Tuesday, July 24, 2012

What Can the Olympics Teach Us About Startups?

Sports and startups have more in common than just their first letters.  There's pressure.  Expectations.  Belief.  Failure.  Success.  Ups and downs, highs and lows.  In fact, sports and startups have more in common than we may think.

So today, I ask you to put yourself back on that Little League Baseball team, on the starting block during Country Club Swim Championships, shooting from the free-throw line on your highschool basketball team or jumping for that final spike in your last college volleyball tournament.  Take yourself back to the highest highs you received from athletics...as well as the lowest lows.  Sports can teach us more about startups than we realize...and now is the perfect time to take a look.

With the upcoming 2012 Olympics Games (which I am counting down that days for!), we deemed it fit to post about how the Olympics and startups go hand-in-hand with one another.  So let's lace up our tennis shoes, board the plane to London and experience the Olympics in a different light...not as fans, but as entrepreneurs.

1. Expect the unexpected (and control the controllable)  

When Kerri Strung arrived in Atlanta for the 1996 Olympics, she probably didn't expect to impact the world with the most memorable Olympic moment of all time.  After a brutal ankle injury during her first vault, Kerri still performed a second vault...and landed on one ankle in pure agony.

No, Kerri did not plan on being injured during the Olympics.  Nor could she ever have imagined landing a vault on a sprained ankle.  But she did, and she helped the US team beat out the Russians for the gold.

In business, Kerri has taught us to expect the unexpected and to control the controllable.  Kerri could not control how the Russians or even her own team would perform during the 1996 Olympics.  But she could control her own performance...even under unbelievable pain.  Startups, beware: the unexpected will happen.  Your gut reaction may be to panic or even stop the business all together. Instead, control your emotions, control your thoughts and control what's controllable--you could come out on top with the gold.


2. It takes more than just hard work 

As entrepreneurs, we often hear that if we work hard enough, good things will happen.  But this isn't true.  It takes more than just hard work and determination to make it to the top.  And Olympians everywhere will tell you the same when it comes to sports.

Hard work  +  Dedication  +  Support  +  Belief  +  Preparation +  Luck 

These values can be applied to sports and startups:

Hard work: Yes, it takes many 80-hour weeks, sleepless nights and missed vacations.
Dedication:  You have to be in 110%.  No excuses, just results.
Support:  You must have a team behind you every step of the way.
Belief:  If you don't believe in yourself and in your idea, you won't get anywhere.
Preparation: It's all about goals, visualization and preparing for anything.
Luck: The stars have to align a little bit too!

3. You need a team

And not just any team...a team made up of the right people.  The 1980 Winter Olympics Hockey Team (the team that is portrayed in the hit movie Miracle) didn't beat the Soviets for the win because the team was made up of the best people.  The team won because it was made up of players that worked well together.

The same goes for your startup.  Don't hire A+ students when you can find a C student who is more dedicated, driven and passionate.  Create the team that believes in the idea as much as you do--not the one who follows all the rules, avoids making mistakes and is perfect 99% of the time.  Startups make mistakes and learn from them...and the people involved in the startup have to be able to handle that.

4.  Failure is the biggest teacher of all

In 1988, Dan Jansen, Olympic speed skater, had a difficult Games.  The odds were not in his favor when he learned that his sister had died during the Games.  After two catastrophic falls during the Olympics in Canada, it didn't seem like Dan would ever recover, not only from the tragedy, but also from his Olympic failure.

But then, Dan came back to the Olympics in 1992 to win his final race.  Failure wasn't an option for Dan...and he was determined to come out on top to finish up his speed skating career.

Dan may have failed (twice!), but he didn't let that stop him from coming back stronger than ever.  It's important for entrepreneurs to remember this same idea: failure is the biggest teacher of all.  Learn from your mistakes.  Those real-life experiences are invaluable.  Just ask Dan Jansen.

5.  Pressure is a positive 

There are two ways that athletes handle pressure:  thriving and choking.  It's those successful athletes that take pressure-filled moments and turn them into positives.  

Every great Olympic moment was met with pressure.  But my favorite story of all is that of Michael Phelps and his epic touch-out at the Beijing Olympics against Serbia's Milorad Cavic in the 100 meter butterfly (and not just because I'm a former college swimmer!).

In 2008, the pressure was on for Phelps.  He already claimed 7 gold medals at the Beijing Olympic Games...and he was just one race away from 8.  In one of the most incredible finishes in Olympic history, Phelps went from a for-sure silver medal to 8-time gold medalist by touching out Cavic by .01 of a second.

Greg Searle, director of performance development at Lane4 and Olympic gold medalist says it best when referring to pressure and business: 

In a business environment there are high pressure situations to be dealt with every day, but often that pressure can help you become focused, sharp and at your best. The key is to recognize the symptoms and embrace them. You have to reframe the situation so it ceases to be a threat and becomes an opportunity.

6.  Visualization and goals are important

Ask any Olympic athlete what the most important preparation tool is in athletics and more often than not, they will not say a proper warm-up, stretching or lucky rituals.  They will most likely respond with visualization.

Athletes must decide on a goal and visualize the achievement of that goal months (even years!) before competition day.  Visualization enhances confidence, boosts motivation and allows for maximum performance.  All Olympics teams believe so much in visualization and goals that they bring dynamite teams of sports psychologists on the road with them.

Visualization is important for entrepreneurs to attempt as well.  In a survey by Stephen Covey of 23,000 employees, only 37% understood clearly what their company was trying to achieve.  Only 1 in 5 were enthusiastic about the company's goal and only 15% felt the company was enabled to execute the overarching goal.

Make your startup better.  Start implementing goals.  Then, visualize them.

What will we learn from the 2012 Olympic Games?  I cannot wait to find out.  Until then, you can find me chanting "USA! USA! USA!" from the comfort of my desk at Think Big...no rest for the entrepreneurial!

Follow me! @AllisonThinkBig

No comments:

Post a Comment