Why startups need to double down on their strengths if they want to take home gold
A startup must find what it does best and then work tirelessly to do that thing even better, writes Kenndal McArdle, principal at Pender Ventures.
Every two years, the Olympic Games offer us a glimpse into the world of elite athletes competing at the very top of their respective sports. As an investor and former professional hockey player, I’m intrigued by the many overlaps between the domain of sport and the ascension of tech startups.
The traits we see in Olympic-level athletes are not unlike those we see in successful entrepreneurs: relentless, disciplined, and fearless in the face of defeat. The lessons learned by athletes and their entrepreneurial counterparts are also very similar.
I dedicated an enormous amount of time over two decades to honing my craft—easily eclipsing the 10,000-hour rule. In doing so, I was fortunate to reach the pinnacle of my profession and had the opportunity to play beside or against the absolute best in the world.
I often get asked about these experiences and if there are any lessons that are applicable in the world of early-stage investing. There are the suspected answers: the importance of hard work, dedication and keeping an even keel through the highs and the lows. But there are two related mental frameworks that have guided me the most: the importance of leaning into your strengths and the power of diverse teams.
Haard, Haard, Haard
In sports and business, we often hear about the importance of “honing your craft,” whether it's conditioning in the gym or developing new features for your software product. However, “honing your craft” often gets misinterpreted as “improve your weaknesses.” This mentality can get ingrained in us from a young age, as coaches and teachers aim to mould well-rounded individuals. And this makes sense, if you cannot skate backwards, you will not have a hope of being an elite hockey player, regardless of your position.
However, at a certain point, being obsessed about your weaknesses becomes a hindrance to elite performance—especially in a team sport.
For anyone watching curling over the next couple weeks, you are certain to hear the cry of a skipper yelling “Haard, Haard, Haard” when the rock is on-target. This is similar to the process of leaning into your strengths: when you’re sure of being on target, all there is to do is lean in.
This philosophy applies aptly to the strategic decision-making process in a corporate setting.
Lacing them up and taking the first hit
In the earliest days of a startup, a founding team often has to experiment to find product market fit. This is an essential part of the startup journey, analogous to first ‘lacing them-up’ and learning to skate. Stumbles and falls are expected. The only important thing to do at this stage is to keep getting back up and trying again. If we do that, inevitably we will find our stride.
Once a startup has found product market fit, then comes the next challenge: dealing with competition. You’ve learned to skate, but you’ve grown beyond friends and family holding you up. And take it from me, competitors can hit hard.
At this stage, a company needs to differentiate in order to get noticed. This is similar to a player learning about their game and how to best be effective. Differentiation means you cannot be everything to everyone, or as the saying goes, “a jack of all trades and a master of none.” A startup has to find what it does best and then work tirelessly to do that thing exceptionally.
What I find interesting is that at this stage, the people you are trying to impress are the ones you may have to push back against. A coach may want you to adapt your game to suit their needs, but if you, as a player, stray too far off course, it can seriously hinder your ability to reach your maximum potential.
In startup land, these ‘coaches’ can be customers or an ill-informed board of directors. Founders and management will no doubt hear comments such as “if only your product did this,” or “have you seen what this competitor launched.” Sure, it may be important to take notice of these comments and consider their relevance. However, founders and management of a company are the only ones that are truly immersed in the game, and those that excel in this arena know how to tune out the noise and lean into what makes them special.
Here is a case study to help bring my point home. Consider Calendly, the appointment scheduling software startup valued at USD $3 billion at the end of January 2022. Calendly does one thing exceptionally well: it helps its users schedule meetings in a flash. Calendly isn’t trying to overhaul how we conduct meetings; it’s not out to replace Zoom or Google Meet, and it’s not trying to supplant your existing calendar. Its solution might seem small, but its vision—to be an indispensable part of the meeting life cycle—is big.
Calendly’s growth strategy has been simple: launch new integrations, add more tools to ease the scheduling process, and grow its user base organically. Many founders would try to expand to other segments or launch new solutions, but Calendly has only focused on improving the product that has already won the company over 10 million users.
Build a team of diverse superstars
The importance of leaning into your strengths is magnified in team-based activities. Why? Because teams inherently allow for complementary skill sets to come together.
Elite teams are made up of great individuals who have each mastered a skill of their own. And championship teams are made up of individuals who deeply understand what it means to ‘do your job’. Doing your job in a team setting means every individual team member must only focus on excelling at their unique skill set, all the while trusting in team members with complementary skills will do the same. Conversely, you will often find a lack of this trust in losing teams. Players start trying to overreach into other positions and no one does anything at an elite level.
Startups are also composed of individuals with unique skill sets. Whether you’re a starting team of two co-founders or you’ve just made your 1000th hire, or whether you’re building out a board of directors, the best teams will have unique backgrounds, and each obsesses over their specific craft. This is why we at Pender Ventures, the venture capital firm I work at, devote an inordinate amount of time thinking about how to build diverse teams. A diverse team of experts that collaborate, bond and complement each other will fill in the gaps between individuals.
In any company, the responsibility to foster a diverse environment is on everyone; founders, management, investors and the board of directors. To promote anything less is frankly irresponsible as it will lead to underperformance.
Whether you’re operating in the world of elite sports or in the world of startups, it is a superpower to do one thing exceptionally well. Once you find your stride, it soon becomes time to differentiate and dig in. Doing so can fend off competitors and greatly increase the chances of long-term success.
I find inspiration in both the Olympic athletes who are performing at the zenith of their sport and the entrepreneurs who dare to move the world forward. If becoming successful in either discipline is of interest to you, here are three final thoughts to take with you.
Honing your craft does not mean obsessing over weaknesses. Once you find your stride, it’s time to lean in. Build trust amongst a diverse team of elite individuals.