Tim Ferris asked the 30-year-old women’s tennis grand slam winner Maria Sharapova, “Where do you see the novice to intermediate players spending too much time or focusing too much? And where should they spend their time?”
Sharapova answered, “They spend a lot of time on the outcome.”
I was listening to a recent Tim Ferris podcast. In it he interviewed Sharapova. She has a new autobiography coming out entitled Unstoppable: My Life So Far. The title for this episode of the podcast was “Mental Performance, Work-Life Balance, and the Rise to the Top” (#261).
When Sharapova gave this answer, I had an aha moment. This is what is making so many budding entrepreneurs unhappy and anxious. They are frustrated because the exit, the sale of the company, is not coming fast enough. This results in job hopping as they look for the next fast train out of the station.
Selling to IBM
When I was partners with Richard Brock in my first startup, I never thought about selling the company. I don’t think he did either. We were just in business together trying to increase sales and profits. My thought was the more money the business makes, the more money we will be able to make. We will build a better life for ourselves and our families.
In the late 1970s, there were two kinds of businesses. Those which grew big enough and fast enough to go public on the Nasdaq. And every other business. We just assumed we were in the “every other business” category.
We were a vertical market software company selling to CPAs nationwide. Richard hit on direct mail as a great way to drive leads. He also figured out how to partner with the IBM mini computer reps. IBM sold hardware and proprietary operating systems. It didn’t take long for the IBM reps to realize they couldn’t sell a computer to a CPA without packaged software. That’s when they called us.
The Moment Everything Changed
We were doing well, but growth capital was always an issue. VCs didn’t care about vertical market companies, and banks were asset lenders. Then, in early 1981, Richard heard a rumor that our biggest competitor was selling his company. He talked to the entrepreneur and found out they were about to be purchased for $20mm.
He came running into my office after this startling revelation. He said, “The guys in Pensacola are selling their company for millions!” I couldn’t believe my ears.
“I don’t think they are much bigger than we are, are they?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “But I got the name of the business broker handling the deal for them.”
And with that conversation, the die was cast. We were going to sell our company and become millionaires just like the guys in Pensacola.
That decision changed everything, including our relationship and how we viewed the business. We started asking questions like, “How much would we be worth at different exit values? How fast did we need to grow to maximize our valuation? Who might be interested in buying us? Would we take only cash or would we be willing to do a stock deal? Would we be able to sell the business and just leave?”
Suddenly, A New Direction
None of these questions had anything to do with running the business. They all had to do with getting the most for the business and getting out. Just before Richard had the conversation with the Pensacola business, we were heads down in strategy and operations meetings. We were all about execution and were getting good at it. Not anymore! We began to focus only on the outcome.
As I look back, I wonder if we would have stayed together thinking we were just building the business. I think I would have bailed. Things got pretty dicey over the few years we were in business. (And now, as a 20-year angel investor, I know this happens in every business.) But where was I going to go? I was making great money at $60k per year, and I was an owner-operator. And most of all, I was learning a ton.
Sharapova’s Profound Insight
Sharapova went on to explain, “I think that a lot goes into the result. Is it in or out? Is it long? Is it in the net? And all of a sudden, it becomes your focus, your focal point.
“That’s why I mentioned focusing on the ball as long as you can. Because it takes your mind away from thinking whether the ball is going to be in or out. This change in focus impacts your attitude and your body language. This simple change in focus is what makes you a winner. Not focusing on the outcome.”
When she is in the midst of a tennis match, her focus is to win points. It is all about her attitude, staying positive, and focusing on executing the fundamentals well. If she is in a match thinking about what she’ll say when they award her the trophy, or how she is going to spend the winnings, or what her picture will look like on the cover of Sports Illustrated, she is done. She will never get there.
Where’s Your Focus?
This is what I see happening with some young entrepreneurs. When you join a company as a co-founder or equity holder, you don’t know if it will be a three-set match or five-set match. Will it take two years or ten years or even longer?
But if the focus is instead on execution, who knows what might happen. You are in business. You are on the court. You are in the match. You can win, but you also can lose.
Do you have what it takes to execute on your strategy?
Do you need to pivot?
Do you need a better team?
Do you need to move up market?
These are all “keep your eye on the ball” questions. And they all build value.
Yes, you can lose. But if you stick it out, you can win. The easiest way to insure a loss is to resign the match. Go to a new startup, a new tournament, a new match. Keep doing this and you never get to the hard part of figuring out product-market fit and building teams that win.
Focus on the process and not the outcome.