One of the most exciting World Cups in recent memory came to a conclusion earlier this week. Here are three lessons startups can take from the biggest tournament in the world:
Lesson One: Teams, not star individuals, create success
The 2014 World Cup showcased a stark contrast between teams that played as a cohesive unit, and teams that were built around a superstar player (Neymar’s Brazil, Ronaldo’s Portugal, Messi’s Argentina). When Germany won the tournament, there was a consensus that the Germans played as a well-orchestrated team that was organized, disciplined, and gelled to perfection. Germany did not have a superstar player. What they did have was a team with complementary skills that highlighted their strengths and overshadowed any weakness.
From afar, successful startups might look like they were the magnificent work of an individual or two. We idolize the Brins, Pages, Jobses, Gateses, Zuckerbergs, and Musks of the startup universe. But in truth, any founder of a successful company would tell you that the founding team is the single most crucial factor in the success of a company. A founder could be a genius computer scientist, or a seasoned entrepreneur, or a remarkable businessman. But that won’t matter if that founder doesn’t have a team around him/ her that are on the same wave length; that share one vision, communicate effectively, and, most importantly, have attributes and skills that complement each other. That sort of team is formidable and, with the right leadership, is destined for success. (Recommended reading: The Founder’s Dilemma, by Noam Wasserman)
Lesson Two: Being the underdog can be your biggest advantage
This tournament provided several underdog stories in which “minnow” teams knocked out “bigger” teams. The most incredible fairy-tale run was that of Costa Rica. Costa Rica were put in a group that included three previous World Cup winners who were expected to battle for first and second in the group while lowly Costa Rica fulfilled its role as the proverbial punching bag. But that wasn’t the case. Costa Rica won the Group outright without a single loss, beat Greece in the Round of 16, and lost in a very close quarter final to the Netherlands on penalties.
Like any underdog, Costa Rica had nothing to lose, and they played liked it. They were not afraid to take the game to the bigger teams, and played without any nerves.
Any startup, by definition, is an underdog. A startup is small, but flexible. It has minimal financing, but nothing to lose. It doesn’t have thousands of employees, but has a dedicated team with heart. Every successful startup realized that they were “Davids” that had to hustle (and hustle) below the radar before knocking out the “Goliaths” of industry. Goliath, remember, never saw that slingshot coming. (Recommended reading: David and Goliath, by Malcolm Gladwell)
Lesson Three: If it isn’t working, make a change
It was the 76’th minute of the quarter final. Holland were trailing 1-0 to Mexico, and unable to create any real chances. The Dutch were running out of ideas and seemed incapable of penetrating the Mexican defense. Then Holland’s Manager, Van Gaal, makes a change by taking off his star striker, Van Persie, and bringing on young striker Klaas Huntelaar. It was move that baffled pundits and fans. But immediately, Huntelaar’s different style of play caused Mexico huge problems. That change allowed Holland to play with different tactics and have a more potent attacking threat; and it paid off. The Dutch side scored twice in 5 minutes to win 2-1 (the winning goal in the very last minute scored by, you guessed it, Huntelaar).
There are numerous other examples in this World Cup of managers making bold changes to great success. For a startup, this equates to iterations or pivots. Most startups have to go through a journey of evolution before finding product-market fit. But that journey will only commence once the founders are willing to make significant and fundamental changes if their concept fails to generate any real demand from customers. A smart startup tries to learn the weaknesses and strengths of its value proposition, and initiates changes that play towards those strengths.