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5 ways athletes and entrepreneurs are alike

Symbid founder Maarten van der Sanden and Paul Musters sat down to talk about their shared background: Being an athlete and becoming an entrepreneur. During their chat, they came up with five things an entrepreneur can learn from professional sports. And guess what, both jobs turned out to be quite similar…

5 ways athletes and entrepreneurs are alike

By Maarten van der Sanden (Symbid) and Paul Musters (Fortify)

Top athletes have certain talents and qualities that at first sight wouldn’t really seem to benefit you as an entrepreneur; I haven’t met an entrepreneur yet who grew their company’s profit purely by being able to run a marathon in under 3 hours. There are, however, similarities between the mentality and qualities of a top athlete and a top entrepreneur.

Unlike many of my peers, I didn’t spend the years before I began my adventure as an entrepreneur in a student bar, but on a racing bicycle. As an amateur, I rode in a peloton with riders who really wanted to become professional cyclists. They’d train for more than 20 hours a week and were willing to give (and use, considering the recent doping stories) everything to reach that goal. In addition to the lack of doping, I also lacked the talent required, that Tour de France cyclists do have. Yet this beautiful period of (top) sport was a good basis for my entrepreneurship, because I discovered quite a few parallels between the two. And I’m not the only one, also Paul Musters of Fortify sees them.

“A pole-vaulter does not jump 6 meters high right from the get-go, just like an entrepreneur will not land an investment of €6 million during his first pitch.”

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with Paul, a former triathlete and founder of Fortify. With Fortify he helps companies to form the winning team. We talked about the similarities between top sport and entrepreneurship and soon concluded that as a top athlete and top entrepreneur you are different than others.

SIMILARITY 1: BY TRIAL AND ERROR, PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT

“Just when you think you are doing well and feel the wind at your back, you are lying with your face on the asphalt”. A literal episode from the life of a cyclist, but also a metaphor for the life of an entrepreneur. They both make steering errors, wrong decisions or are knocked to the ground by someone else. And occasionally you also end up falling out of sheer bad luck.

The reflex of a cyclist is to immediately jump back on their bike. Also (successful) entrepreneurs always have a next plan ready and are thinking in scenarios. You learn from every mistake, and time and time again you learn to continue full of motivation.

Malcolm Gladwell explains it in his book Outliers as the 10,000-hour rule. It generally takes at least 10,000 hours of practice to become really good at something, to fully master a certain skill. This rule certainly applies to top athletes and top entrepreneurs. The development of specific skills is necessary to achieve certain unique achievements. A pole-vaulter does not jump 6 meters high right from the get-go, just like an entrepreneur will not land an investment of €6 million during his first pitch.

Paul adds: “The advantage of doing business versus top sport is that you can do business in 1001 ways. So, if you ever fall flat on your face, there are plenty of other possible ways. Of course, you’re also dealing with things like talent and happiness, which means that one person has a working plan right away, and the other doesn’t.”

“But with entrepreneurs you see that more experienced people have a greater chance of success. They have had training in negotiating, closing deals, building teams, etc. It is important that these 10,000 hours are continuously stimulating you. If you do the same thing for 10,000 hours, you won’t benefit from it anymore at a certain point. It’s important to stimulate yourself time and time again to learn new things which will bring you closer to your goal.”

Ultimately, it is all about establishing a path through time for yourself in how you envisage the development of your specific skills. Be critical to yourself whether you really like it enough that you want to spend (according to Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours) of your time on it, to be busy every day with becoming better at something.

After many hours of training, Paul Musters wins the triathlon of Zundert.

SIMILARITY 2: THE CHALLENGE IS NOT TO WORK HARD, BUT TO REST WELL

In addition to training, being at the top in sports also demands discipline in sleeping, eating, drinking. They are rules for everything. When I abruptly moved from being an athlete to an entrepreneur, I therefore initially enjoyed every bit of it.

Late nights in the pub or working, ‘sleeping is overrated’ was the motto. Add to that all the business lunches, networking events, and a drink every now and then during the week, and you have yourself a cocktail that after several years will deteriorate your performance significantly. You will therefore have to take care of your body and mind with discipline. Maybe not by going to a masseur every week, but by giving yourself enough breaks, sleep and holidays.

“You can only get better if you exert and relax yourself at the right moments.”

Working hard is not difficult at all for a real entrepreneur, taking and getting enough rest requires the greatest discipline. Paul uses the term of supercompensation for this. “You can only get better if you exert and relax yourself at the right moments. In sports you call that supercompensation. Your body has the quality to make itself stronger than it was, after you exerted yourself. But that only works when you get enough rest. Your muscles can then recover and become a bit stronger than they were. That’s not any different for an entrepreneur. Even if you want to continue working, you often make much better decisions when you are well rested.”

SIMILARITY 3: PAIN IS TEMPORARY, QUITTING LASTS FOREVER

And then perhaps we have the most important law of top sports, entrepreneurship and perhaps life: “Pain is temporary, quitting lasts forever.” A quote from the most talked-about cyclist of all time, the man who conquered testicular cancer as the biggest victory in his record: Lance Armstrong.

This touches the core of entrepreneurship. No matter how many times you thought of quitting because your account was empty, you again were rejected by a potential customer or investor or your business partner cheated you. The most successful entrepreneurs are the entrepreneurs who have not given up and occasionally went right up to the edge.

This is easier for some entrepreneurs, and harder for other. “Actually, you see that this works best with entrepreneurs who act out of their intrinsic motivation. Who is the most successful athlete? The one who loves the sport? Or the one who does it for the money? The latter will give up much sooner when it doesn’t go well. That is how it works in business too. If you really want to solve a problem, it is a lot less difficult to spend a late night at the office. On the other hand, you see entrepreneurs who have earning a lot of money as their main motive easily give up when they can’t pay themselves a salary for a month. The entrepreneurs who provide truly impactful changes, who have a great desire to achieve their goal, are the ones who will come furthest as entrepreneurs.”

Even the best of the best fall every now and then. This is Fabian Cancellara in the Tour de France of 2015.

SIMILARITY 4: TRUST IS KEY

On the 22th of October 2018, Kiki Bertens, a Dutch top tennis player, beat the number 1 of the world Angelique Kerber. After she lost the first set, she recovered in the 2 following sets. Shortly after, her coach Raemon Sluiter was asked how he coached her after such a badly lost set. Raemon said “I want to show her that she actually knows the winning tactic herself. Her emotions and the things that happen in such a match make it all a bit blurry. But the less I have to say, and the more she herself comes up with things, the better it is. For the game, and especially for after the game: it means that it’s becoming more and more part of her. That is the most important.”

Trusting each other to be able to learn together and develop a winning tactic. That trust is the basis for every good cooperation is nothing new. Raemon Sluiter tries to make his pupil Kiki Bertens confident by his way of coaching. You need that same confidence in an innovative team to be able to try things out. Just like in top sport, you can’t always do A/B testing.

“Work with people that energize you, listen to your intuition and trust yourself.”

Paul also recognized this: “As an athlete you often make split-second decisions. Not because you have made an analysis, but because your intuition tells you that you must do something. A good entrepreneur knows his market, customers and development opportunities. These are a lot of variables with even more nuances. Usually you do not have the time to test all those variables before you make a decision. Then it is necessary to listen to your intuition and to trust yourself and your team.”

“It’s therefore important to work with people that energize you. Sometimes you see a huge opportunity of which the predictions and growth are promising. But the product or the people you need to work with to grab that opportunity cost you a lot of energy. The chance that such a project will be successful is very small. As a top athlete you learn that the data can be promising, but ultimately it is your body that determines whether you perform well or not. As a result, you develop a strong intuition. In business life, I often see athletes and entrepreneurs who do not know anymore what it’s like to use their intuition.”

For both top athletes and top entrepreneurs, it is therefore important to build a good team around you, where the entire team knows exactly what they can expect of each other.

SIMILARITY 5: LET’S CELEBRATE TOGETHER!

After many years of hard work, the first small successes will slowly follow. Just as with team (top) sport, there is nothing better than setting a goal together with a team of like-minded people, do everything for it, achieve good results and then celebrate this success. This last step of celebrating these joint successes is often forgotten in both top sport and entrepreneurship.

“The problem of many entrepreneurs is that there is always a next goal on the horizon. It is precisely this mentality of perseverance that brought you, an athlete or entrepreneur, a lot in the past. But don’t forget to enjoy the moment for which you have worked so hard together for all these years.”

“Don’t forget to enjoy the moment for which you have worked so hard together for all these years.”

Maarten van der Sanden celebrates the start of a new investment round, together with Thomas Rau (Madaster) and Irma Langeraert (Anders Financieren).

IS IT ALL THAT BLACK-AND-WHITE?

If you read the comparisons we described in this blog, it may seem like we claim that top sport and top entrepreneurship are virtually the same. But top sport is in many other ways not similar to entrepreneurship at all.

“As a top athlete it is for example very easy to have a clear goal: On the 27th of July I have an important race. As an entrepreneur, it is much more difficult to set a concrete goal with which everyone around you can work with. In addition to that, the life of a top athlete is quite predictable. On Sunday evening you know exactly how the coming week will look like. As an entrepreneur you run into unexpected things every day and therefore adjust your goals more often.”

And fortunately, we hope to hold on to our lives as entrepreneurs a lot longer than our lives as top athletes.

 

Maarten van der Sanden (Symbid) and Paul Musters (Fortify)

This blog appeared earlier on Symbid.com (Dutch)

25 founders came together at Scale Up Academy, an initiative from Accenture Innovation Awards. Together with the audience, Paul Musters interviewed two special guests from extraordinary companies, in this interview: the Chief of Growth at the developer of the first production car that is powered by the sun: Lightyear’s Maijke Receveur!

By Marijke Zeevenhooven and Paul Musters (Fortify)

Paul: Chief Growth, that is one cool title, what does it mean?

We started Lightyear two years ago. We were with 7 people, and of course there were some gaps that all starting companies have. At that moment you fulfill 10 different roles if it isn’t more, and so did I. We started hiring our first employees. Quite unexpectedly, we received many responses from all over the world from people who would like to work at our company!

The positive thing at that moment was that we grew really fast, but we also found out the risks. We started to need the right resources to facilitate that growth. So forming HR, office, and production buildings, the right culture, and values that we can build on. Therefore it became a proactive role in facilitating the company to grow.

Paul: I know you had your own company. You were a well-paid strategy consultant. Why did you choose to work for Lightyear?
Because of the shining eyes, I would say. It was the energy I got from the company and the mission. That inspired me. Most of the time of my week I’m spending on work, and in the end, I want to be fully energetic about the work that I do. And I like to support this mission because we genuinely aim to mean something good for our world. That is something I hope everybody can support.

Audience: Are you planning/managing to grow internationally or nationally?
We have just one office, in the Netherlands. But we do have 12 nationalities from around the world working at our company.

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