3 Lessons Off-Road Racing Taught Me About My Business
Every year I compete in the Baja 1000, a thousand-mile, off-road race through Mexico's most unforgiving desert terrain, where just finishing the race is a victory. Even with a customized truck designed specifically for the anticipated obstacles, the brutality of the trail is physically and mentally tiring. Finishing the race requires me to tap into the same inner drive that kept me going as a young entrepreneur.
When I make decisions as to whether to invest in the promises of a new entrepreneur, I look for this drive as it’s one of the best indicators that the entrepreneur has what it takes. It’s what led me to transform a college side project into a billion-dollar smart home company with 9,000 employees and more than one million customers. Entrepreneurs are essentially at the starting line of a race every day, and I’d like to share some insights that can help you pull ahead of the pack.
Redirect your nerves.
Hours before the start of a race, my stomach turns over. The key is to let this feeling fuel your excitement rather than scare you off. As an entrepreneur, you have to get comfortable with discomfort, as you constantly push your organization to improve and evolve. Success and satisfaction will always require risk, but the minute you start to feel comfortable is the minute the competition will start gaining on you.
Many times in Vivint’s history, we’ve abandoned our comfort zone and embraced a promising-but-not-entirely-known future. In 2010, we began to pursue the smart home and residential solar markets. We undertook this ambitious endeavor without unanimous support from our creditors and even some of our own board members. There were days when my stomach was churning, but we knew long-term success hinged on making that jump. Just two years later, Vivint was acquired by Blackstone for $2 billion, an opportunity that would not have existed had we simply maintained the status quo.
Go full throttle through challenges.
When the road gets nasty -- and trust me, the Baja 1000 trail is relentless -- the temptation is to slow down. But the best play, in my opinion, is to open the throttle and power through. Hundreds of hours go into preparing a truck for this terrain. Throughout most of the race, you’re living in a cloud of dust and can’t see two feet in front of your hood. And when you’re traveling 140-mph through the desert, things are coming at you pretty fast. You need to trust your equipment, your co-pilot and your navigation tools and then just put the pedal down.
In the business world, having the right equipment and co-pilot translates to having the right people. At Vivint, we’re working to define and design the future of the smart home. Pioneering a new industry is never an easy road, but we can move ahead with confidence because we place a premium on hiring the right people, creating a culture of challenge and treating employees extremely well. When I first started my business in the early ’90s, my father’s advice was to treat my employees like gold. Great employees manage through clouds of dust, when the answers aren’t obvious and the moments are tense.
Commit to the long haul.
In the Baja 1000, drivers race for more than 15 consecutive hours. On average, just over half of the participants actually cross the finish line. Not surprisingly, the winners and losers are rarely sorted out in the early hours. When cars break down, it’s typically because they don’t adapt to changes in terrain and weather quickly enough. In the business world, scores of companies fold every day and the failure rate is particularly high among startups. So how do you make sure your business adapt to survive? In my experience, it’s all about mental stamina.
Successful entrepreneurs are not people who start strong and burn out quickly. You need more than a good idea and some initial excitement to grow a real business. It takes an unwavering vision and a constant eye on the finish line (especially when you can’t see it). The true test is the roadblocks you’ll encounter along the way -- these are moments of opportunity where your decisions will define your company.
Netflix hit a self-imposed roadblock a few years ago when it raised prices and announced plans to split the company and form Qwikster for its DVD-by-mail subscribers. The company took a beating in the media, but even more concerning was having 800,000 members quit the service. Netflix was smart enough to abandon Qwikster and double down on its streaming service. Committing to the long haul paid off in a big way -- in 2015, Netflix was the only technology company in the ten best performing stocks of the year.
Like business, the beauty of off-road racing is that the course is yours to figure out. Sometimes you’ll need to decide if you can push past the challenges, or if you need to change course. While racing, I’m constantly changing speeds, adjusting gears and keeping an eye on the engine vitals. In running my company, I’m always surveying the landscape and am relentless in pushing us to stay ahead of competitors.
What I love about off-road racing is the same thing I appreciate about business -- it’s a battleground and only those with the drive to succeed power through.
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