There are many similarities between being a professional athlete and an entrepreneur. For one thing, both careers are subject to the envy of friends in ‘traditional’ corporate jobs, who are tied to their cubicles and employee ID cards. On the other end of the spectrum, the time investment generally extends much farther than a typical “9 to 5? schedule.
As a result of the similarities between the two, a lot of what I learned in my career playing professional basketball transferred to the startup world and taught me a tremendous amount about how to run my company, CoachUp. The transition from athlete to entrepreneur is a logical one: The drive, persistence, and vision it takes to succeed in sports are just as essential in business, which is also why being an athlete makes someone a great hire.
Here are five things being a pro basketball player taught me about running a startup:
- Develop a routine. When do you exercise? When do you blog? What is your meeting schedule like: team meetings, marketing and product meetings? Developing a routine is an important part of being a star athlete (check out this one from CoachUp partner Stephen Curry). It is also essential to becoming a productive, efficient founder. Do you leave enough time for making the most important decisions? There are a lot of priorities-and pressures-facing startup executives. It’s important to plan your time and develop a system for how you’ll address all of your various responsibilities throughout your day.
- Listen to your teammates, advisers, board members, investors, and customers … but above all, listen to your gut! Where do you want to take the business? If you have a framework and some core hypotheses in mind, then the advice you solicit and receive is much more likely to make an impact. There is a coach behind every great athlete, just like there are mentors behind successful entrepreneurs. But athletes know that during game time, on the court or field, they’ll need to rely on their skills and judgment. Similarly, a founder shouldn’t be afraid to use their judgment about what decisions will most benefit the company moving forward.
- Respect everyone’s role on your team. Having been a rookie, buried on the end of the bench on my first professional basketball team, it was a struggle at times to show up to work every day, give it my all in practice, memorize all the plays and keep myself in top shape, knowing that it was unlikely I would see any meaningful action in the upcoming game. As the founder of your startup, you have the most to gain from your startup’s success, and also the most responsibility. Make sure that you value everyone’s role on the team, including your junior employees who are working hard, and waiting their turn to move up the ranks.
- Rely on your teammates, and demand a lot from them. In basketball, if we weren’t rebounding well as a team, our coach would read stats at half time, and reiterate that it was all of our responsibilities to block out and chase rebounds, taking some of the pressure off our big men to do the dirty work. As a founder, you can’t take all of the stress of your startup's fragile existence on your shoulders alone. Sure, there are some things you may want to keep from the team (i.e. “We have 2 months of cash left!”) but the more you make the company's challenges the entire team’s challenges, the more you will get out of your team
- Focus on the wins and losses, not your own stats. At CoachUp, we only track the company’s KPIs: growth, conversion rate, retention rate, refund rate, etc. It’s never about individual awards, or individual contributions. While we offer “game ball” awards (nominated by the team) for teammates who have gone above and beyond the previous week, it’s all in the context of the team’s goals and our overall mission.
Sports teach you essential lessons about how to work in a small team to reach a big goal. That’s why I love hiring athletes. Sports teams, military units, and startups are all “tribes.” If you know what it takes to be a good tribesman or tribeswoman, chances are good that you will know how to start up a tribe of your own.