4 Lessons Sports Taught Me About Startups

7th April 2016

By: Alex Kopicki

As I was watching the finale of the NCAA Basketball tournament the other night, it took me back to my own memories of my college athletic career. While I never played big-time college hoops (I was a lacrosse guy), the lessons I learned through my 4 year run, resonate with me today and influence my daily work at Kinglet. There's an incredible correlation to athletics and startups that aren't often pointed out.

1) No shortcuts. I've grown tired of the startup phrase "growth hack". I think it sends the wrong message to new businesses and quite frankly, I think it's made-up jargon. You could argue the equivalent in athletics are called performance enhancing drugs (PED's) and they are illegal. So why are "growth hacks" celebrated in business? The most successful business men and women that I've met are all tireless workers with clear focus. While it's human nature to look for an easier way around a challenge versus immediately facing hard realities, I'd advise against chasing the easy way out. Commit to the hard work up front.

From my experience, this holds true in sport and business. When our team had 6am workouts in college, I would always have a pit in my stomach on my walk to the gym. For 4 years, I had the same unpleasant feeling in my gut and yet I got through them all, with all of my teammates. The harder you prepare/practice, the more prepared you are when the score matters most. I never had a feeling of unprepardness before games, just pure excitement.

2) Culture is contagious. There's a reason why elite college programs continually rise to the top of the standings. Yes, they recruit well, they have great facilities, and amazing leadership. However, there's another commonality that's harder to quantify - culture. Just take a look at today's elite college basketball programs. They are losing their entire starting lineups to the NBA every 1 to 2 years. So if there isn't continuity among teammates, how do they succeed? Culture. The program looms larger than any one individual, player and coaches alike.

Startups share that same cultural DNA. They must take pride in the small wins and achievements of the present and ambitiously pursue their goals of the future. Startups consistently shuffle team members into new roles, expand responsibilities, and collectively grow. And while startups don't have a shiny trophy case, they have drive, ambition and tenacity. Characteristics that are contagious.

3) Diversity is key. Diversity in skills, experiences, and perspectives are critical ingredients for any successful team no matter if they are on the court, field or in the board room. For example, the NCAA basketball tournament. The teams that have a diverse yet balanced group of shooters, passers, defenders and utility players are the teams advancing. When I reflect on my career as a college athlete, the same holds true. The more talented your competition when on the practice field, the steeper your learning curve and skill advancement. I'd argue the same in business.

Surrounding yourself with smart people with diverse perspectives brings out the best in a startup. When channeled into positive thought-provoking discussion, our team meetings challenge conventional wisdom, sniff out inefficiencies and push our own assumptions on customer value.

4) Winning IS everything. Jimmy Connors said it best, "I hate to lose more than I love to win." This is the mindset of a real competitor. When winning isn't a goal but rather an expectation, than the fear of losing will push a team further. From my own college career, I can recall some bitter defeats with more clarity than my biggest wins.

While the challenges of competition in business and in sport build camaraderie, loyalty, and advance us personally as teams; winning is ultimately why we compete. Someone is always keeping score and nobody puts participation trophies on their mantel.

So let your defeats inspire you to rack up many more wins. Good luck.

Work small, dream big,

Team Kinglet