The odds of success for a Startup (exit) are similar to becoming a professional golfer or another sport. I chose golf over other sports I’ve played like tennis, basketball, football (soccer) and baseball, because it’s much tougher all around, though tennis comes a close second!
Startups and Golf are initially individual undertakings- scores/KPIs-, and, if there is traction, becomes a team play, but there is always one face leading the team!
So, I wanted to share some observations as have been involved with startups and playing golf; from taking the first step, pain point, team, focus, iterations, number, time, (ESG) disruption, and to competition.
Getting started requires understanding one’s passion, sacrifice, and motivations. If you are doing it for money, fame, and/or limelight, you won’t make it through the inevitable ‘valleys,’ where passion and patience are the important two attributes to get you through to the next challenge. Many times, a founder’s inspiration for a idea-cum-Startup comes from their own ‘pain points,’ as thinking is, ‘if I have this problem, many others probably also have it.’
For golf, the same passion is required, a golf ‘bug’ that drives you to be the next Tiger Woods or Michelle Wie: to be the best and break records. In valuation terminology, I would call Tiger a deca-corn,’ notwithstanding events of last few years, and there is several unicorn players, and ponies.
It must be understood, one cannot be taught to have passion, be part of a weekend hack-a-thon, or be disrupted. But, one can be exposed, via courses, to attributes of passion with the hope that some parts eventually become your default approach.
[My story on golf- I started playing golf so that I can be closer to my son. As your kids get older, they are into their own friends, activities, interests, and less time with you. So, you, as the parent, have to pivot and accommodate to their interests to spend quality time together as time flies by being busy and distracted. It’s not easy to start a new sport at middle age and to play competitively with your child. Yes, I know, watching it on TV, players like Tiger, Rory, Phil, Jordan, Sergio, and Dustin make it look so easy.]
So, passion is the motivation is to be a startup founder or professional golfer. And making the first bold step is ‘to do’ is a huge decision, as it’s about sacrifice (lifestyle and family, to a certain degree) and looking beyond oneself for something greater whilst making a difference!
An entrepreneur has a different DNA, as they look at situations, products/services, and opportunities with a different lens and it generally starts at a young age; be it selling lemonade outside the home, collecting and selling unwanted times or, in today’s time, building an app. Many times, your internal voice says, ‘can this be done better, more efficient, brought into another market, etc.’ But, you pick your ideas (battles) by process of elimination, so that you can ideate a concept and go to ‘war’ with it in the fickle and hyper-competitive marketplace.
So, you have an idea that addresses a pain point for a large segment of your target market. The idea, after sanity checklist tick boxes, has to reach the stage of the minimum viable product -MVP- (interactions with sample customers), then goes to product-market fit-PMF-, then you start putting marketing dollars on it to get paying customers. You will iterate your product, approach, and thinking mainly because of customer interaction, from being a ‘novice’ outsider to a ‘better informed’ insider.
Then or very soon, you will need a co-founder. [See below on Team.] Not any co-founder (for hire), but someone who you have a history with, as they will be in the trenches with you watching your back, bounce ideas, provide another viewpoint, picking you up, etc., plus (VC) investors and accelerators (like YC) want to see one or two with you before considering investing.
The rise of the accelerators, led by YC, Techstars, etc., has made it somewhat easier to launch a Startup and have a temporary home until ‘demo-day.’ Getting into a good accelerator is like getting into a world-class university/college, not easy! Furthermore, boot camps, retreats, hack-a-thons, pitch sessions, etc., have been added to test the viability, discovery, and validation, of the Startups offering.
[Note: Startups is not just for 20 somethings, the industry’s impact on society and financial rewards of employees of FB, Google, Salesforce, etc., has encouraged those encountering mid-life crisis to consider startups, those thinking about a second career, those fed up with the corporate grind or their boss, those who want to turns a hobby into a business, and so on].
Generally, exposure to golf needs to come early on; birthday toy set, tv, parents, magazine, miniature golf, and/or at secondary/high school and it becomes more natural (to play) versus other sports. The ‘spark of interest becoming a fire’ may come from family, friends, or even foes. Yes, there are two-sport athletes, but eventually, he/she has to choose, as competition is intense and global.
Golf requires a lot of hours of hard work, sacrifice, and tournament play (iterations). Your initial partners or ‘mentors’ are Youtube videos, watching tournaments on the golf channel, becoming a regular at driving range, your golf buddy being a teacher, and watching and listening to the local club golf pro give lessons. You understand the purposes of the clubs, from wedges to irons to hybrid to the driver, and when to use them (distance to damage control), golf course management, from fairways to higher grass to greens (reading the breaks).
As there are elite colleges/universities (Harvard to Oxford), there are elite golf schools in places like Texas, California, and Florida (call them accelerators), and not easy to get into, much like accelerators. Each tournament you play results in a better understanding of yourself and the game (equivalent to customer feedback for product-market fit). The bigger tournaments become your ‘demo-day,’ as sponsors, like Nike or Adidas, are attending and watching to make an investment in you.
Now, as you have some traction (sales or unit economics), you have to start building a team (beyond founders) for your Startup! But, it’s inadvisable to fill positions fast even though you’re hitting/exceeding milestones, you need to hire slowly, as it will be about trust, delegation, sacrifice (paycheck is light and often comes late)! I mentioned product-market fit (PMF), the same applies to first employees, there must be a CHF (company hire fit). Furthermore, as important, you also have to ‘fire fast’ when expectations are not met, as few bad apples can undermine!
In golf, as you get better, winning a few tournaments and name going viral on the selected circles, you need to have resources to build your team, beyond family/friends. To hire a swing coach, maybe putting coach, maybe course management coach, psychology coach, and, eventually a caddy (and not your golfing daddy). The competition is intense, as the paychecks and endorsements, from, say, publicity-seeking startups is your livelihood, and you continuously need a (mental) edge. This can become your (dream) team or could become an expensive (entourage) nightmare if not properly vetted.
The power of ‘no,’ is probably one of the most overlooked, but extremely important words for the founder(s)/CEO of a Startup to tattoo in a conspicuous place. As there are so many distractions, decisions on budgets, media interviews, when to pivot, people/staff coming to you with ideas, etc., the word ‘no’ keeps you focused on the target: customer and sales resulting in traction for scaling to raise additional funding.
Golfers, like other high-level professional athletes, work long and hard to get into a zone (a mental aspect of the game), where they remove distractions and focus on one ‘shot’ at a time. What differentiates hackers from stars and superstars is the ability to focus, as it allows them to address pressure/stress much better! Tiger, in his prime, was the epitome of focus with his glare during the majors!
With your product, you have to iterate many times (with your sampling customer base) to get it right for your customer but expect issues with technology, hitches with the product, customer service, etc. With any Startup, expect mistakes, be it overestimating revenue and underestimating costs, and damage control becomes a vital part (as part of risk metrics) of the business plan. The caveat is that you cannot take shortcuts, for example, where you/your staff thinks for the customer. Furthermore, one of the biggest mistakes is when industry experts join startups and believe they know what the customer wants, they don’t!
In golf, the swing is completely misunderstood by the novice outsider. You try to [bicep] muscle the ball, and it doesn’t go anywhere, maybe a sharp right or left turn (have to yell ‘four’), assuming you don’t top it! Golf is about recovering from inevitable bad shots, i.e., damage control. Through iterations of your swing and equipment, you learn that it’s about stance, weight balance, rotation of hips and shoulder, cocking of wrist, and pendulum follow-through. Eventually, you hope muscle memory takes over and don’t have to think about every checklist item on the swing.
But, complacency (in both) becomes the number one self-destructive cause of the decline. First making it, then getting to the top, and then staying on top requires a ‘scaling’ mindset and approach, as self-disruption is better than getting disrupted. Why? The USPs are fleeting, so the entry barriers are lower today for verticals and sports.
Time: Enemy and Ally
Passion needs to be combined with patience. In both cases, it takes time, and time is something you cannot fast track or compress. For a Startup, success is defined at various stages: product and iteration, getting the team right, identifying the TAM, product producing unit economics (pay customers), funding (Series A, B, C…), scaling and exit (5-7 years), yet most startups fail within that time frame.
In golf, it takes tens of thousands of hours, hundreds of thousands of swings, millions of thoughts, etc., before you have an understanding of what you can do (and need to work) on a golf course. Where you can actually control (consistently) how you want the ball to fly (fade, draw, etc.), how far, where to land, and what you will do next. Yet, still no assurance you will make a living as a pro golfer, but could be a teaching pro at club or write articles!
Patience becomes the virtue ally but requires the push of time.
Whether you are talking to the media, enticing quality employees, pitching to angels and VCs, you better know your numbers; CAPEX, OPEX, budgets, valuation rationale, etc. You better know how to read term sheet terms and conditions, i.e., hire experienced attorneys handling startups, as the ‘haircut, cliffs, convertibles, etc’ may result in you becoming an employee!
In golf, numbers and percentages are key to understanding your strengths and weaknesses. For example, fairway percentage landing off the tee-shot; landing on the green on Par 3,4, and 5; putting percentage when 2, 4, 8, 16 feet away from the cup, etc. Now, you are seeing golfers that are data-driven, and tv channels, covering golf tournaments, showcase data on each golfer for each hole over the course of the three days.
It’s assumed you understand your competitive landscape, but the entry barriers are changing and becoming lower because of the internet, free tools on the internet, open-source APIs, cloud hosting, accelerators, VCs throwing money, and ‘tourist’ investors FOMO (fear of missing out) strategy, etc. To build the next moonshot, FB to Google to Apple to Alibaba, is nearly impossible, to build a unicorn (valuation of $1B) is fleeting possible, but to build ‘ponies’ is more realistic. Remember, ponies can become unicorns! You need to stay abreast of changing technology, markets, competition, etc., plus do your day job!
You, as (co-)founder/CEO, need to also establish a culture of respect, tolerance, transparency, etc., as soon as possible. Today, the $68B Startup, Uber, is the poster child of the culture to avoid, and a few venture capitalists have been exposed, by the New York Times, on sexual harassment against startup (women) founders who were seeking funding from them! Thus, there is also an internal competition, extends to your health, which is as important as the external one!
In golf, the competitive landscape is many: (1) upcoming golfers; (2) different courses; (3) weather elements; (4) travel grind; (5) preparation, just to name a few. There is also the issue of ‘behaving’ off the course, as it will impact your endorsements and, potentially, tournament entry.
As stated, there are golfers (like startups) that are classified as ‘deca-corns, unicorns, and ponies.’ There are also thousands of startups and golfers that get stuck at Series A, B, C… and ‘B or junior circuit,’ who are just not able to exit for a number of reasons. Call it Darwin’s Law.
What would be a disruptive Startup in golf? App on golf swing already exists; App for golf course management probably exists? Finding lost golf balls? Equipment?
True disruption in Golf would probably be the “E” in ESG, about reduced use of water and chemicals on golf courses! A suggestion of ‘Astro-turf course, but issues on ball handling, push back from purists, etc.
To have a successful Startup or become a professional athlete is not how it’s portrayed on TV (Silicon Valley) or in films (Greatest Game Ever Played). You need to want to bad, sacrifice big, believe, pray, and still….
Wish you all the very best, and let’s think about the environmental disruption aspects of Golf.
Originally published on www.iportal.live