Building and growing a startup? It’s like running a marathon. No really, it is. How do I know this? Because I have the proof by doing both!
This story, like most stories do, started with a “stupid” decision made during a brief conversation. I say stupid in quotation marks because in the end it wasn’t such a bad idea. Anyway, the conversation went something like this:
Friend: “Will you join me?”
Me: “Sure, it’s on!”
Now, I can’t really remember if I was half-joking when I said those three words. Three words which incidentally came in response to a question about taking part in arguably the world’s toughest marathon. The point is, with those words came my determination to commit to them. And so it began.
Do the things you’re bad at
I was clearly driven by the same force that led to other silly decisions of mine in the past. Like the time I said to myself, “Hey, I’m really bad at communicating with people, I should do sales!” Or the time I decided that I should manage a team at a startup. So what if I struggle most of the time to get myself organized and manage my time effectively. I could go on, it’s a pretty long list. Anyway, I digress.
This time, my “stupid” decision was to choose the sport I’m actually worst at and dislike the most: running. Yes, especially long distance running. So hey, why not run a marathon? Brilliant idea! And why don’t you go the whole hog and choose the most difficult one you can find. Yes, the Athens Classic Marathon, of course!
Fast forward to November 12, 2017 and a total of 922 km later [including all my training], and there I am, entering the beautiful marble-clad Panathenaic Stadium. I can see the finish line. The experience is overwhelming as I cross it. I see my coach, Aris Myrkos, from www.sciencetraining.gr.
Aris: “How was it?”
I literally couldn’t think of a more apt word to sum up the whole experience.
Listen to your body, optimize
There are many stories already out there that describe the struggle, the challenge, the pleasure, and the overall experience of preparing and running a marathon. I don’t want to offer something on that. I can only talk about what I have learned.
So what did I learn? Well, during the preparation and the actual race, there are two very important skills that define the quality of your run:
- Listening to your body
- Finding the optimal pace, so that you feel comfortable but not lazy
When you run for recreational purposes, a distance of between 4–5 km seems enough and you naturally have that “optimal pace” feeling. They say that in order to run 10 km you should double the effort, and quadruple it for a half marathon and so on. But this is not true.
During the preparation I realized that there is an optimal point that keeps you running at a good pace, but the endurance cost is minimal, or close to zero. Of course in order to find it, you need to listen to your body, which dictates when it is too slow or too fast. There is no room for mistakes, the marathon is unforgiving. Listening to your body is a must. If you fail to do so, you’ll suffer an injury, and perhaps end up quitting the race. Worse still, in extreme cases you’ll suffer severe injury or even death.
How building and growing a startup is similar
Coming from the startup world, I see that these two skills are most valuable. A startup is like a marathon, the effort is endless. Start with a great (or “stupid” in my case) idea. Build the team, find some initial funding, create the MVP, release. Then, get more investment, break-even, scale up, grow and so on. It never actually ends. It is the ultimate endurance test.
After several failures and a burnout in my health record before this adventure, I now see the importance of the optimal pace. A startup team’s pace is essential, because it is the true indicator of the long term performance. Go too fast and the project will soon be all over the place. But go too slow and it will be too late.
The first step is understanding the team, its weaknesses and strengths, and its highs and lows. Then, teams can be trained, through habits, repetition, challenges, culture, and of course close communication. Yes in between you need to be agile, and its all about short sprints. But, long-term success is more about enduring.
Moving a step forward is understanding where you are and understanding the way to become better. Just like preparing for a marathon.