The Varsity Entrepreneur

by Trina Spear


Imagine a high school football field.  Fall 2009.  Division Championship.  Sean Murphy, starting quarterback at Riverview High, throws the 80-yard touchdown pass to win the most exciting game of his young career.  Sean has been a very successful quarterback exploiting this exact play, the long pass.  As the clock runs up, the team hoists Sean onto their shoulders and carries him around the field.  As he struts through the halls, he feels the eyes on him and grins as people pat him on the back.  He is on top of the world – he is the star on the football team, has earned straight A’s, has recently received football scholarships to Northwestern, Wisconsin and Harvard and to top it all off, his girlfriend was just voted homecoming queen.

The following month Sean finds himself in a tough position playing for the Conference Championship: down by 4 points, 45 seconds left in the game, forty yards away from the end zone.  Unlike in other games, worry and uncertainty consume him.  Thoughts pour through his head – what if I mess up the play, what if I get injured, what if my girlfriend leaves me for a lacrosse player, what if I lose my scholarships?  Coach Kypriss pulls Sean aside to go over the upcoming play.  He tells Sean to throw the ball down the field to wide receiver, Bobby Hunter.  Sean slams his helmet onto his sweat drenched head and walks back onto the field, confident on what needs to be done.  He has executed this play a million times.  Fourth down and five.  Hut hut hut.  The ball is snapped into Sean’s hands.  As he runs left to get into position, he notices Bobby is covered on all sides.  Sean quickly shifts his mindset from the potentially blocked pass to other opportunities on the field.  Sean dodges two line backers and catches a glimpse of wide receiver, Jonathan Warren.  He quickly pitches the ball to Jonathan, who runs the distance for the touchdown.  Riverview prevails.

Although very few areas in life mirror the types of fanaticism surrounding high school football, I hope to make the comparison that start-ups feel much of the same trepidation that Sean felt once they attain success.  Success can be much more stressful than failure.  Once you are the big time quarterback on the best team or the founder of the top company on TechCrunch, everyone is looking to see your next move which makes that move appear riskier than it actually is.  The stakes are higher and success can paralyze entrepreneurs if they do not use it to fuel continual improvement. 

In this vein, it is easy for successful athletes and entrepreneurs to get stuck on a path and not adapt, to try to shift the environment to fit a business instead of the other way around.  Businesses like Chegg and foursquare have gained much initial success – lots of angel and VC money, millions of users, and extraordinary PR.  At this crucial point, these companies, among others, should not fear moving away from their core businesses if they need to in order to remain competitive.  In the end, if the right move is for Chegg to shift into the digital business, they should do so and not fear the sunken investment made up until this point.  If the right move is for foursquare to target and monetize local merchants, they should do so and not worry about alienating their current user base.  Not all is lost in changing directions – these start-ups are much better positioned to find new opportunities given their experience, current set of overlapping capabilities, and better understanding of the changing landscape.

I urge entrepreneurs at whatever stage they are in to continue to improvise – it’s the only way to keep winning the game!

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