A More Resilient Startup

I’m a huge fan of the “ropeadope.” If you’re not familiar with this boxing term, go watch Muhammad Ali’s 1974 victory over the world champion, George Foreman. In this amazing match, Ali tricked his opponent by leaning against the ropes until George Forman punched himself into exhaustion. He used a previously unknown advantage — the elastic ropes absorb most of the energy from an opponent’s punches. While the blows come in very different forms when you run a startup, you’ll want to consider which advantages will help you stay on your feet and beat the competition. Here, I lay out several possible strategies to build a resilient startup.

Focus on your customer

Successful companies focus on their customers’ needs and desires. Other companies often fail at some point because they loose track of a company’s primary goal — to serve their paying customers better than anyone else. I’ve lost sight of this before. So every day, ask yourselves, “Is what I’m doing today helping my customers in the best way possible?” If the answer is no, change what you’re doing. It’s as simple as that. With the million activities that startup teams have to do, it’s a simple way to prioritize.

Startup team alignment

At Boulder BITS we focus heavily on finding teams to work on our pre-validated solutions. One of the biggest challenges is to find the right team to lead a startup. Each entrepreneur seems to like a different flavor of startup. Some prefer simple vanilla startup with a heavy helping of tech. Others want a Neapolitan (a b2c2b) drizzled over social impact. Others identify with parents, sports enthusiasts, corporate executives, … you name it. If you don’t align the team with a scalable solution to a real problem, you won’t have a resilient startup. Most startups begin without a scalable solution and pivot where needed to reach the end goal. It is easy to pivot your company out of alignment with flavors that appeal to you. So continually check that your improving your team-solution alignment.

Hire Slow, Fire Fast

Having the wrong person on the team can kill a startup. As a leader, you have no spare cycles for people who aren’t carrying their load. Sure, we all fall down, but if your trusted compatriots aren’t picking themselves back up and pushing the boundaries of your company with you, then you’re dragging them along. You don’t have time or energy to drag them along while you’re molding a startup into a fine-tuned machine. In the hiring process, doing is more important than anything else. It takes time to do. Talk is cheap and quick, but often leads to a false impression of what it will be like to be working shoulder to shoulder. If you work alongside each other, you’ll have a better understanding of how they respond to stress, challenges, and changes in situations.

Adapt or Die

We all know it is a dog-eat-dog world out there. You have a choice, embrace change or suffer a slow and painful startup death. Build a culture around the value of adaptation. Failing quickly is another term for this that many have taken to. Very few companies actually do something novel. In general, startups are “just a new version of the old scene” (one of my favorite Aerosmith lines). A new take on an old idea. Successful companies borrow useful strategies from existing companies. Look at your surroundings, and embrace change.

When building a resilient startup its imperative that you use your resources to your advantage. How you use those resources should align with your overall strategy and where you want your startup to be. When Ali beat George Foreman in that historical fight, it was a clear and well thought out strategy which lead him to victory. This is the same for any startup, align your team, solution, and ideas to the end goal and you too will be victorious.


  • Ed Catmull (President of Pixar) on building teams: “If there is more truth in the hallways than in meetings, you have a problem.”
  • Justin Kan believes good founders with resilience are more important than good ideas in building businesses. “I’m biased, but I see people who have great ideas and are working on things that could be successful, but they give up,” Kan said.
  • To survive a startup: avoid distractions, don’t get demoralized, don’t give up, and if deals fall through… keep going (Paul Graham )

Originally published on February 11th, 2016 on our previous blog.