For me, Super Bowl 50 had so many of the unfortunate characteristics and reminders of the struggles every startup endures that the game's anti-climactic end felt surprisingly like another day at the office. It was more like an obligation than an opportunity. You had to watch, but no one really expected to enjoy the game. (And the commercials were not much better.) The Super Bowl became much more of a sideways shuffle than spectacular show, more like a contest to see who could make the fewest mistakes and still put points on the board. There's no passion in playing to avoid the potholes rather than shooting for the stars.

Building a business can feel like a similar grind for days and months on end. Granted, there are times when it pays to keep your head down and keep plowing straight ahead since that's what will make all the difference in the long run. But playing not to lose is for losers. This startup stuff is hard and not for the faint-hearted-- not everyone gets a trophy for trying really hard or a salute for showing up. You've got to set the bar high-- model the necessary behavior every day-- and never let them see you sweat. Anyone who tells you that being an entrepreneur is a lot of "fun" hasn't been there and is most likely lying to you. It can be thrilling and super satisfying; it can be exhilarating and enervating; it can also be downright lonely and depressing, but it's always work, not fun. Fun is what you theoretically do on your own time-- as if there was such a thing in the startup world.

 On Super Bowl Sunday the good news was that everyone survived-- no terrible  injuries or concussions-- but this was not exactly an inspiring contest. The winning Broncos seemed more relieved to escape with their modest victory and some dignity than ecstatic about how they triumphed over the Panthers. Likewise in the startup world, you can get to the end of a week where you wonder how you even made it through still standing only to discover that you didn't really accomplish a damn thing in terms of moving the business forward. The truth is that today it takes more than baby steps and incremental improvements to change the game and move the ball forward. The future isn't going to be incremental--it's going to be explosive. What we don't know is just whose efforts are going to be the ones that make the real differences - the hustlers, the hipsters or the hackers. But whatever the team consists of, it's going nowhere without a leader that the rest of the folks can believe in.

 Some of the disappointment that surrounded this grossly over-hyped "big game" is an unfortunate commentary on how hard it is in our stupid celebrity-soaked system to root for a great defense rather than celebrating an amazing offense. Just like in a startup, the sales guys get all the kudos for bringing home the bacon while the coders just catch a lot of crap when the system slows or stops. The linemen always come last: who really remembers that the most important touchdown in Super Bowl 50 was scored early on by the Denver defense. If you're in it for the credit, you're in the wrong place. To win, on game day and in business, everyone has to show up and do the very best job that they can-- regardless of their responsibility or position-- and know that they helped make a difference. No one does anything major these days all by themselves.

 

        The Broncos' win shows you that you and your own team had better learn to appreciate and take your everyday satisfaction from all the preparation, perspiration, passion and hard work that you put into what you're building together.  The aging, injured, Denver quarterback Peyton Manning prepared almost desperately for this game. He was hardly outstanding, but he was ready to seize the opportunity. No one gives you any points in the end for trying. Just ask the Panthers

 

        Worse yet, just as we saw in the game, what you've put together and pushed painfully forward in your business can also be pissed away in a matter of seconds. There were mistakes and mishaps galore, foolish errors and omissions, sacks and stupid choices, taunts and other bad behavior that killed critical drives, and wasted hard-to-come-by momentum throughout the game-- virtually everything we also see in the startup world every day.

 

       You can pretty much forgive a fumble or a missed field goal because those almost never arise from a lack of trying.  As often as not, a fumble happens because the runner is pressing for a few more yards and gets stripped or hit so hard that he loses the ball. But a lack of commitment or a failure of leadership is something that no team or business can accept for long. It's corrosive and contagious. For me, the saddest thing wasn't Cam Newton dropping the football; it was that he stood there (while America held its breath) and didn't throw himself into the fray. He was deciding, not diving. Looking, not lunging.  We were all sitting at home screaming "go for it", "get the ball" and he didn't do a thing. In fact, I'd say that the key to the ultimate moral victory in the game (forget the score) came down to that single play.

 

A few painful and probative seconds that may not have changed the outcome, but that forever changed my impression of Cam Newton. When the moment arose and he was tested, he didn't step up, he hesitated, or worse, he chose inaction. Maybe he lacked heart. Maybe he was saving himself for next season. Maybe he just didn't want it as bad as we wanted him to. Whatever the reason, he wasn't what we expect from our leaders, and that's a sobering lesson for any startup.

 

 You can't lead from the back seat or the bleachers. You've got to be in the moment--all-in, every second--showing your people and your team that you care more than other people think is smart or safe. That you demand of yourself and them more than others think is practical or possible. And that when the window is there and the opportunities arise--when the ball is loose-- you'll be the first one there to take the chances and seize the moment.

Published on: Feb 16, 2016