On August 11, 2012, I competed in the Ironman U.S. Championship in New York City. For the past 35 years, Ironman has been regarded as the pinnacle among all endurance sports, consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile marathon. A competitor who finishes in less than 17 hours is called an Ironman. What I find pretty cool is that there are more Ivy League MBAs in the world than Ironmen.
As I began my research about the tribulations of an Ironman, I realized there were multiple challenges with the race. In addition to the physical challenge, there is also a mental and time-management challenge: an Ironman race requires a six-month training program with an average of 12 hours per week. Where would I find the time? By my estimation, I would need to take a six-month sabbatical from work simply to train. As my former executive coach used to say to me: "Alex, you are a victim of the either/or syndrome. You think you can either be an entrepreneur or an Ironman, but not both. You must learn to say AND.” I wanted to be a chief executive and an Ironman.
Here are the lessons I learned from being an Ironman that also apply to launching a startup and building it into a successful enterprise:
Make your dreams become goals:
As children, we are all told to dream about the future and imagine what we want to be when we grow up. As we become adults, our dreams take the form of goals. We want to meet our goals to finish something we started, and live a life that is full and meaningful. This is why some of us are crazy enough to believe we can change the world. I was crazy enough to believe I could change the job market and finish an Ironman.
Commit first and then figure out the plan:
I signed up for my first Ironman U.S. Championship in August 2011. It sold out in 11 minutes. By the time I received confirmation that I was accepted, I had about four months to figure out a plan before the grueling six-month training program started. Unlike most people, I opted not to hire a coach. Instead, I researched and designed my own training program and nutritional plan. That way, I could own both the success and the failure. When you start a company, you do not hire McKinsey or Bill Gates to write your business plan.
I think too many people are afraid to fail and, as a bi-product of their fears, don’t strive to achieve. The real issue is that these people miss out on a key life discovery. Failure is an essential part of the learning process and one of the best ways to learn. For Ironman, my goal wasn’t just to finish, I wanted to finish within 13 hours and be in the top 50th percentile in the race. I aimed high and pushed myself hard. The same mantra applies to a startup: if your goals are to just survive and build a company with only five people because that is what you are comfortable with, then you never will build a $1billion company and have a successful IPO.
Put in the hours:
We all hate the concept of working long hours for the sake of face time. In 2002, I held a summer M&A job in Investment Banking in London, working 90 hours every week, and I learned how inefficient face time could be. That said, you cannot build a successful company if you and your team work from 9 to 5. If you do not work at least 60 hours a week, you are not going to make it to the top. Same with Ironman. Ironman requires 12 hours a week of training for 6 months. That is just the basics to finish. If you want to have a good finish time, you will have to put it more hours. There is no way around it.
The mind controls the body, so master controlling the mind:
It is said that your mind controls your body, but have you ever really experienced this relationship in a challenging situation? Ironman teaches you these survival skills. I completed Ironman NYC in 12:12:21 seconds. I ran the first half of the marathon in 2 hours and 14 minutes, at which point, I was on pace to break 12 hours. Then, approximately 10 hours into Ironman, my body gave up. I was paralyzed at mile 16 with 10 miles to go.
No one would have blamed or criticized me for giving up right there, but I told myself that quitting was not an option. As long as the clock did not read “17:00:00,” and I had one ounce of energy left in me, I was going to move my legs forward one way or another, regardless of pain. That is when my brain took over, and showed my body who was in charge. The same mentality applies to building a company. As long as you have one dollar in the bank, you can be successful, even though everyone around you may quit.
Strive for vertical integration:
There is a lot of buzz in the press and blogosphere about vertical integration. The essence is that you take control of your supply chain and master many aspects of your product design to create the best product and customer experience. Today, Apple is the best example of vertical integration, and the benefits to the company and its shareholders are well-recognized. However, the major drawback is that vertical integration is difficult, as you must excel at many things.
Ironman is a more iconic sport than Ultra marathon in the endurance-sport arena because, while both are physically demanding competitions, the latter requires singular specialization while Ironman requires mastering multiple disciplines. This year, I learned that vertical integration is critical to completing an Ironman, as you need to master your training program, nutrition plan, commitment, body and mind.
Racing in the Ironman was a life-changing experience for me. I am grateful for the opportunities and the knowledge I have acquired. Now that the race is over, I can say: “I am a father, husband, entrepreneur, triathlete, a COO and an Ironman.”
Alex Douzet is Co-Founder and COO of TheLadders. In this role, Alex is responsible for the company strategy, global business operations, and product development.