Knocking Down Doors

Smart start-up lessons for smart start-up people

What a (Half) Marathon Taught Me About Small Business Success

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In 2016, Yemane Adhane Tsegay ran the Boston Marathon in 2:06:47. It landed him in third place and put him just nine seconds off my time—the time in which I covered just half of the distance Yemane covered, that is.

I am not fast; he is very fast.

My race was the Potomac River Run, which I would recommend to almost anyone. Nice flat course along a lovely canal.

Over the 13.1 miles, I had a lot of time to think. Two hours and six minutes of thinking, to be exact. Some of the realizations I had were about the nature of running and challenges. Some were about the people around me and what they were running for. Some were just about why we do what we do.

I also thought a lot about my failure to eat a proper breakfast. Culinary failures aside, here are my small business lessons from running my first half marathon. Seriously, though, eat some food before you run.

Mile ten is a real rough one

During the run, I cruised pretty easily through the first half. When I hit the 6.55 mile mark and made the turn (it was an out-and-back course) I suddenly felt like the king of the world. My pace picked up, I started thinking about the next half I was going to run, and I thought, “Huh, this is pretty good.”

2.45 miles later, I was learning about the Wall.

The Wall is the part of any project where things seem to have fallen apart. It’s the bit that seems daunting, even from the outside. You’re not even scaling the thing, and yet it looms over you like a boulder covered in butter. You know people climb over, but you can’t even find a handhold, much less get a firm grip.

This is a lesson in persistence.

If you look at business survival rates over time, you’ll see that year nine or ten is the real breaking point. If you can make it that far, your chance of continuing on increases pretty solidly. You might think that means year ten is sort of the same as mile ten—not quite.

Data from bls.gov

In reality, years one through five are the worst for American small businesses. Historically, 50% percent of businesses will fail in those first years. Business is front-weighted in a way that running is not.

That makes sense when you think about it, as I did while trudging through miles 11 to 13.1. In a footrace, you come out fresh and full of energy. Then you carelessly burn all that when you get excited about making the halfway point.

Businesses are the opposite, starting with very few resources and building up to strength. Persistence for a business is really another term for prudence.

The plan that gets you over the wall

While the timing of failure is reversed, the steps to avoid failure are basically the same.

  1. Have a plan
  2. Have a backup plan

A plan is nothing more than your pace. It’s a codification of your speed or expenditures or breaks or revenue projections. A backup plan is the thing you use when you realize initial plans rarely work out.

Oh, miles eight and eleven are all uphill? Huh.

People who say success takes persistence sound like doctors who say the key to long life is not dying. Of course, persistence is required to stick around—that’s what it means to persist.

What no one tells you is that you can plan for success. The better your plan is, the more likely you are to end up among the finishers.

Running a full marathon is insanity

Let’s talk about minimum viable products (MVPs). The basic premise behind the MVP is that you can be successful while you refine your offering. It’s the same idea behind the Agile Manifesto principle: “Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.” 

Having a thing that works and fulfills the requirements in some basic way on week two is better than waiting until week 57 to put out a perfect thing.

When I finished the half marathon, I got a little medal and a snack. You know what you get for running a full marathon? A medal and a little snack.

Finding your MVP and working toward it means you spend less time in the slow, no-money-making portion of the business.

For my purposes, the half marathon is the MVP. And in my son’s eyes, I’m the MVP of the marathon. (No, just kidding. He doesn’t care.)

In business and in running, you have to know what you’re willing to aim for. Maybe you’re the sort of company that kicks off with a web app and then turns it into a native app. Maybe you’re the sort of runner that does 5Ks for a few years before showing any interest in a half marathon.

Plan your minimum viable product strategically

There are two main keys to developing a minimum viable product, and they align with the keys to choosing your race distance. You need to know:

  1. How much effort can you put in before payoff?
  2. What is the final goal?

To the first point, you need to look at the resources you have and consider what you’ll count as success. You’ve got three months, two part-time coders, and $25,000; if that all gets put into the system, what needs to come out at the end?

On the second question, if you want to run an ultramarathon, you might consider working up to something more than a 1K sprint to start off with. Likewise, if you want to build the next Facebook, your MVP is going to need more than just your mom and cousins as users to be of any use.

TechCrunch has a solid article on how to develop your minimum product. It’s a few years old so the tech may have changed a bit, but the process is still spot on.

To reiterate, full marathon runners are—I am convinced—insane.

Everyone on the course is a person

“Business is always personal. It’s the most personal thing in the world.” – Michael Scott

On the course, I saw people sprinting, people walking, someone dressed up and eating pizza, friends, relatives, and solo runners. I saw people run out of steam and then fight to keep going. I saw people slow down to not lose their partners. I saw running styles that ranged from the comical (mine, for instance) to the sublime.

When you’re surrounded by a crowd and focused on your own goals, it’s easy to overlook the people around you. It’s easy to say, “Let them get on with their thing; I’m doing mine.”

At some point, though, the personal nature of it all is thrust upon us.

In 2009, the U.S. per capita GDP was a little over $48,000—higher than at any point in the country’s history. Near the end of the year, the wheels fell off, and unemployment hit 10%.

People, not businesses, lost their homes. They lost their retirement savings or their car or their health insurance or any number of other things. At the end of it all, it’s people that make up everything we do.

You can push on through your race and never look back over your shoulder, never smile at the runners you pass. You can hire people and fire them when the work is done, give them the worst benefits you can to save a buck, or sell them something you’d never buy.

Living and working and running with a backdrop composed of others is certainly something you can do, but I wouldn’t suggest it.

The companies you compete with are made up of people too. There’s a lot to be said for winning. There is great and deserved pride in winning, but there is more to be proud of in winning the right way.

My race was full of wonderful runners and high spirits. There was no shoving or yelling or meanness. The winner still won and the finishers still finished. You can succeed without tearing anything or anyone down. How you do it is up to you.

I’d do it again

I’ll run another half. It was an incredibly positive experience, and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in running. This was my first race over 5K and the first time I’d ever run over eight miles, which is where I maxed out in preparation.

Setting a challenge for yourself is, I think, very healthy. It gives you something to strive for along with a plan to execute.

In business, you set similar goals for yourself and chase them with the same vigor. I’d love to know what goal you’re chasing—whether it’s a running goal or a business one. Drop a line in the comments or just shoot me an email with your recent race results. I promise I’ll be impressed. Good luck.

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About the Author

Andrew Marder

Andrew Marder is a writer for Capterra. His background is in retail management, banking, and financial writing. When he’s not working, Andrew enjoys spending time with his son and playing board games of all stripes.

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