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John Petersen

Surfing and Startups

Last summer, Howard Lindzon gave a talk to us at the TechStars Boulder class and said,

"Just like a surfer, you have to position yourself to ride the one big wave that will change your life"

Speaking to him after, Howard went on to say that there are many parallels between surfing and startups. I never really gave it much thought after that until I got to go surfing this Saturday for the first time all summer.

Here’s what I think Howard was talking about…

Just because you call yourself a surfer, that does not make you a surfer. Anyone can go out and buy a surfboard or tell JWoww and Snooki that he is a surfer, but you actually have to put your board in the ocean to go surfing

  • Anyone can say that he is working on a startup or that he is an entrepreneur or even worse “doing a startup.” But if you haven’t quit your job, burned the boats, and are living and breathing your startup every minute of the day, you’ve never even set foot in the water yet.

You have to find where the waves are breaking, otherwise you are just floating around on a board in the water. You can’t go to a spot where there was a great break 3 days ago or even where the surf report said the waves were breaking this morning. You have find out what time the tides are and where the best waves are breaking right now.

  • If your working on a new dating site with a twist or trying to build a better version of Instagram, you’re surfing where this one person caught this magnificent wave this one time except now that wave is long gone and you’re fighting with 30 other people for any tiny wave that will come your way. Find your own waves. Enough said.

You have to paddle out past where the waves are breaking if you want to be able to catch anything worth riding. Depending on the size of the waves, this could be quite a challenge as wave after wave comes crashing down on you trying to send you and your board back to shore. If you’re not constantly moving forward, you’re getting sent right back to beach.

  • Before you can even think about any sort of success, you have to put in the hard work — long hours, no sleep, weekends, sacrifices — and you have to keep moving forward. Sometimes, the best way to move forward is to go sideways just like sometimes the best way to get past the breakers is to paddle around them. But one thing is for sure, nobody has ever caught a wave sitting on beach and no one has ever achieved success without execution.

You must put yourself in the right position and be patient and alert so that you don’t miss that monster wave that makes this all worth it. This is exactly what Howard was talking about. Assuming you made it past the break, you must be ready for that one life changing wave. You can’t be looking at the little fishies or working on your tan or checking out the girls in bikinis walking down the beach. Focus.

  • You have no idea when you are going to find explosive fab.com-like growth just like you have no idea when that life changing wave is going to come, but you have to make sure you are absolutely ready for the ride of your life when it comes along.

Timing is everything if you actually want to catch that beautiful wave you’ve been waiting for. Start paddling too early, you’ll get crushed by the break. Start paddling too late, you’ll miss it. Stand up too early, you’ll be standing up on the wrong side of the wave. Stand up too late, you’ll miss the entire ride.

  • If you wait until the right time to start building your idea or until you have a perfect app written with no bugs and every feature you’ve ever dreamed of, five people will have already beat you to the punch. And if you release something too early, you may never get a second shot.

You will wipeout and it will suck. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. If you are not wiping out, you are not pushing yourself hard enough. Time to find some bigger waves. Sure wipeouts suck — you get the wind knocked out of you, you get dragged under water for way longer than you are comfortable with, you smash your face, you get bruises, cuts, scrapes — but it’s all part of the process. Wiping out isn’t quitting or failing. It’s just part of surfing. It’s a painful reminder to be a little better next time. And the worse part is that you have to paddle out past the damn breakers all over again without the satisfaction of even having gotten a great ride out of it.

  • If you’re not getting rejected constantly, you’re doing it wrong. If people don’t call you crazy, laugh at your idea, tell you it will never work, tell you to get a “real” job, say that you’ll never find investors, and poke holes at every single thing they can, then you’re doing it wrong. You need that wipeout. You need that rejection. It keeps you sharp and on your toes and even more motivated to get back out there and catch the next wave.

You have to go above and beyond what everyone else is willing to do if you want to surf the best waves. Every surfer in NJ knows that the best waves are in the winter. The only problem is that the air is 30 degrees, the water is 42 degrees, and there’s snow on the ground.

  • If you’re going to let a few minor inconveniences like the weather and temperature stop you from riding the best waves, maybe you’re not really a surfer. Me, I’m no surfer and would never claim to be one. I go when it’s warm and convenient. My brother goes all year round and will get up at 4am so he can get 2 hours of surfing in before he goes to work all day. That’s the kind of dedication your startup needs from you.

Don’t tell people you’re a surfer. Show them. They’ll know when they see you out there on your board all by yourself with snow falling all around you and that glorious wave all to yourself.

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