The parallels between tennis and start-ups

I’m not a massive tennis fan, but with the Australian Open currently on in Melbourne, I thought it was worth exploring a great lesson tennis offers to anyone who is running a start-up.

 

Remember Stefan Edberg? (Most females over 30 certainly will!)

 

For some reason, I recall this really clearly. I think it was the first time he won Wimbledon in 1988. He had to win a service game to win the title. And for each point of that last game, his first serve was a fault.

 

Clearly, the enormity of the occasion – his first Wimbledon final – made Edberg tighten up on his first serve.

 

He went on to win the match and the championship, but that last game was far more nail-biting than it needed to be and it was all because Edberg (I suggest) was more concerned about not losing that last game than he was about winning it.

 

You often see this phenomenon in tennis.

 

A top-50 or top-100 player will get off to an absolute flyer and find themselves a set up on a Federer or a Nadal.

 

However, the champ will inevitably fight their way back into the game because the top-100 player will begin tightening up as they start focusing more on not losing – on defending their position – rather than playing their natural game and just going for it.

 

What has all of this got to do with running a start-up business?

 

A lot.

 

As a start-up, it is too easy to start playing a defensive game – to focus on minimising your risks as opposed to just getting out there and winning.

 

Because you are small, you don’t want to take big risks. You want to be all things to all people. Not make any enemies.

 

You spend most of your time looking for buried landmines and being careful to avoid making mistakes. It’s all about playing it safe. You focus on getting the ball in – clearing the net, aiming to land the ball well within the lines – rather than just driving hard for the winner.

 

To me, this risk-management strategy that is all so sensible is actually the riskiest of approaches. Why is that?

 

Because you stop playing your natural game. You get tight and start making mistakes because you are ruled by fear.

 

From a start-up point of view, what it really means is that you lose touch with the most important element of any start-up: your passion for the idea at the centre of your business. Just letting that passion run is the most important weapon you have.

 

Balls will hit the net. Balls will go long. Some will hit the frame and whizz off into the grandstand.

 

But the moment you start playing it safe and restraining that raw passion, you will lose. The instant you become conventional, all of your entrenched competitors will wipe you off the court. They have all the advantages – the budgets, the staff, the distribution networks and so on.

 

You can’t compete head-to-head with that.

 

So, as you watch the Aussie Open this year, see how the truly successful players win – by going for their shots almost with reckless abandon and by applying a devil-may-care attitude.

 

That’s my own New Year’s resolution when it comes to running my media buying website: to go for my shots, hard, in 2012.

 

It’s not going to be about guiding the ball back into court, but about hitting clean winners. Playing to win.

 

And I recommend the same approach for you too.

 

One caveat, though. Resist the temptation of yelling “Come On!” à la Lleyton Hewitt in your next sales presentation. You can take advice too literally.

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