Don’t see any form of opposition, athletes and startups are well and truly made to go hand in hand!
To all my fellow athletes who are not necessarily familiar with the world of start-ups, a startup is a young company, or a company starting up, with a very high growth potential and which will try to experiment a new activity in a new market. The goal is most often to respond to a real problem (for example, better access to medical care for Doctolib, or offering a way of transportion everywhere and for everyone for Uber), by creating a scalable business model, and whose growth will often be accompanied by fundraising to get their hands on these new markets as quickly as possible.
For comparison, while a startup will try to solve a very specific problem in a market destined to become large, combining speed and agility to the extreme, and using a maximum number of levers to accelerate; an SME will position itself in a more niche markets and opt for organic growth without necessarily sharing its capital. In startups, everything goes at 200 miles an hour!
What does this have to do with high-level sport?
The difficulty! The first thing that really struck me with startups is the success rate. Indeed, it is easily below 0.1% and to give you an idea, if you take 10,000 startups, 1,000 of them will attract the interest of an investor, 10 will get financing, and only 1 will become a real success story! When you think about the chances of a startup doing an IPO (going public), imagine joining the NBA. As in high level sport, many conscripts but very few elected officials.
Well-placed to know that the difficulty also makes the path rewarding, I quickly became interested in this fascinating environment which, as I discovered it, forced me to realize how much startups and high-level sport are alike!
Passion and work
When I started my professional basketball career in Strasbourg in 2011, I was far from being the hottest name in French basketball but I was determined to realize my dreams of playing in the NBA. I was obsessed and thought of nothing else in my little apartment in Strasbourg. I would spend my days at the gym and sneak in at night. One day, I even started a running and strengthening routine at 7am, outside, in the middle of the season, but the assistant coach who was living next door caught me and ordered me to stop right away because it was very counterproductive in the middle of the season (the youth lol). I was so into it that I was watching every game possible and imaginable , every workout videos on Youtube, every highlights, every interviews and other sources of inspiration/motivation! I wasn’t counting my hours, I was willing to do anything to make it happen and I was having fun doing it. For me, that’s a passion.
A parallel I totally find in my first moments as a startuper in Lithuania when the embryo of Heex Technologies was born and we started to study the market of the autonomous driving and how everything works. We had moved into a very nice co-working space just across the street from my arena and my days were super busy. From 9am to 5pm I was in the office, from 5pm to 7pm I was off to practice, then I went back to the office for a few hours before going to dinner around 11pm. Full days, where making rapid progress was at the center of everything and every day we had to meet new goals.
For me, who had stopped my studies after graduation, I was clearly out of my comfort zone: sitting in a chair all day, starting to write by hand again, trying to understand a sector of activity that was completely different from mine, not easy! Fortunately, I quickly realized I was up to the challenge. Indeed, being used to makie intense efforts, knowing how to adapt and learn new situations, being super focused, reaching goals, being disciplined, working in a team, that’s my daily life as a basketball player! Add to that the excitement of starting something new and I was like a kid with his first orange ball.
In sports as in entrepreneurship, being passionate is essential. Without it, it is difficult to overcome difficult moments and spend enough hours to be successful. I quickly understood it in basketball and refind it in the world of startups: the magic recipe is passion + work.
In my career, I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of some great teams, but one of them seems to be a perfect fit for what I’d like to demonstrate in this article: the Toronto Raptors 905. I played there when I was in the G-League just before I got to the NBA, we were coached by Jerry Stackhouse (hall of famer NBA). I can tell you about the intensity of our training, but it’s the team cohesion and the culture that Stack brought to this team in such a short time that deserves to be highlighted.
G-League (NBA’s nursery) teams are often described as selfish and highly volatile, but with Stack it was quite the opposite. Indeed, one of our first meetings the tone has been dictated and everyone was invited to discover the teams rules of the organization, from the technical staff, to the medical staff, as well as the players. This was unusual in the United States, known for the great freedom given to players off the court, and it showed us we were going to live like a family.
If the intensity of practices strongly solidified our bonds between players, it was above all the accumulation of small things in line with the team’s culture that helped us create a sense of belonging that seemed indestructible. For example, Stack’s motto was “HUG YOUR BROTHER” and he even gave us gears with his motto written the chest chest! We celebrated holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas or the Super Bowl at his house and everyone was invited from members, the organization to families. It was really good times with a great atmosphere.
In a nutshell, we were suffering every week on the court, but the results were there. We were a real steamroller and our proximity on and off the court was terrifying for our opponents, who we didn’t give a chance to win the championship that year.
In the world of startups, the number 1 rule is also to have a fire team! A good project with a bad team won’t go anywhere, that’s for sure.
In addition to choose the right people, it is essential to build team cohesion and a strong team culture. Thus, the founders and the first employees convey strong values from the start that will serve as the identity base for the company and which can also accompanied by goodies (the famous hoodies) representing the startup’s colors in order to move forward in a healthy and cool climate that contrasts/balances unusual schedules, pressure, as well as a heavy workload.
To tell you the company culture and the well-being of its team is so important a new position/job is born : culture manager or hapiness officer! Indeed, having a person dedicated to this task has become more and more popular in the Sillicon Valley with the mission to make sure that the morales of the team is always in good shape, organizing team outings, seminars or other activities to be able to gain in productivity.
As for the passion part, the feeling of belonging to a team allows all its members to surpass themselves and enjoy overcoming challenges. Strongly united, the startups will then rub shoulders with the giants of their industry to try to overthrow them, and from time to time, succeed (think David against Goliath or the Cavs led 3–1 against the Warriors in 2016)!
As we mentioned in the introduction, whether in the high-level sport or the startup world, there are many conscripts and very few elected. A difficulty that can be explained in particular by an extremely intense competition. After all, who wouldn’t dream of becoming an NBA star or the new startup bought out for billions?
In this ultra-competitive environment, tickets are expensive and athletes and startupers alike have to deal with the unexpected and constant failures (an unexpected injury, a contract finally awarded to an other player, a poor performance in a crucial game, a negative response from an investor).
Very soon, a trait inseparable from success in these environments will be required: resilience!
For me, resilience is really the ability to bounce back after failure. In basketball, I fail every day, every missed shot. Yet I have to take the next one with the confidence and conviction that I will put the next one on.
Entrepreneurship is a little bit the same, everything goes so fast that decision-making quickly reaches very high volumes, and in an innovation sector where there is a lot of uncertainty and unknown, there are bound to be a lot of mistakes!
Being able to bounce back and rebuild after traumatic experiences is essential! We must never let negative events put us into darkness, on the contrary we must use it as a lesson to come out of it grown up, stronger and always confident and optimistic about what the future holds for us; because it only takes one success, one transformed risk-taking to erase all your failures and put you in a good position.
Indeed, the opportunity is equal to the risk: every decision can make an athlete/startup take off or die. A winning shot can change a career like an injury can end it, just as a signed client can propel a business and a poor recruitment can sink it.
It is therefore in this very complex environment that top athletes and entrepreneurs navigate, add to this the social pressure of your entourage who may not understand why you try something atypical that has less than 1% chance of success and you have a Molotov cocktail to build a foolproof mind!
So there are a lot of similarities between startups and athletes. Sectors where statistics show that it is very difficult to reach the top and where competition is fierce.
Indeed it is not given to everyone to build something starting from 0, or to give life to an idea or a belief. It requires an unrelenting level of passion and a work ethic that can withstand any hardship because working conditions can quickly become very difficult, but you have to stay the course! Keeping the course not only individually but also making sure that your entire team and your entourage are pulling in the same direction with the same conviction and intensity; real leadership qualities are therefore required!
Finally, the fundamental concept for getting started and succeeding in the world of sport as well as in the world of startups is resilience. What will be your ability to bounce back in the face of the failures that will be thrown at your feet one after the other as you give yourself body and soul to your activity? For how long? This race to success is often compared to a marathon rather than a sprint, a metaphor that I totally approve. It often takes years of work to become an overnight success!
In a future article we will see that startups and top athletes not only have similarities, they also have a strong potential for collaboration!