It’s a marathon – not a sprint.  Entrepreneurs working on starting-up hear this mantra all the time.  What does it really mean?  The mantra speaks to the strategy most marathoners take on race day:  start slow, come up to a sustainable pace, and finish strong.  However, it does not speak to all the preparation that must be done before race day.    This post is the first of two in which I will discuss what it means to start-up like a marathoner.

Find Your Race

Before a marathoner starts training, she determines the race she wants to run, pays all race fees, and puts the date on her calendar.   She needs to know what her goals look like before she starts training.  Similarly, before starting-up, an entrepreneur must know, at a minimum: the product/services she will be selling, what the market looks like, what her competition looks like,  what her business entity will look like, and what her budget will look like.  This is the easiest step – committing to the race.

Developing a Training Plan

The next step can be a bit overwhelming – developing a training plan.  The marathoner will schedule her life for 16 weeks before the race date.  She will commit to a training plan that includes an assessment of her current conditioning, goals for race day, and a day to day training plan.  At the end of this process she will know how long she will run each day, how fast she will want to run each day, and what she needs to do to make herself faster.  Having a training plan “in her head” will never work.  It is too easy to lose focus of long term goals when she becomes mired down in the day to day business of training.  She will let her friends and family know of training and race plans and ask for their support.  She cannot be successful unless her family and friends buy into her singular focus over the next 16 weeks.

Similarly, the entrepreneur must develop a business plan determining what her end game (race day) will look like and what she needs to do to get there successfully.  The entrepreneur needs to commit to a business plan that includes, at a minimum: a business summary, a marketing plan, and a management description (i.e. LLC, Partnership, Corporation, etc.).       The entrepreneur will need support from her friends and family.  A spouse may need to commit to paying the household bills for a couple of years before the start-up turns a profit.  The entrepreneur’s friends may be her first marketing team- telling their contacts of the start-up’s services/products, helping find investors, or investing themselves.  There is a reason that a start-up’s first round of funding is called the “friends and family round.”

Training

The day that training starts, the marathoner is excited.  She is up early for her training runs: 4:00 am on most weekdays and 6:00 am each Saturday.  She looks forward to building strength on cross training days.  On good training days she will be convinced that she could qualify for the Boston Marathon; on bad trading days she will curse herself for even starting the endeavor.  Eventually, training gains will become more difficult to come by and they will not be as big as they were early on in training.  The marathoner keeps going because she has a goal.  She knows that if she does not keep to her training plan, she will fail.  However, this does not mean that the training plan is inflexible.  It would be unproductive to train when she is feeling overly fatigued.  Most importantly, the marathoner will cherish each and every rest day.  These are days when no training happens; the marathoner gets to sleep in and spend time reading or watching television.  Without these rest days the marathoner’s training may be for nothing in the end.  Without rest, the marathoner is more likely to get injured during training or  peak before the race.

In the same way, the entrepreneur is excited when she finally starts working on building her start-up.  She is up early most morning and works late most nights.  However, the entrepreneur will hit some road blocks.  Her first round of funding may flop.  Shee may have production/development issues.  Eventually, starting-up may not be fun or exciting.  On some days the entrepreneur will feel like she will be the next Steve Jobs; on other days she will feel like she will end up in bankruptcy court. However, like the marathoner, the entrepreneur must keep working toward her goals and maintain her focus.  Her business plan must be flexible enough to deal with these issues.  And, most importantly, the entrepreneur must be careful to take some rest days; days to read a book, watch television, or exercise.  The entrepreneur will simply burn out without these rest days.

Race Day

Finally, it’s race day!  Remember the mantra. The marathoner will start out slow for the first few miles, pick up speed as the race goes on into a steady pace and if all systems are go, sprint the last few miles. If the marathoner goes out too fast, she will not finish the race strong.  Others will pass her during those first few miles and it will take all of her will to stay on plan.  Finishing the race strong and feeling good is the marathoner’s end game.

Race day will look different for each start-up.  For some entrepreneurs, race day may be getting 5,000 units of product to its point of sale.  For another start-up, licensing software to a new client will be key.  Whatever race day looks like for the entrepreneur, her goal is to get there and finish strong.  Now she can look back and say that she did it.

So as you see, starting-up is like running a marathon.  But it’s more than what happens on race day.   And you may ask how I know this?  I “wrote” this blog post while running on one of my long training days which consisted of 3.25 hours of running followed by an hour on my bike.  My next marathon is in June.