04 June 2011

What Startups Can Learn From Sailors (Part Deux)

Note: This is the second installment of a series that draws parallels between sailing and running a startup.  The first installment can be found here.   This series is the result of having waaaay too much time to think during a 6-month, 7,000 nautical mile sailing adventure that took us from SF to Mexico and then across the Pacific to Polynesia (a 22-day open water crossing).

Part II of What Startups Can Learn from Sailors: 

A For Attitude.  On a boat, as in a startup, you are working in close proximity for extended periods of time with people you depend upon (and who depend on you).  Conditions are often stressful.  Fatigue is the norm, not an exception, and serves to amplify any negative emotions.  In such situations, attitude is the primary determinant of whether the journey—or business—is a success or failure.  It impacts everything. 

For example, we had several passages where our crew was made up of newbies, but they were eager to learn and eager to help.  Their attitudes more than made up for a lack of experience.  They were enthusiastic, pro-active, and looked for ways to make the trip more enjoyable for everyone.  When things got tough, they stepped up their game.  This type of attitude is infectious; when you find employees or crew with it, do whatever it takes to retain them.  Your entire operation will benefit.  

Captain, My Captain. When conditions are calm, boats pretty much sail themselves. Likewise, when markets are buoyant, companies find the going easy.  It’s when things get rough that the value of strong leadership emerges.  In stormy weather or stormy markets, it becomes critical to have a level, cool head at the helm—someone able to see the big picture, quickly assess risks, and give clear, decisive direction.  In short, every boat—and every startup—needs one single captain.   

A captain’s role is to set the vision, and delegate responsibility to carry out that vision.  It’s a tough role to fill; in exchange for the crew’s trust and faith, he or she is solely responsible for the safety of the boat and crew.  Yet shouldering this burden has a profound positive effect on the crew.  By removing the stress of ultimate responsibility, it allows them to concentrate on their specific jobs, which helps keep the boat (or startup) functioning optimally. 

The challenge, of course, is to find the right captain.  Skills and background count heavily, but the necessary critical ingredient is leadership—a much trickier thing to gauge. It’s almost impossible to assess during an interview in a cozy office how a leader will react during the proverbial perfect storm.  The only real secrets (if you can call them that) are to look for those with experience navigating companies through difficult times, and then to back-check that  experience with those who were ‘crew.’  It sounds overly simplistic, but you’d be surprised by how often young companies are seduced by charismatic personalities, only to find them duck and run when the skies turn dark. 

Joy of Control.  I’ve spent a lot of time crewing on "OPB"—other people’s boats.  It’s a great way to get experience, and since it’s not your boat, it can actually be more relaxing. You don’t have to worry about every little detail.  You’re not the decision maker. However, there’s nothing quite like the joy of sailing a boat you own.  Our boat was not fancy, large or new—but it gave us a sense of pride that was unmistakable.  Plus, owning a boat means you can choose—where you want to go, how you get there, and who you go with.  It’s an incredible feeling of empowerment.  So it is with a startup that you control.  Your ego, reputation and personal savings are on the line, but the rewards and successes are yours, and to have control over your destiny is a joy few ever experience.  Savor it. 

Sh*t Happens.  Deal With It.   Despite our extensive preparations, and despite being constantly “on” and monitoring everything, boat stuff breaks. Sometimes it’s big stuff—I once snapped a mast in half, which caused the entire rig and all the sails to fall overboard.   And, it usually happens at the worst possible moment—like when the wind and waves are howling and the boat is being tossed every which way, or when everyone is exhausted from an all night watch. 

But as mentioned above, out on the open sea there is no “pause” button, no “esc key” or “ctrl-alt-undo.”  There is no tech support line to call.  It is in these situations that you quickly realize your options.  You can panic.  You can freak out.  You can yell at your wife or crew.  Or you can just buckle down and deal with it.  

It is in these moments that I channel a bit of Spock.  Yes, Spock.  Bear with me here; as geeky as that sounds, it’s what works for me.  I find it helps to strip out emotions of panic, fear and frustration—they are distractions, and an energy drain—and to aim for a clear, zen-like state of mind. Next, take a moment—even if conditions are worsening—to visualize what you’ll do next, step by step.  Then, take action—leave the safety of the cockpit and execute the plan. 

Doing this on a boat keeps you from falling overboard or injuring yourself or others.  Doing this in a startup—when a product fails or a PR crisis is looming—keeps you from acting impulsively or rashly.  It prevents you from responding out of emotions like anger or fear, thus making the situation worse.  Try it the next time startup life throws a curve ball your way.  Channel a bit of Spock. 

Have Fun!  To conclude this essay, I’ll leave you with my final and perhaps most important takeaway—the importance of making it fun.  Due to work obligations back in SF, I hired a delivery captain to bring the boat up the California coast. I found him on the web, and his email signature file has stuck with me; it read: “If you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right.”  

This one line, this one clich√©, somehow encapsulates everything else I’ve written here.  If you’re not having fun sailing, it’s because…you’re fighting a headwind…your sails aren’t set right…you aren’t prepared…your attitude sucks.  

The same holds true with a startup.  You’re living the dream.  You are doing something most people only fantasize about.  Money is probably a motivator, but for most entrepreneurs, it’s not the primary reason you’ve launched a startup.  In short, if you’re not having fun…you know the rest. 

Fair winds and following seas!

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