Startups and Wrestling

I spent Thursday, Friday and Saturday (March 17 – 19) at the NCAA Division 1 Wrestling Championships in Philadelphia.  I wrestled in high school (very long time ago) and follow Cornell wrestling closely.  Prior to the tournament, Cornell was ranked #1 as a team.  Cornell ended up in second place, losing to Penn State, but beating Iowa (I think for the first time ever).  So, a great result for the Big Red.  Here are some highlights of the finals:  Even if you don’t like wrestling, you will probably enjoy the clip (turn off your volume if the music choice bothers you).

During the tournament I did a lot of work (mostly emails).  Given that I was watching wrestling all the while, I started to think very quickly how startups are like elite college wrestlers.  Worth some explanation:

1.  Tenacious:  startup entrepreneurs need to be tenacious in the “truly persistent and determined” sense of the word.  The best wrestlers are tenacious in this sense.   During the semi-final matches in Philadelphia, there were 1 or 2 instances where wrestlers momentarily had a mental lapse – loss of tenacity – and it cost them the match.  I am not advocating for stubbornness or being obstinate (other senses of tenacity), although sometimes those characteristics are life savers for both startups and wrestlers.

2.  Grueling = Enjoyment:  on the video clip, check out the wrestler with bandage around his head.  Wrestling is clearly one of the most grueling sports.  Incredible workouts; frequent pain; and hopefully frequent triumphs.  The similarity to startup life is uncanny.

3.  Sucking Weight = Preserving Cash:  there are various weight classes on a college wrestling team ranging from 125 lbs to 197 lbs and then heavy weight (not over 285 lbs).  With the exception of the heavy weight, wrestlers are constantly dropping pounds to make weight on match day.  Not eating while working out like a maniac is common.  Reminds me of cutting company burn rates in tough times and being a careful spender all the time.

4.  Taking Down the Competition:  the competition in Philadelphia was intense.  Cornell had 4 wrestlers in the semifinals.  Lots of us die hard fans thought all four would win and be in the finals the next night.  Only one did.  It was downright depressing.  Competition validates the sport.  Intense competition creates stress.  Competition causes you to be better and hopefully win ultimately.  Again, this sounds just like the startup world.  We all know the value of competition.  VCs invest in competitive spaces as they signify demand.   Competing companies drive innovation, and the innovation is often a stress creator inside a company.  Ultimately/hopefully, the innovation creates the winning product and the management team executes to win.

5.  There is Luck Involved:  Startups play the luck card routinely.  Right space, right time, with the right team.  In wrestling, luck can be a significant factor as well.  Might get lucky with a referee call.  Might catch your opponent in a winning move (like Bubba Jenkins did on his former teammate from Penn State – Bubba got booted off the Penn State team and transferred to Iowa State – talk about nice retribution).  In his post match interview he was quick to say there was some luck involved.  Being realistic is a winning strategy.  Being lucky can help the cause.

6.  The Glory of Winning:  If you watched the video, you noticed that one wrestler is missing a leg (Anthony Robles from Arizona – if you are interested there are plenty of clips of him on YouTube).  Last year, Troy Nickerson from Cornell beat Robles in the 3rd/4th place match at 125 lbs.  This year Robles beat last year’s defending champion in the finals at the same weight class.  And you should have seen the smile on his face!  And with only one leg!  His larger than usual upper body more than compensated for his handicap.  Winning is everything in wrestling.  Same is true for startups.   Investors know that not every company wins.

Maybe I have now converted some of you to wrestling fans.

PS:  you can also see the glory of winning on Kyle Dake’s face.  Kyle is the only Cornell wrestler in the video.  He won the national championship at 149 lbs!  Last year he won at 141 lbs.