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Startup Lessons from Kickboxing

| On 01, Feb 2013

A few months ago, I started a kickboxing class. My intent was not to become a vicious fighting machine, but to workout intensely twice a week somewhere with a shower. As in all areas of my life, I saw corollaries for working in a startup. Here’s what I’ve learned…

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Beware the Quiet Guys

The class was labeled kickboxing, which secretly meant “streetfighting tactics and conditioning.” On my first day, the very mild-mannered, sweet-tempered and encouraging teacher, who is built like a brick shithouse and terrifyingly fast, gave me this instruction in a very soft, gentle voice: “I just want you to hit the bag for a while, so I can see your natural style. Just  go for jabs, knees, hooks, kicks, whatever works. Just don’t bite the bag.”

Just don’t bite the bag.

OK, so apparently that happens. And in fact, it happens at a boxing gym a LOT. Young guys come in and want to tear the place up, spar with one of the old-timers and get knocked on their asses in two clicks. So often, its the people, companies, ventures that make the most noise early that have the least to show for it. The best fighters at my gym are the nicest, friendliest guys. They don’t swagger. They learn, they ask for guidance and they execute the same combination drills every day until its embedded in their muscle memory.

It’s the quiet guys, who focus on strategy, execution, and endurance, who actually bite you hard.

Ignore Everyone Else

It’s hard to know how to pace yourself, especially at something new, and its SO hard to know the right way to do things when you do them the first time. “Am I doing this right?” is one of the most exhausting things about early startup life. In my first kickboxing classes, I really struggled with how fast to go, how hard to hit, how far to push myself. And I beat the crap out of knees, feet and hands. The instructor said (again, patiently, gently), “When we say hit things as hard as you can, we mean hit things as hard as you can, safely.” I really didn’t know what that meant, but over several classes, I my bruising helped me find the right pace.

Every Sport is a Team Sport

We were doing circuits that involved plank twists. Now my core is nothing amazing, and plank moves always involve a lot wobbling. Especially after a minute. When looking down, I realized that the red spot on the green pad below me was not crayon or a mark, it was a drop of blood from the person who had been at that station before me.

One of the nice people in my class was bleeding on the floor, and it was probably my favorite classmate, who was super encouraging in my first few classes and taught me to guard my face. So I yelled him some encouragement on the next rep. And I felt stronger.

Anyone who has worked out knows its easy to half-ass something hard, and in an early-stage startup almost everything is hard. I think the only antidote is to support your team when you want to keel over. You get tired, burned out, pissy and missing your life away from this fucking crazy little company. But chances are someone is suffering more than you.  Someone on your team is bleeding on the floor. Feed them some support, extra kindness, suddenly the circuits get easier.

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Everyone Gets Bruised

I feel extremely proud of the bruises I get kickboxing. I once kicked a guy in the head and got a nice big welt my foot. That was one to show the office – my opponent was fine, but I had proof that I had kicked someone taller than me in the head. Startup bruises get talked about a lot less often. Companies fail, slowly through water torture rounds of layoffs. There are slow-dawning realizations, experienced collectively, that no one is using the product or feature you spent months slaving over. When the stakes are high, its easy for failure to get personal. Burnout is real and often profound.

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I’m seeing it most right now in recruiting - the walking dead who haven’t yet recovered from their last fight. Having been one myself, I sympathize. Its extremely important to heal after fights. If you go right back into the ring burned out, someone fresher, better rested and generally more confident is going to kick the stuffing out of you. Take some time off, work as little as you can, focus on your relationships and hobbies, work out and eat well. There will always be another fight to take on.

Kickboxing. Sport of the future.

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