Knowing You Belong–Startup Lessons from Cycling


This week while walking to work at Techstars, I got a phone call from a young bike racer who had just competed in a big-time bike race. It was her first time riding with a professional team, in a race featuring European and North American pro teams, Olympians, and four national teams. She was still in happy shock by the sudden appearance of all the glamorous externalities that indicated she “had arrived”: dedicated team mechanics who took care of all pre-race needs and bike maintenance, team cars, press and photos, the works. All of that was tremendous fun…but soon her initial “I can’t believe I’m here” reaction was replaced by pre-race jitters.

As she talked me through her race, I couldn’t help but seeing the parallels with the companies who started this week in Techstars’ Boston Summer 2015 program. Just like her, the teams are full of potential, nervous, and in reach of greatness—but they aren’t there yet. And possibly biggest determinant of future success for all of them is self-belief.

“I couldn’t believe I was able to just talk with her! She’s in the top 10 in the world!”

One Techstars team has been negotiating a strategic distribution deal directly with a billionaire businessman. It will be good business for all…but for 90% of us, jumping into the big leagues is just scary. The first shock for many new Techstars comes at the mentor dinner after the first few days, as they share beers with entrepreneurs who’ve built massive companies, star investors who’ve made fortunes investing in what are now household names, or some skyrocketing Techstars alum who was in their shoes 2 years earlier but just raised a $50M C round. My advice: enjoy, and take full advantage of being there. Get comfortable, because you now know what you’re shooting for. But understand that you haven’t even started yet.

“The coolest thing was I was able to win ‘the race before the race’ and get in the front row.”

BA2Our racer was referring to the jostling at the start; while the center of the front row at the start is reserved for the favorites, the other racers jockey for position for places near the beginning of the starting line. For this class at Techstars Boston, the field had been winnowed down from record numbers, with less than 1% getting in, but even then, some were able to take advantage: four fortunate teams didn’t wait for the program start, but immediately relocated into the Techstars office after acceptance. Does that mean they will be the companies that separate from the pack and go on to win? Who knows?

Gaining an edge like this is just about hustle—perhaps there are no major benefits in the long run, but it sure makes it easier at the start. In the case for those moving early into Techstars, they benefit from additional time with staff as well as with the mentors and the investors who have been stopping by in the last month prior to starting. That hustle is already bearing dividends for some. Lesson for all: make things happen by being ready and then pouncing on every advantage.

“It was cool but strange having a TV camera 2 feet away when they were filming just before the start of the race; but I felt I didn’t belong.”

Well, she was right—she really doesn’t belong on the front row…yet. And she won’t belong there until she not just believes, but KNOWS she belongs, and is driven to make sure that is always the case. For many startups, lack of confidence is a great killer—because every company runs into countless problems. What’s clear is our girl belonged in the race and is working her way up.

Many of the 13 companies in this year’s class are in awe of each other and some may be intimidated by the “competition.” One might have killer investors; another might have killer clients; another has great revenue, another has rocketship growth. Five of them are led by serial entrepreneurs with a previous exit. So there is plenty of room for some of them to feel intimidated. But they all have the right stuff. Those with the most doubt will face the toughest journey, as from this point out, attitude is probably the most important attribute to keep the company’s momentum not just going, but growing.

“I couldn’t believe how rough it was—the pros really lean on you and play rough way more than in the amateur or college races.”

Ba3

No kidding. Get used to it, you’re messing with the  pros’ meal ticket. You don’t have to respond in kind  but you’ll have to deal with it. Don’t be surprised at  business deals where terms are changed at the last  second, hidden conflicts of interest, tricks, half-  truths or worse, etc. But those are just tactics used by  people who are worried about you. In the end,  strength and talent win out if you don’t let the rough  stuff take you down.

“It was so scary—I’ve never gone so fast in a pack.”

The only way to get fast is not just to train fast, but to also race with the best. And you’ll need several coaches—i.e., mentors with expertise in different aspects—who have been there to help you elevate your game. and you need to be training not just with peers, but people who are better than you. You’ll spend your entire career trying to get into a faster pack. At Techstars, we train in a pack, and we keep upping the speed the entire way.

And at the end of the summer, some of you will not just be racing with the pros, you’ll be scaring them.

“Being on a team made it so much better.”

Ba4You’ll be competing with plenty of other companies, so make sure you have a support group. The Techstars teams work really closely together, and we make sure that there are no potential conflicts so that the companies can all support each other. I saw the magic work first hand when one CEO, Max, learned that another company was searching for a beta client that would let them run some tests on their product…and he promptly offered an intro to one of his own clients that had the right profile to be a great fit. Max put not just his credibility on the line for his classmate, but in fact his revenue and references. That kind of karma doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but is forged through the trust that comes from being part of a team.

So how did the race go?

Ba5What happened to our young cyclist? This photo taken before the race pretty much predicted the outcome. She’s somewhere way back in the center …which is more or less where she ended up. At her current rate of improvement, she’ll be a few rows further up in this picture, but the people who end up in front are those pros who completely dedicate themselves to cycling, 24/7. Where she ends up in future races is up to her. While there’s luck involved in both startups and cycling, you can’t get to the front at either without putting in a lot of miles. But all the work in the world won’t let you win unless you believe you can. As they say in Spanish, “Creer es Poder”—Belief is Power.


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