Why Your Startup Should Be More Like Kentucky Basketball

Originally published by Robert Hatta on April 1st, 2015

When Kentucky coach, John Calipari chose a recruiting and coaching strategy that amounts to a one-year apprenticeship for star players planning to enter the NBA, basketball purists (including people who still believe in the “scholar athlete”) cried foul. And many enjoyed watching his 2013 batch of freshman bow out in the NIT’s first round. However, this year’s team is taking Kentucky — and Coach Calipari — to its fourth Final Four appearance in five years. Further, they could be the first team in 40 years to win a national championship while going undefeated. Love it or hate it, Calipari’s strategy is working. And the “one-and-done” era of college basketball can teach us a thing or two about how to succeed as a startup.

The blueprint for Kentucky basketball is built on rapid adaptation. Calipari gets one season to develop 17 and 18-year-old boys (talented though they might be) into a cohesive unit capable of beating the best teams in basketball. There is no player development between seasons. There are no star players around which you can build a team over several seasons. There is only this season and adjustments have to be tested, implemented and iterated without the “institutional knowledge” of veteran players. Calipari only gets five months to put the pieces together. His team must adapt and perform in real time.

“Calipari’s annual recruit-and-replace dance draws much of the attention, and his guru-level recruiting acumen is mind-boggling. But what he does during the season, and how he implements the straight forward, but often unstoppable principles… is every bit as brilliant. No one is more adaptable.”
– Eammon Brennan, ESPN

Startups, similarly, are given brief periods in which to build a product, gain traction, prove a market, understand customers or scale an organization. They do so often with talented but unproven players, thrust together for the first time in roles they’ve never held before. Adapting in real time to a shifting, ambiguous landscape is essential for survival, not just success.

However, adaptable teams aren’t the complete answer. Last year’s UK team reached the finals, but fell to a UConn squad that started three seniors and no freshmen. While talent often adapts quickly, trust takes more time to build — whether it’s in your coach, the system or each other. It is this ability to adapt quickly and build trust, that sets the winners apart from the losers in both college basketball and startups. Kentucky’s wire-to-wire dominance this season might be explained by the fact that it starts, atypically, only two freshmen (to go with two sophomores and one junior).

While its fun to compare college hoops with startups in March, the fact is that winning in startups is much harder than in basketball (no shit!). In basketball, there are standard, well-understood rules followed by every team (usually). The competition is clearly marked by the color of their jerseys. No such clarity exists in startups. Further, building alignment around winning a championship trophy within a fixed timeframe (this season) is much easier than creating a new market, technology or way of doing business (someday).

The one-and-done era in NCAA basketball is an extreme example of the win-now mentality pervasive throughout all big time sports as well as many startups. Young companies, and their investors, would do well to build systems that support rapid adaptation and accelerated trust building much as Coach Cal has with Kentucky basketball.