What Do Bill Gates And Karch Kiraly Have In Common? They Can Go Both Ways

Karch gymKarch Kiraly (pronounced “cartch kur-ai”) is an anomaly. He is the only person to win Olympic gold medals in both indoor and beach volleyball.

Just as Karch is a rarity, so are entrepreneurs who are equally facile at startups and Big Dumb Companies (BDCs). Many of these gifted few are household names, partly because the represent such a rare breed: Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Steve Jobs and Jerry Yang. All of these Founders managed their startups from launch to BDC success. With the exception of Gates, Karch sand each of these Founders took a victory lap hiatus before returning to their BDC as CEO.

Given the relatively small number of people who are proficient contributors at both startups and BDCs, it is worthwhile to explore the different skills required to succeed in each venue. To add a unique perspective to this exploration and hopefully gain new insights, we will examine these different skill sets through the prism of volleyball.

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Beach Volleyball

Beach volleyball is highly analogous to startups. Many of the attributes of beach volleyball and indoor volleyball can be directly applied to the world of entrepreneurship, as  illustrated in the following list.

BEACH VOLLEYBALL INDOOR VOLLEYBALL

Objective

Survival Avoid unforced errors

Strategy

Simple Complex

Positions

Fluid Conscribed

Bench

None Plentiful

Visibility

Complete Obscured

Results

Unequivocal Debatable

Although similar in many respects, significant differences exist between beach and indoor volleyball

Re-read the above table, replacing Beach Volleyball with “Startup” and Indoor Volleyball with “Big Dumb Company.” Many of the attributes that distinguish these two sports are applicable to the business world. For the reasons describe below, startups are akin to beach volleyball, while BDCs are analogous to the less creative, more structured game of indoor volleyball. Still not convinced? Read on.

Objective – What is the primary objective in beach volleyball? Your first response might be, “To get the ball over the net and score.” Good answer. However, at its most elemental level, the objective of beach volleyball is to keep the ball from hitting the sand.

Once you have ensured that the ball is kept in play, you have an opportunity to score. The same is true at a startup. Your most elemental objective is survival. You must be willing to do anything to stay in the game in order to have a chance to “score.” In beach volleyball, this translates into players diving in the sand, running into each other and essentially doing anything necessary to avoid letting the ball hit the sand.

As noted in Founderitis, the attributes of Founders and other early members of a startup are ideally suited to covering the sand and ensuring that the ball stays in play. Such entrepreneurs are comfortable playing a variety of roles, just as beach volleyball players are capable of serving, setting, blocking and spiking.

VolleyballStrategy – The strategy of beach volleyball is fairly simple. A handful of plays are called by the setter, based on the positioning and skills of the opposing team. However, such plays are not elaborate and often serve as the basis for improvisation, once the ball is served. The same is true at many startups, in which the initial strategy is straightforward and subject to change based on market conditions.

Positions – Just like a startup, some degree of role differentiation exists in beach volleyball. One player is typically a setter and the other a spiker. However, both players must excel at all aspects of the game in order to consistently win. As such, the positions are relatively fluid, as each player carries out the team’s primary objective, keeping the ball in play.

In gym volleyball, the six players on each team must navigate a slightly larger court (three feet wider and seven feet longer). This requires a higher degree of coordination and communication. If one player consistently plays out of their position, they will disrupt their team’s ability to succeed, just like a rogue “entrepreneurial” employee at a BDC.

Bench – There are no substitutes in beach volleyball. Both players must play the duration of the match. Thus, they must make mental and physical sacrifices, including playing hurt, tired and sick. This requires the same sort of resolve typically found at successful startups, at which employees work through holidays, weekends, illnesses and various social commitments.

Like the CEO of a BDC, indoor volleyball coaches can rest their players and strategically replace a player during a match. For instance, in a close match, a coach may decide to substitute a weak server for a stronger one. This level of specialization is not a luxury that beach volleyball or startups share.

Visibility – There is nowhere to hide on the sand. If you make a big play, everyone sees it. If you bungle an easy set, it is equally evident. In indoor volleyball, you can rely on your teammates to backfill for you if you are having an off day. In addition, if your performance is suffering, you can sit out all or a portion of a match.

Unlike a BDC, you cannot “phone it in” at a startup. You must come to work everyday ready and able to contribute. Along with heightened visibility, you have the opportunity to make a huge impact on your organization, no matter your title or seniority.

Results – On the beach, there is no confusion between activity and results. No points are given for “trying really hard” or “running aimlessly about the sand.” Just like a startup that must break even to remain viable, a beach volleyball team must score in order to win. Entrepreneurs seldom mistake activity for results because a lack of results often leads to a lack of survival.

Sometimes the clarity between results and activities are blurred in gym volleyball and at a BDC. Even though an indoor volleyball team must also score to win, the line between activity and results is less clear than with their beach counterparts. As it is more difficult to properly gauge each individual’s relative impact in a large organization, BDC employees often prefer to perform more-visible activities, rather than focusing on attaining specific results. This is evident in the number of committees within large organizations that hold interminable meetings, which lead to recommendations that seldom have a meaningful impact on their organization.

Corporate GatesKarch was able to seamlessly move between the indoor and beach volleyball worlds because he understood both games intimately and he had the discipline to adjust his game without compromising his effectiveness. Most of us can modify our behavior for short periods of time to accommodate external circumstances. However, few people are able to completely and consistently adjust their behavior over an extended time frame. This is why entrepreneurs are typically not successful at a BDC in the long run. Some of the attributes commonly associated with entrepreneurs are further explored in Are You An Entrepreneur? and Inventors vs. Innovators.

Startup GatesJobs, Dell and Yang all struggled with the challenges associated with leading a BDC. Each of these talented executives met with varying levels of success, after departing their startups, gaining maturity and perspective and then returning to resume the helm.

Bill Gates also struggled with his company’s growth. However, like Karch, he was able to modify his game to maximize his ability to contribute as his role evolved and the rules of the game changed.

Whether on the sand or a hardwood court, be sure you place yourself in the situation that best fits your skills, personality and proclivities, as it is unlikely you will be as gifted as Karch Kiraly or Bill Gates and excel both in the gym and on the sand.

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Copyright © 2007-9 by J. Meredith Publishing. All rights reserved.

John Greathouse

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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  • Qiang

    Don’t know much about Gates, but Jobs is absolutely amazing, iPod and iPhone were both ground-breaking innovations in a market far from saturation (and therefore less pressure from existing players). How he managed to induce the culture of disruptive innovation in a BDC is a myth to me

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  • Paul

    John – thanks for the article.  As an avid beach volleyball player (real beach volleyball, not metaphorical), it sounds like you spend some time on the sand yourself.  Do you play?

  • John Greathouse

    I play infrequently and not very well. My vertical leap (esp on the sand) is about 2 1/4 inches. In the early days of Expertcity, we played sand volleyball each Friday evening. It was great fun. 

  • John Greathouse

    Agreed – Jobs is an excellent example of the dichotomy I describe in this entry. However, he did it the hard way, after first getting booted out for trying to play beach volleyball on a large team. When he came back to Apple, he was much more mature and measured. 

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