28th March, 2021
Unlucky thirteen, but also 25% done…
This week the Halberg Foundation held their annual sports awards event. I wasn't able to attend this time, although have been in previous years. To be honest, it was probably for the best. These sort of things just tend to make me angry.
Imagine he was the youngest person ever to win a professional tour event, playing as an amateur, at the age of just 14, having finished runner-up at that same event the previous year.
Imagine he was the youngest person ever to win on the prestigious PGA Tour, later that same year, and won again the following year, still playing as an amateur.
Imagine he spent 130 weeks as the top ranked amateur in the world, before getting special dispensation to start playing as a professional (announcing the news in a YouTube video featuring BlackFern legend Portia Woodman) after finishing runner-up at the Masters.
Imagine he won three times on the PGA Tour in his first year as a professional, and so far in his career had won 20 tournaments on the PGA and European Tours (as well as victories in Australia, New Zealand and South Korea), earning over $10m in prize money1.
Imagine he was the youngest ever to be ranked #1 in the world, aged just 17.
Imagine he had a golden run of results at the major events during 2015 and 2016 - winning twice, at the Masters and PGA Championship, and finishing in the the top three at the US Open and British Open, finishing the year as PGA Tour Player of the Year. And then, as icing on the cake, won a silver medal at the Rio Olympics.
In this alternative universe, Ryan dominates the Halberg Awards over the years, winning multiple Sportsman of the Year and Supreme Awards, including, obviously, in 2015 and 2016. And he is the undisputed choice for Decade Champion of the 2010s. Right?
(Lydia did not win the Supreme Award in 2015, or her category in 2016 and was not selected as Decade Champion).
While we're at it ...
Consider a different alternative universe where Sophie Pascoe is an able-bodied swimmer, multiple Olympic gold medalist, multiple Commonwealth Games gold medalist, multiple world-record holder, and six time winner of Sportswoman of the Year.
In that universe, Sophie would have also been the obvious choice for Decade Champion. Right?
(Those who might correctly point out that she wasn't eligible for Decade Champion this week because, despite winning Para-Athlete of the Year six times during the decade, she never won the Supreme Award, might just quietly consider: why not?)
This is not to belittle the achievements of Eric Murray, Hamish Bond, Lisa Carrington or any of the others who were recognised this week. The opposite! I am a huge fan of all of them. What they have each achieved is genuinely world class (and those are not words I use lightly!) I was privileged to be in Rio in 2016 to watch them all win their medals in person, and those are special memories.
I just wish we had a much smarter way to recognise these folks - rather than pitting athletes who compete in completely different sports against each other in a subjective voting process that is, by design, likely to be controversial and biased.
Imagine if the format was less Grammy Awards and more Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, where multiple teams and individuals could be inducted and celebrated each year, across the wide spectrum of successful performance. And the nominations could take in more than just achievements recorded in any arbitrary year (or decade!) and consider the accumulated success across a career or era.
That's a dinner I'd attend and a show I'd love to watch.
Now, ✉️ cc every sector.
You can often tell a lot about a team or organisation by paying attention to how they report their results.
Some will focus on actual values (size):
"We made a net profit of $15m"
"We manufactured 25,000 widgets this quarter"
Some will focus on the first derivative (growth):
"Revenue increased 9% compared to last year"
"We hired 18 new team members"
Some will focus on the second derivative (acceleration):
"We added 100,000 new customers in the last year, 70,000 of these in the last quarter"
"The number of medals won has increased at each of the last three Olympics"
There is a time and a place for each of these. But, the one you choose does hint to the spin you want to give to the results.
To see the full picture you really want to understand all three measures.
There is no right or wrong answer necessarily, but where this sometimes becomes most obvious is where one or two of the derivatives are negative - e.g. when you are no longer accelerating and don't really want the headline to be "growth slows" or where you are no longer growing (or shrinking) and prefer to focus just on how big (or small) you got.
I want to build on this idea in coming weeks, when we talk about exponential growth and also when we talk about ecosystems. But for this week, just pay attention to results that are reported and ask yourself:
Q: Is this a value or a derivative? Are they focussing on size or growth or acceleration?
“Do or Do Not. There is no Try”
But, this is terrible advice.
There is only try.
Until you try you don’t know.
Once you try then you find out.
Praise the effort not the ability.
Smart is not a habit. It’s a state. It's ability. It has a limit.
Effort is a habit. And often a learned skill. It can keep you going as long as you can tolerate the discomfort.
Some of the “smartest” people I know are not actually that smart, they have just learned how to start when most people are too scared and to keep going when most people quit. Interestingly they also often have the awareness to realise that something isn’t working and to change course, rather than continue to knock their head against the brick wall.
More than that though, thinking of the world in binary outcomes (“do” = success or ”do not” = fail) is just a bad way to plan.
There are always Plans B, C, D etc when you look for them.
One of the biggest weaknesses I’ve observed in many founders of early-stage ventures is a reluctance to acknowledge that things might not work out the way they hope. This nearly always means they leave it too late to consider alternative options.
Founders often prefer to think positively, and so don’t want to consider the possible downsides too much. The shift in thinking that high-performance athletes can teach us is this: do the exact opposite. Understanding the downsides, and the corresponding impact and likelihood, is what allows a founder to take risks, to be excited and optimistic about the chance of success. Only the paranoid survive. Be as honest with yourself as you can about the challenges ahead and you’ll be much more likely to navigate through them.
It’s not weak to think about the ways you might fail. It’s optimal.
Knowing that there is a not-terrible alternative you can fall back on if your primary plan doesn’t work is what should give you confidence to attack your preferred outcome with all you’ve got.
Actually, it’s those times when you think there isn’t an alternative that should be terrifying - because that’s when failure becomes a real risk and concern.
BONUS: 🎧 There is an excellent example of this in the ‘Don’t Accentuate The Positive’ episode of The Happiness Lab podcast. They talk about how Michael Phelps would, when training, visualise things going wrong, and so when disaster struck in the final of the 200m Butterfly at the 2008 Olympics (his goggles became loose and filled with water) he didn’t panic - in fact still won the gold medal and broke the world record.
Some brief follow-ups to things I've posted in previous weeks...
Selling “Kiwi” Companies
In the last week there have been two notable acquisitions announced, which nicely demonstrate the point I was trying to make a couple of weeks ago about the tangle we get into when trying to assign a nationality to a start-up, and/or wring our hands when companies we think are “kiwi” are sold “offshore”:
Firstly, Xero announced they have purchased Tickstar, based in Sweden, for $23.4m (SEK150m). Then Ninja Kiwi, based in Auckland (actually Auckland and Dundee, thanks to an earlier acquisition of their own), announced they have been acquired by Modern Times Group based in … Sweden, for $203m (SEK1.2b).
Do these deals cancel each other out? 😆
I wonder if, from the opposite perspective, the ecosystem in Sweden was frustrated to see “another one gone” (as the Ninja Kiwi deal was reported in the NZ Herald) or can see through that to understand the benefits that are created by both of these transactions?
I was reminded of this old tweet, from the 2011 Rugby World Cup:
Vend (& Innovation)
I wrote the week before last about some of the early years at Vend.
Nat Torkington also shared a good thread, commenting on a few different aspects of the sale, including these gems, amongst others:
Every stockholder in Vend just got cash. Some got cars, some got houses, some got islands.
What most commentators miss is that [for stockholders] the start-up IS the product. It takes [multiple years] to build the product. Like all businesses, you don’t profit until that product is sold.
Indeed. Companies build products. Founders build companies. As they say.
There are a long list of people who have been part of the Vend team, who learned a lot along the way. Some of them also now have capital of their own to invest. I’m much more interested to see how they take those lessons and apply them to new things in the future, than on the cars or islands.
For example, check out this excellent presentation shared by Anne, Ludwig and Cara from the product management and engineering teams this week:
What a beautiful succinct summary of the point I tried to make last week, using way too many words by comparison:
Innovation is not a magic spark. It’s a repeatable grind.
I mentioned a number of weeks ago I was listening back to some oral history recordings I made during the level four lockdown. There have been a few good retrospectives published this week, one year later, but this thread from Timely’s CEO Ryan Baker is the one that hits closest to home for me:
When our Prime Minister announced the COVID-19 Alert Levels for NZ, it was an inspiration. We adopted a similar system for the business. Each level was marked by a % drop in revenue and required increasing response for survival. 1. Cost cutting. 2. Salary reductions. 3. Redundancies…
Every week we shared our revenue and cash balance with the team, We had to move to level two and ask for salary reductions. The board and exec took the largest cuts before staff were asked to. We promised to repay the team if we could, but we couldn’t be sure of that. Everyone agreed.
I won’t spoil the whole story, I encourage you to read it.
You learn a lot about leaders when there are only bad options to choose between.
I was on the Timely board for many years. I’m confident that I'll look back at some of the decisions we had to make in 2020 as the most difficult and at the same time those I'm most proud of. What the team achieved was remarkable, and I hope we hear more about it soon.
Top Three is a weekly collection of things I notice in 2021. I’m writing it for myself, and will include a lot of half-formed work-in-progress, but please feel free to follow along and share it if it’s interesting to you.
Let's be honest, as a dude, if parallel-universe-Ryan won 20 PGA Tour events his earnings would be significantly more than $10m.