Why You Need Those Willing to Block for Your Startup

After the local parade of friends, family, and all those rah-rah’ing your startup, comes the reality that there are many more who would rather you not enter the race. What’s more, time is your enemy, assuming you require money to live. But since you started, and certainly once you start making some noise in that race, both the incumbents and time are coming after you…

“I’d never been manhandled… and the physical power and swiftness of the attack stunned me.”

Last year my 11-year old chose to do her U.S. history report on one of our nation’s heroes, Kathrine Switzer. I got the chills every time she would practice reciting her report in our home. If you’re fuzzy on the name, then tune in, it’s quite the story:

Kathrine was the first woman to ever run in and complete the Boston Marathon. She had registered for the 1967 race as “K. V. Switzer,” in a group of 3 male friends, after checking both the rule book and the entry form to find nothing about gender. From the initial milling before the race with the other runners until mile four, she was received amicably by the officials, spectators and other runners. But then came a dramatic near-end to her race, which she weathered thanks to her 235-pound ex-All American football player boyfriend. I’ll share this part of the story through her own words, below. As for the marathon, she eventually completed it. Since then, Kathrine’s pioneering example transformed the sport of running, from the Boston Marathon which accepted women officially the year after her race, to the Olympic Committee, which one decade later created the first women’s marathon for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.

That first race was a massively uphill battle. In her own words, Kathrine describes the most dramatic point of the race:

“I heard the scraping noise of leather shoes coming up fast behind me, an alien and alarming sound amid the muted thump thumping of rubber-soled running shoes. Instinctively I jerked my head around quickly and looked square into the most vicious face I’d ever seen. A big man, a huge man, with bared teeth was set to pounce, and before I could react he grabbed my shoulder and flung me back, screaming, “Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!” Then he swiped down my front, trying to rip off my bib number, just as I leapt backward from him. He missed the numbers, but I was so surprised and frightened that I slightly wet my pants and turned to run. But now the man had the back of my shirt and was swiping at the bib number on my back. I was making little cries of aa-uh, aa-uh, not thinking at all, just trying to get away. The air was filled only with the clicking whirr of motor-drive cameras, scuffling sounds, and faintly, one cameraman screeching something I couldn’t understand. The bottom was dropping out of my stomach; I had never felt such embarrassment and fear. I’d never been manhandled, never even spanked as a child, and the physical power and swiftness of the attack stunned me. I felt unable to flee, like I was rooted there, and indeed I was, because the man had me by the shirt. Then a flash of orange flew past and hit him with a cross-body block. It was Big Tom, in the orange Syracuse sweatshirt. There was a thud — whoomph! — and the man was airborne. He landed on the roadside like a pile of wrinkled clothes.” Original link here.

A framework

I’ve created a framework that is one way to view Kathrine’s accomplishments in terms of this groundbreaking race and those that followed. Envision a simple chart showing effort over time. For Kathrine, there was the large (and known) effort of the marathon itself. Layered on top of this, however, was the effort needed to go into the unknown — to be the first woman with the chutzpah to run in the historically male marathon. This required innovation. Here’s how we can construct a chart.

We can also group events into a few periods, each bounded by a transition in effort based on what became easier, and perhaps even accepted. The first period was the pure unknown, while the last is the new reality. And the middle? It’s the period of adoption. Visually it looks like this.

The effort to deal with the unknown is of course highest at the beginning, and as time goes on and the need for additional effort reduces towards what is known. In Kathrine’s case, this means that the first race was the hardest. Soon after, however, the Boston Marathon officially admitted women to the race (one year later, in fact). Gradually the racing industry followed, until a new reality existed, and all running races admitted women. This leveled the playing field of what was required to compete in marathons down to the original intention of simply finishing the distance.

There is an interesting cause-and-effect result of innovation and action, which is that things become more predictable. We learn. And for some experiences like Kathrine’s, predictability follows an exponentially-shaped curve. For example, most of what she didn’t know about acceptance in the race was answered simply by running the race, seeing the mainly warm welcome from the other runners and majority of officials, and working her way through the people and endurance trials until the finish line. So although the total amount of what could be learned remains vast, we can usually quickly learn the basic and find common patterns of predictability.

It’s been our experience at Peak Ventures that business follows these patterns: known business models can be imitated; innovation propels you into the uncharted territories and requires unknown amounts of effort; predictability increases as teams figure things out; and all of this corresponds to progress in the marketplace. So if we are to overlay the revenue ramp of a scalable business onto the chart, we have the following.

So what?

With this framework, we can appreciate Big Tom’s big hit on the would-be obstacle to Kathrine’s race. That cross-body block was an overwhelmingly positive force in the time of greatest unpredictability. Short of having several unfair advantages to your business, and even when some of these exist, you need a cast of characters who will predictably react positively when the unpredictable turns negative. Here are four examples I’ve experienced and witnessed:

1. Among co-founders. One of the founders experienced a family tragedy. While trying to cope with the loss, the founder determined to exit the business and give up their equity. The co-founder told the founder to take as much time as was needed to process and mourn. Within a few weeks, the affected founder returned and over the subsequent years saw the business grow, scale and be acquired. The co-founder gave a cross-body block and then some, even shouldering the business during a critical moment of time.

2. From junior team members. Nearing the end of their runway, the founders offered a handful of junior team members the option for equity compensation in lieu of cash. One employee took the equity despite already tight personal finances until the company finally pulled out and restored cash comp for employees. This junior team member gave a cross-body block for the company, and enabled them to pull through a critical period.

3. From senior team members. Big-city based senior VP departed to join a startup in nowheresville with the expectation that their next round of investor financing, just months away, would facilitate the company’s relocation to the big city. During their fundraising, the US economy experienced a financial meltdown and the fundraising was delayed. The senior team member hunkered down and remained with the fledgling company to assist in their bootstrap for more than a year until the situation shifted and the company was able the raise their next round of financing. During that critical period, this senior team member proved to be invaluable in progressing the company to that state, and had in essence given a cross-body block.

4. From VCs. A founder lined up a lead investor, however mid-way through final diligence (after term sheet and before final docs), an earlier investor held up the deal with a surprise set of unreasonable requests. This created an opportunity for the lead investor to take advantage of the situation to the detriment to the company, as the founder was far enough down the path of no return that their options were limited should they pull out of the deal. The lead investor chose to cross-body block for the founder instead of taking advantage of the situation, holding true to the original deal and patiently working through things until the bad player finally turned reasonable. For the founder, this period of time exposed the true colors of both VCs and solidified the level of trust with the lead investor.

You get the idea. I mentioned before that both incumbents and time are coming after you. Sooner or later you’ll hear the heavy footsteps of one or both of these behind you. You better have people tied to your business who will stick their neck out and block. Look at your team- who are those people who will lay that cross-body block for you and the business? Keep them close, treat them well.

To that end, thanks Sam for blocking, tackling, and helping with the visuals and content!


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