Startups are a Contact Sport

A great team is critically important for all start up ventures.It wasn’t long into my first startup that my mentor Andy van Dam offered those five words – “Startups are a Contact Sport”. At the time, he attributed them to Bill Poduska, who had started 4 or 5 very successful companies including Prime Computer, Apollo, and Stellar. After living in the tech growth and startup ecosystem the past 25 years, there isn’t a week that goes by when those words don’t resonate and ring true.

The observation speaks to the factors and climate that tend to surround innovation. When similar people get together, they are unlikely to complement each other, and collaborative innovation is unlikely. But when dissimilar people find a way to work through their inevitable disagreements, put personal issues aside, and collaborate – sometimes reluctantly, great things can happen. While most type A’s might never admit that the conflict and stress from their co-workers was helpful, those of us who have been there know that the output from those discussions and arguments led us to do better work, think more out of the box, drive ourselves harder, and sometimes even push ourselves to constructively compete with our co-workers.

This mantra doesn’t just apply to technology entrepreneurs, it also applies to other small collaborative groups whether in the arts or ironically in sports. David Brooks recently put it this way in his NY Times opinion piece:

Lennon and McCartney came from different traditions, but they had similar tastes. They brought different tendencies to the creative process but usually agreed when the mixture was right. This created the special tension in their relationship. They had a tendency to rip at each other, but each knew ultimately that he needed the other. 

He goes on to note that conflict and tension are often a formula for invention and creativity:

But the Lennon-McCartney story also illustrates the key feature of creativity; it is the joining of the unlike to create harmony. Creativity rarely flows out of an act of complete originality. It is rarely a virgin birth. It is usually the clash of two value systems or traditions, which, in collision, create a transcendent third thing.  

If these words resonate for you like they do for me, it is because you too have had a startup experience that wasn’t all fun and games. The moments of conflict, while often the most stressful, are the ones we recall with much fondness (particularly years later). Somewhat pithy disagreements, given the distance of time, are overshadowed by the significant innovation and accomplishments we achieved when driven to do so.

Furthermore, having seen both early stage and later stage companies experience contact sport behaviors, it is clear that Poduska’s assertion doesn’t just apply to startups, but rather to any organization that (1) is experiencing high growth, (2) is undergoing constant change, and (3) whose principals have a significant emotional attachment to the mission. Naturally, startups frequently exhibit these characteristics, but such characteristics are not uncommon in later stage growth companies or even certain turnaround situations.

Entrepreneurs and executives who are able to put personal feelings aside, and recruit and collaborate with those that will challenge them – often with conflict and some tension – then have the fortitude through hard work and perseverance, are the ones that are most likely to succeed. These principals have “thick skin” and can take and give criticism well without it effecting their ability to deliver and communicate. Any many that I have worked with have had tools in place to help deal with the conflict – three at the top of the list include:

  • Have an advisor serve as corporate shrink to help the team work through interpersonal issues that are bound to exist if a diverse team has been assembled
  • Establishment of “rules of engagement” – don’t allow conflicts to spread to the full team, grab a beer as soon after a blow-up as possible, avoid “avoidance”
  • Banish passive aggressive behavior – it shouldn’t be tolerated in a startup – there isn’t time

Experience has demonstrated that it is the principals and teams that best exhibit these traits, recognize the contact nature of the sport, and have put some of the tools we describe in place, that have succeeded the most. Not surprisingly, they are also the ones that maintain the longest term and strongest professional relationships and networks.

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