When I was in high school, I was a three year varsity swimmer. My sophomore year, in fact, after a year of focusing on school, I was a three sport athlete. I played football, wrestled and swam. Growing up in California, and working at a pool since I was 14 years old made swimming sort of a natural activity. Of the three, wrestling sucked the most, and was where I hurt my shoulder to a point where its still wonky today.
I started swimming as a way to rehab my shoulder, and once I was told by the doctor that I could never play football again, I focused on swimming. And, it was the right choice for me. I was never a great swimmer, but I was never awful either. Our sadistic coach thought it was appropriate for the football player to swim the 100 yard butterfly and the 500 yard freestyle back-to-back, with a medley relay thrown in for good measure. And, I thank him often for being so hard on me.
Coach Rutherford, who was in the top 5 triathletes in his age group in the WORLD, was quite the hard-ass. He pushed and pushed and pushed some more, and for those of us that took the hard work as a challenge, we excelled. For those that couldnt handle the effort, they disappeared.
I remember asking Coach one day, what was the key to winning in the 500 free. “Dont look back,” he told me. And I never did.
Its not easy to not look back when you are swimming 20 lengths of the pool. Every 20 seconds or so, you are seeing the other swimmers going in one direction or the other, and it was really hard to focus on the pool ahead.
Later, I met Jerry Rice at his club, San Jose Live (long since gone), and I asked him (true story – he wore a purple suit and had a gumby hair cut) why he thought he was able to outrun so many defenders. “I dont look back.” he said. This theme of not looking back exists in track as well. Michael Johnson, once the fastest man alive was asked about his standup style, and how he exceled. He too, said, “I dont look back.”
So, when I started coaching lacrosse, I would tell the kids, “when you have the ball, run, dont look back. Everything that is important is in front of you.”
And when I started working with startups, I was reminded of this advice. One of the first startups that I worked for was Kozmo.com, who’s main competitor was UrbanFetch, who we hated with a passion. It seemed so much of our activities were dictated by what our competitors were doing. Kozmo forgot that their focus should be in front of them, where everything important lies, not behind them, where unchangeable things live, and they died.
So, the other day, when my friend Brian DeWitt, tweeted:
I was reminded of the advice I had taken and given so many times in the past. So, I responded with:
If I were to create a list of rules about running a startup, the rule “Dont Look Back,” would have to be in the top 3.
Just remember, in Zombie movies, its the ones that look back that always get eaten.
A quick point of clarification: It doesnt mean ignore your competitors (you should know where the Zombies are); but dont focus on them (you should know where your exit routes are) and focus on your core business (how many shells are left in the shotgun).