Rude VC on Triathletes and Entrepreneurs

Jul 10, 2012
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Even though I suck at them, I’m a big fan of racing triathlons. This past weekend was chock-full of exciting events. Right here in Paris the French Triathlon Federation held an olympic distance with the swim portion in the oh-so-propre Seine. Other notable races over the weekend included the Long course Challenge in Roth, Germany as well as Ironman Frankfurt. This last race tantalized me the most, given the primed showdown between one of my favorite triathletes, Marino Vanhoenacker (see here), and the world record-holder for the distance, Andreas Raelert. (In the end, it was Vanhoenacker who prevailed in this European Ironman Championship).

While risking the cliché of seeing a metaphor in everything, I submit that triathletes and tech entrepreneurs have a lot in common.

Like triathletes, entrepreneurs must exhibit a boundless level of dedication. This can be said about almost any high-performance activity. But consistent, regular effort and progress trump raw talent in the sport of triathlon, and this is particularly true in entrepreneurship.

For surviving as an entrepreneur requires a diversity of skills rather than mastery in just one area. The world’s fastest swimmers never win Ironman triathlons. To succeed as an entrepreneur, you must possess a depth of talent in a combination of areas: be it design, coding, sales, evangelizing, even fundraising. Building a successful company requires a willingness to do a bit of everything at the beginning to make it work, and with a healthy degree of excellence spanning broad areas to boot.

Similarly, triathlons and startups alike both require a proper balance of disciplines to be successful. The best technology only becomes a successful business if it is developed via the lens of appreciation of market needs. Marathon runners typically require recovery time of weeks following an event, whereas a triathlete can recover physically within days, even after an Ironman event (which includes a full marathon for the run segment), thanks to the balanced effect of cross-training.

Builders of innovative companies and triathletes also improve with age. Professional footballers’ careers are over by the time they reach their thirties. Idem for basketball, baseball, and rugby players. Triathlon, on the other hand, is a rare endurance sport where aging amateur athletes actually flourish. The experience factor plays a dominant role in triathlons, such as in the importance of regular training, the adherence to a proper nutritional program, and the expertise in efficiently managing swim/bike and bike/run transitions.

There’s always a risk of pushing an analogy too far, but as we prepare to embark on the period of (hopefully) nice weather and (hopefully) slightly lighter work obligations, perhaps we can derive some inspiration from triathlon on the lessons of balance and perspective.