What the NBA Can Teach Us About Startups by@JiaqiPan

What the NBA Can Teach Us About Startups

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Jiaqi Pan


I am a big fan of the NBA. Sadly, my height doesn’t allow me to become pro player, but I love to watch the game. A few days ago I had a strange dream about basketball, and I could make some parallelism between the NBA and Startups. Yeah as odd as it sounds you can actually learn some lessons from the game of Basketball and apply it to your startup.

My favorite team in the NBA is the Golden State Warriors. For people who don’t watch/know a lot about the game, the Warriors have won 2 championships in the last 3 years. They have the record of winning 73 games in the regular season, and many other records that many people believe will be unbreakable in the future. You can even say that the Warriors are becoming one of the most dominant teams in NBA history.

However, if we look back 5 years ago, Golden State was a nobody. They had some talented young players, but none of them was a Super Star. Some key members of the current team weren’t even in the top 5 draft pick. So how in the hell did the Warriors become such a game-winning team in a remarkably short amount of time?

After analyzing their evolution, I have extracted 5 critical lessons of their success. I will explain in detail each lesson and how you can apply it to your startup.

Develop your own talent:

The first lesson you can learn from the Warriors is how you should develop your own talent. When the Warriors was still a nobody, they had a limited budget so they couldn’t afford to hire Superstars. The only option for the team is to identify raw talent underrated by big teams and help these players reach their full potential.

If we take a look at their current team, 3 of their main players: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, all 3 are All-Star players and top ranking in their respective category. Especially Draymond, who was number 32 in his draft pick but has developed excellent skills in both defensive and offensive plays.

How can you apply this lesson:

Most startups have very limited resources in the beginning. We can’t compete with big corps to throw money and hire Harvard MBAs or Stanford Engineers. What we can do is try to identify raw talents that are still in their early career. We should design processes that can help them grow at the company's pace. One excellent example in this case is Stripe, that has developed a strategy consisting of acquiring strong technical talent in their early days.

Focus on your Strength

Before the Golden State became the dominant team it is today, the NBA game was ruled by Big Players. They took advantage of their physical strength to make incredible dunks and control rebounds. There was a saying that “whoever controls the rebounds controls the game”. Golden State, instead of competing by the same rules like everyone else, they focused on their Strength. Unlike other teams, Golden State had a group of talented players who coud shoot very well. So they designed their gameplay based on their shooting skills, especially with the three-point shooting. The mathematics here is fairly simple: 3 > 2 which means that if you can have a good precision with triple shots you will be more effective than your opponent making dunks.

How can you apply this lesson:

When launching a startup, you should analyze very well your skills and then review the market conditions to see how you can fit in. A famous Chinese proverbial says: “Knowing about yourself and your opponent will always lead you to win the battle.” We should avoid competing by the rules set by other but to play by our own rules and change the game. A perfect example is how Nintendo won the console war with Wii, differentiating it from PlayStation and XBox. Instead of competing in graphics and processing power, Nintendo designed a different way to interact with games for the whole family. As a result, they sold more consoles than their competitors combined.

Keep the Teamwork

Golden State Warriors have the highest percentage of Assists in the entire NBA. All members of the team are very unselfish and have the sole goal of winning the game. It’s precisely the power of teamwork which led Golden State to make the record of 73 wins in the regular season. Until that moment it was considered as a general consensus that it’s IMPOSSIBLE to beat the 72 wins record set by Michael Jordan with Chicago Bulls in 1996.

Another example to demonstrate the importance of teamwork: Last year, Kevin Durant — one of the best players in the world — voluntarily took less salary so the team could keep most of their key members.

How can you apply this lesson:

An idea´s worth nothing without execution. And great execution is the result of teamwork. According to a research, the number one reason of death in Startups is the lack of Product Market fit, but the second one is the relation between the founding team. You should choose your co-founder very carefully, because it’s a journey that can take many years — and tears — . After that, your first 10 employees are equally critical. Only work with people that fit with your culture and can help you take the project to the next level. When things are going bad (trust me they will), you can only survive if you have your team on your back.

Playing the long game

This is a hard lesson that Golden State has learned at a high cost. In the regular season of 2015, Warriors were playing at an unstoppable level. They had once reached 35 straight game wins without losing. They were so good that they won most of the matches by 20 points. All this resulted in the incredible record of 73 wins.

However, when the postseason started, most Golden State players were showing fatigue from the regular season. And when they reached the final series agains the Cleveland Cavaliers, critical members like Stephen Curry were exhausted. Despite being superior, they couldn’t match up with the aggressiveness of their opponent. In the end, the Warriors lost 3–4 in the last match and let the championship slip through from their fingers.

How you can apply this lesson:

In Startups, many people use Sprints (a term very used in Agile Development) to organize their work. However, as human beings, we cannot maintain a high level of intensity during a very extended period. Many people fail to realize this point; they start working 80 hours per week, slowly eroding their motivation due to the high intensity of their work. That’s why I prefer to compare Startups to a triathlon, where you have to go through different stages with different intensity. Once you reach a stage, you should take a break and plan how to do the next more efficiently.

Hiring SuperStars

This is the final lesson: after losing the championship to the Cavaliers, the Golden State Warriors realized that they needed to make some changes. Until that moment most superstars on their team were homegrown or self-made, but that wasn't enough anymore. Fortunately, an excellent opportunity soon came to their hand. Kevin Durant had become a free agent after finishing his contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Stephen Curry and various members from the Warriors immediately took the chance and convinced KD to join them. This was a huge deal at the time because the Warriors was already among the best teams in the league but with the addition of Durant, they became a MONSTER. No team could stand a chance in front of the Golden State. On that year´s postseason, they reached the record of 15 wins and only 1 loss to become Champions.

How can you apply this lesson:

As we already mentioned before when you are starting out you may not have the resources to hire Superstars. But as your startup grows, you will need to improve the team with new forces. The talent market has become incredibly competitive with the disproportioned salaries that tech giants are spending on hires. You should keep your eyes open to opportunities that can show up at any time. Just like the Warriors: they didn’t make the highest offer, but they sold KD the Dream to dominate the NBA. Money isn’t always the most important factor. Depending on the candidate, you may want to sell your mission, culture, experience or ping pong table.

Hope you find the above lessons interesting. I would love to hear your thoughts. What other lessons could you get from basketball? I am already applying them to my startup Landbot. And remember:

“If you can't handle the pain stay off the court.”

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