Race pace

Start-ups are incredibly hard. Paul Graham, the legendary investor behind Y-Combinator says of start-ups: “Everyone is surprised by how difficult it turns out to be, because it’s not the kind of difficulty people have experienced before…Nobody knows what they’re capable of until they try it. Maybe half a percent of people have the brains and sheer determination to do this kind of thing. Start-ups are hard but doable, in the way that running a five-minute mile is hard but doable.”

I really like this analogy; the “5 minute mile”. It speaks of the pace necessary to achieve top performance.

As a former international rower (think Oxford/Cambridge, not the Dusi), I used to spend many hours analysing video footage of the top international teams racing. The impression I had of the medal winners was always how absolutely smooth and effortless they made things look, even though I knew that their muscles were burning and they were so starved of oxygen that they were close to blacking out. You’d see these top teams racing to the line, absolutely expressionless and perfectly synchronised, yet going through hell inside. The finish-hooter would sound and in that instant all composure would end – they’d collapse, spent, gasping, faces contorted in pain as the expense of the last 6 minutes of sprinting was allowed to show. The lesson was that these athletes won their races because they were able to relax at speed. They were simply better at being fast than the others around them. The many year of training it takes on top of natural talent helps the body become incredibly efficient and the mind to learn to keep critical control when all systems want to stop. It’s a lesson that applies to business just as much as it does to sport.

There is a pace and a flow to business. Many years ago a VC friend of mine said that there was “a time to walk, and a time to run”. Sometimes you had to chase deals aggressively and run like crazy. Other times the pace was slow and you couldn’t force it. My friends’ lesson was that there was no point running in a ‘walking time’ and no point walking when it was time to run. You’ll waste a lot of effort if you get this wrong – and its’ been an important lesson that’s stuck with me over the past decade. I use this in prioritisation – doing chores when its slow and chasing deals when its time to run. Critical bugs get fixed immediately, and then the pace changes to the more methodological work of adding or improving features. Chores get done because they’re important, not urgent.

In my daily life working closely with software development teams, we follow an agile development process: we break work down into 2 weeks units called ‘Sprints’. The rough idea is that we get measurable progress every 2 weeks and can re-prioritise frequently. When we started this way of work a few years ago it would feel like we were running hard for 2 weeks only to run hard for the next 2 and so on. We were always sprinting, but business is a marathon, right? Sure we have to be very careful of burning out?

The answer lies in what it takes to be world class: A world-class marathoner will run the full 42.2Km at a pace that is faster than most of us could sprint. If you look at top marathoners, they run at a pace that is about 5 minutes per mile. If you watch them racing they appear very relaxed. If any emotion shows its only in the last few minutes when they are digging to a deeper space than before and battling to keep the mental control of their form.

The point is that if you want to change the world you’re going to have to work hard, it will be incredibly difficult. It will take time to build up the skills and to work as a cohesive team to get things done. But you have to do it if you want to succeed. You have to learn to be able to relax at speed, to be able to raise your race-pace so that when others around you are gasping for breath and about to drop out, that you can put in a spurt and ease away.

I don’t know if there is a finish line in business, but looking back on the last few years I can see how we now sprint for two weeks only to sprint again. It’s not so hard anymore. I can see how easy it’s gotten for us only when someone new joins our team and takes a while to slot into the pace. I hope you’re seeing this too in your own business: don’t be discouraged because it’s hard. In a way it has to be hard. Your challenge is to find ways to make it easier: sometimes systems and routines can help; sometimes removing obstacles will help. Other times you’re going to have to see whether you can put your hands deeper into the fire, recover over night and do it again tomorrow.

You probably can. If you can’t, you’ll probably fail. Get out there and work on your race pace. Surprise yourself. Change the world. Do it again tomorrow. You probably can.