Here is some unusual advice for people working on a start-up, or thinking about it: swim.

Most people think they can swim, because they had some lessons when they were a kid and perhaps spend time at the beach every summer.

But, I’m not talking about a cheeky length of the hotel pool before a session in the spa or a refreshing dip off the side of a yacht.

Swim a long distance in open water. Say a kilometer or two.

(e.g. if you’re in Wellington, imagine starting at Freyberg beach and swimming around the lighthouse at the point – that’s 2.4km).

It will teach you a lot about your venture and about yourself.

Swimming for any length of time requires technique. You can have all the strength and fitness in the world, but without good technique most of your exertion is going to be completely wasted. The best swimmers are the ones who get the most forward motion out of each stroke. But, even then, a world-class swimmer is only about 9% mechanically efficient (that is, 9 out of 100 calories expended produce forward motion). For somebody like you or me it’s probably more like 3%. So, small improvements in technique can produce significant improvements in performance.

You also need to stay calm. The combination of getting physically tired and needing to spend the majority of time holding your breath with your head under water can quickly cause swimmers to panic and lose their form. This is accentuated when your swimming in close quarters with others (what triathletes call “the washing machine”).

To swim a long distance you need to relax and take the time to breath properly. Unlike swimming in a pool there is no black line to follow. You need to set your own course, and that means you need to stick your head up on a regular basis and some fixed landmarks to aim at.

Last but not least, it helps if you can swim with the tide rather than against it.

Likewise with your start-up…

You can have a superstar team and a big bank balance, but you still need to work out how to spend your time and money on things that make customers happy and actually grow your sales, otherwise you’ll just be flailing. To start with just about everything you do will be horribly inefficient, so you need to quickly determine what is working and what is wastage and focus your energy where it makes a difference. An empirical and analytical approach to this keeps you humble.

The pressure of working on a start-up can be all encompassing – you’re often pulled in many directions at once, and need to do everything yourself. In those situations it’s even more important that you stay calm and keep focussed on the things that you have decided help you, rather than getting distracted by the noise all around you. The winners are often not those who make the biggest splash.

Take time to think about what you’re doing, what you’re not doing and what you could do differently. Be honest about what’s working and what’s not. Consciously choose a direction and go at it. Be careful that you’re not just blindly following somebody else, who may or may not be heading most directly to where you want to be.

And, remember, a positive industry or technology shift to push you along, such as the move towards mobile or software-as-a-service, can help accelerate your venture just as much, if not more, than any of the things you do yourself.

Keep your arms turning over and keep breathing.

And enjoy it!

3 thoughts on “Flailing”

  1. Having done that swim on a choppy day, I’ll add another one for you:

    Be prepared for a rough time! The combination of swallowing salt water and a rolling swell can leave you feeling nauseous. If the going gets tough, take a moment to settle yourself and look around. Consider, what do you want to get from your journey? Do you want to reach your goal as fast as possible, or do you want to enjoy yourself along the way? The going won’t always be easy, but it’s your attitude to the adversity that will determine your happiness.

  2. Can’t speak for swimming but I certainly know the feeling of being swept away by the current of a fast-growing business. Failing to have the systems necessary to keep up with the business saw me getting pummeled in the early days.

    Older and wiser, I’ve had the chance to learn from other people who’ve done it the right way. In fact, I spoke to MOD a few weeks back about building Trade Me in an interview I featured on my site – the guy is all types of cool and gave some great advice not only for growing a business but also on how to pitch your idea to larger companies too.

    If anyone’s interested, they can check it as well as other business interviews out!

  3. +1

    I’ve often said a startup should try to ‘surf the wave’ … if you’re just off the back of the wave it takes a lot of effort to generate movement, but if you’re on the wave the movement is so much easier. But I think your analogy is better … particularly in the early stages of a startup. On a surf board you’re never really worried about death … but in a long ocean swim there is a possibility of death … and the panic this can induce can be utterly overwhelming. So it in in a startup. Imagine if your startup is failing: It’s your passion … you live in a crappy country for entrepreneurs where failure is scorned … you loath the idea of going back into the corporate workforce … it feels a lot like death or glory. Because the stakes are high, when it doesn’t go well panic can follow. And panic is a very, very bad emotion. With panic I think you’re pretty much guaranteed bad decision making.

    So +1 to the importance of staying calm.

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