Scaling-up by Racing Downhill

By Todd Gibby WG’97, CEO of BoardEffect

Scaling-up a company is one of the most exhilarating and rewarding parts of working in an early-stage business environment.  But doing so is also filled with risks and challenges.  At this time of year, I am reminded of just how comparable scaling a business can be to one of winter’s other adrenaline-charged activities—ski racing.  This metaphor was introduced to me years ago; and I continue to be struck by the lessons to be taken from the downhill to the start-up.

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Speed Wins (…Right?): Everyone knows that the fastest skier down the mountain takes the gold medal.  Victory demands speed, which requires skiing on the white-knuckled fringe.  But get just a little too reckless, and you wind up in a YARDSALE (skis here, poles there, goggles in a tree, equipment strewn all over).  Beyond obvious and immediate defeat, this can also be excruciatingly painful.

This same dynamic applies to directly scaling a business.  In every way, speed is critical (to execute a land-grab of market share, to take advantage of a sector inefficiency, to file a patent, to attract the best talent, or to recover quickly from mistakes).  Speed certainly wins…but recklessness can bring the whole thing crashing down.  On the other hand, if things feel too comfortable—too under control—the bronze medal may be the very best to hope for.  The takeaway: gauge your speed wisely and often.  If it feels uncomfortable, lean into it.  That is the nature of the sport, and what makes it interesting in the first place. But if you are headed straight for trees at 90 MPH—turn soon.

One Gate at a Time: There is no such thing as a perfect race. At least one turn, one gate, or one descent poses a challenge that wobbles the ski-racer.  The trick, of course, is to quickly learn from it, then forget about it.  Move on.  Don’t waste a moment of emotional energy thinking about what the perfect line down the mountain would have been. This point is fairly evident, and has been applied expertly in the business setting in books such as “Getting to Plan B”.

A perhaps a less evident corollary to this point is the variety of  terrain changes encountered over the length of a ski course.  There are steeps, flats, turns, knolls, double fall-lines, etc.  What’s important to recognize is that each of these requires a different kind of skiing to optimize speed on that part of the course…and that what worked well at the top of the hill may no longer work at all.  These are inflection points that demand a change in tactics.  Understanding that there will always be inflection points is important to both skiers and business leaders.  Being able to recognize those inflection points is even more valuable.  Making the necessary adjustments to address the changing conditions requires both confidence and skill…and not a moment’s hesitation.

Smooth smDon’t Fight It…But Never Stop Fighting: When you watch a great skier, he/she makes it look effortless.  They glide, leverage gravity, harness momentum, and sail smoothly down the mountain.  The body language is quiet; the edges carve noiselessly, each shaving valuable time off the descent. The lesson for us growth-minded business leaders: don’t fight it.  Don’t fight market dynamics; don’t fight an unwinnable battle where a competitor is strong.  Don’t fight to keep a hyper-demanding client that has become an unprofitable drain on resources; don’t fight to retain the “super-star” employee who has alienated the rest of the team.

All of that sounds excellent as long as you say it fast.  Unfortunately, it often conflicts with our instincts as athletes and as competitive business people.  When the terrain gets steep or the gates get tight, that is when our fight kicks-in.  And that’s a good thing.  Although we all want to ski with silky grace, completing the race matters a ton.  Fighting our way to the finish is not only admirable…is a prerequisite to having any shot at winding up on the medal stand.  Not inconsequentially, it also makes the run down the mountain a whole lot more fun.

As we head into the winter season, I hope folks get a chance to hit the slopes for a casual race among friends.  Likewise, good luck to your start-ups in navigating the ski-race; here’s to many exhilarating and rewarding trips down the mountain. Point those skis downhill, embrace the tension, enjoy the ride.

Todd Gibby headshotBio: Todd Gibby WG’97 is an entrepreneur and current CEO of BoardEffect, the leading governance software platform for boards of directors. Previously, Todd was the CEO of Intelliworks, an education technology company which successfully exited to Hobsons, where he later served as President of the higher education division. Earlier, Todd held several executive leadership positions at Blackboard, including EVP of Operations and SVP of Sales.  During his tenure, Blackboard grew from $2M to $185M in revenue and emerged as the global leader in e-Learning software.