GUEST COLUMN | Scaling Up: What Ironman Triathletes Can Teach Us About Startup Growth

By Maia Kontente, Greenfield Partners 

*The information and opinions expressed by guest writers are their own, and do not necessarily reflect those of Start-Up Nation Central.

In addition to my roles as the head of marketing at an Israeli VC and as a mother of three, I am also an Iron Lady. Ironman is a long-distance triathlon competition that consists of 3.8 km of swimming in open water, followed by a 180 km bike ride, and a 42.2 km run for dessert. So far, I have participated in two of these competitions – Ironman Austria in 2017, and Israman Eilat in 2019. Even though I still call it a hobby, training is part of my daily routine and an anchor in my life.

A growth experience

People often ask what made me sign up for my first Ironman competition. My answer is always the same: it was a process. I ran my first marathon in 2014, which was followed by two more marathons. Once I felt running was solid, I purchased my first road bicycle. I later added swimming lessons and signed up for my first sprint race. An Olympic triathlon followed, and later I signed up for my first half Ironman.

There was a lot of learning involved in the process: I made my share of mistakes, and only after falling a couple of times and picking myself up, did I feel strong enough, mature enough, to shift from a triathlete to an Ironman.

Pre-growth startups go through a similar process. They are ready to leave behind their startup status and become growth-stage companies. They are ready to take that huge step. Here are some interesting similarities I found between companies scaling up and triathletes becoming Ironmen, which might help startup CEOs go through the process:

Be realistic and detail oriented.

While training for my first marathon, the goal was to finish. I knew I had to run “X” kilometers per day, per week and per month to be ready for the 42.2 km run, and that was all that mattered.

Becoming an Ironman is a different ball game. Details matter, and so do performance indexes such as FTP (Functional Threshold Power), IF (Intensity Factor) and TSS (Training Stress Score). These indexes reflect the athlete’s fitness level and workout intensity as well as the result of their training.

The same goes for CEOs who wish to take their companies to the next level. While in the startup days, it was all about ideas, predictions and assumptions, now they need to follow measurable objectives such as KPIs, growth charts, Go To Market strategy and ARR (Annual Recurring Revenue). In other words, in order to scale up their companies, they need to become much more realistic and technical.

Swim, bike, run, sleep, repeat.

Once you start training for an Ironman competition, you routinely exercise and your days look pretty much the same (swim, ride, run). The main difference is the load of training hours which increases week after week.

Companies scaling up also get into a routine as they become more stable. While employees feel more secure, there’s less excitement compared to the early days of the startup.

Pick the right coach.

If you want to run a marathon, you can find a training program online and follow it. But when you decide to go for the full Ironman, choosing your coach is a big deal. Their knowledge and experience are critical for the athlete and for the competition’s outcome. Oftentimes the athlete will review several coaches and their added value to the training regimen before selecting one.

Startups looking to scale up typically look for significant funding from experienced venture capital firms. While in their early days, they were willing to take money from “angels” or private investors, as they grow, they look for professionally managed funds.

Choosing the fund that will finance the shift to the growth stage is a critical decision. Can the firm open the doors for them outside of Israel? What other portfolio companies has the fund invested in? These are only some of the criteria for choosing the right investment firm.

In summary, in both cases the athlete and the startup company are ready to make the leap, to move forward into a more mature phase. Like so many other choices, picking the right coach, like choosing the best fund, will certainly affect their ability to succeed in this new phase of their journey.

Maia Kontente is the Head of Marketing at Greenfield Partners 

Maia Kontente competing in Ironman Austria 2017

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