What startups can learn from racing

January 23, 2011

I come from a family of racing. Hell, I basically grew up on race tracks all around Northern Europe with my dad, his brother and my cousin all racing formula cars. So, naturally, once I could afford it, I too wanted to get out on the track and feel the rush - but, unlike the rest of my family, motorcycles spoke more to me than cars, which meant that I wound up on two wheels rather than four. I love it - there's no other way to say it. That sensation of waking up in a moist tent in the middle of nowhere, getting up on a foggy Saturday morning, preparing the bike and going out for the first session on a damp track, is nothing short of brilliant. That first cautious lap followed by the first full-on lap with the throttle pinned, brakes being slammed and the knee constantly hitting the asphalt just gives you an adrenalin rush I honestly can't compare to anything else. Some even venture into stating, that it's better than sex. I think it's a bit like comparing champagne and strawberries; you need both for life to be truly brilliant.

But, what can startups actually learn from this obscure, dangerous addiction held by a small crowd of adrenalin junkies? Well, you might not really think about it, but in many ways, doing startups is actually like being in a competition - you're always competing with someone else, whether it's for attention, users, revenue or something else entirely. There's always another startup out there, which has a great idea, a great product or a great profile, so you're constantly fighting to be in the spotlight, naturally. Especially if you're doing a "bubble business", where you most definitely need all the attention you can get, in order to land investors, get traction and make yourself look good for an exit. Racing is a competition too, and due to the expensive nature of it, it quickly grows beyond being just a hobby - it becomes a lifestyle. Sounds familiar?

It has to be a lifestyle

Racing is physically tough. In order to get good results, you need to be in shape - most top level racers are in better shape than the average olympic athlete, actually. You need money, too. Bikes are not cheap, and they need to be upgraded, tuned, set up and constantly maintained in order to be in a competition ready state. Therefore, you often see racers pouring everything they have into this hobby of theirs. Their money, their time and their souls. Otherwise, there's no chance in hell, they're ever going to win, and then it's pointless, isn't it? The hobby transcends from being just a hobby to a fully fletched lifestyle, and the results show.

The same goes for startups. It's tough, and it requires money - sometimes lots of it. And you usually have to give up some other things in order to get what you want: a successful business. That's just the name of the game, and everyone knows it. It's hard for "outsiders" to understand, yet everyone in the startup community can appreciate the success of anyone who's sacrificed to get there. It too becomes a lifestyle of long hours, hard work and little return for a very long time. And it has to be, otherwise there's simply no point, right?

It takes practice

The first thing any person should take away from racing into basically any aspect of life is, that getting good at something takes practice. I've always been good at almost any logical challenge you could throw at me, but that all got turned up-side down the first time I went out on the track. I suddenly knew shit nothing, and I had to eyeball it all. In as competitive an environment as that, no-one really gives up the good stuff, and even if they do, there's still a fucking long way from understanding to execution.

So what does this mean? The only way to build a successful startup is to try. Yes, you can read books, yes you can take other people's advice and yes, you can most definitely hire a bunch of talented people, if you've got the money. But it will never teach you exactly how to do a startup. Think about it, have you ever heard of an actual "overnight success"? I mean, where some person who's never done anything in the tech space suddenly pumps out a product which becomes massively popular without any prior experience - I've tried for a long time, and I can't come up with a single name. The same goes for racing. No-one just gets on a bike and wins everything. Yes, some people are inherently better at things from the beginning due to different factors, yet they all need practice to hone this into success.

Don't be naive; work hard and you'll get there. Racers usually get there a tenth at a time, and you will too. But in the end, it all adds up and you can come out on top.

It's not a question of "if", it's a question of "when"

9 times World champion, Valentino Rossi, crashes too

9 times world champion, Valentino Rossi, crashes too

Let's just face it: you're going to crash. Novices and experts alike crash. Not every move is right, and there's a price to pay for that. Sometimes you can steer out of it, other times you reduce the actual impact and damage, but mostly, you just plain and simply crash. We've seen it loads of times. Sometimes it's more spectacular than others, like for example the infamous .com bubble burst in early 2000, where companies crashed like flies. It's happened since then, of course. According to "Rework" by 37signals, the success rate of startups done by even experienced people who've succeeded before, is still only in the 30 % bracket. In comparison, the success rate of newcomers is in the lower 20 % bracket - not a huge difference then, especially considering that the guys who've done startups before should have a bit of "know-how."

I crashed in my first race ever, actually. I made a mistake coming out of a corner, the bike slid for a bit, then picked back up and I was headed directly for a tire stack before I knew it. I managed to get the bike down on the ground, and both me and the bike slid into the tire stack at some 40 mph moving the thing more than a meter. I was scared shitless, to be honest with you, but that fear was soon replaced by anger and self-hatred as I realized that the mistake was no other than my own. I can still remember the fury I felt when I sat there at the far side of the track with a knee that was so swollen it took a month before I could walk properly again.

The same thing happened to the first "startup" I ever tried to do. It just never took off, and I had to realize that. I did so rather quickly though, and moved on to better things. Not everyone does this - they're blind to the fact, that crashing is not just a distant possibility, but something that's just above your head every single second - and these guys endlessly try to make the same thing work over and over again, honestly wasting both their own and other's time. We all know people of this character - they're annoying in the long run, as you always wind up having to help out in some way. I'm not saying that you shouldn't believe in your idea or be persistent in what you're doing. All I'm saying is, that you should be realistic and realize when enough is enough. I know it's not as simple as in racing, where the easily distinguished sound of plastic and metal scraping the asphalt clearly indicates that you've crashed, but keep your eyes open, and you'll see it.

Crashing is not always a bad thing. You might learn something from it, you might not, but realizing that failing is human and moving on is a characteristic that will get you a long way. That fury and rage I built after crashing in my first race was converted to far better lap times and a decent finishing position as 10th in the race the following day. Crashing motivates you to try again, do better and succeed. Don't be afraid of crashing.

It's both man and machine

You've probably heard over and over again people telling you, that investors don't invest in products, they invest in "teams." But is this actually true? And is it logical? In racing, everyone knows that it's not only man or machine. It's both, and without both of them being in equally good standing, you're going to have a hard time. Valentino Rossi (above) crashed hard in practice before the 2010 seasons and subsequently had a miserable year ending 5th in the overall standing despite having one the world championship the two prior years. He's on what's generally regarded as the best bike in the world, yet he's incapable of winning a world championship with a body that's not completely fit. This goes the other way around, too. Look at Michael Schumacher - he won basically everything in Formula 1 with Ferrari and is now a living legend. A few years back he decided to do a return with a new Mercedes team, and it's been crap ever since then. So, the man who's regarded as the single best driver in the world can't make up for a mediocre machine.

What does this tell us? The statement above is bullshit. If investors primarily invest in teams, they're going to fail - and given the above success rate, they're likely to do so in 70-80 % of the time judged only by teams. If they primarily invest in products, they're going to fail. They invest in the package. You should always keep that in mind - both product and team needs to be fit, otherwise you're not going to be attractive to investors, and most likely not going to succeed even without investment either. Cater to everything, not just the details you find most interesting or relevant. Every aspect counts.

Wrapping up

The startup world is hands down a brilliant place to be. I for one love it dearly and have even put my racing on hold for the last 1½ years for it. I've come to learn shit loads, and I continue to learn every single day. But, I've found it very beneficial to draw on previous completely unrelated experience to drive my way through the new territory that is the startup world. I hope the above may be helpful to you too.