Is Your Startup The New England Patriots? And Are You Tom Brady?* Image

Is Your Startup The New England Patriots? And Are You Tom Brady?*

Let me get something out of the way upfront. I am not a Patriots fan. Not. At. All.

As a lifelong, diehard, many-screws-loose Pittsburgh Steelers football fan, I couldn’t be further from the Brady Bunch fan club. In fact, as my team has constantly been toyed with and tortured by Giselle’s man (anyone remember the Steelers’ Kordell Stewart era? hopefully not), some would even go so far as to say I’m a Hate-riot.

And this is not a moral judgment on Spygate, Deflategate or the upcoming controversy around Tom Brady’s Giselle-inspired Uggs (Ugg-gate?)

But what’s insane is the winning under Brady and his coach Bill Bellichick:

  • 8 AFC Championship appearances
  • 4 AFC Championship appearances in a row
  • 6 Super Bowl appearances
  • 3(+?) Super Bowl victories
  • All with different teams and strategies every time

So how the heck does this relate to startups?

Well despite the winning, the Patriots are not an easy place to work. Hometown heroes are cut. Players supposedly past their prime depart. Folks are released right before the Super Bowl. Some teammates just couldn’t take the heat. And the coach Bellichick is no teddy bear (unless you have a stuffed Darth Vader in your bedroom – if you do, I’m not judging).

Spectators in Silicon Valley look at our truly great teams – the Apples, Salesforce.coms and Googles – and the Microsofts from years-gone-by – and think “wow it must have been just amazing to work there.”

And it’s true that working at a startup that’s winning is better than working at one that’s losing. It’s not much fun to play for the Cleveland Browns.

But the reality is when you hear stories from people that actually worked at those legendary companies – particularly in the “teenage” years of hyper-growth and change – you learn that playing on the best tech teams is no walk in the park:

  • “Stress off the charts”
  • “Too much change”
  • “Expectations are too high”
  • “Leadership is unrealistic in their goals”

In fact, many of the recent rocket ships like Facebook and Twitter had significant turnover – particularly at the top – despite valuations that grew almost exponentially. Most people in the senior levels didn’t make it all the way in any of the great companies.

I thought about this recently as I digested my 360-degree review by my team and my board and viewed the dichotomy first-hand:

  • Board Members: “Continue to raise the bar and be ruthless on performance”
  • Team: “Sometimes your expectations are too high”

And it hit me. Every startup needs to decide what its commitment to winning is. Is winning, as the famous Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi said (though taken out of context) “the only thing?” Are you okay winning some of the time, or are you completely unhappy unless you win all the time? Do you want to raise the bar every week – every month – every year? Honestly, that philosophy is not sustainable for most organizations.

If you’re a team member at a startup, you need to decide if you’re Tom Brady. Are you the one person who can stick it out through thick and thin? Can you handle your beloved teammates not making it? Can you tolerate a coach that always finds flaws? Can you deal with the fact that winning teams don’t celebrate a ton – they just move on to “next week” and the next challenge?

Honestly, I don’t know where I net out on this and I know that the Patriots aren’t for everyone – and that most of us aren’t Tom Brady. But even as someone who dreads trips to the 617 area code, I have to admit I’m impressed by any team’s undying commitment to winning.

P.S. Go Seahawks!

* My Pittsburgh family might abandon me for writing this, but the words come from the heart!