COVID-19 caught us all by surprise, leaving us unprepared, uncertain, confused, needing to recalculate, re-evaluate, refine, and adjust. Doing so is no easy task but an excellent opportunity to reflect on what matters most, where our energy lies, and where our focus should be. These are our biggest lessons post-COVID. This pandemic also brought some interesting stuff: great content consumption via webinars, Zoom, Netflix, lectures, etc. Some of them seriously caught my attention, so I wanted to share some notes from All-Star basketball players worldwide, insights gathered over many years, and the mechanisms and similarities that I see between them and the world of startups.
Michael Jordan took some time to climb up the ladder. He did win "Rookie of The Year" once joining the Chicago Bulls, but ultimately got everyone's attention while working hard and being his best, which justified his soon-to-be leadership. He was gifted, talented, paved his way to be the group leader, and continued to lead by example. Jordan never preached things that he didn't believe in himself. His standards were so high, yet he complied with them. Leadership set by example is what we Israelis call in the IDF the order of "after me (hierarchy)," which means that I, as your leader, am here with you, setting an example and expecting what I expect from myself.
The Bulls followed Michael Jordan. Some criticized him, some denounced his perfectionism and desire to compete, but everyone respected him, and not just within the Bulls. He gained his leadership through leveraging his strengths and the vote of confidence from his teammates, colleagues, managers, and fans.
But not all was peachy for "His Airness." In his 2nd season, he was injured in the 3rd game, resulting in missing 64 games, which was pretty much the entire season. "Air Jordan" did get back in time for the playoffs, only to be swept by one of the greatest basketball teams of all times––the Boston Celtics. In the following years, he was outperformed by the "Bad Boys," the Detroit Pistons, and took seven years to win his 1st ring.
As a startup founder, your leadership is under constant observation by investors, co-founders, employees, and customers. That's one of those things that it's not enough to learn but to live by, implement, and act accordingly. Once you lead your venture and not just manage it, mistakes can be forgiven, decisions can be made, and people will give their all to contribute to their venture's success.
In The Last Dance, so much, yet not enough was said about the GOAT's mentor and coach, Phil Jackson. In combination with him being a pro, his undoubtable talent, and strategy skills in basketball (won ), "Master Zen" brought his philosophy, values, vast knowledge, and perspective to the table. Jackson's professionalism led to many wins throughout his career, including two championships as a player for the New York Knicks and 11 titles serving as the Head Coach for the Bulls and the L.A Lakers. He saw his mentees, knew when to be harsh, gentle, listen, decisive, and lead and empower others. His team was everything to him. Jackson was so committed that he "forgot" to pay attention to the political skills he needed to sharpen to keep his position. However, he was always honest and loyal to his values and mentees.
Being loyal to your coach and willing to be mentored by them is not obvious. People need to build trust, feel that you see them, and know that you have their best interest at heart. There's a lot of giving and love in the mentor-mentee relationship. Leadership, values, and loyalty are measured in the appreciation you show during times of routine, as well as in perseverance and commitment once the boat starts to rock.
As a startup founder, having a mentor and coach, a Master Zen, someone you can learn from, lean on, consult, share and ventilate with is a must. There are so many pressure and stress points, and being alone to deal with them is difficult. Don't be shy––go out there and find your own Phil Jackson!
I recently listened to two separate masterful interviews with David Blatt, former Head Coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv and the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Oded Kattash, a former Maccabi Tel Aviv player, as part of an IDC School of Entrepreneurship master's course.
“As a coach, you worry much more and sleep much less than as a player. The satisfaction and pride of seeing everyone succeed as a team, is much greather than any personal success. To increase their motivation, I sometimes offered a hug, sometimes a shout, sometimes a different approach. But always, I have paid attention to what is happening and working with it, good or bad, never ignoring it.”
Kattash discussed his vision of how every team player should have their own sports psychologist/coach to prepare them for peak performances and maintain their resilience and grit. In startups, like in sports, I embrace Kattash's advice and pass it forward to you.
Michael Jordan was the product. He was part of the Chicago Bulls affiliated with the NBA, both of which are entities that stand independently as strong brands (in addition to his brief period with the White Socks). Jordan's differentiation was his talent, spirit, and mental resilience. However, his business model was not based solely on basketball and arenas. Beyond being renowned as the greatest basketball player (regarding branding & positioning), he leveraged his talent and formed a strategic partnership with a small shoe company at the time, a.k.a. Nike. During his career, MJ's total playing salary totaled $90M, but he has earned another $1.7B (pre-tax) from corporate partners, campaigns, shoes, merchandise, movies, and much more. Michael Jordan's success emphasizes the power of a strong brand, good positioning, and how important it is to create partnerships and leverage your talent. In his case, this meant creating an entirely new brand known as "Air Jordan."
Now back to a startup CEO––what is your technology/solution that another corporation or conglomerate will want to partner with, use, buy, or invest in to create your own "Air Jordan" business model? Here lies the strength of design and strategic partnerships.
Sometimes we confuse competitiveness with comparison. One should always aim to be their better, higher version of themself, and try to reach their highest standards. Michael Jordan's competitive spirit was his internal drive to thrive, succeed, always aimed to surpass his own limits, win another championship, win the MVP award, to be the best in the game. Comparison is one of our most unrewarding and less empowering behaviors, where we see what others have as a reflection of what we lack or didn't reach. This mentality won't take us anywhere. Having a competitive spirit that is balanced (and not at all costs) can bring wins, while comparisons are causing us to be competitive for the wrong reasons.
When discussing competitiveness, one should remember to respect their rivals, competitors while learning from them to recognize their weaknesses and excel in those areas that give you an edge. This will help you differentiate yourself from the rest of the pack. Be respectful and know when it's right to collaborate. Just like when Michal Jordan knocked out a similar player to himself, Earvin Magic Johnson, while playing against the Lakers, but also won the Olympics along his side, with the most incredible team ever assembled. Just like when Taboola and Outbrain merged and decided that working together was better than apart.
Scottie Pippen was indeed a legend––his $18M contract was definitely something to be proud of. However, it seems that even 20-30 years later, he cannot forgive himself for the "lock" he imposed on himself. In design thinking methodology with startups & corporations, we talk about the "lock" or "trap" while engaging with customers, which are exactly the same.
Scottie was so focused on saving his family, creating a "stable" future, that he probably made the worst investment and bid ever––on himself. So one lesson is always to have a short-term exit strategy and the option to re-evaluate the terms of a contract, whatever kind it may be. Another point of view about it is to practice mindfulness in the way we react and behave.
What do I mean by this?
Pippen was so focused on "guaranteeing" his future that he wasn't present in the moment itself, the here and now. As a result, this caused some blind spots. The first was when he closed his $18M deal, where he thought about the future from a present point of view but didn't consider his brand's organic growth. Secondly was when he regretted it his entire career, which means he was bittersweet. As a startup founder that signs off on their term sheet, Seed, or Round A investment, always know the negotiations' terms. It is crucial to know when you will be able to change the game rules and that you are signing onto things that you feel good about when going to sleep at night. Listen to your intuition, as it is usually right. Although, if you are wrong, perhaps the aspired result wasn't the right one for you to begin with.
Going back to Pippen, what's done is done. Now, it's up to you to choose how to spend your life, either feeling sorry for yourself or looking towards the future, to feel gratitude and think about the new directions you can grow your talent, impact, and fortune.
In relation to startup life, being a startup CEO is one heck of a choice. During my clinic and lectures, I often meet entrepreneurs who are not completely aligned on their personal and professional decisions and why they became an entrepreneur. My message is not that the price is too heavy, but instead that everything comes with a price and not necessarily a financial one. While making a choice, we need to be crystal clear about what those prices mean to us, what they enable, eliminate, and make you at peace with.
Michal was, without a doubt, the best player, but he did not do it alone. Every captain has a first officer––Jordan had Pippen, Rodman, Kukoč, and Harper. His teammates support, both physically and mentally, their collaboration, and relinquished egos are what allowed Jordan to be the rockstar he was. It's not a solo dance, but rather a team of giants focused on the bigger goal and allowed their superhero to shine. There is so much friendship and maturity occurring in this.
In a recent thrilling course, David Blatt discussed the complexity of playing for such a great cause, especially when there's a leading winner and everyone is there to support him. Blatt spoke about the players' mental and emotional distress and how important it is to help them release the stress they feel.
In regards to startups, while growing and scaling a company, a good entrepreneur builds their company the right way. Properly establishing a company translates to seeking out talented colleagues, professionals in their field that will help them bring their company to the next level, build processes and teams, and empower their managers to lead, make decisions, and have their back. A good CEO knows how to lead but has a robust support system around him.
Without dispute, Michael Jordan was a phenomenon, a force to be reckoned with. However, he never forgot the essence of his success, which was giving back to his audience. Every game, he took pictures with children and fans. His "Air Jordan" product line was his commercial success because someone bought it. People endorsed him because they felt he gave back to them. Jordan valued them and added value to their whole experience, whether by generating faith in yourself, developing superhero skills, or designing the best basketball shoes.
When leading a startup, the most important element is its userbase, whether B2B, B2C, SaaS, etc. Will the users pay for the service? (i.e., product-market fit) How much will it cost them? (i.e., pricing) Will the users continue to use it after a while? (i.e., retention) How much will it cost me vs. how much will I gain (i.e., LTV:CAC ratio)? Is my brand memorable and stable? How is their user experience as a whole?
The users are your starting and endpoints. Respect them, see them, treat them fairly, communicate with them, and remember that you, yourself, are a user in the service called "life." Be humble and do good.
For Michael Jordan, who was indeed a legend, it took approximately 20 years after his retirement to participate in The Last Dance production. Yes, he had campaigns, movies, interviews, and commercials––he was all over. However, this genuine, intimate conversation with him only came much later. And speaking of intimacy, his wife and children were barely mentioned across his 20-year career.
To the founders amongst you––you have time to become the phenomena you're aiming to be, to become a unicorn, part of the Hall of Fame of business school case studies, and Forbes wealthiest people. Build your way carefully and professionally. Invest in the way––not just in the PR. Be good to your people, team, investors, and customers. Remember your family and cherish them.
Don't rush to become the next unicorn or greatest of all time, only for the sake of status and prestige. Believe in every step of the way, lead with passion, and do what makes you feel good.
My boys were watching the 2018 Playoffs when I understood that there is only one GOAT.
In my clinic, I debrief my entrepreneurs on the behaviors and actions that led them to one result or another, helping them understand which steps to cherish and duplicate and which ones to drop and eliminate for the future.
In the IDC course I mentioned earlier, Blatt said:
“You learn much more from losses and debriefing them, and the willingness to take it for positive and productive directions. It's not a shame to lose––it's a shame not to get up and go on.”
Kattash gave a beautiful story about the EuroLeague back in 2000, about what being a pro is all about, and how it feels when the goal is more significant than anything else:
“I was in Panathinaikos, a moment before playing against my former team. I was confused and upset. My sports psychologist knew not to talk to me, that it’s too sensitive. But once the game began, I have left it all behind, playing against my friends, former team, and fans, knowing what my values and education are and that basketball is on top of everything. We won. It was the happiest and saddest day of all.”