Professional athletes and entrepreneurs have a lot more in common than you might think. Both need to deal with intense competition, commit to their goals, constantly improve, and handle plenty of setbacks. And each can learn a lot from the other, too.
This week on Zero to IPO, we spoke with the CEOs and founders of two software companies—Tien Tzuo of Zuora, and Integrate‘s Jeremy Bloom, a former Olympic skier and NFL football player. We talked about how Bloom’s experience as a professional athlete has informed his startup journey and what it’s like building a business and growing internationally in an economic downturn.
Failures are inevitable, but they’ll help you grow
World champion Bloom is no stranger to failure. He arrived at the 2006 Olympics as the number one-ranked skier in the world, but after making one small mistake in a race, he went home without a medal. This experience led him to develop something he calls the “48-hour rule,” which he could apply to sports, business, and really any disappointment in his life. He gives himself 48 hours to reflect and feel sad about something that didn’t go as planned, but after that, he shifts his focus toward the future.
From countless conversations with founders and my own experience, I know failure can feel like an everyday experience for entrepreneurs. But Tzuo made a wise point: If founders can overcome unexpected changes, mistakes, and setbacks, they will hone the skills they need to lead the company in the long term. As a company matures, the challenges change—from trying to land your first deal to managing thousands of employees—but they never stop coming.
Your leadership style is critical for success
Bloom’s experience as an NFL football player taught him another valuable lesson about business: different leadership styles yield different results. When Bloom played for the Philadelphia Eagles, fear-based leadership was a part of his everyday life. Coaches threatened to kick players off the team if they didn’t listen. This form of motivation created a tense dynamic—everyone was looking out for their own job instead of focusing on the team.
Then he went to the Pittsburgh Steelers and had an entirely different experience. The coaches motivated the team through goals, not fear. Bloom felt like he was part of a family and experienced a strong sense of camaraderie. That year, the Steelers won the Super Bowl, and Bloom felt the coaches’ leadership style was vital to making that happen.
In the business world, leadership isn’t one-size-fits-all. Tzuo advises founders to adapt their style to match employees’ needs. For example, salespeople tend to focus on winning, so they need an energetic leader who will motivate them to hit their goals, whereas engineers are usually driven by ideas and impact, and they need a leader to foster their creativity. As someone with a sales background, Tzuo learned that sharing customer feedback is an effective way to unleash engineers’ problem-solving skills.
Be open-minded and responsive when growing internationally
Your leadership strategy will be tested at many points throughout your startup journey, and it will be especially challenged if you expand your business internationally. Tzuo, who has plenty of firsthand experience with international expansion, says the key to managing a smooth transition is establishing trust, connecting with your new employees, and having a continuous dialogue about what is and isn’t working—just like coaching a team.
Cultural differences make the needs of each office unique, especially when it comes to company policies and perks. For example, at Okta, we offer free lunch three days a week to all our employees, and when we opened an office in Paris, France, we planned to continue this tradition. But then we realized that in France, many employees value leaving the office for a social lunch and didn’t view catered lunch as a perk, the same way people did in other countries.
Prioritizing questions and requests from international offices is also critical. I always tell my employees that they should answer messages from international team members first. Tactically, this gives the people in other time zones more time to consider your response and also prioritizes messages from employees who have fewer resources to help them get an answer. It also goes a long way toward helping them feel welcomed and included in the company.
The next generation of successful technology companies is being built right now
For some entrepreneurs, international growth might seem impossible right now, because COVID-19 has upended our work and personal lives—and some experts predict a full economic recovery is years away. But Tzuo pointed out that an economic downturn can give a new business valuable time to build a lasting foundation. When the economy is doing well, startup leaders feel pressure to hire and grow quickly. During an economic downturn, investors aren’t expecting the same level of growth. That gives startups time to reflect on their mission, focus on product development and build a strong base that’ll last for years.
Slack, Microsoft, and Hewlett-Packard are a few examples of companies built during recessions, and Tzuo and I can both relate to their experience. My cofounder, Todd McKinnon, and I founded Okta during the 2008-2009 recession, and Tzuo founded Zuora around the same time. He said Zuora made it by doing two things: first, the company put a significant emphasis on retaining its existing customers instead of hypergrowth; second, it focused its R&D dollars on the most valuable and high-impact parts of the business.
The world as we know it has changed significantly in the past few months, but the challenges we’re facing today are not insurmountable. The entrepreneurs that learn from setbacks, embrace different styles and cultures, and grow in responsible ways will come of out of this as the next generation of great leaders.
Frederic Kerrest is the executive vice chairman, chief operating officer, and cofounder of Okta. You can listen to Zero to IPO and the full “Zuora and Integrate” episode wherever you get your podcasts.