In 2015 I made it a personal mission to complete a triathlon, more specifically, an Ironman. A triathlon, for the uninitiated, consists of swimming, biking and running in succession. There are various distances but the Olympic or International Distance, one of the most popular distances, is a 1.5k swim, 40k bike ride and a 10k run. Top athletes can complete this in under an hour and fifty minutes.
The idea for the Ironman – the pinnacle race in the sport – came out of an argument that took place in Hawaii in 1977 between groups of swimmers, runners and bikers as to who was more fit. To settle the argument, they decided to combine the top three events for athletes in Hawaii: completing a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2 mile run back to back. The first race took place in 1979 and only fifty athletes showed up.
Today, this mega-event attracts nearly 200,000 people a year and has become popular with entrepreneurs like Shayne Macherowski of Orangetheory Fitness, Bob Iger of Disney and Michael Johnson of Herbalife to name a few. Last year, I did my first full Ironman in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho in June and since then, I’ve competed in three more half Ironman races – and have five more on the docket in 2016.
As I’ve continued to train, I’ve realized that doing an Ironman is a lot like starting a business.
The first leg of an Ironman is the swim. When I started Ironman training, I had just finished my third sub-3-hour marathon and I have to admit, I was a bit arrogant. I was fit and I knew how to swim, so I figured I’d smoke people in the pool. I was wrong. Within minutes of my first swim session, I had 60-year old women passing me on my left and right. I had failed to realize that swimming is as much about timing, strategy and form than it is about aerobic ability. To be a good runner, you just have to put one foot in front of the other quickly. Swimming requires you to learn how to position your body to eliminate drag, it requires you to learn how to time your stroke to create the maximum amount of propulsion, it requires so much more than to just put one arm in front of the other and move forward.
Just as timing and strategy is the key to the swim, timing and strategy forms the basis for starting a business.
The next leg of an Ironman is the bike and let me just say, bikes are expensive. I got a Cervelo P3 with custom wheels and it cost me three times as much as my first car! But I was so excited and so committed to doing an Ironman that it didn’t matter. I took it out for my first ride on Pacific Coast Highway, one of the best rides LA. For the first few miles along the Pacific Coast, I was cruising along easily. Then, I came to my first hill. It was steep, about seven hundred and fifty feet of climb. I shifted gears and started to trudge up, but this wasn’t the hardest part. The hardest part was waiting for me on the other side, coming down…
A triathlon bike is different from a road bike in one main way. In addition to the handlebars where you’d normally steer from, you have aerobars. These bars were invented for riders to hunch over their bike in the most aerodynamic position possible. Riding on the aerobars can feel awkward and unstable, but over the course of 112 miles with all other things being equal, it will save you twenty to thirty minutes. The aerobars have gear shifters but no brakes, so as I began to descend, I realized there was no way for me to slow down. I needed to come off the aerobars onto the handlebars, but at this point, the bike was going way too fast for me to move. I consider myself a pretty big risk taker, but the hill was terrifying. At 40 miles per hour, I was keeping pace with the cars next to me with no way of slowing down. My bike was wobbling in the wind and it felt like I was snowboarding on concrete.
Trusting your bike and your skill as you race downhill is a huge risk and like riding your bike in a triathlon, taking risks and innovating are both very important in starting a business.
Then there’s the run. As I said earlier, I always considered myself a good runner. I’ve done marathons before. But there are marathons, and then there are marathons after you’ve swam 2.4 miles and biked 112 more. My goal was to run the marathon in 3 hours and 30 minutes but as soon as I started, I knew that wasn’t going to happen. As someone who has held a 6:25 mile pace for 26.2 miles as my marathon personal record, I could barely cling on to 9 minute miles for the first half of the run. The course in Coeur d’Alene is a two loop course. I did the first loop in 2 hours, and as I circled through the town I realized that there was no way I was going to be able to run all of the second half. My body was in pain, my legs were cramping and my mind was hazy but I wasn’t about to give up. I started walking but continued on towards the finish line. I finished the race with a 4 hour and 20 minute marathon.
Just like how the run is the true grind as you push yourself to your limits towards the finish line, running a business requires grit, grind and hard work.
Looking at it this way, I think a triathlon really has all of the most important features of building a business. To be really successful, you have to nail strategy and timing, the swim. You have to take risks and innovate, the bike. And no matter what, you have to grind it out, the run.
To drive this point home, here are some examples of companies that have failed at either the swim, the bike or the run.
Let’s start with the swim. One of the most epic examples of a failure was Myspace – which at one point was the biggest social network in the world with over 50 million users, but was perhaps a bit too early. Where it really failed, however, was on two strategic blunders. First of all, Myspace didn’t require you to be yourself online. You could name yourself whatever you wanted, use any photo, double as a business, you name it. This freedom was great at first, but led to an incredible amount of spam, fraud and noise. When Facebook came around, it didn’t make the same mistake, insisting that you use your actual identity for your profile. This is arguably one of the reasons that Facebook succeeded and Myspace failed. Both took risks, both were innovative and both had hard working teams that were willing to get down to the grind, but where Myspace misstepped was on timing and strategy. Perhaps their biggest strategic blunder of all happened when Chris DeWolf, their CEO, turned down Mark Zuckerberg’s offer to sell Facebook to Myspace for $75 million in 2005.
Biking is about risk taking and innovation. There are countless examples of companies that have failed because they have become too big and bloated, stopped innovating and stopped taking risks. But my favorite example of bad biking is Blackberry. In the mid-to late-2000s, Blackberry was THE phone to have. It was revolutionary at the time with the ability to send email from a mobile device. BBM quickly became the main form of business communication and everyone wanted to know your PIN. Blackberry was cruising along with half the market share for phones in 2007. But in June of 2007, the iPhone was released. At first, Blackberry failed to innovate and ignored the new touch screen based technology, hoping to continue their domination of the phone market without changing a thing. However, this initial inaction to innovate only snowballed into more failures for Blackberry, resulting in the continued loss of market share for the company. Ever since the beginning, they have continually remained behind the curve, finally adopting touch screen technology and introducing a Siri-like feature called Blackberry Assistant a couple years too late each time. Currently, Blackberry only holds about 0.4% of the market share, compared to over half in 2007.
Lastly, running is all about the grind. Bad runners are equivalent to lazy companies. Again, there are a lot of examples of companies that have failed because of laziness. Borders began about 40 years ago and went out of business in 2011. The company made some poor decisions, failed to adapt and react to the changing landscape and clung onto an outdated strategy. Instead of embracing the internet and adapting to changing consumer preferences, Borders treated the internet as a passing fad and outsourced their online retailing to Amazon, basically handing over a portion of their business to a competitor and ruining their chances of building an online presence. While consumers were flocking to the internet, Borders relied on their past success and strategy and continued to expand their physical storefront operations. They went heavily into CDs and DVDs, a losing bet as the internet began housing music and platforms like iTunes grew. Relying on their original strategy for far too long led to the downfall of the company as declining sales forced them to close down many of their physical retail operations – the only thing the company was heavily investing in.
Borders maintained a traditional mindset and had difficulty reacting to the changing landscape and new competitors. As such, they were swimming in debt as they declared bankruptcy in 2011.
On the other hand while Borders expanded their physical presence, refurbished its stores and outsourced to Amazon, Barnes and Nobles pushed and fought to stay in business. As the landscape changed away from physical bookstores, Barnes and Nobles beefed up their online presence and eventually introduced their own e-reader, the Nook. Thus today, Borders has gone completely out of business while Barnes and Nobles has acquired Borders’ trademarks and customer list and continues to operate both with physical locations and in the online marketplace.
A triathlon is about timing, risk taking and work ethic, just like starting a company. Companies that get even two of these things right can be good, but only companies that can swim, bike and run will truly be great. As I continue to train for my upcoming triathlons, I will also continue to swim, bike and run in the world of business and I hope you will do the same. In a competitive landscape of sink or swim, we must always remember to swim strategically, hop on our bikes without a fear and run forwards towards accomplishing our goals.