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« The Ugly Reality Behind Innovation | Main | Leadership? No Worries »

Startups and the Art of Surfing

The right wave helps

Startups remind me of surfing. That was my preferred activity after getting my first board on my fourteenth birthday. It was a great individual sport. There were no coaches or surfing schools. You just paddled out and started working on it.

I had reasonable balance but soon learned that wasn’t all it took. When you watch a pro surfer make it look easy, it’s not just their athletic skill that’s on show. What happens before you even get on a wave matters a lot. 

Four things can make a big difference

First is choosing the right wave. That’s crucial. They all have different shapes. A wave that forms no rideable shape or closes out early leaves you only two options: pull out, or wipe out. When you see a wave unfolding perfectly in front of the rider, it’s not a coincidence. They picked the right wave.

Secondly, waves come in sets. Rarely is the first one the best. It’s often the second or third that offers the optimal ride. Then again, wait too long and the set is over. On a slow day, that’s a serious pain.

Thirdly there’s timing. You may not be in the right place to pick it up. If you are too far out, you’ll be too early. It won’t be steep enough to get on. Too late and you’ll struggle for control.

Lastly there’s space. Sure there’s a loose kind of etiquette out there, but if everyone is trying to get on, there’s little point in going for it unless you are in the prime position – you have the speed, control and point of entry that lets you own the wave.

Sound familiar?

Before you bet the farm on your amazing new idea, check the operating environment. Don’t just focus on how good your product is. Ask what the market is and what percentage you think you’ll capture, and why. Is your initiative catching a wave that’s got substance, or just a fad that will pass.

Is anyone else trying it? Do you need to be the first mover? Plenty of them crash and burn. Will you be better placed as the second mover, setting up after the first wave has wiped aside those who went too early?

You might want to produce the absolute best-in-class offering but what if it takes too long? You could miss the whole set. Are you better launching a ‘lite’ version while your idea is trending rather than after the market has moved on? 

Lastly, are you the only one on this idea? A quick internet search will usually show you are not. If there are lots of you trying to do the same thing, what’s so special about your proposal that puts you in a position to own the market?

None of these is an easy call, and just having the skill and expertise to come up with a functioning idea doesn’t mean you are in for a successful ride. To paraphrase the late Stephen Covey, you might have everything it takes to climb the ladder to success. But first, just check that it’s a strong enough ladder and that it’s leaning against the right wall.


Reader Comments (6)

Great analogy. You could take it a bit further with the way jet skis tow riders onto Hawaiin waves. It's hard to do it all yourself. If you want to get onto a big wave, it helps to get help.

June 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAlehandro Mactieff

For an even tan you need to keep moving. That's from the Art of Sunbaking.

June 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSusan Macleod

Had dinner with three business owners last night. One was going out backwards, another was going sideways and one was going kind of ok. This so-called entrepreneurial boom is chewing up a lot of juice. They were all passionate when they started. Bit exhausted now. Doing you own thing isn't necessarily a key to happiness.

June 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJason Reagan

Agree Roger. I know people who have started reasonably successful businesses, but if a buyer came along, they'd sell. It's not that they didn't have a good idea, it s just that its really hard work and their never seems to be a break.

June 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVaudine Rivers

Sounds like we'd all rather be surfing.

June 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVanilla Cafe

Surfing is the most amazing sport. In these days, I am also going through my surfing training and very excited to do it. I was very nervous at first because I was not physically fit. But my fitness training and exercising makes me stronger both mentally and physically. Hope my first surfing experience will be most amazing.

February 18, 2014 | Unregistered Commenteramy smith

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