World Cup Wisdom: To Succeed In Business, Think Like A Goalie
This post originally appeared in Forbes.
World cup fever has taken us all. During popular games, our co-working space typically filled with startups is a wasteland: the computer screens are blank, the seats are empty and the ideas are on hold. Everyone surrounds the large screen television watching 22 men kick a ball around. At a lull during the action, my mind started to wander, and I started to think about penalty kicks. Watching some of the games where penalty kicks determined the outcome, I realized how impossible the odds were for the goalie. The ball was going to the left but the goalie jumped to the right. Looking at the physics of penalty kicks it started to make more sense. The kick is from 12 yards away. The goal is 24 feet wide by 8 feet tall or 192 square feet. The ball typically moves at 70–80 mph reaching the goal line in 500 milliseconds. A goalie can get to one end of the 24-foot goal in 600 milliseconds. If the goalie waits to see which direction the ball goes, which might take one second, it is too late, the ball is in the goal. Even though a world-class goalie can cover the entire net, a penalty kick is pretty much a guaranteed goal.
As a startup, just like our goalie, you have incomplete information, yet you can’t stand still. You have to make a decision one way or the other. If you stand in the middle, you definitely have no chance. If you try to wait to get a full picture of the industry or your customer base, its too late, the market has moved past you. You have to move in one direction or the other. And that one direction could be completely wrong.
Starting a business is not easy, especially in today’s world, where things are moving quickly. You never have complete information and always have to be anticipatory in your decision-making. Sometimes, like our goalie, you were correct in seeing the direction of the market, but your timing was off by a bit, or you were completely wrong in where you thought the market was going. Friendster, SixDegrees, and all of the generation one social networks were correct in that people would want to have profiles and be able to link to one another, yet their timing was off by a few years. Many of the Web 1.0 companies had spectacular flameouts like Urbanfetch, Kozmo, Boo and so on. Sony created physical products, like the Minidisc and BetaMax, which could not get traction. And today, Aereo, was ruled illegal by the Supreme Court. They were interesting ideas that just didn’t catch on to the marketplace. They released a product, put marketing muscle behind it, and gave it their all. And then there are the success stories that we hear about, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, SnapChat, Uber, and so on. There was no difference in effort between any of these companies only a difference in luck. Even then the probability of a penalty kick getting in is around 25% where the probability of finding the “next big thing” or even having a successful money making startup is in the realm of less than 2%.
Regardless, none of this outcome is possible if you don’t make a strong commitment to your team and to your startup. Hence, investors don’t invest in “part-time” teams or those that don’t have enough “skin in the game.” Pivots and changing your model to survive are a natural part of the game, but not committing fully is a formula for disaster.
In today’s world of apps and sites, most of the successful apps out there do one thing and one thing very well. They’ve committed to only doing one thing. The Dark Sky App tells you the weather where you are with an uncanny accuracy. Uber gets you a car where you are when you want it. Seamless orders your favorite food to your doorstep. Even the Yo app does one thing really simply: it says “Yo” to your friends. Even Internet Giants started by mastering their own domains: Amazon owned books and then expanded into everything. Google owned search and now has self-driving cars. Facebook owned social networking and now has a phone.
Early on, these companies and the aforementioned apps have committed to saying that “people will actually engage in this behavior.” The Dark Sky App team made a bet that people would actually pay $3.99 (yes, even I paid for it) for a better weather app even most weather apps are free. And the Yo team thought that people would want a new way to “poke” each other by saying Yo. And so on.
All successful companies made a strong choice and commitment and went for it. Most of them were wrong. Yet there’s a comfort in knowing that you gave it your all and that the cards weren’t right for you this time around, even if you look like a fish out of water: when we jump right and the ball goes left. We have to remember that we are putting ourselves out there for something we believe in, and that we might actually be wrong. We’ve had people tell us that we would fail, that they are bearish against us, that they don’t think that we have a fighting chance. But as long as we make a commitment toward one direction, you never know, we actually might stop that kick.