Startups are a lot like snowboarding
I love snowboarding, especially freestyle. And I love startups. For a while I was wondering, why is that? Is it just about risk, or is there more to it? And it seems there is.
Snowboarding, bmx, skateboarding and other sports that used to be called “extreme” a long time ago all require high precision and whole body coordination to execute the trick. It’s about having control over what seems to be beyond possible to most people. And when things go wrong it is control again that saves you — high awareness plus speed of reaction.
Startups are surprisingly similar. A successful sartup is essentially a stunt, a seemingly impossible trick that can be pulled off safely only with high degree of control. Control in startups means superior execution — just like in snowboarding tricks. Without extraordinary degree of control it is only possible to do hard tricks occasionally, but not consistently. And maintaining high growth in startups requires consistently learning and safely landing hard tricks.
It’s about finding safe ways of doing things that look risky. Slopestyle tricks are extremely risky if attempted without good technique. That’s why it used to be called extreme sports. But the special thing about this kind of sport is the “structure” of risk. It’s a bit like a secret pathway through a deadly swamp. Your safety is fully in your own hands, nothing left to chance. The path is perfectly safe as long as you stick to the route.
And what’s risk if not uncertainty? A special, destructive kind of uncertainty. Deadly risks can destroy you or your company, so taking those is not an option. Professional snowboarders are extremely cautious when it comes to taking big risks. They never rely on luck, never do high impact tricks without warming up first, always start the day with small jumps. Only amateurs can be reckless — because they haven’t yet suffered the consequences of that.
Pro snowboarding, just like startups, is about scaling risk management. Superior ability to handle risk through execution allows founders to take big bets. What seems crazy to outsiders is calculated science to them, with layered plans and all possible outcomes accounted for.
Freestyle snowboarding stars can be split in two groups. In the first group are those who rise to fame quickly but don’t stay at the top for long. They often land the biggest tricks in competitions, sometimes even win with tricks they’ve never done before. But they are not consistent. And inevitably after another season or two they go down with some terrible injury, and rarely make it back to the elite levels.
The second group are the pros who somehow stick around for much longer. They rarely do the craziest tricks. But they are methodical, and therefore consistent. And because of that that they win the most titles. Sponsors love them way more than the crazy but inconsistent kids — because methodical consistency compounds and eventually creates the level of mastery unattainable by any other means.
In startups, there are two groups of founders too. The crazy kids are the one-time hotshots, intoxicated by their success. They tend to get lots of press and shine brightly, but only briefly. Sustaining success requires consistency, which in turn requires being methodical, not reckless.
Growing big is even harder — it requires repeating success consistently, essentially pulling off hard tricks again and again under changing conditions. This is why there aren’t any crazy kids running truly impactful, massive tech companies that were once startups. Just like with professional snowboarding, you can’t get to that scale by naively trying your luck. Only disciplined, methodical execution can get you to the top of the game.