When I got a call on one sleepy afternoon in September from ASPIRE India, stating that I had been chosen for the TiE-ASPIRE Young Achiever's award, I was sure that there was some mistake. I equated TiE to be a networking forum for entrepreneurs and I was teaching my first class at IIM-Ahmedabad then. So, perhaps, I felt older rather than normal. After exchanging a couple of e-mail messages and looking up the award and the organisers online, I realised they were serious. Apparently, moonlighting as an endurance athlete IS worth something, no matter what the sceptics say or how many crazy people we meet along the path.
I had the privilege of growing up when childhood still meant climbing trees, running around playing hide and seek until 9 pm and cycling to school. Some long and unimportant series of events lead me to participate in the Ultraman triathlon in Canada comprising of a 10 km swim, 420 km bike ride and 84.4 km run, one hot summer in 2009. I backed this race up in three weeks with Ironman Canada (which is my racing distance and is the longest, single-day triathlon race in the world and one of the toughest sports out there).
When asked to speak during awards, I got to thinking that up and coming businesses definitely can take a lot away from endurance (not adventure) sport, where performance is a real metric. In the five weeks, I went to a swim camp of sorts where the goal was to swim 100 km in as few days as possible. The metrics of performance were simply that there should be minimal 'junk' sessions where one is swimming as if to save their life from hypothermia and that every session had an element of challenge in it. I managed to complete this in 28 days and I have a couple of highlights from the camp that are very relevant for start-ups. Just as I was doing this camp to dress for the job of my upcoming race season, I believe up and coming businesses can take a few lessons away from my five weeks in the water.
Fitness is more important than technique: Many companies, big and small, battle with this idea of appearances. Should we print the gold-edged stationery? Should we send out mass e-mails every month masquerading as a newsletter to potential clients and investors we meet at VCCircle events? Should we print a calendar and send it to the best clients of 2011? Should we get mahogany desks in the first 2-3 years? Should we make sure that all the computers in the office are up-to-date with the latest Pentium 99GHz processor? Just as in sport, where fitness is more important than technique, one of the things I have found with my own business is that it's more important to do an efficient job than a flowery one. Once we have the fitness to scale past our first 10-20 clients, the technique will arrive on its own. Through whatever series of trial and error, we will ultimately figure out that thanking our present roster of clients is way more important than gold-edged stationery.
If it's easy, it ain't worth doing: Every day, week, quarter and year should have some metrics of performance. One of the most common mistakes athletes make is to train in what is called the grey zone, all the time. This means really slow, all the time. These workouts are easy. While they may tax the mental game a bit as running for, say three hours, as if one has nothing else to do during the day, is definitely monotonous, running the same three hours with 15 minute intervals or pick-ups is more important it doesn't contribute more than that to the long term. Similarly, in business, there is no need to get carried away in the first year, two years or even four years of steady (but comfortable) progress. It is important to step outside the comfort zone and really go after what scares you once in a while.
Morale comes with a price: In my early swimming days, I had to deal with a real jerk of a coach. He would pick on me all the time because first of all, I stood out a mile (an Indian, trying to swim with Olympic hopefuls was quite the topic of discussion). Second, my shoes did not fit my dreams, they were too small. I have since outlasted every person I swam with in the early years but I did have to learn to make hard choices.
One thing I have noticed in business is that ultimately, if you are in it long enough, you are going to meet a jerk (or ten). The ones who don't pay on time. The ones who use their academic pedigree to put one over you. The ones who 'test' you for two years before leading to any meaningful business transaction, etc. In September last year, I told someone in the above category to take a hike. Of course, it meant losing that business but I had an intuition that this was going to be a difficult customer.
We had an incredibly busy three months coming up and I just did not think it was worth our time to go after or try and please this person. I got a nasty e-mail (of course) about how this would affect my business as the said person went to a college that even I have taught at, was probably connected like the matrix, etc. However, I responded politely that it would be more important for us to keep our morale high than do business willy-nilly.
We are not in the day and age where one personality clash for a business that has been around for a decade, has a proven track record and the humility to run the hard miles with follow-ups and a customer-centric culture would run the risk of falling off the wayside. People come and go. Choose your company wisely and pay the price to keep your morale high it pays off in the long term.
If it's not excruciating towards the end, you didn't work hard enough: In the last week of my swimming camp, I had a three-session swim day. After the last session that day, I was the last one in the changing room hoping that the pool staff would accidentally lock me in so that I could finish the rest of the swimming that night and never set foot in the pool again! My husband couldn't stop laughing for a few hours after I told him what I was wishing for. I couldn't understand what was so funnyâ 25 days of swimming hard can drive one over the edge!
It's funny to me now as I write it out. However, we have certain times in the year when we have 6-8 weeks' stretches that are completely packed. A good measure for us (as to whether we have done better than last year) is (a) Have we accomplished mastering the processes we use in our business a bit better? (b) Have the team members (old and new) assimilated the difficult parts of the process? (c) Have we scaled at least a little more than last year?
Ultimately, we look at ourselves in the mirror every day we are only answerable to ourselves but if it's not excruciating at the end of a difficult stretch then it just means you had more wind in you than you thought so. Run harder next time.
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