Three Tips For Startup Founders, From Three Unconventional Individuals

Entrepreneurship can be an unforgiving endeavour. If you look at it, it’s like a really steep climb up a mountain. And if that’s the journey you decide to set out on, you better be well prepared.

That is the reason why the business world sometimes looks to the world of sports for lessons. Elite athletes often operate at the pinnacle of human capability, and have honed all aspects of performance, whether mental or physical. For those embarking on the marathon of entrepreneurship, these athletes may hold valuable lessons.

That is exactly what we discovered when we attended a panel discussion titled ‘Breaking Bad’, which was part of the grand opening of Hatch. On the panel were three unique individuals: Khalid, Denis and Bihan.

From left: Khalid, Denis, and Bihan / Credits: ReadMe

Though not exactly an athlete in traditional terms, Bihan is a young Sri Lankan coding whiz. At barely 16 years old, he runs his own startup, teaches coding online to over 13,000 students, and is soon set to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in Software Engineering. His ambition is to start a coding school in Sri Lanka someday.

Next is Denis, who played rugby in France for nearly 20 years. However, at 31, he had a heart attack on the field, which put a stop to his ability to chase after the oval ball. Forced to rebuild his life, Dennis moved to Chicago, and decided to take up running. Gradually, he improved his fitness so much that he managed to compete in his first Ironman Triathlon aged 43.

And finally, Khalid. Born in Kuwait and adopted by Sri Lankan parents, Khalid was a shining star at the Red Cross in Sri Lanka before tragedy struck. At the age of 26, he lost his eyesight due to medical negligence, and spiralled into depression. This led him to attempt suicide thrice. However, at the urging of his brother and friends, Khalid decided to make the best out of his situation, and went about adjusting to his new life. Despite many obstacles that came his way, Khalid is today an Ironman Triathlete (training under the watchful eye of Dennis, incidentally) and employed at SriLankan Airlines.

Here are the key lessons we learned from them.

Passion Is Key

All three panellists agreed that the reason why they have been able to overcome their challenges is because they were in pursuit of something which they loved doing. For Bihan, it was his love of coding. For Khalid, the whole reason why he got into marathons was because he wanted to help others; the marathons were a way to help raise money for worthy causes. For Denis, it was about putting his life back together.

Bihan helps a child at the ‘Kids Can Code’ event which was held on the sidelines of the opening of Hatch /Credits: ReadMe

These three individuals were only able to keep going in the face of all obstacles because of how passionate they were about achieving their goal. It’s important to note that their goals were deeply personal. They were not motivated by a wish to seek external glory, but rather, by a deep desire to achieve something that meant a lot to them personally.

Build Mental Resilience

Running a marathon, or competing in any other sport for that matter, is a gruelling task. It takes a lot to wake up every day, aching all over, and still follow your fitness routine.  This is not easy, and requires you to put mind over matter.
It’s the same with entrepreneurship. Even the deceptively simple milestone of gaining traction is akin to trying to escape quicksand.

Having had ample experience with what it can be like when darkness envelops your life, Denis advised the audience to strive to build mental resilience. In fact, he emphasised that it is one of the most important skills—one  that can be learned—necessary for success in any discipline.

Denis competing at last year’s Ironman 70.3 event /Credits: IronMan 70.3 Colombo

But how exactly do you go about building mental resilience?

Dennis said that it needs to be a multi-pronged strategy. First, you need to identify your goal, define it very well, and then believe in it. Secondly, get into the practice of meditation. Every day, for about 15 minutes or so, sit still and try to clear your mind. In this day and age, where we are continuously bombarded with information, mental clarity will help you stay focused. And over time, Dennis believes, you will build a strong mind.

Failure Is Not Fatal

The final lesson the panellists left us with is to never fear failure.

As kids, we are not as anxious about being bad at something. We just give things a shot and see if it works. But as we move through the school system and reach adulthood, we learn to shy away from failure. Perhaps it’s the examination system which gives you just one chance to get it right, or perhaps due to something else, we internalise a belief that we must be good at something from the get go.

By internalising this often false belief, we end up ignoring all the evidence around us, which points towards how not being afraid to fail is a key component of success. From a toddler learning to walk to SpaceX testing out a new rocket, all major and minor achievements are predicated on being comfortable with the risk of trying, and failing.

As Khalid, Dennis, and Bihan emphasised, the important thing when you meet with failure is to make sure to get up, dust yourself off, and keep going. At least you would have learned something, and gained invaluable experience along the way.

As you set out on your entrepreneurial journey, these simple lessons are sure to prove to be of immense value.

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