Startup Right by Swinging for Singles

Posted: April 14, 2013 by Bob Gilbreath in Leadership, People, Planning, Startup

BobGilbreathIt is baseball season here in Cincinnati again, and whether you observe Opening Day as a religious holiday, or get surprised when fireworks explode in the afternoon downtown, one cannot help but join the spirit. We get to enjoy another 162 episodes of challenge and achievement. Of course we cannot help but re-awaken baseball metaphors to analyze and explain the challenges in the business world.

Entrepreneurship has a lot in common with baseball. In both a lone leader steps to the plate with intense pressure to succeed, a team is counting on you to get a hit, and even a 33% success rate is world-class. Unfortunately, too many rookie batters—and entrepreneurs—fail by swinging for the fences instead of legging out a single.

Startup founders get excited about billion-dollar stories such as Facebook, Google, Instagram and Groupon. These companies seemed to come out of nowhere with a killer idea, and we marvel at the fame and wealth that were created in the blink of an eye. The startup blogs and keynote speeches encourage young founders to “think big” and “change the world.” Such stories have pushed a thousand entrepreneurs to quit their day jobs or senior years to create “the next Google/Facebook/eBay.”

But nearly all of their efforts to hit a home run end up in failure. I meet many aspiring entrepreneurs who wish to create the next big idea right off the bat, yet struggle to succeed. I believe it was either Ted Williams or Albert Pujols who said, “I step to the plate just trying to get a single, and sometimes I hit a home run.” Our startup ecosystem needs a lot more people swinging for base hits instead of long balls.

How do you hit for a single or double in startups? There are a couple of ways you can dramatically increase your odds of success. First, instead of immediately starting your own business, go work for another company that is at early stages and scaling up. Find a successful entrepreneur and join his or her team to soak up everything you can about what works and what doesn’t. Your learning curve will be vertical for years and you will be much more confident and ready when it is your time.

Once you are ready to start your own business, stick to what you know. If you have spent your career selling insurance, please don’t fool yourself into believing that you can create a social network for teenagers. Take the ten thousand hours that you have spent learning an industry or craft and build a business around that idea. Creating a new business of any kind is very difficult, but learning a new industry at the same time is near impossible.

Remember that a career in this game is long, and opportunities will keep coming. Just because you begin your startup career hitting for singles doesn’t mean that you will never be swinging for the fence. The great thing about successfully building one business is that you will have earned the resources and relationships that can be used to aim even higher the next time you step to the plate. Now, play ball!

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  1. Bob,

    This is excellent advice, and it mirrors my experience in building and growing a company. Having a successful startup is often a grind and requires a commitment to taking small steps that move you toward the bigger goal. And to your example of Facebook, their first goal was to have success at Harvard, not have one billion users.


    (I was encouraged by Chuck Matthews to check out this site – I have added it to my RSS feed).

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