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Startups And Baseball: For The Love Of The Game

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the state of entrepreneurs. With funding squeaky tight and corporate buyers locked-down, I wonder how many net new entrepreneurs are created in the South on a monthly basis? And I’m not talking people between jobs, I mean real-deal entrepreneurs. Who is giving up the corporate grind or choosing not to even enter that fray after college? The value prop is further compromised by a reduced chance of a big exit, so I have to think any new entrant in the field would have to be like my boyhood hero: Sparky Anderson.

As a kid who grew up playing 3-4 leagues of baseball annually (and grandfather who played AAA ball in the Tigers organization), I came to learn great respect for the longtime manager of the Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers. Sparky was universally loved by his players, and is still the only guy who won the World Series in both the National and American leagues. He had great years and miserable years – all at least 162 games long, which is amazing when you consider the finesse required to ‘manage’ through that much change over that long of a time span. So how did Sparky do it? He absolutely loved the game.

So the question is: do you love the entrepreneur game? Chances are you’re not going to get rich quickly, you’ll work crazy hard for minimal pay and there are barbarians at every gate. If it were easy, every moron in the world would be chasing the startup dream. But they’re not. It’s takes a specific type of person to step out on the edge.

There’s a long-running debate on whether entrepreneurs are made – or can the skill set be taught. In fact, a TechDrawl reader emailed me over the weekend pointing me to Steve Blank’s blog for more debate on the topic. (You can watch the hour-long panel discussion here.) While folks like Jason Calacanis and Fred Wilson think it’s innate within a person, there’s another group represented by Vivek Wadhwa and others who believe entrepreneurship can be taught. It’s the classic nature versus nurture debate.

In this case, I side almost exclusively on the nature side. I fundamentally believe entrepreneurs are just wired differently than your standard employee of Big Company X. There’s a wildly increased pace of critical thinking, a willingness to risk everything based on a single product or service, and an incessant dreamer’s outlook on how the world should be. And yes, it’s a personality type. For me, the one exception is anyone with zero financial pressure – be that from a wildcard of a previous business (one which didn’t require the typical startup trials and tribulations, but generated lots o’ cash) or good old fashioned family money. When you’re not sweating the mortgage or kids’ college funds, it’s easy to turn-up the risk meter :-)

But back to baseball... The parallels between running a startup and managing through a 162-game Major League Baseball season are uncanny. Here are my Top 10:

1) Everyone starts out optimistic – imagining they have the perfect team (or product) assembled.

2) There’s a two-month period of practice before the season (business planning), and much of a team’s final trajectory is determined by how quickly they ‘get out of the gate’.

3) The duration of the season (or life of a company) is highly prone to streaks – where things run very well for a while, then run poorly.

4) Every organization has role players who must perform in their specialized function for the team to be a success.

5) Certain players (a shortstop or a junior sales rep) can break out – and radically improve the chance the team wins big.

6) Star players can be injured or have an off year (or take a job at your main competitor), therefore decreasing the potential of winning.

7) The manager is responsible for putting out the line-up card every game (the same way a great CEO sets the pace).

8) The team requires great leadership to steer through the ups and downs of 162 games (or to pivot a startup).

9) There’s a point about 2/3 of the way into the season where you make trades to improve your chances down the homestretch (like trading a junior marketing person for a commission sales person).

10) The ultimate prize is the World Series (or a big exit), which is a reality for only one of the 30 teams that compete.

And you can’t really talk baseball and startup parallels without covering how MLB owners are the angel investors of their ecosystem. (I’ll give VCs a pass on this one as they’re admitted professional money managers, which you might argue owners should be but they’re not.) Most owners come from very well off families and businesses (think the Busch family that owned the St. Louis Cardinals until 1995, or George W. Bush who bought the Texas Rangers in the mid 1980s). Across-the-board, they’re deeply committed to the franchise and oftentimes even plow their own money into the chase for greatness – to sign that one more free agent that could be the difference between playing in the World Series or finishing third in your division. Owners are also involved in a never-ending battle to improve the revenue, whether that be naming rights to a field or convincing local governments to help build bigger stadiums with more high-rent luxury boxes. But make no mistake; most are in it for the love of the game. Breaking even is nice, but not required.

So what if you could see the end of your career right now? And what if there were no World Series rings (or startup exits) in your future, would you still play the game? Would you still be an entrepreneur or an angel investor? Are you willing to play through the losses to get to that one big win? I for one, would love to see more folks like Sparky Anderson – and fewer professional money managers – involved in the startup game.

Ask yourself this simple question: are you the one to deliver Web 3.0 (or whatever euphemism you want to use) or are you just chasing a 10x RoR? If it’s the latter, I’m sure there are better chances for success elsewhere. If you’re here to play ball, welcome to game.

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0 # Feb0zdou1 2010-07-13 18:46
Great analogy, Dave. I tend to think entrepreneurs are more hard-wired than taught. Gary Vaynerchuk says if you've done direct sales before the age of 10 (for yourself, not for your scout troop), you're born to be an entrepreneur. That's an interesting test...
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