to-do lists and getting that sinking feeling about the long road ahead.  Secondly we’ve re-instituted the GE style “Friday Update” where we set-out all the week’s accomplishments, roadblocks we’re facing and plan for the next week.  Every Friday morning will start out with a huddle to tackle roadblocks, set goals and agree on milestones.  Having to update all out mentors on our progress each Friday will get us structuring our time better and prioritize the things that really need to get done.

We think this is a good start, but clearly we’re still learning the ropes and expect to think a lot more on this topic in the future.  Thanks for your support and keep a look-out for our weekly blog posts on Fridays.

Biggie Smalls is keeping us motivated