Sports coaching has taught me many things that transfer into everyday life, and of course, into the world of building successful businesses. This has given me a rare perspective on the challenges facing entrepreneurs, and a few tools that have been valuable when applied in the commercial world. Founders can really benefit from approaching their challenges from such a novel angle.
As a paddlesports coach, I’d like to compare a startup founder launching a new business idea and a newcomer going out in a kayak for the first time.
As a first-time paddler the prospect is both exciting and daunting – a wobbly boat, cold, wet water and a lot of people who seem to know what they are doing. The coach would explain the basic strokes on the shore before you sit in a boat for the first time and feel the reality of what you are about to do. Does this ring any bells for you as a startup founder yet?
Once underway with a group of other paddlers, the most common sight is to see beginners (who are still figuring out the basic techniques) struggle to keep the boat straight, work very hard for little progress, and slide to the back. They try harder, put in even more effort, get frustrated when they can’t control the boat, and drop off the group even more.
A good coach will take the stragglers and separate them from the group to focus on the basics without the pressure of keeping up. It is recognised that speeding up good technique is so much easier than correcting a poor action at speed. Slowing things right down, a coach can break the stroke into its core parts, and work on each individually. Then, in combination, things start to happen – the boat moves forwards, it even goes straight, and it doesn’t feel as strenuous as it did before. Confidence returns, smiles break out, and forward progress is resumed.
Once moving, the recommendation is to pick a target point to aim for, a landmark on the bank, perhaps. Then, you can start to check on your progress, and make small adjustments if they are needed to keep moving towards the target point. The combination of focus on the outcome and the basics of the stroke is powerful.
Many of the startups I talk to face a similar challenge. They have an intense belief in the rightness of their idea, the merit of their plan, and are pursuing a goal that they are passionate about. However, the commercial world, particularly for a new idea, moves very quickly. Just like in the kayak, there is a lot to do, a lot to look out for, and that can become overwhelming, especially if you don’t have all the skills or resources just yet. The pressure for progress is intense, but if the basics aren’t quite right, it is too easy to set off before you are ready, and find yourself struggling when you should be moving forwards.
It is often useful to work within a framework that gets things organised, and I have written elsewhere about the drivers for growth as one such structure. If we assume, as part of your purpose, you have set a near-term goal for the business, the next stage activities can be broken down into a few fundamental parts. One example is from Nail It then Scale It (Furr and Ahlstrom) where they consider:
- Customers’ pain – are you sure you have it clearly understood?
- Your solution – is it well defined and does it truly address the customers’ pain?
- Route to market –how you will sell this and how customers will buy from you?
- Business model – do you have a clear view of the mechanics of the organisation to satisfy the customers efficiently, and get paid?
Just like the paddle stroke, once you are moving there is a lot of validation to do as you make progress towards the goal point – am I still going in the right direction, is this easier or harder than I expected it to be, am I moving at the speed I need to, or should I change something?
Many businesses will scale before they are ready and without the solid foundations to withstand headwinds. For example, the pandemic was not predicted a year or so prior, and so rapid growth companies were raising funds and building their profile, only to be hit by a radically different business climate in 2020.
Plexal data from their UK startup tracker showed that between March 2020 and January 2021, investment value was down 12% and with 20% fewer deals than the 2019 figure. Also, over 1,900 administration, dissolution and liquidation filings were made by companies in the UK since the UK’s first lockdown in 2020. Whilst a lot of businesses were able to survive and thrive, it did shake out a lot of the weaker cases.
Beauhurst commentary concludes that “compared to more established businesses, early-stage companies have fewer resources with which to withstand a crisis, making it especially challenging to navigate the ‘new normal’ of COVID-19.”
In 2021, investment markets are still active, because periods of change are great for disruptive ideas to emerge. However, a note of caution has also emerged, and so stern examination of fundamentals will be key to the assessment of any funding pitch. Once funded, the chances of success will be that much greater if the business is resilient, built on good basics and able to move forwards safely and without paddling madly to correct problems in the face of growing customer demand.
So, just as it is when you first step into a kayak to brave the river, setting out as a business founder is both exciting and daunting. And now, more than ever, tapping into the resources, experience and support that is available can make such a difference. Creating a business with solid foundations and good fundamentals, and doing that at the very beginning before the stresses arise, will give you a better chance of success.
So go ahead, dip a paddle in the water, and let the coach guide you safely into the fast-flowing waters where you really want to play.