Olympic hustle: Does it really come down to the race?

In a bit of a deviation from the classic science approach, this week we’ll be looking at the Olympics. I feel that it is a pretty justified one, though considering it has been distracting me from my work for the last two weeks (plus there is loads of physics behind all that success.)

The stories, the drama and the pure athleticism are truly captivating.  Before I know it that quick glance at the gymnastics has turned into a three-hour marathon comprised of five different sports. But who can blame me when there are superstars like Simone Biles – she is the greatest isn’t she?)All those things I should have been doing are suddenly ranked a bit lower on the priority list. I just can’t seem to help myself (but could you either if you were watching some spectacular Simone Biles – she is just the absolute greatest isn’t she?)

The 10-second race

However, at the same time, you can’t help thinking about all those athletes who make it to the Olympics, but fall short. Their Olympic dream can be over in literally 10 seconds (take the 100 m sprint). Be it a bad day, or not quite being good enough, they have spent the last 4 years dedicated to achieving their goals.  4 years of work for only 10 seconds of action. Doesn’t really seem fair, does it?

Is being an entrepreneur any different? Can 10 seconds make or break you? Sure, you may win a big deal, or get funding from a venture capitalist, but ultimately, you cannot pinpoint the 10 seconds that pushes you over the edge, to success or failure.

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Make use of every 10 seconds – Source Pixabay

That’s because every second counts. Every little fraction of time accumulates into something much bigger. And it is the same for athletes. Did you know in four years there are over 12 million lots of 10 seconds? That is 12 million 100 m sprints to get something done. The action you take now, affects everything else that happens. Sure, athletes have bad days, but none of those gold medallists wins by chance. They have made the most of every opportunity in preparation for the Olympics. At home on the couch, we only see a tiny fraction of what makes them winners.

Working on a startup, you need to realise the importance of now. Every 10 seconds is another opportunity to take action, improve, adapt and be ready for whatever comes next.

$5 Challenge

This message was recently driven home by an assignment. We were given $5 seed funding and told we had two weeks to make as much money as possible. With limited time we could procrastinate, over plan, or try to create the perfect product. We simply had to act. For someone who procrastinates, this was a new and exciting approach. Brainstorming ideas as a team, with the hope of coming across something lucrative, so many had road blocks. But what it ultimately came down to was that we simply did not know what would work. What did customers actually want?

As our team tried to come up with the next million dollar idea there seemed to be so many potential roadblocks. But what our indecision came down to was that we simply did not know what would work. What did customers actually want?

Launch and Learn

Instead of figuring it out on our own, we embraced the every-second-counts mentality. We decided to fail, and fail fast.  Colin Raney believes it is important not to wait for perfection, but rather to launch and learn. So straight after our brainstorming session, we tested our first scheme. Coffee deliveries. And it failed miserably. But all we lost was a few hours of our time, yet in the process, we started to understand our customers needed. We learnt to adapt to the conditions and iteratively improve our offerings.

Hustle

For a procrastinator, this is a pretty exciting mentality. Perfection is hard to achieve, and when we focus on it too much it can be a massive barrier to achieving anything. But unlike at university, where you only get one shot at every assignment, working on a startup you can be dynamic, and respond to the market’s needs. This is truly refreshing and makes those 10 seconds count even more. It really embraces the “hustle” mentality that entrepreneurs love. The commitment to get ahead and take action, no matter what fuels resourcefulness and rapidly builds value. This was essential working on the five dollar challenge, but hustle is important for athletes too.

Even though that 10-second race is all that seems to matter. It does not. It is every other second of preparation and hard work that has gotten them to this point. Take the incredible Olympic swimmer, Katie Ledecky, she is known for her phenomenal work ethic, training relentlessly twice a day.

Although those Olympic races are when it counts, it is taking action early that sets you up for triumph. As Eddie Cantor says, “It takes years to make an overnight success.”

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Dealing with the competition: Are you in the desert or the rainforest?

When launching a start-up, it seems obvious to avoid markets which already contain competitors. But, this should not necessarily be your default approach. In ecosystems, competition can be a good thing, driving diversification and building resilience. So what can our ecological environment tell us about the entrepreneurial ecosystem?

Competitors offer validation

First up, competitors show us where the resources are. For a species like an orangutan to survive, they need the basics, like food and water. But of course, local competition like gibbons are fighting for the very same essentials. Similarly, as a bare minimum need, a startup needs customers. It is simply not a viable business without them. With competing companies trying to get these same customers, it can be difficult to turn over profit. Instead of facing rivals, for an emerging startup it can seem a lot easier to look elsewhere for a less crowded market.

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But do you see orangutans in the desert? No… And it’s true; there would be very few competitors in the desert. Not many gibbons swinging through the cacti. But that’s because it is essentially a barren wasteland. This environment is not just constrained by competition, but also by other stress factors like climate. Orangutans could not survive there.

In the same way, do you want to launch your startup in a market without a customer in sight? If there is no one already in the market, it may be a warning sign that it is not worth entering. Ben Yoskowitz, an angel investor, “If nobody is competing in your space, there’s a very good chance the market you’re going into is too small.”

So if other people are working on a similar idea, don’t get put off. They’re proving an idea has a potential market. That’s a good sign for you too.

Carrying capacity

By the same means, this does not necessarily mean you should launch yourself straight into the most crowded market around. You need to consider the carrying capacity of the environment. In ecological terms, this means how many individuals can be supported by a region, based on natural resource limits.

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A desert may seem like a low competition environment, but it has a small carrying capacity and cannot support vast numbers of species. However, the abundance of food and water in a rainforest means it has a much higher carrying capacity and can provide for orangutans, gibbons and a multitude of other species. When deciding whether it is worth launching a product into a market with existing competitors, you need to consider whether the market is big enough to support you both. Does it have the carrying capacity if you jump on board too?

Competitive Exclusion Principle

Unfortunately, merely having the carrying capacity to support you is not enough. The Competitive Exclusion Principle says that species that use resources in the same way cannot coexist long term, as eventually, the species with the competitive advantage will overtake the weaker species.

As a business, you do not want to be overtaken. If you are a late entrant to the market, there’s a good chance your competitor will already have a competitive advantage. So you could find yourself in a tricky situation. But luckily, the world’s ecosystems have another lesson for us. Evolution.

Evolution

If orangutans and gibbons ate the same seeds, in the same places at the same time, one species would eventually dominate the other. But they still manage to coexist. Incredibly the stressors of the competitive environment and the constant threats to survival have led to evolution. Orangutans have adapted so that they can manipulate fruit and crack shells, allowing them to eat the unripe fruits many of their ape and gibbon competitors cannot eat. This transformation is niche differentiation and allows the two competitors to coexist more easily in the same environment.

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When you launch your startup in an environment with competitors, it is vital to differentiate yourself to survive.  Burke and Hussels believe a challenging environment helps a startup focus on satisfying customer needs and keeping costs low. The pressures of a competitive market drive the kind of innovation and success which cannot occur with complacency. In fact, a study found that although failure rates were higher in the first year for companies in crowded markets, those who made it past this mark had a much greater chance of success after three years. Those that can survive the initial adaptation are stronger as a result.

Don’t be afraid to enter the competitor-filled rainforest; there’s a good chance it will have have the carrying capacity to support you, but be prepared to innovate, evolve and differentiate to find your niche.