My two passions in life—outside of my family—are building companies and racing cars. While the former sounds a lot safer than the latter, I find many parallels between the two. What I learn while doing one helps me do the other better.
Mario Andretti is one of the greatest American racing drivers to have ever graced the auto racing circuits, and the last American to win a Formula One Grand Prix, in 1978. He also said my favorite racing quote:
If everything seems under control, you're just not going fast enough.
Good drivers choose the right racing lines, know how to push the car to 99% of its limit without making mistakes. But great drivers consistently push the car the extra 1%, and do so consistently without going over the limit. To give you a sense of what 99% is, it means putting the car in the same spot, lap after lap, within one-half mph of the optimal speed, even at 100-plus mph.
But the quote from Andretti applies to running a fast-growing business just as much as it applies to racing. If everything at the company is under control, then you’re not moving fast enough, not taking enough risks, and not innovating as much as you should.
We all want to grow quickly, and some of us want to drive fast. Over the years, I have learned certain fundamentals that allow a CEO or a race-car driver to consistently push the outer edge.
Race-car drivers might seem like daredevils, but the best ones are obsessively focused on preparation. The car must be perfect. The driver must be in shape and focused to endure the challenges of a race. If either the car or the driver is even 5% off, the results won’t be there.
Great companies prepare every day to allow them to push the envelope. They plan; they measure; they analyze. They recruit, train, and empower great employees. When you push the envelope without a strong foundation, the wheels come off. We see examples of that every day in the business world.
At InsideView, one of our values is "fearless execution," which guides our employees to focus on preparation, measurement, and empowerment.
How do you find out where the ragged edge is? You go over it, but do so in a safe environment. Last weekend, I was on a track testing a new engine and finding the new ragged edge. I found it by going off track at 90-plus mph, and have a bruised hand and thigh to show for it. Not how I want to learn about the limits.
In business, safe experimentation is a key tool for finding the limits. Most business initiatives can be tested by constructing and executing an experiment. The hard part is designing the experiment so it yields relevant answers, and having the discipline to listen to the results even when they contradict our intuitions.
At InsideView, one of our values is "lead with speed," which guides our employees to move quickly, try new things in the search for constant leadership, and be in front of what our customers and the market want.
How do I know if my mind wanders while I’m on the track? I’m facing sideways or backward. One of the things I love most about racing is the requirement to be absolutely focused on the present. It’s an intense focus enforced by potentially dire consequences—a level of focus that is hard to achieve in other parts of life, and a focus that clears my mind from all worries and distractions.
Focus is also critical for high-growth businesses. The opportunities in front of us are so many that they can be easily overwhelming. The entropic state of affairs is for groups within our company to pursue the opportunities they each see, so the key role for the CEO is to describe a very clear focus for all employees to rally around. That focus allows all of the company’s brainpower and energy to be focused on the execution of a common set of strategies and initiatives. Without this focus, the millions of distractions will take the company off course.
Race-car drivers can be competitive driving at 99%, but winning consistently requires them to drive at 100%—or 101%—consistently. That 1%–2% difference also separates the good companies from the great ones. With preparation, experimentation, and focus, we can all drive our businesses closer to the edge—without driving over it. Doing that creates tremendous joy and satisfaction for us and our employees, and ultimately our customers.
Umberto Milletti is the CEO and founder of InsideView, which provides market intelligence to inform the entire enterprise. He has been an innovator at the convergence of technology and content for the last 20 years. For the past decade, Milletti has also been an active race-car driver with the San Francisco Region SCCA.