Why startups are like rowing

We love applying sports analogies to business (“That was a home run…”).  Everyone knows that startups are hard, and the comparison is made that “startups are like marathons, not sprints.”  While I agree that startups are long distance events that demand skill and endurance, that’s where the comparison ends for me.  Marathons are solitary events requiring runners to block out pain and overcome significant hurdles in order to achieve their goals.  Startups, on the other hand, are naturally team events where everyone has to come together to achieve goals (or “milestones”). I’ve never run a marathon, but I’ve been rowing since college and have spent over 20 years working in startups.  In my opinion rowing is a better metaphor for startups.  Here’s why.

 Competitive rowing requires that you create a team (two, four or eight rowers of similar ability) and synchronize your efforts.  In rowing you are only as strong as your weakest rower.  It’s a team effort – one individual pulling harder isn’t necessarily going to make a difference here.  Marathons, on the other hand, are individual sports.  Teamwork is critical when you are in a startup.

 If rowing and startups are team sports, then recruiting is a critical skill set.  In startups your first five or twenty employees are your most critical.  They set the tone for the product, for how you work together, and how you approach the market itself.  You look for a balance of experience and (functional) talent.  In rowing you look for technical ability, strength and mental toughness.  Actually technical rowing ability can be taught. Same goes for startups.  You may not find someone who has directly relevant experience, but you can find someone who has achieved goals against significant odds.  Remember, culture matters.  There is no room for prima donnas in a startup (or in a crew shell).

“In the long run men hit only what they aim at.

Therefore, though they should fail immediately,

They had better aim at something high.”


 Startups, by their nature, tend to start small, so everyone has to contribute. In those important early days there is no hiding.  You can’t afford to carry anyone who isn’t “pulling his or her weight”.  The same is in rowing.  You are only as fast as your slowest or weakest rower.  There are no off strokes in a race.

 In rowing, technique matters.  I am sure that technique matters when it comes to running a marathon.  But you can finish a marathon if you are a runner with poor form (but you probably won’t win).  However, you can’t win a rowing race if you have bad form.   Rowing is all about legs, then back and then arms.  Do it wrong and you can actually stop the boat.  When it comes to launching a product, it is all about the audience (know it), then the customers (the subset who might buy), and only then the product.  You have to understand your target customers’ pains, or else you have developed a solution in need of a problem to solve.  Get that wrong, and your startup can fail.

 When it comes to rowing, you don’t always know where you are going.  Yes, you know that the racecourse is 2,000 meters (or longer).  But because you are facing backwards you don’t always see the competition or the finish line.  You might be lucky enough to have a coxswain to guide you.  The same can be said about startups.  You might have a guiding vision.  But you certainly can’t predict the obstacles that will come at you.   Unless you are running backwards, marathoners always see where they are going.

 Both rowing and startups demand patience and perseverance.  Rowers will put in hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of practice for an all-important seven-minute race.  You can’t expect to jump into a boat cold and win. The same can be said of startups.  In fairness, marathoners are expected to put in an average of 44 miles per week if they want to get a time below the national average of 4:27:27.  When it comes to startups, if you aren’t in if for the long haul, then you probably aren’t cut out for the startup life.   Popular culture has glamorized the startup life.  But it isn’t all about ping-pong and free lunches, or ringing the NASDAQ opening bell.  Never forget the long hours and important milestones (and failures) that go into building every successful startup.

 Startups require a tremendous amount of dedication and perseverance.  Yes, there can be an “us against the world” component to launching a new venture.  You may be taking on a large, established competitor, or solving really complex problems.  Here’s where I think marathoners, rowers and entrepreneurs are similar.  They are all single-mindedly obsessed with success.  And they are willing to get up early and put in the long hours that it takes to succeed (perhaps to the detriment of their social lives and those around them).  But that’s what it takes to succeed on the racecourse and in startups.

 Is all that hard work and practice worth it?  Ask anyone who has competed at the highest levels, or who have been in a successful startup, and they’ll tell you how good it feels to come together as a team and succeed.