Aug 12

What Olympic Athletes can Teach Hi-Tech Entrepreneurs

After a $17 billion spend, the 2012 London Olympics is over. What an incredible event! I am blown away by the immensness of the whole thing. First there were the millions spent to win the battle to host the games; followed by the studies to select the best location for the games; then there was the planning and development of the facilities and numerous infrastructures; the creation of the Olympic Village, the logistics of the athletes, the planning, scheduling and organization of each sporting event; the opening and closing ceremonies; The spectators…the list goes on…

While I was watching the athletes at this awe-inspiring event, it occurred to me how similar they were to hi-tech entrepreneurs, and how they can learn some valuable lessons from these elite hard-bodies. As a result this blog uses the observations of The Games to help the entrepreneur understand what their responsibilities are and what is necessary to succeed in business.

The first thing that occurred to me was that like athletes, entrepreneurs are special people that are born but mostly made, and require nurturing environments to develop, grow and thrive.

I then realized that both entrepreneurs and athletes have a choice in regards to the business and sport, respectively, in which they will excel. The similarities are striking. For example, there are hundreds of sports an athlete can choose from, but they need the exposure, and the experience, to determine if they have the aptitude and desire. In much the same ways, the entrepreneur needs exposure to opportunities and to gain experience in them. The entrepreneur needs to decide if they have a sufficient grasp of the business opportunity and passion to stick with it in order to build a viable, sustainable business…which is analogous to a medal at The Games.

After the athlete has chosen the sport, they must begin the long, grueling process of mastering, and then dominating it. This requires arduous training, having the best coaches, and figuring out how to become the best. In a very similar way the entrepreneur has to work hard to start, build and grow a business. He needs to find good mentors / advisors, employees and figure out how to provide a better value proposition than his competitors.

It also dawned on me that if there is no competition, then the sport wouldn’t be part of the Olympics. Which is a great lesson for entrepreneurs, because if they don’t have competitors that means there probably isn’t an established market, which, like sports, means the interest in the sport / market has to be created. This is a very expensive and time consuming exercise. This is a good lesson for why competition and marketing alternatives are good to have — especially as far as investors are concerned.

Another similarity is sequencing, i.e., making sure the right things are done in the right order. For example, the athlete needs to start with the basics of their selected sport and incrementally add new levels of skill, endurance, experience, etc. Athletes have to progress in stages to properly condition and prepare both mentally and physically. For example, kids start playing soccer at the recreational level. They will then move to travel soccer, then to the premier level, high school and college and possibly play for a club or the national team. If the athlete tries to skirt the sequence and miss a step or two, e.g., try out for college straight from travel soccer, they will probably fail. This failure could be so damaging that the athlete quits the sport altogether. When an entrepreneur begins her business she must correctly execute Business Sequencing (see How to Start a Successful Hi-Tech Startup). That is to say, in order to avoid failure, the entrepreneur must execute business activities in the correct sequence. For example, the first step in building a business is to validate the business idea, i.e., make sure there’s a sufficient market waiting to buy the product or service. Which means clearly understanding the problem that needs to be solved, who has the problem, and how big the market is? The entrepreneur needs to define the solution, how it’s going to be built and delivered. The marketing and sales plans then need to be defined, funding sought, and so on.

The similarities continue when you consider the financial aspect of the startup versus the wannabe Olympian. Initial investments are made by family and friends, followed later by external sources, such as school and community fundraisers. Additional funding is provided by grants and scholarships. After the athlete has achieved success, such as a medal at the Olympic Games, they can look to lucrative sponsorships and endorsements. With startups, after friends and family, they may seek angel and venture capital funding. And, if the entrepreneur has got it right, they will achieve success in the form of profit from sales, cash from an M&A or an IPO.

The opportunities to fail are also very similar. E.g., neither will achieve their full potential if they’ve: chosen the wrong coaches; they don’t listen to advice from mentors; they don’t put in the effort; they make poor decisions, etc.

Due to the similarities between athletes and entrepreneurs, it makes sense that the numerous  aphorism apply, such as “You have to be in it to win it”, “You have to run the race to cross the finish line”, “Winning isn't everything, but wanting to win is”, ”It matters not whether you win or lose; what matters is whether I win or lose”, “A team with a star player is a good team, but a team without one is a great team” and so on.

I’ll end on a final piece of trivia:
The British Olympic organization has determined that it costs $10 million per athlete to win a gold model…hmmm…


"This article may not be reproduced in whole or part without including the name of the author (James Naylor) and an acknowledgement of the fact the article was originally published in Shoestring Advice for Technology Startups (http://www.KENOVATech.com/blog). Any other use of this material is unauthorized and is a violation of law."

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