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Work like a champion: 7 inspiring lessons for startups from the Tokyo Olympics

Published:  Sep 8, 2021
Suzanne Worthington
Suzanne Worthington

Some of us at SeedLegals have been glued to the excellent BBC coverage of the Summer Olympics and Paralympics. Even if you’re not usually ‘into sport’, the stories behind the athletes’ success at the Games are impressive and sometimes miraculous. Now the Games have closed, here’s our round-up of inspirational lessons founders and business owners can take from Olympic champions.

  1. Find a great mentor
  2. Make marginal gains
  3. Share the top spot
  4. If you fail, try something else
  5. Recruit for talent, not for age
  6. Make it look easy
  7. Prioritise your mental health


Find a great mentor

British swimmer Adam Peaty became a household name in 2021 for his phenomenal ability and openness about his dedication. Anyone looking at Peaty can see he’s naturally built for swimming and we know he must have put in the practice. Malcolm Gladwell (in Outliers) and Matthew Syed (in Bounce) popularised the idea that mastering a skill doesn’t happen because the person is innately talented – it’s because they’ve spent thousands of hours practising. But Peaty had something extra: a great mentor.

Peaty credits his success to his trainer, Mel Marshall, who herself swam for Great Britain at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. With Marshall, Peaty did more than just practise for thousands of hours: he continually made adjustments to his technique in just one event – the 100m breaststroke – until he became the unbeatable world champion of his generation. Peaty now holds the top 20 best times in 100m breaststroke.

Similarly, founders benefit from having someone on speed-dial who’s been there and done it. Building a successful business is rarely down to just working long hours – a mentor can help you make sure you’re working smart as well as hard. The relationship could be a formal or informal arrangement – you could appoint a mentor as an Advisor, or just meet them for coffee once a month.

To find a mentor, look out for someone who’s where you want to be in 10 or 20 years’ time. If they’re already that far ahead of you in their career, it’s possible they’ll be happy to pass on what they know and help you avoid mistakes they made. LinkedIn is a good place to start and you might also meet a prospective mentor at a networking event. Our top tip is to send an introductory message – without including the M-word. Say you’d like to ask them a few questions over coffee – that’s much less intimidating than ‘will you be my mentor?’

Read more: Advisors vs mentors »

Make marginal gains

In the Tokyo Games, just as in London in 2012 and Rio in 2016, the Team GB cycling team proved they’re world champions. When asked what their secret was, the 2016 team coach, Dave Brailsford explained the team’s focus on ‘marginal gains’. The idea is that if you make 1% improvements in multiple areas, you improve significantly overall. Any improvement in the riders’ health, nutrition, the bikes, or the training were analysed and shared across the team. By being just a fraction better in so many different aspects of cycling, the entire team became world-class and made stars of, among others, Laura Kenny, Chris Hoy and Chris Froome.

This theory of marginal gains – or ‘micro-excellence’ – can work for startups too. Companies which listen to customer feedback, analyse data and continually iterate will make small improvements to add up to longer-term success.

Read more: Startups | Marginal Gains: Learnings from the GB Cycling Team »

Share the top spot

After a long competition against each other, Mutaz Essa Barshim from Qatar and Gianmarco Tamberi from Italy were both awarded a gold medal in high jump in Tokyo. They’d both achieved personal bests and they could have continued with a jump-off. But instead they asked officials if they could share the top spot. It’s allowed, as long as the participants both agree.

When two of you are so evenly matched, there’s no point fighting it out for the top ranking. If you have a great co-founder or co-worker at your startup, don’t spend ages and risk a potential fall-out trying to work out which of you should be CEO and who should be COO/CTO. Assess your strengths, allocate a job title accordingly and move on with growing the business.

Read more: Just Entrepreneurs | Why having a co-founder is better for business »

If you fail, try something else

When a back injury ended Matt Coward-Holley’s promising rugby career before he’d even reached 16 years old, he switched focus to a sport he’d done for fun as a child with his father: shooting. Cut to the Games in Tokyo this year and Coward-Holley won bronze for Great Britain in men’s trap shooting.

Rather than let an injury or illness kill their career, some athletes switch sports after Olympic success. Paralympian Sarah Storey started swimming at 10 and was told she was starting “too late to be good at anything”. At just 14 years old, she won six medals including two golds in the pool at the Paralympics in Barcelona. She collected more medals for swimming at the Games in Atlanta and Sydney, and then switched to cycling after an ear infection. At 43 years old, she’s competed in eight games, in two sports, won 28 medals, and never come less than first place in a Paralympic cycling race.

If your first business doesn’t go as well as you planned, you can take what you’ve learned to launch another business in future. In fact, trying out a range of skills, jobs or business ideas could benefit you in the long run, as argued by David Epstein, in his book Range. He argues that generalists rather than specialists are primed to excel.

Generalists are people who try out different skills, and are happy to fail and try something else. If this is you, you’ll typically have many interests, you’re creative and agile, and you make connections that others don’t spot – which are strong foundations for a great leader. Epstein studied the path to success of world-class athletes, artists, inventors and more. He concluded that in most fields, especially if complex and unpredictable (for example, running a startup!), generalists are more likely to succeed.

Read more: SeedLegals | Developing your product and testing your idea »

Recruit for talent, not for age

It’s common for Olympic gymnasts to be tweens or teenagers but the newer sports in the Olympics this year have made superstars of some incredibly talented competitors who are also very young.

Skateboarder Skye Brown competed for GB this summer at 13 years old, winning a bronze medal in park skating, behind Kokona Hiraki from Japan, who was aged just 12. Team GB BMX racers Bethany Shriever and Kye Whyte took gold and silver medals respectively, aged 22 and 21. There must be thousands of skaters and BMXers with more than 10 years more experience than these young athletes – but these young competitors put themselves forward to compete and rose to the top.

Admittedly, the skills your startup needs probably aren’t as easily demonstrated as ‘show us a 360’ back-flip on your BMX’ but it’s possible you’ll encounter a young candidate with extraordinary aptitude. If they’ve put themselves forward for a job with you, that enthusiasm and energy could make them an excellent hire.

Read more: Sifted | 4 skills every leader needs to prepare for the future »

Make it look easy

Champion Irish rowers Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy made racing look easy, taking gold in the lightweight men’s double sculls. Despite the enormous achievement of winning Ireland’s first ever Olympic gold medal for rowing, when asked about their win afterwards, McCarthy said, “We just do what we always do as best we can, and it worked.”

The Irish rowers’ easy confidence is replicable in business, and reassuring for customers. If you’re not confident in yourself and your business, it shows. It isn’t just salespeople who need to project confidence – founders and managers also need this trait to successfully engage and lead teams. If you know confidence isn’t your strength, read up on techniques to enhance it, practice (‘fake it til you make it’ applies here) and you can expect improvements in your metrics.

Read more: Guardian | Six steps to improving your confidence in business »

Prioritise your mental health

American gymnast and Olympics favourite Simone Biles made headlines when she pulled out of some of her events in Tokyo, citing mental health. Two days before her announcement, she posted on Instagram that she felt that she had “the weight of the world on my shoulders”. Despite being physically capable of performing at gold-standard in her events, Biles’ mental state meant she was losing focus mid-event. And for a gymnast, a momentary loss of concentration could be fatal.

Founders might not face the same physical risks as someone whose job involves somersaulting – but they often put themselves under too much pressure. Anyone starting a business knows it won’t be a 9-to-5 job and at first, the work can be exhilarating. But after months (or years) of working long hours and taking on too much, coupled with high expectations and feeling isolated, the stress that was once motivating can become unhealthy.

Ideally, you’ll monitor how you’re doing and adjust your situation before your health deteriorates. It’s always possible to step away if you need to. Nowadays, it’s fine to announce you need to change things or to take a complete break for the good of your health. When GoCardless and Monzo founder Tom Blomfield left Monzo in January 2021, he told the press that he suffered anxiety, couldn’t switch off and felt trapped in a cycle of tightly-scheduled meetings. Startup founders and employees empathised and, perhaps as Blomfield wished, it’s becoming more common to talk openly about mental health.
Talking with others helps – but it can help to talk to people who thoroughly understand your situation. In our regular SeedLegals newsletter about events for founders, we include links to Founder Therapy. The sessions are run by Alex Wilding, a tech founder himself, who set up the group with counsellor Charley Harrison. At the regular online sessions, founders meet online to share their experiences and get support from others in a similar situation.

Read more: TechStars | 3 Mental Health Habits Every Founder Needs »


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