Entrepreneurship as a Triathlon Game
It’s a badge of honor – the oval shaped sticker on the back of a car, proclaiming 26.2, or 13.1, or for the truly hardy, 70.3. These indicators of endurance are the mark of accomplishment; the sign that the driver of the car pushed themselves to complete a marathon. Harder to find, but still spotted around, are the car stickers that boast the even more demanding competition – a stick figure person shown running, biking, and swimming. What madness overtakes a person to compete in an event that is at best grueling, and at worst, insane? Even more compelling, what can entrepreneurs learn from the person who willingly submits themselves to the event and even goes so far as to pay for the opportunity to participate?
To examine this issue, we’ll look at the 1) the anatomy of a triathlete, 2) the anatomy of an entrepreneur, 3) habits an entrepreneur can learn from a triathlete, and 4) common elements of a triathlon and business. In addition, 5) we’ll look at triathletes-turned-entrepreneurs who have used their competitive drive to engage in the game of business.
ANATOMY OF A TRIATHLETE
Obviously, the triathlete needs to be in good physical shape. To complete, much less to win a race that is measured in a “Sprint Distance” of 750-meter swim/20-km bike/5-km run, one has to have excellent conditioning. A list of triathlons includes the Intermediate Distance, the Long Distance, and the king of triathletes, the Ultra Distance (often referred to by the ultimate triathlete “Ironman”). The Ultra Distance course lays out a 3.8 km swim/180.2 km bike/42.2 km run track for competitors, the fastest of whom can complete the course in less than nine hours.
Is there a secret gene that predisposes a person to complete one of these events? Does the body of a triathlete harbor extra muscles or tendons?
Inside the head of a triathlete
Within the head of a triathlete is a brain that is hardwired for the level of competition that a triathlon requires. The triathlete’s mind is a whirlwind of activity, all centered on improving their time, planning their run, pacing their bike ride. There is a constant push to shave seconds off their time, and often times, while the overall competition of a triathlon is between hundreds of contestants, the real race is internal. There is glory in winning, but there is a high level of personal satisfaction in simply competing. That feeling is only compounded by an improvement in a personal time.
Inside the body of a triathlete
The heart of a triathlete, beyond the obvious health benefits from being in top shape, beats with courage. Once an athlete has become fit to the point where they are physically able to complete a triathlon, there comes a point where the challenge becomes a test of will. It requires courage to stare down the length of a grueling 180.2 km bike course and not falter. The triathlon is voluntary – no one is forced to compete, so the impetus to join this elite group of athletes is completely personal. It must come from within the athlete, or they will cave in at the earliest opportunity.
Inside the arms and legs of a triathlete
The arms and legs of a triathlete are pushed to their limits during a triathlon. Consider the times of the recent Ironman champion, Frederik Van Lierde. He completed the 3.8 km swim in a time of 51:02. A respectable time for anyone who competes as a swimmer. He followed that up with a 180.2 km bike ride in 4:25:37. After that warm up, he completed a full marathon – running a total of 42.2 km in 2:51:18. His overall time was 8:12:29, which is basically the equivalent of an average workday spent in athletic pursuit. To keep his times in perspective, the 2011 winner of the Boston Marathon completed the 42.2 km race in 2:01:02 – and that is the only event that they participated in that day.
An athlete who performs in a triathlon has an expectation that their arms and legs will sustain them through the length of the course, and they train accordingly to ensure that they do.
ANATOMY OF AN ENTREPRENEUR
Inside the head of an entrepreneur
Most entrepreneurs tend to have similar character qualities. A majority of entrepreneurs have a Type A personality. Type A people are: ambitious, proactive, high-achieving ‘workaholics’, and are disdainful of ambivalence and delays. They have big dreams and refuse to accept defeat. The high levels of self-confidence that an entrepreneur has can make it difficult for them to fit within the confines of a corporate climate, so they create a company where they can thrive.
Inside the body of an entrepreneur
Deciding to leave the safe world of corporate business and forge into the unknown, no-safety-net world of entrepreneurship requires a high level of courage. Creating a job out of sheer will and instinct is not for the faint of heart. Fortunately, within the body of an entrepreneur is a sense of adventure.
Becoming an entrepreneur also requires endurance. When things look bleak, it would be easy to return to the safe world of a ‘regular’ job. Finding the courage to continue to push towards a goal is only possible if there is a sense of adventure and endurance inside.
Inside the arms and legs of an entrepreneur
The arms and legs of an entrepreneur represent the skills that are required to perform their tasks. An entrepreneur, for the most part, is a multi-tasker who can handle a variety of jobs. The entrepreneur can be found engaging in all aspects of a company, especially during the start-up phase. They become the secretary, the CEO, the salesperson and the marketing specialist, often all on the same day. The entrepreneur must also be equipped for their job with the training and skills necessary to perform within the industry.
WHAT AN ENTREPRENEUR CAN LEARN FROM A TRIATHLETE
Despite the similarities that exist between triathletes and entrepreneurs, there are some specific skills and practices that the entrepreneur can learn from the athlete.
Triathletes are master planners. They plan their workouts, they plan their eating schedules, and they plan their events. With military-like precision, the triathlete can detail out the specifics of their workout over a span of time that ranges from days to weeks. They rarely falter from their timeline, training in spite of weather concerns, work schedules and other responsibilities. A triathlete who is approaching an event will sacrifice social activities and leisure time to get in a workout. In addition, these athletes plan and train for success.
Entrepreneurs who wish to rise to the next level of business must become master planners as well. Through strategic planning, detailed goals and benchmarks the business leader can design a clear path to success. By adopting the mindset of an athlete, the entrepreneur will begin to arrange their schedule around things that are important to the advancement of the company. Instead of ‘someday’ joining a networking group that offers potential contacts, the entrepreneur makes a point to get it on the calendar and attend. Rather than carrying business journals back and forth to work in a briefcase, unread, the planning entrepreneur schedules time to spend in personal growth and development.
With today’s technology, the modern triathlete has the tools necessary to track every aspect of their training and event. They can chart their heart rate, their speed, their time, distance and more, and then create comparison charts to help spot trends and patterns. Global Positioning Systems (GPS) make it possible to generate maps of their course and give the athlete insight into their strengths. In addition, in spite of the high-tech equipment available, many triathletes wear an athletic watch that has the capability to time ‘splits’, so they can instantly see their times. Regardless of how they log their times (electronically or otherwise), a triathlete who is trying to improve their level of competition will keep track of their workouts and speed.
By instituting a tracking system in their business, the entrepreneur can take advantage of the information, using it to improve the work process. While it may not be beneficial to time everything, tracking and collecting information is essential to the company who wishes to advance in the marketplace. Companies can track customer information including frequency of purchases, purchasing cycles and more. The ‘stats’ of the company can include sales figures, best-selling products and customer satisfaction rates. Collecting the stats of a company can give an indicator of areas that need improvement, additional service possibilities and product sales figures that may be a surprise. There are wealth of platforms and software that can handle the tracking of company information easily, giving the entrepreneur the needed information quickly.
By its very nature, a triathlon is competitive. There will be a winner, and someone will come in last. No one races to lose, but for many triathletes, their main competitor is the person in the mirror. The triathlete is in a race against the clock; working to improve their time and refusing to give in to the urge to slink into the sidelines. For the racer who is in the race to win, there is a sense of “go big or go home”. These competitors refuse to back down, and train for over twenty hours a week. In the minds of these athletes, there is only one reason to compete: winning.
Entrepreneurs must embrace the ‘go big or go home’ mentality. Yes, it is possible to create a little start-up company that never grows. But, why? Make the effort payoff in a big way, and build for greatness. In one sense, a company is in direct competition with itself, and should always be searching for ways to improve. Within their industry, however, there are sources of competition that can be used as motivation to keep moving forward.
COMMON ELEMENTS OF ENTREPRENEURSHIP AND TRIATHLONS
After looking at the similarities between the triathlete and entrepreneurs, it is helpful to examine the common elements of their environments.
The triathlon gives athletes the opportunity to compete in three vastly different arenas: swimming, biking, running. Even though it is a test of skill and endurance, the experienced athlete has learned to maximize their strengths while working on their weakness. The athlete who is weak in swimming can make up for it during the marathon. With the outcome based on the overall time, not the individual events’ times, competitors can develop a strategy to balance their skills.
Similarly, entrepreneurship allows for a multi-discipline approach to business. Using strategic methods such as SWOT or Porter’s Five Forces, the business leader can find ways to minimize weaknesses and maximize strengths.
An athlete training for a triathlon can expect to spend at least 20 hours a week preparing for the event. Even beyond the actual training of practice runs, swims and bike rides, they will spend time with workout equipment building muscle and endurance. Meals and snacks will be scrutinized, they will become regimented in the number of hours of sleep they need to get and everything they do will be based on the upcoming triathlon. This level of training requires both commitment and sacrifice. Inexperienced athletes who spontaneously decide to take on a triathlon quickly realize that they are not prepared for an event of this magnitude.
For the entrepreneur, the level of training and commitment can be equally as intense. The ‘back of the napkin’ ideas are common among entrepreneurs who find that they are thinking about their company for a majority of their waking hours. They plan their day around client meetings, potential investors, strategic planning sessions and collaboration meetings. Up late and out of bed early, the entrepreneur learns to make do with less sleep and is frequently found in front of a calendar, planning for the future. The road to successful entrepreneurship is littered with companies that were started by a half-hearted leader. To be competitive, the entrepreneur must be prepared to train and work harder than ever before.
The triathlon is not for wimps. Anyone who wishes to join these events must have an intrinsic drive to prove something – either to themselves or someone else. Some would say that it requires a certain level of anger to fuel the drive to the finish line. Considering the amount of time that is required to train effectively, as well as the money invested in the sport, a triathlete is the epitome of dedication.
When a business leader decides to cross the line into entrepreneurship, they are making a commitment to themselves. To succeed, it requires dedication to that commitment. There are a number of factors that contribute to someone choosing entrepreneurship, but many of the reasons are similar to that of a triathlete: to prove something to themselves or another.
At the beginning, a triathlon can be relatively inexpensive. A pair of goggles, some running shoes and a bicycle is all the triathlete needs. To be competitive in an event, however, the needed equipment requires a hefty investment. Racing tires for a competition bicycle can cost a couple of thousands US dollar (the bike frame itself is extra). Bike shoes, wetsuits, high quality running shoes, race entry fees and travel costs can all quickly begin to add up as an athlete becomes serious about the sport.
The entrepreneur can find themselves in a similar situation. A great idea can be born in the garage, or in a dorm room with a laptop computer and a printer. At the beginning, there is little in the way of equipment needs. As the company develops, however, the equipment needs grow. Business cards, licensing, staffing costs and facilities can all become added expenses that overwhelm a young company. Remembering the commitment they made to themselves can help the entrepreneur push through the initial expenses to establish a solid foundation for the company.
Athletes often speak of a moment during a competition where everything hums. Some refer to it as a ‘Sweet Spot’. It’s the time when the rhythm of the activity takes over and the body is acting on pure instinct and training. Those times are what keep a competitor returning to race again – in search of that moment of bliss.
Entrepreneurs experience that same sense of satisfaction when the realization that they have created a successful company dawns. When the business is performing as it should, when goals are being met and benchmarks are being set, it is a ‘Sweet Spot’ for entrepreneurs. Many serial entrepreneurs (entrepreneurs who establish multiple companies) are chasing that sweet spot again, and find enjoyment in the challenge.
Entrepreneurship vs the endurance sports : Manjula Sridhar at TEDxNMIMSBangalore
ENTREPRENEURS WHO COMPETE AS TRIATHLETES
David Feinleib: This avid triathlete is an experienced entrepreneur. With a resume that includes stints at Microsoft and Mohr Davidow, a venture capital firm, he started companies that were purchased by Hewlett Packard and Keynote Systems. In his spare time, he trains for triathlons.
Sami Inkinen: The founder of real estate giant, Trulia, Sami Inkinen is not only a serial entrepreneur; he’s a record holding triathlete. He has been labeled as an ultra-athlete, and has amazed triathletes by succeeding on a minimal 12 hour per week training schedule.
Jim Breen: Irish tech entrepreneur Jim Breen enjoyed competing in triathlons so much began TriGrandPrix, a company that hosts world-class triathlon events around the globe. This international company holds triathlons that appeal to a wide range of people, of varying athletic ability and combines events such as kayaking, running and swimming.
The parallels between triathlons and entrepreneurship are startling. The similarities between the entrepreneur and the triathlete leave no doubts as to why the triathlon is quickly becoming the CEO event of choice. Pushing to the limit is a pattern of behavior that can be channeled to success – both in the board room and in the triathlon course.