Startups are a sport, and Silicon Valley is the Olympics

As everyone else, during the past weeks I’ve been watching the Olympic Games, and more than the results and medals, I was really trying to get to understand the lives of these athletes.

I’m fortunate to be close friends with two Italian team members and have a very real understanding of all of the sacrifices they made during the years: 5am wake ups, long trips, no social life, physical pain, financial stress, and the like.

I also understand how they were introduced to the sport by their family, their dad having won an olympic medal himself.

Drawing a parallel between the Olympics and the startup world.

Living in San Francisco for 5 years and being in close contact with very successful founders, employees and VCs, made me realize how their lives are similar to pro athletes.

When talking to entrepreneurs and other participants in the startup ecosystem in Europe, it seems to me that not everyone really grasps the difficulty of the startup game.

I suggest trying to think about startup founders as olympic athletes.

I see many people with absolutely no experience or no specific talent / expertise claiming that they can build something of immense value, and to me, that sounds like someone watching a 100m race and saying: “I like that, tomorrow I’ll start training and in a few years I’ll be at the Olympics”.

Now, I don’t want to say that it’s an impossible game, but I would really like more people to realize what it takes. And it takes talent, grit and ecosystems .


Talent

When we watch the Olympics we tend to overestimate natural talent and underestimate the training it takes to get to that level.

When we read about successful startup people instead, we tend to underestimate both the effort and the talent that it takes to get to the top.

Zuck, Travis, Ev, Marissa and everyone else we consider at the top is a star-performer just like Bolt, Phelps and Biles.

They have unfair natural talents that they coupled with insane amounts of work and focus.

As an aside, a very, very interesting short read/listen on the mix between talent and training is provided by NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast:


Grit

The reality is that the people we read about on Techcrunch and the likes, are the startup world’s top athletes and the sacrifices they make to reach that performance level are very similar to athletes’ ones.

If you want to create a hugely successful and valuable company, you must put in the hours and devote your life to this goal.

On this, I suggest listening to the end of this Twenty Minute VC podcast episode with Matthew Ocko:

His #1 tip? “Never sleep”

Ecosystem

Some teams from specific countries almost always tend to be on the top-3 in every single Olympic (eg. fencing for Italy). That’s usually the result of a lot of smart people working together to have that one or two athletes get the medals. Coaches, support staff, federal organizations, school teachers, everyone matters — and the highest concentration of smart and dedicated people, the better the results.

It’s the same with startups. Thinking about creating a massive startup outside of a solid ecosystem, while possible (as some independent or upcoming athletes have shown), is extremely hard and most definitely the exception rather than the rule.


Thinking about startup stars as olympic athletes and as myself as a training athlete really makes it easy to put in context the successes, sacrifices and ecosystems. It might be helpful for others too.

If your goal is to create hugely successful businesses (and it doesn’t have to be), then the reality is that it’s extremely hard, you need to get lucky with your natural talents and the environment you grow up in or surround yourself later in life, and put in insane amounts of work and focus.


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