Sustainable Growth - Parallels Between Fitness and Business
I’m notorious for trying to crush workouts, for attempting personal bests during every single training session, for sprinting up hills, and for screaming across sections of flat roads on my bike. I like going fast. But every time I let myself slip into these habits my body gives out after a couple of weeks, and I’m forced into severe recovery mode. However, training isn’t about training, it’s about racing, and it’s in this context my coach gave me some incredible advice, “to go fast, you need to slow down.” This advice translates directly to the world of business and growth, and one many founding teams and investors would do well to heed. I think one reason athletes tend to do so well in business is they understand how long it can take to make progress. They are focused long term sustainability.
Training for an endurance event like an Ironman, particularly when you’re right on the bubble of qualifying for the World Championships, requires a near perfect balance of developing speed and power while building an engine and form that can sustain ten hours of continuous exercise. Life begins to revolve around training, and you enter a vicious cycle of eat, sleep, train, repeat.
To adequately prepare, to grow, and to be competitive, you have to recognize that you must temper your effort today so you can be ready for tomorrow, the next day, the next week, and the next month. You build fitness by thinking five workouts ahead. It sounds like this: “I know I can run these intervals faster, but if I do, will I be too tired to ride my bike tomorrow, or will I be able to do Sunday’s long run well?” My best race performances have resulted from this training approach, and I’ve stood on multiple podiums at Ironman and Half Ironman events. When train too fast, too hard, and for too long, I blow up. My biggest lesson in this came when I was forced to walk off the run course of the Ironman World Championship back in 2015 after trying to build too much fitness too fast and then trying to race too hard.
Businesses, senior managers specifically, need to think similarly when confronted with strategic decisions. What are the ramifications of pushing an aggressive launch date? How long can we sustain exponential growth? How many months in a row can we ask our sales team to meet a higher quota? When growth outpaces capacity, you run into issues of exhausted teams, low employee retention, and cut-rate quality and customer service.
Startups often feel forced to move and scale quickly. Founders are given a fixed investment and must make that investment into a viable revenue stream or else the company goes under. But what happens once you’ve developed that first sustainable revenue stream? What does scaling look like after that? From what I present above, it should slow down to an organic rate. Too often I see and talk to founders wanting to expand rapidly and add new features, products, and services. But the company can’t sustain it. Excessive growth too early exposes you to increased risk and lack of stability.
Patagonia is a perfect example of a company that has scaled slowly. Granted, they are privately held, but I don’t think anything needs change if you’re publicly traded. Patagonia toyed with exponential growth for a while, and for a number of years, it was successful. However, when the economy took a downturn, it almost ruined the company. They found they stretched themselves too thin and had entered too many markets. They had to divulge assets and let people go. They then took on the “100-year business model.” With this approach, Patagonia looks seven generations down the road. They have focused their product line, built better relationships with their most essential retailers, and ensure the customer gets a high-quality product that lasts a lifetime. The result? Patagonia now does better in periods of economic depression than economic excess. They have a stable employee base, a large and loyal customer base, and can use their company as a platform for significant social and environmental impact projects.
What’s the takeaway? Next time you’re staring down the barrel of a strategic decision don’t just look at the short term effect on your profit and loss sheets. Ask your team how a decision will affect employees’ ability to do their jobs tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year. If you’re struggling with growth and are worried about sustainability, give me a call.