I recently had the great fortune to visit YCombinator for their “Work at a Startup” event. I lived in the bay during the first dotcom bubble before returning to lower California. I always enjoy going back and tapping into tech energy. From the plane ride, to billboards, to bar chatter, to pedestrians, everyone is chatty about the next social network, app, or this mythical cloud thing I keep hearing about. But where my trip really shined was at the YC event.
Paul Graham kicked off the event with a great monologue about being a hacker at a startup. He went into pretty great detail about what to expect culturally and financially at a startup as well as certain pitfalls and warning signs to be on the lookout for. What really stuck with me though is how much importance he put on the founders of a startup. Want to be successful? Look at the founders. Want to make money? Look at the founders. Your idea is crazy and we don’t think it’ll work? Eh, your founders are scrappy so here’s some cash (AirBnB). He also had some words of caution. Look out for the Harvard MBA with no skills or the Google PMs that want you to be their first tech hire. It makes sense…how many times do you get approached by someone who has the next big idea…they just need you to build it…for sweat equity…
Having played organized sports for the larger portion of my life I tried to compare a startup to a sports team. The goal of a sports team is to win a championship. Your team should have some really top tier talent as well as some role players. In startup terms these would be your hackers, designers, etc. Your team may have an owner that pays your team’s salaries. These would be your angels or VC firm. Or you could be like Green Bay Packers and be crowd funded (Kickstarter). You’ll have fans that will cheer for you or not (Twitter, blogs, bathroom stalls, etc). But most importantly you’ll have a coach.
The founder of your startup will be very similar to a coach of a professional sports team. Ideally they will have played the game before. Most of the best championship caliber coaches have played the game they coach most of their lives and many have won championships themselves. They know what it takes to win because they’ve been there before. The coach will be great at motivating his team. He will inspire and instill passion. He will also be able play to his team’s strengths and put them in positions where they will be able to succeed. He knows the rules of the game inside and out and can find ways to take advantage of situations that arise. He also knows his team’s weaknesses and looks to minimize the impact of said weaknesses. Players will rally around a charismatic coach and avoid bad coaches at all costs.
Much of what makes up a good coach or founder comes from having good communication skills, charisma, fight, and leadership skills. Some of these skills are difficult for some to learn but they can be obtained through practice, research, and perseverance. Whether you’re looking to start a company or continue to grow your startup, there are valuable lessons to learn from competitive sports. The camaraderie I have felt playing on championship caliber sports team often feels identical to a startup that’s firing on all cylinders. In both cases, it was the love and compassion I felt for my team mates that strengthened our bond and caused a unified ascension in productivity, drive, and initiative. A strong familial bond in sports can be mimicked in business. When it’s achieved nothing can stop you.