HOW AUTO RACING PREPARED ME FOR THE STARTUP LIFE
By Benjamin A. Hertzog, Ph.D.
Sitting behind the wheel of a racecar is a lot like sitting behind the wheel of a startup. Both are temperamental, requiring lots of close attention; both have big goals, involving a team and a host of varied skills; both can go off track in a matter of seconds, demanding both patience and quick thinking. The parallel is undeniable.
Handling a racecar and leading a startup require a delicate balance of aggressiveness and control. To win, drivers and CEOs must be aggressive enough to be competitive, but patient and composed enough to know when is the right time to act. Just as a driver can’t expect to overtake an opponent without deciding who and how, a CEO can’t expect to launch a new product without studying and understanding the competitive landscape.
Much like leading a startup, driving a racecar requires situational awareness, responsiveness and strategy. For entrepreneurs who want to get ahead of the competition, here are four racetrack fundamentals that can be applied to business.
Hire a Capable Crew
Considering 96 percent of races have been decided by a fraction of a second, the pit stop is arguably one of the most important aspects of any race. This pivotal moment hinges on the ability of the crew chief, engine specialists, tire specialists and engineers. A driver is not required to possess a thorough understanding of the car’s mechanics, rather it is the driver who is able to understand and communicate how the car is handling. Successful drivers know how important it is to surround themselves with a knowledgeable, experienced pit crew. Just as a driver cannot win a race without the help of a qualified crew, a CEO cannot be successful without the assistance of an experienced team. A good CEO understands his or her own strengths and abilities while recognizing that they alone will not be enough. No one person can take on every job and give it the necessary amount of time and attention – a solid group of diversely skilled team members is crucial. Whether on a racetrack or behind a desk, a focused team of passionate, driven people who work well together will always go the distance.
Looking beyond the hood of the car seems obvious enough, but it takes a field of vision that reaches even farther down the track and beyond the turns that gets a racecar across the finish line first. To put a car on the fastest line through a corner, a driver must anticipate what lies ahead and calculate the precise degrees of steering, throttle, and brake. A CEO must similarly strategize, considering all possibilities and making well-informed decisions based on both fact and instinct. Like a driver dutifully checking the weather forecast days before a race, CEOs must stay on top of the latest news and potential changes in the business climate to keep up with the pace of the competition. Some risks are unexpected, and other times the red flag is waving. Whether it’s a new development project or a new partnership, be wary and don’t ignore the red flag. Some risks are uncontrollable, but it pays to be alert. By making educated risk assessments and considering all potential outcomes, leaders will be better prepared for whatever lies ahead.
Identify Reference Points
Drivers don’t find the optimum line through every corner based on “feel.” Guessing the way through a corner leaves a driver vulnerable to poorly timed turning and gives the competition a leg up. To ensure consistent accuracy, drivers identify reference points along the track, much like setting smaller attainable business goals; as subsets of the ultimate goal, these milestones act as markers along the company’s established trajectory. They provide smaller stepping stones that lead to a larger purpose and offer a sense of achievement along the way. The final lap can’t happen before the first, and a business can’t make a million dollars before it makes one. Success doesn’t happen all at once, so take it in stride and make a plan.
Long before drivers arrive in their grid positions on race day, weeks of planning and long practice days at the racetrack have prepared them for competition. All that awaits is the execution. Great CEOs are incessantly planning and executing, progressing and evolving. When one strategy works, they seek to make it even better. When another strategy fails, they ask why and try something different. There is constant learning, adapting, and implementing happening behind the scenes of any startup just like behind the wheel of a racecar.
As a startup grows, everyone involved—engineers, vendors, investors—must all continue to build momentum, pushing limits and accepting and learning from mistakes.
The great drivers throughout history, including the likes of Alain Prost, Phil Hill, and Jackie Stewart, all learned from their mistakes and used those (often rare) occasions for improvement. CEOs should count on making mistakes. In fact, those who aren’t making mistakes arguably aren’t trying hard enough.
Few will have an opportunity to compete at the level of a Bill Gates or a Mario Andretti, but much can be learned from heroes on the track or in the boardroom.
When not vintage racing his ’63 Lotus, startup entrepreneur Benjamin A. Hertzog, Ph.D. serves as president and CEO of Houston-based Procyrion, Inc. developing the first catheter-deployed circulatory assist device intended for long-term use in the treatment of chronic heart failure. (www.procyrion.com)