The term "business plan" hovers like a permanent cloud over the entrepreneurial lexicon, even though most founders grasp that their value propositions require regular revision in response to customers, competition, and cash flow. The question, as always, is how much revision? When is a setback something to learn from, and when is it a sign to abandon an idea? That is, how do you know when to iterate, versus when to quit

The teams in the 2014 World Series have mastered this ever-delicate balancing act between patience and iterating. Here are a few examples:

  • In five major league seasons, Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner has excelled (67-49 record, 3.06 ERA). But he had a weakness: In 2012 he allowed 27 stolen bases. So Bumgarner modified his leg kick and practiced his pickoff move, reports Tyler Kepner in the New York Times. The result? He only ceded seven steals this year.
  • When Bumgarner joined the Giants in 2008, the team tried changing his unorthodox lefty delivery in his first few minor league starts, Kepner notes. It didn't work. So the team abandoned the experiment. In other words, the Giants and Bumgarner have been master tweakers, fixing what needed fixing (the stolen bases problem) without FUBARing Bumgarner's mechanics in the process. 
  • When the Royals acquired pitcher Wade Davis from the Tampa Bay Rays before the 2013 season, they envisioned him as a starter. But Davis pitched poorly: 6-10 with a 5.67 ERA in 24 starts. Rather than sticking stubbornly to Option A for Davis, the Royals moved him to the bullpen. The result? An historically great 2014 season for Davis as a relief pitcher: 9-2 with a 1.00 ERA and 109 strikeouts in 72 innings. Moreover, Davis has starred in each of the Royals' eight playoff games (all victories). "If it wasn't for Davis locking down the eighth inning, the Cinderella Royals wouldn't be heading to their first World Series since Ronald Reagan occupied the White House," writes Scott Lauber in the Boston Herald. 
  • Royals left fielder Alex Gordon has been an All Star for the last two seasons. But his success is a testament to the Royals' mixture of patience and tweaking. After two promising seasons in 2007 and 2008, during which time he played third base, Gordon struggled in 2009 and 2010. The team sent him to the minors and asked him to switch to left field. Gordon adapted. He became a more consistent hitter and a gold-glove defender. More than this, he's grown from raw prospect to veteran leader. "Being here for seven, eight years and having to endure all the losing seasons, all the struggles with a lot of the guys here, a lot of the coaches and the front office, [the winning] means a lot to us," Gordon told MLB.com's Jane Lee. "This is my first time experiencing this, and it's pretty cool. I can't imagine spending it with a better group of guys than we have here."

For every PayPal, which famously didn't hit on their big idea until their 10th iteration--what they called "Option J," having already pivoted from Option A to Option I--there are countless startups who run out of cash because they were too patient with Option A or Option B. Conversely, there are startups who eventually make it big precisely because they displayed patience with their initial options. Consider Scott Nash, founder of $100-million MOM's Organic Market. Launched in 1987, MOM's today has--wait for it--11 stores in three states. But to Nash, that rate is not slow. It's normal. It took him three years after his initial launch in his mother's garage to open the first actual store. Thirteen years later--in 2000--he was up to three locations. And today he runs a $100-million business. His patience paid off. 

It can be motivational for today's entrepreneurs and aspirants to keep sports stories like these in mind. Especially when the business media--including Inc--tends to showcase startups on the fast track to IPOs or lucrative exits. As the Royals and Giants illustrate, successful journeys are not always quick and easy.

Yes, this is an era where failing fast is expected and often honored. But the careers of Bumgarner, Davis, and Gordon--and the real-life business tales of companies like MOM's Organic Market--serve as reminders that winning formulas rarely blossom overnight.

Published on: Oct 21, 2014