The easiest way for me to articulate the importance of building a results-driven company it is thinking back to my days when I regularly played basketball. I hooped at both the suburban YMCA and the city courts. These two experiences were totally different. One experience did not motivate me to work harder and achieve greater results, and the other experience taught me how important it is to surround yourself with motivated people who are concerned more about their results than they do their efforts. I might even say it’s the #1 reason so many professional basketball players are from the rough courts of the inner-city.
When I played in the suburbs at the YMCA, it was boring. The whole process was so democratic and unrewarding it was disgusting. Only the first 18 people who showed up got to play (no matter their skill) so no one would be sitting out for too long. A team could only stay on the court for two games in a row, even if they won every game. And even though captains got to pick teams, if a team was too good, they mixed up the teams to make it more “fair”, or to have friends play on the same teams. Friendship and fairness is all that seemed to matter during a YMCA basketball game.
This “manipulation of competition” was (and still is) disgusting to me. It takes what is a very competitive sport and saps so much fun out of being successful. I gained no reward for stomping two teams in a row. I had to sit as a reward. If we lost, I couldn’t be upset at my horrible teammates even if I realized really good guys had to sit out because they were #19 and #20 to get to the court. It was the YMCA, and merely showing up meant you got to play. Results did not matter. You were rewarded for effort. All we were missing was suburban moms, minivans and trophies for the losing team. I just scored 13 of our team’s 21 points, beating your team 21 to 6, but I’m sitting down while someone I just dunked on says “nice game” to me as they trot back onto the court. It just makes no sense to me, but the last thing the suburban YMCA wants is for things to be “unfair”.
Mellon Park, the city court, was a completely different story. I loved city basketball because winning was all that mattered. A Players (the best players on the court) were always chosen to be the team captains. You could be the first person there, but if people sized you up and thought you sucked, not only were you not going to be a captain, you were not going to play, period. Sometimes simply being a stranger was enough for you to not play—A Players did not want to risk a spot on the team to an unknown quantity. You even needed to dress the part, because real basketball players don’t come to the court wearing New Balance running shoes. Consider this: Winning was so important, A Players would pick strangers that looked like A Players before their friends! Finally, there was no limit on the number of teams, so if enough people arrived to form 8 teams, then you had to wait 6 games to play if you lost. Why? Because winners stayed on, period, and losers sat. You were rewarded for winning, not just showing up. With so much on the line, building a winning team was important. It’s chemistry was critical. Everyone needed to understand their role and play that role to win.
Contrary to popular belief, there are few ball hogs in a city pickup game. If you’re a ball hog, people pick up on that and start to attack you because they know you are not going pass the rock. You’ll try and dribble through a double team, and that usually results in a turnover. Any city player knows this, so a ball hog is ostracized because that is one of the biggest reasons a team loses. Early stage CEOs often operate like ball hogs. You have so much belief in your own abilities that you don’t effectively share the responsibility with your team. The result is everyone feels like a loser.
PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: If you’re in the suburbs and a kid from the city is playing basketball with you, he or she will probably ball hog. It’s because they have no respect for your abilities because it’s a suburban basketball game (see above).
If you were new to Mellon Park—like I was—no one respected you. You were a risk. That unknown quantity, unless you could look the part of an A Player. Tall, lanky and a little awkward, I did not have the look. I went to that court many times trying to earn a spot on a team. The only way I got on the court was later in the evening, when the number of teams died down and I was able to join a group of B players (who could finally get on the court themselves). But at that time I was able to shine. The A players who were still there saw I could shoot three-pointers as well as throw the ball off the backboard and dunk on someone. And more than anything I could block shots that just about anyone took. My skills impressed them, and they wanted me on their team. It’s the same in business as it is in basketball: A Players want to play with A Players. They starting choosing me for their team because winning was all that mattered and I looked like I could deliver that result. They nicknamed me “Tim Duncan”, after the superstar center playing for the San Antonio Spurs. The name matched because I was not flashy, but very productive in my game.
The next day when I arrived to play, they A Players remembered me, and I never had a problem making a roster again…well…until I had a bad game.
Day after day, game after game, results are all that matter in a city basketball game. And when I had a bad game day, the A Players put the pressure on me, even if they were having a bad game, too. If my shot was off, or maybe the guy I was defending was owning me, I heard it. All the good will from my previous games was thrown out the window. It was hard to take, and I felt like I was being treated unfairly, especially because I was still an outsider—they all knew each other for years and I was the new guy. They had bad games, too, which I saw as a double standard. A Players put so much of themselves into the game, things get emotional and sometimes irrational. It’s a character flaw of A Players that they do not know how to handle losing very well.
So in some games I got thrown off my team (which is indeed humiliating at a city court) or nearly got into fights off the court defending my actions on the court. Back then I would drive home stewing, hating what I saw as being singled out as the “not so city” kid trying to play city ball. I saw A Players as thinking they were perfect when I saw all their flaws. What I failed to realize was that playing with A Players would always be an emotional experience because to them not winning was unacceptable. Who cares about effort? Getting results over and over again was the standard, and any deviation from that was bad. We’re all human, and we have good days and bad days, but there are people on this Earth that don’t want to readily accept this. They’re usually called, “entrepreneurs” or “A basketball players”. Their a company’s team leaders and a court’s team captains. Both are hard to work or play with, but in many cases their irrational behavior encourages (or read: pushes) others to achieve results previously unimagined. A Players push teams to eek out wins against much better teams.
In retrospect, I was at best a B+ Player, and at worst an arrogant asshole. I believed simply my efforts would be enough to gain respect on the city court. My games at the YMCA had softened me considerably, and I spent more time expecting to be treated fairly than I did shaking off poor performance and expecting more of myself. I tried to avoid contact with more fierce players, which I don’t need to tell you makes you look like a punk. If the guy I was guarding backed me down, I would sometimes let him score rather than fouling him hard (to avoid both pain from the contact and the potential fight it might cause). On offense, my ego got ahead of me, and I would start to ball hog and try and be the scorer. I had silly turnovers and missed shots that I knew others had a better chance of making. Sure I could shoot three-pointers, but I was 6 foot 4 and one of the tallest people on the court. I wanted to shoot, but my team needed me to stay under the basket and get rebounds. I played the game to prove to them and myself that I deserved to be on that court, not to simply help my team win. I wanted credit for my passion and effort to be a city baller, but on a city court “basketball is business”, and results are what matter. The stakes are too high to pat people on the back after missing layups.
Eventually I gained the respect of the A Players because I learned to look at the game and see how I best fit in. Sometimes I needed to be a scorer, but sometimes I needed to block shots. I earned my “Mr. Fundamentals” nickname, and still have it to this day.
In an early stage company, there’s no room for YMCA rules. The ramifications of losing (or moving too slowly) are too great, so everyone must be a performer who drives results that help the team. You don’t get to work at a startup simply because you submit a resume. You need to prove that you can deliver results, and usually faster than what would be expected in more mature companies. No one will pat you on the back for effort for too long. Results are what matter. So if you’re in sales, you need to close sales. Wanting credit for the number of calls you make is pointless. If you’re in marketing, the number of leads (and value of those leads) that you drive is what matters most. Your calculations of the CPC, CPA, etc are a distant second. If you’re in Support, retaining customers through a satisfactory business experience is all that matters. The number of tickets you answer means nada.
And if you’re the CEO, growing your business financially month after month as fast as you can is what really matters. Simply trying to be the CEO won’t cut it. I feel right now as a business owner I do indeed know that I have work to do. As team captain, I’ve made poor teammate choices and because of that we’ve had some losses. Sometimes I ball hog and take on too many responsibilities, which makes people feel frustrated, powerless and turns me into the bottleneck. And I most certainly have a irrational belief that every single day our company can deliver stellar results, and a lack of results just flattens me. I still get emotional after slow days despite the fact that our business grew nearly 600% last year. This level of pressure and expectation is hard on a team, but if I can balance it right, I know I can get more out people that I believe in. In the end I just want to win by a lopsided margin. I don’t want to look back and say, “Well, we tried!”
To quote Yoda, “Do or do not. There is no try.”
Or to quote “Worm” from Mellon Park: “Look man, I don’t lace up to lose.”