On Saturday, I flew with my 8-year-old son to watch the Seahawks play in the Super Bowl. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
I grew up in a middle class home (my dad is an engineer and my mom is a teacher). So going to the Super Bowl felt a little decadent. But I had never been to one, and at my age how many more chances will I get? (Thanks to my wife and daughters for allowing this indulgence).
As I watched the Seahawks systematically dismantle the most potent offense in NFL history, I couldn’t help but think of some important lessons that entrepreneurs can apply directly to their businesses. I came up with exactly twelve.
1. Sometimes talent and drive trumps experience. Most winning tech companies are started by people that were nobody’s draft picks and had never played on winning teams: Gates, Jobs, Bezos, Brin/Page, Zuckerberg. The same had been said of the Seahawks. Not anymore.
2. Every position matters. Six different players scored for the Seahawks on Sunday and many others contributed to the four turnovers and game-changing plays that led to a dominant victory. CEOs grab the headlines. But the best teams field extraordinary contributors in product, marketing, sales, finance and every other position. And teams are stronger when they bring different opinions and approaches. Russell Wilson and Richard Sherman are both talented, but have different strengths. Give John Schneider and Pete Carroll some credit for putting an amazing blend of players together.
3. Every phase of the game matters. The Seahawks took on the best offense in the league, but offense is only one phase of the game. Startups need big markets, breakthrough products, exceptional teams and flawless execution to succeed at the highest level. Winning on only one dimension might look good on a statistics sheet, but it won’t win championships.
4. Stick to your game plan. The Seahawks used the same, consistent strategy all year. A few times (three) it didn’t work. But, in the end, they used a mistake-free offense with a balanced attack and a water-tight defense. That was the basis of their competitive advantage. They did not try to straddle two strategies based on the nature of their competition. Too many startups lose their nerve, split their strategy across a few choices and fail to commit to a clear plan.
5. Sometimes a boring game-plan is fine. OK, Sunday’s game was light-years away from boring. But leading up to the game, all the press wanted to talk about was the Broncos’ record-setting offense. Why? Because offense is exciting. But, as we all know, defense wins Super Bowls. How many startups have great products that help customers but are in the infrastructure areas of the tech ecosystem so never get media attention? Have the courage to focus on real problems that don’t grab headlines. Happy customers are the fans worth winning over.
6. Don’t believe the press or conventional wisdom. If you don’t have a strategic reason to talk to the press, don’t. See Marshawn Lynch for more on this, but don’t ask him any questions.
7. Play hard. Work smart, but assume your competitor is as smart and experienced as you are. Can your team commit the way Kam Chancellor commits?
8. Don’t rest when you have a lead. Even when the Seahawks were up 29-0, my son and I were still nervous because Peyton Manning had come back from deficits like this before. In the 2007 AFC Championship, he scored 32 points in the second half to come back and win. In the rapidly changing tech economy, defending champions are frequently unseated by insurgent challengers who disrupt markets by taking advantage of major changes on the playing field. Personal computers, the internet, mobility, open-source, cloud computing, the internet of things, ‘big data’ and many other game-changing elements have created opportunities for new winners. Seek a big market. Create a new category. Build a breakthrough product. Amass as many happy customers as you can. Keep them happy. Keep scoring. Because “…every day the world turns over on someone who was sitting on top of it…”
9. Prepare. Sweat every detail. The ‘Legion of Boom’ spent weeks studying Manning’s tendencies and appeared to know his next move when it mattered.
10. Believe. Every successful startup CEO has to be a rookie at least once. On Saturday, Russell Wilson was an unproven Super Bowl quarterback and the next day he was a world champion. He was the same guy the day before, but he believed in himself and the team he was leading. So should you.
11. Make customers your 12th man. Build products they cannot live without. Treat them like gold. Help them connect with each other and with you. Tell them you love them. Do this and they will stick by you even in the years where you don’t win the Super Bowl.
12. Finally, keep perspective. It’s just a football game. Win or lose, the time with my son was priceless. But we are pretty happy we won. Go Hawks!