October 6, 2020 | Company Building

To Grow in a Crisis, Bring an Athlete’s Approach

Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Ryan Nece sets on defense against the Carolina Panthers. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

Greg Sands

Written by

Greg Sands

In the best of times, attempting quick growth is a high-wire act that requires incredible energy, coordination, hiring, and capital. 

While it’s easy to think that growth will come easy because of magical products or product market fit, the reality is most companies have to work – and spend – for it. It takes money to grow: to hire new salespeople, build new pipeline, prepare to service new customers, and build next-generation products. And most high-growth companies also burn quite a bit of capital. 

In a crisis, like the one we’re in now, it’s even tougher. Will customers have budget? Will churn rates go up? Will pipeline close rates go down? Is your product a nice-to-have or a must-have? There are so many questions, but few definitive answers. 

If you really want to grow, especially now, take a lesson from elite athletes who know – better than most – precisely how to optimize performance under pressure. 

Pivoting takes on a whole new meaning.

Racing downhill on a bike requires excellent senses and the ability to make quick, calibrated reactions to avoid obstacles and stay on course. (You can imagine why this matters when you’re going 35 miles per hour and see a rock or loose stick in your path.)

The same holds true for running a start-up that wants to be in major growth mode. Going that fast – including developing multiple new products, expanding to market segments and geographies, or bringing on business functions and fresh talent – means burning a lot of capital. That means you’ll have reduced your room to maneuver and upped the pressure to react very rapidly, making smart micro-adjustments to succeed.

This is hard to do because of all the unknowns (and the list is remarkably long): understanding your market, who your perfect buyer personas are, whether you meet all their requirements, whether outbound or inbound leads will convert, whether a potential customer is price sensitive or just posturing, whether a new product will increase customer retention as planned, etc. And it’s all happening in an environment where competitors are adapting and innovating in real time.

Balance your marketing position so that you can go left, right, forward, or back at any moment. 

Our director of marketing, Rachel Quon, was once a fullback for the Chicago Red Stars, the professional women’s soccer club competing in the National Women’s Soccer League. She shared with me that defending one on one means being ready to move in any direction, including forward to close pressure or back to use the sidelines to close off available angles. 

Megan Rapinoe or Alex Morgan’s strong move left might be real or might be a fake so she has to stay balanced and look for clues. 

In startup life, think of this agility more like figuring out whether the right tactic is to create a war room against an entrenched competitor or to spin up an outbound sales machine because physical conferences are no longer happening to fill the funnel.

Be ready for explosive action. 

Elite athletes in football and soccer know that accelerating without injury requires consistent training and preparation: agility work, strength training, conditioning, even rest and recovery. In the prior example, preparation is having two trained SDRs with tested scripts so you are more ready to hire another ten and scale up.

Rachel Quon battling for a ball against Megan Rapinoe
Rachel Quon battling for a ball against Megan Rapinoe

Keep your sensors on at all times. 

A good friend of mine, Ryan Nece, is Managing Partner at Next Play Capital and in his previous life, was a linebacker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. When Ryan waited for the snap, he was looking at the quarterback’s eyes and seeing if the running back was leaning and listening to his teammates calling coverage (all while waiting for a 300-pound lineman to charge at him like a rhino). He had to use every sense to get his job done. This is why startups have to have key metrics and instrumentation around what’s most important to sense in their business–customer sentiment, sales, intent etc. You can’t react fast to what you can’t see or hear.

Ryan Nece at the line of scrimmage reading the game
Ryan Nece at the line of scrimmage reading the game

Should you speed up or slow down? 

As Ryan would tell you, even in full sprint chasing down a wide receiver, you’ll always be asking yourself, “Am I trying to kick it into another gear to close the gap or do I need to be prepared for a rapid deceleration on a button hook route?” 

Go fast or go slow? Kick it into another gear or stay in balance and prepare to react to any contingency? Sounds like the decisions every startup founder and CEO have to make every day. The good ones, however, are making those decisions with clarity of intention and as much data as possible.  

Communication is key. 

Have you ever heard a silent soccer or football game? Of course not. Teammates are yelling and pointing to give guidance, whether you’re focused on the 1:1 matchup or in a position where you can’t see the whole field. They function as another set of eyes, ones you trust as much as your own. 

Similarly, startup CEOs cannot succeed on their own. They must listen to their executive team and trust that they’re providing the correct information so the company can make the right decision at that moment. Likewise, leaders must also be transparent with employees, helping them to see the entire field – not just their corner of it – and what they can do to grow and be better in this context.

React rapidly and in a coordinated way. 

The second you see a receiver’s hips turn outside, you have to plant your foot and explode outside as well. One wrong step and you’re watching while he’s dancing in the endzone. Rapid reaction in startups involves having a war room to understand adjacent entrants, acknowledging when they’ve outflanked you, forming partnerships with competitors, launching new marketing initiatives, training partner sales forces, or starting new product efforts that encapsulate a broader market definition. Remember: you’re either moving or you’re watching your competitor dance. 

Combine constant learning with a short memory. 

Both a football linebacker and a soccer fullback need to be focused on the current play. If you let the last goal or touchdown linger in your mind, you’ll not only give up another big play, but you’ll also lose the game. Instead, you have to pick your head up, learn, and refocus on the next battle. Founders would do well to remember this. It’s easy to get myopic (and mopey) about a big defeat or misstep; it’s also easy to over rotate on a major win. Instead, take the losses as the learnings they are and the wins as momentum generators to keep moving. 

Keep in mind: true mastery of your skill is when you move beyond being reactive and begin anticipating. When you relentlessly learn from failures, recognize patterns, ask questions, gain insights, continue to study, etc., the more opportunities you will have to make an even better play on the next play (which is the only play that matters). Focus on that next play in front of you; it’s the best way to define the future.

Most of us were never elite athletes; some of us were never athletes at all. But we can bring the focus, dedication, smart thinking, and muscular approach to all we do. And our teams and companies will be better for it.