Startup lessons from surfing
We live in Bali now, and my son and daughter surf, and they are getting pretty good, so I decided to do it too so we could go on family surf holidays. I’m kicking myself that I didn’t learn while I lived in Sydney for 7 years.
I am an intersectional surfer. The intersection of fear, and lack of skill.
As far as I can tell, there are a few main parts of surfing (if there are any real surfers bear with me, I have just started). These things are analogous to starting a company.
What I like about surfing that is different from other sports I do is that the pitch you play on moves. If you ski or rock climb the environment around you doesn’t change. You can stop and the mountain doesn’t move. Even in skydiving where you are falling and can’t stop, the pitch you are playing on behaves predictably. In surfing (and sailing) the pitch changes. There are waves, and if you stop and wait, they keep coming, and you can’t always predict what they will do, so you have to be alert and react.
Startup world changes. You have to pay attention. Sometimes if you set a 3 year strategy and doggedly stick to it, things change and you lose. I am not a fan of rigid strategies.
When you paddle out to where you catch the waves, that takes effort much more time than when you are on the wave (sort of like climbing up a hill and skiing down: climbing up takes long, skiing down very short, thats why chairlifts were invented!).
Then you paddle and hope you catch a wave, which is difficult (for a beginner like me) and then you try to stand up and ride the wave for as long as you can trying to look cool without falling off. If you fall off you can hurt yourself by hitting the reef or being hit by your board or just being tumbled and held underwater by the wave, during which time you panic and think you may drown. Then you come up just as another wave smashes you in the face and you tumble around all over again. This can happen 3 or 4 more times during the tiring exercise of paddling out again.
I’ll look at each of these things and relate it to startups. I am not a good surfer yet. But I am pretty good at startups.
Deciding where to surf / standing on the beach and looking at the waves
When you start a company try to pick somewhere with many good waves. Waves that you think you can surf. Maybe pick slightly bigger ones than you think you can surf. This is market size and your skills and experience and contacts. This can be the exciting part! you are about to go surfing it will be really fun.
Startups have this honeymoon period, when you decide to start you get a little office, but before you get smashed in the face. When you quit your job and you hit the water you feel really excited and motivated. It doesn’t last forever. Maybe 6 to 9 months.
Paddling out takes time and effort, and can take a while. It starts out well and you have confidence, but then you get smashed in the face by waves on the way out. Sometimes you are washing machined (dumped and tumbled by a wave) which makes you just want to give up and get back to the beach. Your arms are tired, but if you don’t paddle more and get more tired, you get smashed in the face. It it like lifting weights, and every now and then getting punched in the face; and if you don’t lift more quickly you get punched more.
Many startups quit when they get punched in the face or washing machined. You have to push through it to get to the good bit. Also if you find a channel to paddle out in you don’t get smashed in the face, and the tide can do some work for you. There are ways to make this easier. Starting a company doing medical insurance is harder than candle making. Choices do matter. The rewards are higher with the harder choices but the trick is to find easy(er) areas with bigger payoffs. The extreme example of this is people who want to “get rich quick”, which I don’t advocate, but there are certainly often easier paths that can be taken that are often not. Find the channel.
When you are in approximately the right spot you start looking for waves to catch. There are other surfers here too. That is a good thing. It is very unlikely that you are the only person who has seen a good surf break. And they are here because this is probably the right place to be to catch good waves.
So don’t worry if other startups are doing what you are doing. It probably means you have a good idea in a growing industry. These are your friends. Share information with them. Your competition is the industry you are trying to disrupt. If there is no one around you are either a genius or an idiot. Probably an idiot.
Catching a wave
You don’t start paddling unless there is a wave you want to catch. Paddling too early just wears you out. Paddling too late and you miss the wave.
Timing is important to startups. For example 5 to 10 years ago everyone got really excited about carbon credits and there were many investments made. They didn’t succeed, because they were paddling too early. To catch the carbon credit wave you had to start paddling last year (side note: there is still time if you start paddling now!).
At Tigerspike we got into mobile in 2005 which was a lucky time. 2 years before mobile really took off when the iPhone came out in summer 2007. In Startup world two years before a wave is the right time to start paddling to really catch it. Think: the guys who bought crypto 2 years earlier than the peak.
This is why people who chase fads don’t do well. Because by the time they hear about the fad, they are 2 years too late to catch the wave
Surfing the wave
If you catch the right wave, you stand up and have a nice long surf. This is your startup doing really well and it is amazing. But this hardly ever happens. Often the wave that you catch isn’t that great and you can’t stay on it for long. And even when you do stand up you don’t look cool like Bodhi from Point break, and you often fall off and get washing machined.
You won’t surf one wave and then call it a day, you will be surfing many. You will fall off and have to paddle out again many times and you rarely surf an amazing wave all the way to the beach. Catching a good wave doesn’t mean you will catch another good one. Getting washing machined doesn’t mean it will happen over and over again (but it might so toughen up).
Learning to surf is hard. The payoff is (initially) shit. Most of your time is spent in the tiring paddle out, getting punched in the face and washing machined. You catch lots of shit waves and sometimes thats enough. If you quit early it will all seem shit, so you have to stick it out. Only sometimes do you Johnny Utah it all the way to the beach party.
I recommend learning to surf. It’s humbling. The other day I high-fived my daughter Lucia while surfing down the same wave. It was the biggest #dadwin ever and made all the washing machining worth it!
Good luck with surfing. While you are out there think about quitting your corporate job and starting a company before it is too late.