What Startups Can Learn From Basketball

After watching the great pitches from Startup Weekend Pittsburgh, I got to catch up with Don Charlton, CEO of The Resumator, outspoken AlphaLab alum/advisor and fervent blogger. It’s always great to catch up with Don and talk with him about how we can continue to improve and grow Pittsburgh’s entrepreneurial community. I couldn’t ask for a better and more dedicated mentor for our companies and our program.

Beyond our interest in entrepreneurship, Don and I share a love for basketball—even though our on-court abilities differ….greatly.

After seeing Don’s recent post comparing startups and basketball, I thought about the basketball analogy I’ve discussed with some of our AlphaLab companies. And, as this is the height of the basketball season (yes, I am excluding the NBA) I thought it’d be a good time to share it with you.


Always Someone Better

Basketball is a humbling game…especially when your game is as limited as mine. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ll play a pickup game against guys who are absolutely dominant. I would swear that they had played major college basketball and then find out later they didn’t play in college but played in high school. It makes you realize and appreciate how talented the best players are and how high the bar is to compete and succeed.

I see similar dynamics watching my son play on different basketball teams. He faces increasing levels of competition at the school level, district level, regional level, etc. As you move up levels, the players’ abilities increase an order of magnitude as well. And I know there are even more elite levels of competition that are not even on our radar.

Competing in the startup world

This notion of increasing levels of competition also applies to the startup world. On the first day of AlphaLab, we tell our companies that in order to gain traction and raise money, they must understand the level at which they must compete. Investors and customers have plenty of options for their time, money and attention so they have to truly stand out. More importantly, they can’t be content to stand out within a local peer group. They need to recognize that beyond AlphaLab, beyond Pittsburgh, and even beyond the U.S., there will always be other startups trying to solve the same problem or reach the same customer and are doing whatever it takes to do it faster and better than anyone else.

Just as there is a 13-year old in Indiana shooting 500 shots a day and working on his ball-handling in the middle of summer, there are startups pushing themselves to innovate, release and iterate faster because they understand what it takes to “play” at an elite level and what the stakes are.

Of course in early stage startups it’s a little harder to recognize where you stand. The scores aren’t always published (e.g. revenues, users) and you don’t have direct matchups against your competition (although conferences like LAUNCH are good ways to gauge where you stack up). But don’t let that delude you into thinking you’re ahead in the game.

Enjoy the Final Four,

Jim Jen (@jimcjen)

Image Credit: Shockmotion