You don’t train to win the Super Bowl

I watch a lot of football.

It’s really the only sport I give a shit about, and it’s basically the only thing I ever watch on live television (well, streaming over the internet but…whatever). And if you watch any amount of football, you’ll invariably hear the term “Super Bowl caliber team” thrown around at some point. All that means is that someone thinks a team is capable of making it to the championship game.

But this idea of being Super Bowl caliber, I think, can serve as a good way to identify the right mindset one should have when working on a startup (or any other long running project for that matter). Now, with startups, there isn’t really a “Super Bowl” per se (excluding a big acquisition I suppose), but there are absolutely timelines and roadmaps for all products and companies that are building towards something much bigger than where they currently are.

And a lot of founders will start to base a lot of their short term actions on whatever long term notions they have stuck in their heads. They’ll think things like “well, this company that we want to acquire us in 3 years has already acquired similar companies, so clearly we’re fucked” or “god, this competitor has a team 10 times the size of ours and a bank account with a lot more commas in the balance than us, so clearly we’re fucked”.

Or they’ll have thoughts where their heads are stuck way up in the clouds, thinking about how great it will be to have 100,000 users and a ton of cash flowing in and all the notoriety that comes with being a Successful Founder.

But here’s the thing. Football teams don’t start the season by training for winning the Super Bowl. Because they know that there are 19 other games they have to win before they even have a chance to prove themselves in the Big Show. They know that they have 10+ teams they need to plan for and play against, week by week, who all use unique strategies with unique players who pose unique threats.

So a good team, with a good coach, focuses on winning in Week 1. Then Week 2. Then Week 3. And so on. And a good team with a good coach knows that if you lose in Week 1 and Week 2, you’re not dead in the water. You still have a chance. But you don’t fix your situation by completely changing your entire team’s long term plans.

You focus on Week 3 instead.

And this idea of focusing on what’s right in front of you is something that I think is lost on many a founder. I’ve found myself sucked into this trap before quite a few times. You get so consumed with thinking about the longer term “big picture” and the grandiose thoughts of where you’ll be next year once you land that killer round of funding and get all those users that you forget to think about things like “how am I going to get my first 100 users?” or “how am I going to convince any investors that my idea and my team are worth a damn?”

There’s a characteristic that all Super Bowl winning teams share: they’ve won enough games along the way to even get a shot at playing in the game. They didn’t make it to the Super Bowl by thinking about how fucking cool it will be to have 100 million people watching them, they got there by training hard week by week, month by month, and grinding through all of the smaller obstacles along the way.

Now, a long term roadmap is obviously a very important thing to have for any startup. You need to know where you’re going. But any experienced founder will know that each successive month into your roadmap you look at, the more ambiguous things may become and the more flexible you’ll need to be. And no matter what awesome plans you have in your roadmap 6 months/12 months/24 months down the line, you still have this week staring you square in the face with its own challenges and obstacles to overcome.

The best founders are ones who can balance their long term plans with their short term challenges and keep everything in alignment while still being flexible enough to deal with the curveballs that might be thrown at them.

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