There are two huge things going on in my life right now besides the usual exciting things my wife and kids are up to all the time.
The first thing is that the Oregon Ducks football team is ranked #1 in the nation. While this guarantees the team nothing and means nothing, it’s never happened to the Ducks before so this is exciting to those of us who have been fans for years.
The second big thing is that I’ve started a company and I’m currently in the highs and lows of that adventure.
What’s happened is that I’ve started to see a lot of parallels between what Chip Kelly has to do as the coach of the Ducks to what I have to handle in running a startup. Let’s compare:
Hiring Your Coaching Staff
In order to build a good football team, a head coach needs to first put together a top quality staff of assistant coaches. These coaches need to be able to work well with the head coach, work well with each other, and be more specialized to a certain area than the head coach who’s overseeing everything. An example would e your offensive coordinator who focuses on the offensive side of the ball, or a defensive line coach who coaches a certain position. Additionally, it works best if these coaches have skill sets and expertise that compliment the head coach and fill in where they are weak.
In a startup this is like building your early team. You need to early coworkers who work well with you, work well with each other, and have strong skills that can be applied in a specific area that hopefully go above and beyond what the CEO can do there. This could be your lead engineer or CTO, your head of product, or head of sales. Obviously in a startup these are people that may have to take on multiple roles early on, but they are ideally people who can become leaders and managers of the company over time.
A bad hire or hires in an assistant coaching staff will doom a football team over the long term just as early employees who don’t fit or add enough value will doom your startup.
Recruiting Your Team
After a coaching staff is established, the coaches have to get to work in recruiting players to join the team. They spend a lot of time and effort scouting high school players in their area and around the country, interviewing those players, checking references, and bringing them in for a visit to the school. While all this is happening they have to convince the players that they are the school out of all the options to come and play for. Sometimes promises are made by coaches, sometimes those aren’t promises but implications, and sometimes they just say you have to come in and earn it. Eventually it comes down to whether the player believes in the coaches, vision, strategy, and sees how they can fit into the team and that it’s a school they want to attend for the next four years.
In the startup world, this is when your early team starts to grow beyond that first core group. You have to start spending time networking, scouting LinkedIn, putting job applications out there, hiring recruiters, or doing other things to find potential candidates that fit the right positions in your company. Then you need to interview them, check references, and bring them in to see if it’s a bit on both sides. Promises are sometimes made, or sometimes not, but again the employee has to believe in the team, vision, strategy, and that it’s a company they want to spend the next four or more years at (common equity vesting length).
Setting the Strategy
When a college football coach looks at the upcoming season they’ve got to set the strategy for the team. This consists of working with those assistant coaches to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the team and match that against the types of offenses and defenses the coaches know well enough to implement. They’ll plan what they need to teach their team in order to get there by the upcoming season.
For startups, this is is like working with your founders or top employees early on to evaluate your strengths and what you know how to build and execute, and then planning out how you’re going to get there. What infrastructure do you need to setup? What do you need to build? How are you going to acquire customers? How are you going to make money?
Once the strategy and plan are in place for the football team, it’s time to get to work in practice. The team spends significant time and energy working on physical conditioning, practicing and improving skills, and learning the plays they plan to run in games. Practices can sometimes drag, especially if there is no big game in sight. The great coaches are expert motivators at getting their team to give 100% effort all the time in order to maximize this practice time. There are moments of excitement when the team’s potential is shown in practice, but also moments of fright when the team doesn’t perform well and things aren’t clicking.
For startups, I’d consider this the initial building phase where you work long hours but aren’t to a point yet when you’re getting feedback or having any big wins. Some days you think you make a ton of progress, while on other days you feel like there’s just so much work to do you don’t know how you’ll get it all done. A great CEO can inspire his team through this period and help them perform at maximum effort even though you aren’t getting user feedback yet or seeing any kind of growth.
Spring Football takes place in the spring when the football team practices for about a month and then holds a “spring football game” for fans to come and watch where they play against themselves. This is a time for experimenting with players in different positions and any new offensive or defensive plays and strategies you may want to use.
This could be considered a beta period for a startup. You spend this time to build a product and experiment on what you think might work. Then the spring game functions as your beta test when a small number of “fans” check out your work to see what you’ve accomplished over that month of practice. Usually those fans will see a lot of promise in the football team like hopefully fans of your startup will see promise in your product or service. However, they also usually feel like the product looks incomplete and is missing some key features that they hope you get fixed by the big games in the fall.
Once the real football season begins there is a game every week. In college football almost every game is considered extremely important due to how the system works. The teams, coaches, and fans want to have a great performance every week to gain more exposure, support, and get a win on their record.
In the land of startups, I’d consider big games to be things like a product launch, big customer meeting, or big investor meeting. These are the big events that you prepare for, practice for, and stress out about leading up to them. Then they often end in a huge victory or a terrible defeat for your company. You learn something about your company with the win or the loss, but just like in football sometimes the loss teaches you more about where you need to improve. Either way, you have to bounce back quickly and start preparing for the next “big game” in the next meeting.
Being a good football coach involves preparing your team properly to take on their opponents. They study film of their opponent playing and try and predict what strategies they are going to employ against their team. They identify strengths they must prepare for and look for weaknesses they can exploit. However, if they worry too much about their competition and deviate too much from what their team does well it can have an adverse effect. Should you change what your team does dramatically based on what the competition does?
It’s very similar with a startup. You can study your competition and identify their strengths and weaknesses and try and predict where they are going to go. However, you can also get too concerned with competition and make incorrect decisions simply because you’re trying to differentiate too much or perhaps trying to emulate something they are doing well. It’s a really fine balance for a startup to figure out how they should deal with competitors.
Working with Boosters and the Athletic Director
College Football coaches in many ways aren’t the complete boss. They report to the school’s athletic director and really also report to the school’s largest donors or boosters. These are the generally wealthy alumni who donate large amounts of money to their school to help athletic department budgets or help the facilities of the football program. In the case of Oregon, Nike CEO Phil Knight is a prime example of this. While he doesn’t officially make decisions, you know he has a large amount of influence on who the football coach is and evaluates their performance.
In a startup that’s taken on investment, this is very similar to the relationship with investors or advisors. Depending on the situation the investors may control the board of directors and be able to fire the CEO/founder, or in other cases they may not but just have a lot of influence in evaluating the job that the CEO is doing. For major decisions the CEO makes, what the investors think has an influence on those decisions just like what Phil Knight thinks influences what Oregon coach Chip Kelly may decide to do in a certain situation with his program.
Handling The Media
The media can be a coach’s best friend when times are good and their worst enemy when times are bad. If a team is doing well, it’s common to see lots of praise about the team and very positive comments about the coach that can help their reputation tremendously. When things start to go bad though, those same people praising the coach and the company can turn negative extremely quickly and begin to get irrational in the other direction even going as far as suggesting a coach should be fired.
For a startup, the relationship can be very similar. You want the attention of the media if things are going well. When things aren’t going well, the last thing you want to see is the media covering the problems that are happening with your company.
Just like the media, the fans out there can be just as fickle. When times are good they’ll tell everyone they know about the team and how good they are doing. They’ll support the team with time and money and cheer like there’s nothing more important in the world. But if the team hits a losing streak or has long periods of poor play fans will turn negative and stop coming to the games and showing support.
Fans are like your customers or users of your startup’s product. If your company is performing well those users will give you their time and money and tell their friends about you. But the second you wrong them in some way or don’t provide what they’re expecting to see, they’ll speak negatively of you and pull their money and go to a competitor. Not all users are like this of course, and there are many fans of football teams that are loyal as well, but it’s definitely something that companies and critically aware of and coaches need to have fan support to keep their job over the long run.
The Big Picture
There are so many things to worry about, plan for, and execute that it can be overwhelming for a football coach or a CEO to get the job done. Oregon coach Chip Kelly has installed a motto at in the Ducks program called “Win the Day”. He’s even gone as far as creating a logo for the motto and painting it inside the stadium as seen in the picture at right. It simply means that you can’t play your opponent every day, you can’t change the perception of the media and fans, and you can’t win a championship all at once. All you can really do is focus on winning that particular day and executing what you need to do to get the job overall job done.
I think the same motto can be applied at a startup. You can’t get everything done right away, you can’t sign every deal, you can’t beat every competitor. All you can do is win the day itself by accomplishing what needs to b accomplished now to move you towards your bigger goals.