Most people think the world of startups is high tech. This post will tell you it’s primitive. It will tell you startups is where sports were a hundred years ago. It will tell you how founders and investors can improve performance. In the process you will meet a perfect athlete, meet pre-modern entrepreneurs and learn when the word startup was born. In the end, you will be better at startups. Knowledge is power. Use it.
It was the biggest event on the planet. And all eyes were fixed one person. Elmer Niklander from Finland.
Niklander was the Vitruvian Man. His body was 185 cm tall and weighing 79 kilos. It was elegant and perfectly balanced. Like a renaissance sculpture. Every coach had told him he would become a superstar. And now he was.
He bent down and grabbed the 7.260 kilograms. He took a last deep breath. Then he exploded and hurled the ball 14.15 meters. The year was 1920. And the place was the Olympic shot put final in Antwerp.
70 years later, Randy Barnes from USA throws the same ball 23.12 meters. A devastating advance of more than 60%.
The false idea of the universal athlete
Elmer Niklander grew up in the early days of competitive sport. When he was 6 years old, the first modern Olympics took place in Athens. And If you had been at the opening ceremony, you would have witnessed something strange.
You would have seen 2,626 athletes from 29 countries come marching in. The strange part: Everyone almost looked the same.
But back then it wasn’t strange. Because until recently, it was believed that sport was a thing. That being good at sport was a function of universal physical coordination. And that coordination was best achieved by a harmonious body with perfect measurements relative to each part. Like the Vitruvian Man. Today we can appreciate the logic. Obviously, it was mistaken.
The recognition of specialized athletes
At some point it was realized that sport wasn’t a thing. We learned that sport was in fact many different things. The world of sports has specific disciplines. Each discipline has distinct problems.
Shot put impose the biomechanical problem of hurling a dense ball as far as possible. Swimming imposes an entirely different problem. To propel the body though water using minimum energy.
Once the distinct problems of each discipline were understood, the idea of the perfect athletic body faded.
Shot put requires a short explosive motion. That means that the muscle to fat ratio is irrelevant. Fat is mainly a problem for endurance. Good shot putters don’t need a six pack.
Swimming techniques mainly use upper body movements. That means the legs don’t matter much. Big feat and long arms do. Michelangelo would never have sculptured Michael Phelps.
When we finally realized that sports were many different things, something counter intuitive happened. Athletes started to look less perfect. Actually a lot less. But, their performance soared!
If you had met Randy Barnes, you would never had guessed he was an athlete. Much less, that he was an Olympic gold medalist.
Instead, Randy looks like a bouncer. Partly because of his monstrous frame of 132 kilos. Partly because of what appears to be a beer gut.
But, if Randy Barnes had participated in the 1920 Olympics, Elmer Niklander wouldn’t have stood a chance.
The false idea of the universal entrepreneur
The modern tech startup was invented in Silicon Valley in the late 1950’s. However, people didn’t call them startups. That didn’t happen before 1976 when Forbes Magazine first coined the term.
The founders of the modern startup adopted a name for themselves. Or someone gave it to them. A much older term. Entrepreneurs.
Before the modern tech startup, entrepreneurs were not the people we would think of today. Entrepreneurs were businessmen. And back then, most business was trade. Buying and selling goods with a profit. It required an appetite for risk, and skills in negotiation and salesmanship. People who excelled in those things were sometimes referred to as “born entrepreneurs”. It was an ideal. The business version of the Vitruvian Man.
But when the label “entrepreneur” was given to founders of startups, something changed. What changed was the nature of the underlying business. See, startups aren’t trading companies. Trading is a business model. Startups are not. It’s not even a thing. Its many different things. Does it ring a bell? Now you know where I am going.
The problem with the universal entrepreneur
The term “startup” carries no information about what it does. Nor what its business model is. A startup can do anything from deep science, to organizing sharing of goods, to inventing a new currency. It can sell to government, business and consumers. Its products can be software, hardware or living tissue. There are basically no limits. They are all called startups. And everyone starting them are all called entrepreneurs. And herein lies the problem.
The problem is the multitude of business models. Because each business model has specific problems. Getting consumers to buy virtual goods in games is a vastly different problem than navigating corporations to sell enterprise software to executives. Or getting retailers to provide optimal shelf space is a very different from getting an army of telemarketers to perform.
When modern shot putters are so much better than Elmer Niklander, it is because the specific problem of shot put has been understood. The talent scouts know what to look for. The coaches and athletes know what to train.
Our understanding of startups is where sport was in the 1920s. We know that there are disciplines, but we don’t distinguish the specific problems of each discipline well enough. We still believe in the Vitruvian Man.
That means investors favor universal characters. Like Jack Dorsey. A man who can run both Twitter and Square. And anything else he puts his mind to. But wait, that’s what people thought of Elmer Niklander. Including Niklander himself. So he also competed in discus, hammer and javelin.
The recognition of specialized entrepreneurs
Startup fail rates are horrendous. Some people think it’s supposed to be. But it doesn’t.
Most startups don’t compete with each other. It’s not a zero sum game. In fact, most startups could become successful without it being a mathematical problem. The only ones suffering would be the incumbents.
For this reason, increasing the success rate of entrepreneurs is fairly simple. It’s mainly a function of making the entrepreneurs better. How? Well, we know this by now, don’t we?
We must shed the idea of the universal entrepreneur. We must understand the different disciplines within startups. We must understand the specific problems each type of startup face. We must know what to look for and what to train. Mark Andreesen calls it: Strength over of lack of weakness. But the key question is what strength?
If I knew, the secret to unlocking a massive improvement in success among startups would be within my power. I don’t. But I have a thesis. The thesis is there are at least 144 different sets of startup disciplines.
I am analyzing each type of startups and the specific set of critical skills needed by the founders. If founders possess those skills and train them, they become Randy Barnes. If you want to follow this work, keep an eye on my blog.
- The idea of the universal athlete dominated early days of competitive sports
- The idea of the universal entrepreneur still dominates the world of startups
- When sports were broken into disciplines and athletes specialized, performance soared
- When startups will be broken into disciplines and entrepreneurs specialize, performance will also soar