What Rowing For The U.S. National Team And Building A Startup Have In Common

By Mark Flickinger, Forbes Contributor

Saying “it’s not fair” won’t get you there. To be the best, you have to beat everyone.

As a youth and young adult, I was always involved in team sports which eventually led me to a position on the Princeton rowing team during college. Later, I became a member of the U.S. National Rowing Team and was fortunate to race in three world championships.

During these experiences, I competed at a high level with other athletes who were extraordinarily driven and talented. In my current role as a venture capitalist, I’m still working with highly driven and talented professionals, and the lessons learned rowing continue to influence my engagements with startups.

Like the U.S. National Rowing Team, startups are full of talented, insightful people with different backgrounds and skillsets. If put together correctly, such people could make a world championship-winning boat or create the next great company. However, if that team is put together sub-optimally, the results will be unremarkable.

To avoid mediocrity or outright failure, there are several essential lessons that any leader, in athletics or business, needs to know:

  1. It’s vital that everyone rows the boat—or propels the business—in the same direction and toward a single goal.Clearly articulated goals are key to developing an effective team of any kind. Be explicit about what you’re going after and exactly how you plan to do it to make sure all efforts are targeted at the same result.

Are we going to row with an exaggerated layback, or with a punchy catch at the beginning of each stroke? What will our cadence be? How will we come together to achieve what’s called “swing,” that magical place where your effort seems effortless, yet the boat is flying down the course? A well-orchestrated team works from the same playbook, no matter whether the end goal is disrupting a static market or getting the boat across the finish line first.

  1. You need the right people on your team.When a startup is conceived, there’s usually a small number of people working on it, perhaps a co-founder or two. But as that startup begins to scale, they eventually realize they can’t compete in an eight-man boat race with only two people.

We all know that there is no “I” in team. However, to win, you not only need a team, you also need the BEST team you can find. As they scale, many startups make the mistake of keeping someone in a role just because they have been in it from the beginning. While there is a place for loyalty, it shouldn’t be at the expense of your company’s success. If you need a better marketer or a better CFO, you owe it to your startup to go get them. In the rowing world, crew members are replaced all the time when a better performer is found. If a better bow pair—the members closest to the boat’s bow who are most responsible for its stability—becomes available, the current bow pair is replaced in the name of speed. The goal is winning, not appeasing egos. This is a hard lesson, but one that is critical to both athletic and startup success.

  1. Know who you’re competing against.Just as every team must have a race strategy, it must also understand its opponents’ weaknesses and strengths. When I rowed competitively, certain teams were known to be fast starters, although they couldn’t maintain their exceptional speed off of the line. But their strategy would work if a competitor was unprepared for this initial burst of speed, lost their focus, and became mentally, and therefore physically, defeated.

In both business and rowing, you need to understand your competition in order to figure out the best plan of attack. In the world of startups, sometimes the competitor is the status quo, or it could be an incumbent that already has a similar offering and you’re trying to differentiate yourself with a superior product. Learn all you can about your opponent to both strike and counterstrike effectively.

Good athletes and business leaders also know that as dynamics change, the best laid plans may have to be adjusted in the middle of the competition. Instead of waiting until there are 400 meters to go, you may have to start your sprint with 900 meters of a 2000-meter race left in order to have a chance to win (true story).

  1. You have to have the drive to be the best.Competitive athletes are willing to give it their all to beat anyone blocking their path to victory. There is a similar mindset in the startup culture, or at least among those startups that I’ve seen achieve rapid, sustainable growth.

If you are going to win over your competitor, there simply is no room for error or subpar performance. Just as a rower trains physically and prepares mentally, startups must prepare themselves as well. There are smart things they can do in terms of their positioning and go-to-market strategy, but even with all that they can’t avoid competing in the field of play. They have to develop a plan and face their competition head on. And, they have to have the conviction that they are going to win.

Whether you are building a company or preparing to race in a world championship, you must prepare for the road ahead, and then fight your way through it with the mind and fortitude of a battle-tested warrior.

The End Result Is Worth The Effort

There’s something about competitive rowing that’s very pure. There are no referees to influence play and there is no defense. You put eight people in a boat, line up against five other boats, and whoever gets to the finish line first wins. That is an oversimplification, of course, given the decisions coaches must make about technique, who exactly is in the boat and in what seat, etc.

If you’re watching a race, you can’t tell who is the best rower in the boat. You only know which boat is going faster than the others. From the outside, team rowing appears to be an elegant, synchronous motion. But inside the boat, there’s an intense collision of mental determination and physical effort coming from each team member. Each member will push through the pain of fatigue to achieve victory together.

Like great athletic teams, great startups are built on a hunger for success, raw talent, and a willingness to work longer and harder than their competition in order to be the best. For a team of either kind to be effective, everyone on it must pull their weight, fulfill their roles, be agile, and always keep the goal in mind.

The article was originally published in Forbes and reprinted with permission.

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