Part 1: Why you should run your startup like a sports team

by Jeff Hilimire on March 17, 2014

This week I’ll be writing a 4 part series on the similarities of running a startup and a sports team.

I started playing tennis when I was 12 years old and from that point until I was 21, tennis was my full time passion. I played in tournaments across Georgia and the Southeast as a teenager and then played for a Division I college on a tennis scholarship (UNC-Charlotte). More and more I realize how much that experience helped me with entrepreneurship and running a startup.

Part 1: Having a Common Goal

Sports teams have a unique quality that they share with startups: small size. When a company is called a startup it usually is still few in numbers. There are some that will still call Facebook a ‘startup’, but I don’t think that’s accurate and for the purposes of this post let’s assume that once a startup reaches $10 million in revenue or 100 people, it has matured past the ‘startup’ phase. Sports teams are always smaller than 100 people, with NFL teams being one of the largest at 53 players.

Why is this important? Having run a 2-person company, then a 250-person company, and now a 13-person company, I know the challenges that a larger company has with rallying people toward a common goal. For a sports team, its easy: Win the championship, the league, or the game in front of you. Everyone on the team gets that. And when the team is training, they understand its for that end-goal. And its equally easy to know if you hit that goal, at which point you do something like this.

With a larger company, it can be hard for everyone to rally around a common goal. But for a startup, typically everyone is located near each other and the team is small and intimate, allowing for a common purpose to be shared amongst the group.

That said, leading both a sports team and a startup at times requires the coach/leader to pull everyone together and remind them what they are trying to accomplish and how each individual’s work is contributing to that goal. Even at Dragon Army, I’ve had to do that a few times to make sure everyone kept their eye on what the real priorities are.

The Lesson

What good coaches do so well is rally a team toward both a larger, end-goal as well as the smaller goals in front of them. You’ll hear players interviewed say things like, “We’re taking it one game at a time.” That is well coached team. They know that while they have a HUGE overall goal (winning the championship), its important over the course of the season to accomplish smaller goals that lead to the championship.

Leaders of startups must do the same thing. They need to make sure the team knows what the purpose of the startup is and what it is trying to accomplish, while at the same time making daily progress toward that goal. Sometimes it can take years to achieve the goal of a startup, making it even more important that the leader (or “coach”) emphasizes the importance of small milestones and ensures that those tasks are leading toward the bigger picture.

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