By Phineas Barnes, contributor
I used to ride a motorcycle and I used to be an entrepreneur. The two are similar in lots of ways — fast, fun, scary, sexy, independent — but the biggest similarity to me is the instincts required to be safe on a bike and to be successful in a start-up. In the early days of riding the motorcycle and in my career as an operator, reacting to traffic like I was driving a car almost killed me… a couple of times.
The Brakes can Kill You
In a car there are three ways to avoid an accident. You can stop, you can go left or you can go right. The safest thing to do is almost always hit the brakes and we are trained as drivers to have this instinct – unknown situation, hit the brakes. You can test this the next time you are in a car with someone – just yell, “oh my God” really loud and watch them brake first and figure out why you are yelling second.
When you ride a motorcycle you have four escape routes, not three. You can go left, right or stop, but you can also accelerate your way to safety.
Same in a start-up.
When you are running a start-up there is always someone yelling, “oh my God” really loud. “Oh my God, we crushed our projections,” “oh my God, our biggest customer just canceled,” “oh my God, McDonald’s wants to partner with us,” “oh my God, I am not sure I can pay the mortgage.” Some of these voices come from the outside, but much of the yelling for me was the voices ion the inside.
At AND 1, we delivered a large order of shoes to a huge account and the trash talk slogan inside said, “You need a bra, your game’s sagging.”
The account had a 30-day exclusive on the style and the shoes were selling well the first week, and then the head buyer called to say they were pulling our stuff off the floor. A girls team in Texas had purchased the shoe and one of the parents went nuts about the language inside the shoe.
As this was taking place, we had thousands of pairs of these shoes ready to leave the factories to fulfill orders from all our other accounts. My first instinct was to hit the brakes, open all the boxes and take the slogan out even if it meant shipping the shoes late.
I told the CEO what I thought we should do and laughed at me. According to him, hit the gas not the brakes, put more attitude in everything we do and accounts would be begging for more of the “sagging” shoe and every other AND 1 product. He was right. We accelerated in the face of an accident and we more than made up for the returns in new sales.
In the face of the ups and downs, I am not saying it is always best to accelerate, but I do think the best entrepreneurs use all four escape routes to avoid danger and they fight the instinct to hit the brakes until the last possible moment. When they decide slowing down is the only option, they brake hard and change course dramatically.
Seeing Through Curves
In a car, you use the steering wheel to point the vehicle where you want to go. On a motorcycle, you look where you want to go and the bike follows. This is particularly important in curves because if you tried to think your way through the confluence of friction, centrifugal force, gravity and horsepower you would never make it.
Seeing through curves is easy when you know the road and enter ever each curve at a comfortable speed. It is more challenging when you are on a new road where you have never been and enter a curve a little too fast and the curve turns out to be a little sharper than you thought. Now you are leaning over further than you are used to and the pavement feels really close to your shoulder. You want to look at the road directly ahead of you for debris that might cause you to slide and lose control. You want to back off the gas and maybe even use the brakes to slow down and lean less. It feels safer to slow down and to focus on the road right in front of you but it is actually much more dangerous than trusting yourself, focusing on the open road after the curve and making sure you get there.
Same in a start-up.
As the company starts to make progress and pick up speed it is unfamiliar and at times it feels like it could all come apart. The number of things that have to be done is insane and the time to do them is impossibly short. Everything is a first priority because you never know what will be the key breakthrough that makes the company. Is this sales meeting the “one”? Is this product feature the “one”? Will this call or this deal or this hire be the difference between success and failure?
In my fitness gaming company every detail felt infinitely important. I had a million things going on and I realized I had stopped looking through the curve and started focusing on the road right in front of me when I was agonizing over the language in our instruction manual and heard the news that Sony was building a fitness game. This pulled things back into focus for me, motivated me to only do things that would help us deliver on the vision of being first to market with a personalized, interactive, goal-oriented fitness game for Playstation and Xbox.
As a founder, there will be times when you need to look down at the road in front of you and dive into the details of a specific deal or product feature. It is important to do this altitude switching, but the best start-up leaders never lose sight of the open road on the other side of the curve. They are always leaning in harder, pushing the business to go faster and trusting their vision to carry them over the bumps in the road and through the curve.
The most effective entrepreneurs that I have worked with are in touch with their motorcycle instincts. They know how to accelerate to avoid an accident and they have mastered the art of seeing through curves. I wish I had been more in touch with these instincts as an operator and I hope this post is helpful to others.
Phin Barnes is a principal with seed-stage venture capital firm First Round Capital. Follow him on Twitter @phineasb