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Startup lessons learned in the 2012 NYC Marathon

Ryan

Before Hurricane Sandy hit New York, I expected to run 26.2 miles through all five boroughs of New York City, starting in Staten Island and ending in Manhattan. I was volunteering as a guide for a disabled athlete with Achilles, an international organization that helps athletes with disabilities complete long races.

The day before I arrived in New York, Mayor Bloomberg cancelled the race, reversing his vocal support of the marathon only two days earlier. I was relieved. I did not train nearly as much as I did last year, and I knew that I wasn’t in the best shape to wake up at 5am and suffer through six hours of road running.

When I arrived in New York on Saturday afternoon, my friend and fellow guide casually asked me how I felt about running the marathon anyway. “Sure,” I replied, not taking him seriously. When he paid for lunch and said, “Cool, now I can guilt-trip you even more,” a brief moment of dread passed over me. Oh man, I thought. He wasn’t joking.

The next day at 10am I was standing at the original marathon’s finish line in Central Park, where several thousand marathon refugees decided to run 26.2 miles anyway in 4.25 loops around Central Park. I met my friend’s athlete there, a tall man named EJ Scott, who suffers from a degenerative eye disease. He was going to run the course blind, guided only by a small rolled-up towel about the size you’d pick up at a gym, held between EJ and his guide.

I was to flank on his right; the towel and guide were on his left. Over the next 6 hours, in order to help the time pass and preserve my sanity (it’s a real mental challenge to run a 6-mile loop four times), I thought about how this experience applies to startups. Here’s my list.

WHAT STARTUPS CAN LEARN FROM THE 2012 NYC MARATHON

  1. The people in charge can screw up. Whether it’s your investors, advisors, or largest clients, just because they have money and/or influence doesn’t mean they’re always right. Mayor Bloomberg screwed up by saying the marathon was still on two days before he canceled it.
  2. Consumers will find a way to get what they want. There are about 50,000 customers of the New York City marathon every year, and you can’t tell that many people yes and then no when thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours were invested in the product. It took only a few hours for the alternate route around Central Park to get distributed on Facebook and Twitter.
  3. Breaking up the monotony makes it easier. Finally, a note about running. Our athlete preferred to run a 10:1 split, meaning for every 10 minutes running, take a minute to walk. When he said this, I did the math in my head: 6 hours, 6 times per hour, that means starting and stopping a timer 36 times. More repetition! Ugh! In fact, this technique made the marathon bearable. Instead of thinking about how we have two laps to go, I thought, alright, only six more splits until our last lap. Thinking in ten minute chunks actually made the six hours go by faster.

They say that building a company is a marathon and not a sprint. And in running they say a marathon is 6 mile race with a 20 mile warm-up. Combine the two and I think you have a very compelling picture of what it’s like to build a company.

It starts slow. You may be working like a dog, but user growth is slower than your projections, customers don’t come as fast as you’d hoped, and fundraising’s not easy either. But you slog through the lows and relish the highs. You’re joined by competitors and partners, some of whom you like and others you don’t. You keep running. Finally you reach a critical point right around mile 20. Runners call it “the wall.” Here you have a choice, either summon all your guts and break through it, or crumble and sit on the sidelines.

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