I wrote this piece in mid-may during the triple crown races, but after watching the Women’s World Cup final yesterday I thought I should re-read it and eventually decided to re-publish here. Sports and competition seem to bring out all emotions, from national pride to personal triumph, and in the process cross borders and unite the world in unimaginable ways. Here is my way to tie Horse Racing to the Startup world.
I have always been a sports fan. I like soccer, basketball, baseball, football, hockey, tennis, UFC.. you name it. Although I was not raised around horses and the track, horse racing for some reason draws me in. There is something about it that is so intriguing and attractive I cannot help but watch. Today is the Preakness Stakes and I recently realised how similar horse racing and the startup ecosystem tend to be. Maybe now I am starting to understand why I am so attracted to this sport.
The winner is almost always a surprise
Once a year the Triple Crown tugs at the heart of the sporting community. As sports fans, deep down we want to root for the underdog. We want to see an upset. When those 20 horses line up at the starting gate we have no idea which horse will actually step across the finish line before any of the other horses. Yes, you can take the odds. But how often do those odds actually play out accordingly? I use this racing analogy because success as a startup is pretty much exactly the same as success on the race track. Starting out, we have no idea who will emerge as the “winner”. Talent, funding, product, iteration, attitude, economic climate all influence the outcome of the race. It is always a surprise, isn’t it? MySpace looked like the breadwinner only to have Facebook clean its shorts around the second turn of the race. That’s incredible. Who knew? I guess that’s why we play the game.
The winner almost always has to adjust their tactics mid-race
If you watch any horse race, you will notice the race is actually won by the jockey, not the horse. The jockey (the CEO) observes the dynamically changing environment, quickly calculates their options and immediately decides to direct the horse (the company and product) towards the best route for victory. This is no small task and requires tremendous skill to perform under pressure. They learn to Pivot at the best possible time. The word pivot is probably used way to often to describe the transition from one strategy to another in an effort to move a business forward. Yet I think it is such a great word and such an important tactic. Great Leaders understand when conditions have become suboptimal, and possess the wherewithal to quickly make necessary changes in order to be successful.
The winner almost always has a storied past
One thing is for sure when I watch these events. I will tear up. I tear up more during “extraordinary feats of competition” than any Rom-Com (romantic comedy) that I must watch with a girlfriend. Why would I tear up during a horse race? I tear up because the obvious time and effort, blood, sweat and tears put in by the jockey, the breeder and the horse. There is always a story of triumph over insurmountable circumstances. And they didn’t quit. I am so moved by extraordinary accomplishment, maybe because I hope I will one day experience the feeling. And just as they put in this effort, so does the startup founder. It is truly an amazing accomplishment to take a seemingly impossible idea and turn it into a network of over 600 million people. Or leaving Russia as a child for the USA to eventually pursue your dream and become a successful entrepreneur. Or, after almost 10 years of grinding away not being the darling of the internet, going public and watching your stock double the first day on the market. For that matter, launching any product and achieving a profitability in-s0-much-as just enough to sustain your business operations. Those are great stories worth a tear or two.
And I guess that is why I like horse racing, its more like business than I first realised.