Sunday, July 06, 2014

Entrepreneurs, Get Ready to Adore The Tour de France

Day 1: Tour de France: Victory to Marcel Kittel
If you're an entrepreneur, I'm going to make you a giant fan of the bike race known as the Tour de France (#TdF) this summer, because nothing comes as close to life in a startup as this crazy month-long race of short- and long-term challenges.  Nothing can teach you how to crash better, how to get up, dust yourself off and get back in the race fast, how to build and work with a team and most importantly nothing can teach you how to endure and just keep going.

I've been an entrepreneur for many years and I've been a CEO, a CMO and a founder.  I've been in startups that were successful with exits that included a sale, a stock swap, a merger, as well as in startups that flopped and died a sad death. But until I spent the summer of 2011 sitting in a fifth-floor walk-up apartment in Grenoble as the breeze blew the cold mountain air through the big French windows, waving the gauzy white curtains like race flags, watching the race day after day on a small French black and white TV with no remote, as well as going to stand in the rain for several stages to watch the race live, did I finally get it.  The race includes every up and down any start-up team member can ever face.  It's perfect that we took  the word "entrepreneur" from the French to describe the insane enterprise of startups.

Watch the first few days of the Tour de France as the terrain is mostly flat and reasonable and the riders are fresh and strong -- doesn't it look like fun?  Anyone can do it! Then watch the second week as they hit the mountains and the fair-weather players start to drop, peel off, crash or have to give up due to injury.  And then, by the third week, you'll be sitting there watching how each team works together or doesn't -- and you'll understand in a deep visceral way what a team is, why they matter, how they work (or don't) and why they can do more together as a team, than one person ever can do.

And if you're lucky enough to be sitting in a bar in a quiet dusty town in the south of France for the last week or in Lyon or Limoges or LeMans or Lourdes, you'll be be blessed to watch it in the hot afternoon with some Frenchman or woman who will get a little drunk with you and a lot more philosophical and tell you what the race is all about.  "Il s'agit de ... " they will start to explain to you and then pour you more Pastis or Pouilly Fuissé and you don't have to be a student of existentialism or Sartre to get it -- the bike race and the race you're running are both about enduring.  Enduring and keeping on the course.  It's about the amazing grit and strategy and luck (or lack of) and how you face it.  It's about the pleasure and the pain (equal parts) of staying in the race. It's about the trade-offs each rider has to make every day of a long, long race. They might fall back one day and rest in the slipstream of their team's unsung heroes the next day, so they can live to fight another day.  They might take crazy chances when a downhill speed can put them way ahead today in an early stage, gaining them 30 seconds, which later turns into a sheer 2 seconds they need to win the whole race and stand on the highest perch at the final ceremony in Paris on the last day. They know how to face danger, and when to avoid it. They learn to be courageous, decisive and act quickly. You need to pick up every skill they have, if you want to thrive as an entrepreneur.

In 2011, I had the amazing luck to spend most of the month of July in France and watch the Tour de France up close with my then 16-year-old son Jackson who incidentally was already an experienced bike mechanic and bike lover.  As any parent knows, just to have your teen want to go on any vacation anywhere with you is miracle enough, and you treasure every precious minute of the trip together knowing they will probably won't travel with you as their first choice ever again.

When Jackson was 13 and the economy was ridiculously bad, he told me he wanted to get a job as a bike mechanic.  I looked at him like he was crazy.  He was an entrepreneur in the making too, so he ignored me, had already done his research and found a great guy to apprentice to and asked me to drive him over to Paramount Bikes in Somerville, MA near Tufts where he went in and got a job fixing bikes.

I'd learned French in grammar school all through college and lived there on and off as a student, so when our friends in Grenoble asked us if we wanted to visit three years later in July 2011 and watch the race with them, I was all in.  Jackson was just learning French, but he was already an accomplished biker and mountain climber.  Since Grenoble was in the foothills of the Alps and many of the most important days for the Tour de France would take place in that town, we were over there as fast as we could scrape together enough Euros. Grenoble is also the home of Petzl another of Jackson's favorite companies, as they make world-class mountain climbing and rescue equipment, so he was the proverbial kid in a candy shop.  He climbed, he biked and we watched the race day in and day out with our friends.

One more entrepreneurial lesson -- it's never over until it's over.  One of the most important days for the Tour de France 2011 took place in Grenoble, the penultimate day of the race where the game-changing "time trials" happened and we walked over to watch them.  Cadel Evans delivered that day, go read about it. Of course my kid didn't want to get a photo with the famous bike racer, he wanted to pose next to the pit crew cars that were filled with mechanics, especially the Mavic Wheels yellow sedan. The day after the time trials, as the teams went to Paris, we took the TGV train to Paris too, to follow them and watch the last event, as the conquering heroes finally reached the capital to ride around the Arc de Triomphe.

Have I said enough to make you love the race yet?  Okay, I give up.  Take a shortcut.  Go to France and fall in love with some French "ami ou amie" who adores their national race and can teach you how to love it too.  You'll drink their wine, fall in love with the peleton and Pau and Paris, and if you're lucky, dance late into the night to old Piaf records, as she sings, "Non, je ne regrette rien," because whatever race you're running, entrepreneurs and riders who stay the course rarely regret it.