It's Winter Olympics time. Like many others during this season, I often flip past a channel that is showing the sport of curling. I ask in a half-joking manner: "What's the deal with these guys? Who makes it to the Olympics by sweeping ice?"
That's a mistake I won't make again, because curling is a beautiful analogy for startups, and more pointedly, for the team that must surround a founder.
Curling is a sport in which a team slides a disc across a sheet of ice toward a target area, with the goal being the disc landing as close as possible to the target. It involves a significant amount of teamwork and strategy to choose the ideal path and placement of the disc. The "thrower" (for this analogy, the founder) pushes the disc across a long sheet of ice toward the target. After the disc is pushed, its trajectory is influenced by sweepers, who sweep the ice in front of the disc as it's moving toward the target. Sweepers make sure that nothing stands in the way of the way of the disc hitting its mark.
Curling should be viewed by startups as a lesson on why emerging companies need sweepers to ensure the successful execution of the founder's vision. While the founder and their company teammates may have a clear view of the target, and do all of preparation necessary to effectively "fire the disc" toward it, there is a long sheet of ice with grooves and cracks that separate the disc from the target.
Often overlooked is the role of the sweepers.
Startups must always be prepared for the slippery and imperfect ice that their founder's disc will face along its journey, and how simple cracks or bumps will need to be smoothed over along the way in order for the disc to hit the target.
Who are the sweepers, you ask?
1) The "Number 2." Most every founder has a "Number 2" -- an employee that handles the day-to-day issues for the company, and who shares a vision with the founder for the company's short and long-term goals. A startup needs a strong Number 2, so that the Founder does not get overwhelmed with the micro-matters that will distract him/her from executing on the important tasks and meetings necessary for the company to continue its positive trajectory. The Number 2 must be proactive, and not reactive, and in sync with the founder to ensure that nothing across the long sheet of ice will alter the trajectory of the disc. Most importantly, the Number 2 must be honest with the founder, acting as a solid sounding board as a chief-of-staff would.
2) The Lawyer. A seasoned lawyer with strong ties to the startup community and relationships with VC firms can make a hugely positive impact on a startup. However, skimping on a lawyer and hiring a friend who agrees to "do it on the cheap" can be a catastrophe for your company and your reputation. It's imperative to hire a lawyer who understands VC financings, who can work with the startup as a general advisor, and who can guide the entrepreneur on the terms that are really relevant to negotiations. Your lawyer is an extension of your company, and it's critical that you hire an attorney who has the capability to best handle your company's legal work.
3) The Mentor. Mentors, Mentors, Mentors! I can't stress enough the importance for startups to surround themselves with strong mentors who have experience in the field and a desire to pay it forward. I am a believer that a great mentor genuinely cares about the success of the startup and who really wants the founder to be successful in their venture. Finding the right mentors may take a lot of hustle, but it's critical for startups to have a committed group of mentors to help them with their deck, their executive summary, their pitch (and the different pitches necessary, including the elevator pitch, the VC pitch, and the "demo day"-type six minute pitches), their growth strategy, connections to VC's and Angel Investors, and of course the inevitable hurdles that arise for a startup that these mentors have already dealt with previously. The goal is for startups to surround themselves with winners, thereby increasing their own chances of success.
4) The Founder Friend. It can sometimes be lonely at the top and challenging to run your own company! While totally underrated, it's often helpful for a founder to have a "founder friend" who is going through the same experiences. Having close relationships with other people building their own companies, struggling with the same issues, and stressed out by the same hurdles can help keep a founder company on days when it's "lonely at the top."
The sweepers described above play vital roles, which involve risk management and mitigation, strategic pivoting, operational foresight, grounding and awareness of anything that could possibly alter the trajectory of the disc once the founder launches it.
Founders ought to ask: do I have sweepers, and are they doing their job? What are the sweepers doing to be in front of the disc, rather than behind it, as it's making it way across the ice?
As the 2014 Winter Olympics approach, I encourage you to spend those extra few minutes and watch curling, paying particular attention to the role of the sweepers, and recognize that but for those folks, the disc simply won't hit the target.