Article first published as Unlike You, Mark Zuckerberg And Bill Gates Can Go Both Ways on Technorati.
Karch 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 they represent such a rare breed: Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. All of these Founders managed their startups from launch to BDC success.
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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.
In partnership with Docstoc, I created the following video, in which I discuss the characteristics of beach volleyball entreprenuers and BDC indoor volleyball players. You can watch the embeded video below or at YouTube: http://youtu.be/R8I86HxUt7Y
Startups are akin to the fast-paced sport of beach volleyball, while Big Dumb Companies (BDCs) are analogous to the less fluid, more structured game of indoor volleyball.
Avoid unforced errors
Although similar in many respects, significant differences exist between beach and indoor volleyball
Objective – The primary objective in beach volleyball is to keep the ball from hitting the sand. This translates into players diving, running into each other and essentially doing anything necessary to avoid letting the ball hit the sand.
If you ensure that the ball is kept in play, you have an opportunity to score. The same is true at a startup, where survival is the most elemental objective. You must be willing to do anything to keep the ball in play so you can eventually score.
As noted in Founderitis, Founders and other early members of a startup are ideally suited to reacting instinctually and ensuring that the ball stays in play. Such entrepreneurs are comfortable simultaneously playing a variety of roles, just as beach volleyball players are capable of serving, setting, blocking and spiking.
Strategy – 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, as described in Point A To Point Z.
Positions – At both startups and beach volleyball, some degree of role differentiation exists. 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 (twenty one square feet). 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 Bank Robber 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 when they are 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 enjoy.
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 shore up your efforts 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, every startup employee must consistently contribute. Along with heightened visibility, entrepreneurs have the opportunity to make a huge impact on their organization, no matter their title or seniority.
Results – On the sand, there is no confusion between activity and results. No points are given for trying really hard; no trophies are awarded for simply showing up. Entrepreneurs who mistake activity for results will find it challenging to achieve sustainability.
It is more difficult to properly gauge each individual’s relative impact in a large organization, which often blurs the distinction between results and activities in both gym volleyball and at a BDC. This is evident in committees within large organizations that hold interminable meetings yet seldom accomplish anything meaningful.
Avoid Founderitis – Go One Way, Then Go Away
Karch was able to seamlessly move between the indoor and beach volleyball worlds because he understood both games intimately and he had the maturity and discipline to adjust his game, without compromising his effectiveness. Most people can modify their behavior for short periods to accommodate external circumstances. However, few people are able to consistently adjust their behavior over an extended timeframe, which is why entrepreneurs are typically not successful at a BDC in the long run. The same attributes that lead to entrepreneurial success, are often counterproductive within a larger organization.
Gates, Jobs, Dell and Zuckerberg all struggled with the challenges associated with leading a BDC. Each of these talented executives met with varying levels of success.
Mark Zuckerberg, like Karch Kiraly, has proven he can modify his game and maximize his ability to contribute to his adVenture, even as his role has evolved from a chaotic beach volleyball player to an indoor volleyball coach.
As you adVenture matures, honestly assess your skills, personality and proclivities, as it is unlikely you will be as gifted as Karch Kiraly or Mark Zuckerberg and excel both in the gym and on the sand.
Founder Zuckerberg photo via Business Week, CEO Zuckerberg photo via Arab News