Running Startups

What Start-ups and Marathons have in common

Dylan Thomas died 39 years young. Yet he managed to leave behind these verses:

“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.”

Can you feel the intensity? Says a lot about the will to fight on, even when the odds are against you, or when you know that your time is up.

I often connect with these thought streams, or similar, as I run marathons. Or in doing something very hard, such as turning an idea into a start-up and then a successful enterprise.

These types of activities are hard to most people I know, but I’m sure if you’re a creative spirit, you probably would find them quite worth the efforts.

In Alice Springs over the weekend, I completed the #888 Aussie Sweep of marathons, meaning I have run in all Australian states and territories over the last 8 months. It was such a nice excuse to connect with new wonderful folks from all over the country, and to see this great nation from different perspectives, through these running adventures. Amidst all of this travelling, juggling professional and family commitments, sweating out, and keeping the injuries away, I continued coaching start-up founders and chipping away at turning my own ideas into reality. Then one day, it dawned on me that there are so many similarities between running marathons and doing start-ups. I would like to share the top three here for your bemusement, as I realise either (or both) of these worlds might be totally alien to many people.

Both of them are creative activities in essence

Contrary to popular beliefs, marathons are not about those medals and bragging rights. It is more about appreciating the miles that you and others have come to know, about humility and respect – and most of all – about putting in consistent and planned efforts, day in day out, week in week out, to spark an inner change that can sustain a personal growth journey. Through this journey of change, a runner keep reinventing him/herself, as s/he keeps on uncovering the deeper layers of the same “onion”. This is creativity through living.

A start-up is a great creative engine. The founder creates, starting with an idea, then giving birth to that idea, and growing that thing s/he has given birth to. S/he creates networks who come together to create and evolve the same idea and adjacent ones. Together they create new connections, new value, new markets, and one day disrupt existing markets – in doing so, making sure that 1+1 is more than just 2. This is creativity through entrepreneurship.

One of the main ingredients of creativity is freedom – the freedom to create. Talk to any runner who enjoys running, or any entrepreneur who enjoys turning ideas into successful businesses, chances are you’ll hear “freedom” mentioned once or twice.

There is no one else to blame for failures but yourself, and you shall learn from them quickly

When you fail to run a personal best as planned, you can often trace back to a couple of things that you have done wrong during the lead-up or during the event. The external conditions can be a factor, but having run quite a few events, I think that most of them can be mitigated with some level of planning. Again it is up to you to have done the planning and mitigation in the first place. Having failed to run a personal best can be a little bit disappointing, but then you learn what there is to learn quickly and regroup for the next event. That way, the learning journey continues endlessly as results after results are delivered.

In a start-up environment, you need to be the best in what you do (otherwise the odds of survival and growth would be too much against), but you also need to be a Jack of all trades – especially at the early / mid-growth stages. Obviously under such conditions, any failures in business activities can be clearly attributed to yourself. Being on top of the external environment so that you can mitigate risks early is the key to not having “failures imposed onto you”. Every time you fail, as the song goes, “I get knocked down, but I get up again …”

It is a long road, but with discipline and commitment, you can get there faster than you think, most likely through routes that did not exist before

The key here is in questioning the status quo. If someone tells you that the only way to build a start-up is to go through 3 to 5 stages, then listen carefully and respectfully to that advice (as it often captures the popular wisdom of the time), but also consider the real drivers behind this advice, and plot out how you could disrupt the model – to achieve a better and faster outcome for your business. For larger enterprises, this is the realm of business model innovation. It is hard for companies who sell cars today to imagine a world in which nobody buys cars any more. It is equally hard for governments to imagine a world in which citizens are capable of disrupting governments through their constant redefinition of expectations. Sustaining the existing business whilst preparing it for such disruptive conditions typically requires a very different approach, which did not exist before. The answer lies in constant experimentation, persistence, and the will to adapt and evolve.

I ran my first marathon in November 2014. It was a nightmare playing out in the broad daylight of Portland, Victoria. After this first run, I asked myself – what if I could turn a weekly long distance run into my regular mode of fitness training? Running a weekly event typically requires a lot of rigour in training and injury prevention, which potentially means taking more time away from my family. That was something that I was not willing to accept. So I started experimenting to find a routine that would allow me to do little or no training runs during the week, yet still be able to pull out the shoes on a Sunday morning and complete a marathon, or a half, preferably with no physical injuries. Many experiments and 10 months later, I am now doing exactly that – through a routine that works for me, with 14 marathons and a few halfs under my belt. In doing so, I have found a way to fit a weekly long distance run into an already busy schedule, and the many rewards that come with such an integration.

A couple of my start-ups turned a profit within months and kept on growing. Some took years to break even, mixed with, of course, a couple of failures along the way. But never once I doubted my, and our collective, ability to change the world through creativity, through entrepreneurship, through doing what we do well.

If you’re a runner, I hope that you keep on running. Listen to your body, and adapt as you go.

If you’re an entrepreneur, I hope that you persist with your baby unicorns. Be gutsy enough to kill them as early as possible; otherwise improvise and evolve them quickly.

Whatever your thing is, success requires drive, persistence and improvisation. There is no shortcut.