Like Sports, Startups Have Leagues

by Andrew Hyde, who is the founder of Inside Travel Guides. He planned Ignite Boulder and TEDxBoulder & started Startup Weekend.

Let’s just admit that, like sports, startups have leagues.

Not many people can watch Lebron James dunk a basketball and say, “I can do that.” He is an elite professional athlete. I have a solid understanding that if I somehow found my way onto a court to face him one-on-one, I would end up in the hospital. When I play basketball, I play it on the same type of court, with the same type of ball and same size of rim, but the game is different. It’s in a different league. My energy and talent to the game will result in me getting a workout and having some fun. Lebron’s energy and talent to the game will result in millions watching in awe.

With sports, we know how to frame talent. With startups, we know how to announce features and funding rounds. It seems every web user has thought of an idea they think they can sell for millions. Give someone a laptop, and suddenly a coffee shop is an arena. The “sport” of startups is a seemingly level playing field. You get a team together with an idea and a goal, and off to the races you go. It doesn’t matter if you are from rural India or a tiny speck of a farm town — work hard (and get lucky), and you can be on top of the startup world.

Or so it seems. The question I’ve wondered for years: Is the startup world a meritocracy, or are there leagues in startups? Is there an invisible division and network that keeps leagues separate? Are venture capitalists the players, coaches, or even the refs? Do accelerators help graduate startups to different leagues? Do you have a natural talent? What does practice look like? And how do you identify levels of skill?

Everyone has almost an equal shot of founding a startup. Everyone has almost an equal shot of playing basketball this afternoon. The difference is that basketball players know what it looks like when Lebron James dunks the ball, and new startup players think that a big profitable company is as easy as having an idea.

Look at Twitter, for example. 140 characters of text. It’s seemingly nothing technically challenging. Someone outside the startup world might say that it was as simple as having an idea, getting a team to build it, and overnight success followed. If you are in the startup world, you know this isn’t true. How many times have you heard, “I had that idea years ago — I even bought a domain name.”

This is dangerous. Founders waste years of their life thinking they are an elite player — and even worse — when they get decimated in a game, they don’t know what happened. Who is driving the notion that an idea and a domain is what it takes to play on the big stage? It’s the same fan that screams, “C’mon, you idiot! I could play better!” from the stands. There are leagues to startups. There is a pro league. There is a neighborhood pickup game. There are hundreds in between. The reason so many of us are fascinated by startups is that an underdog from a lower league can challenge the top teams and compete based on product, users and merit. For many, that is why we play.

Are there really leagues? If there are, should new entrepreneurs be taught about them to set expectations? If not, I happily will challenge you to a game.

Andrew Hyde planned Ignite Boulder and TEDxBoulder and started Startup Weekend. Keep up with his travels at http://andrewhy.de and follow him on Twitter @andrewhyde

7 responses to “Like Sports, Startups Have Leagues

  1. To expand on what I said on Twitter… to me, sports require way more natural ability than building a startup. Entrepreneurs can easily study the game, change the way they think or look at problems and become a STAR given the right amount of dedication. However, no matter how many days I put in or how much film I watch, I could never be a proathlete. I agree with you about leagues, but I think it’s much easier to move between these leagues in the startup world than it is in sports.

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  3. Absolutely. Startups play in different leagues – the Copycats, the Incrementals, The Innovators, etc. Broadly, startups exists to scale, but on an individual basis, they simply exist to move to the next bracket. Great post and great conceptual thinking on this one.

  4. “Founders waste years of their life thinking they are an elite player — and even worse — when they get decimated in a game, they don’t know what happened. Who is driving the notion that an idea and a domain is what it takes to play on the big stage? It’s the same fan that screams, “C’mon, you idiot! I could play better!” from the stands.”

    Best thing I read in a long, long time.

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