Race to Scale: 10 things I learned in race school that made me a better entrepreneur
Roughly twenty-five years ago, and shortly after my first significant exit, I decided that I wanted to try my hand at auto racing. I’d always loved anything with a motor and wheels, and right after high school I got my Commercial Driver’s License (CDL - Class A). In fact, I’ve logged well over 10,000 hours behind the wheel, driving everything from a Big Rig (Tractor-Trailer combo), to a 30,000 lb. forklift, to a city bus.
To get ready for racing, I participated in a couple “race schools” and worked with several private instructors.
Out of that process, a number of things became clear.
Despite all of my driving experience, I was not ready for racing and I was nowhere near as capable as I thought I was.
Most of the serious people I encountered, came up through the Kart circuit, and they were looking to race full time, as a career.
I wasn’t fully committed. I saw it as a hobby, and it showed in my performance.
The lessons learned on a racetrack, could teach me a lot about life and business.
Ultimately, various boards, investors and “key man” policies convinced me to give up racing, but I learned a ton from the experience. What follows, is a review of ten basic concepts common in racing, showing how those same skills can be applied to business.
1. Walk the track
What you do leading up to a race plays a huge role in the ultimate outcome. In fact, the capabilities of your car are limited by your set-up, which is further influenced by the track, start time, weather, and dozens of other factors.
Knowing the challenges you will face in advance, and adjusting accordingly, is a big key to success. In fact, before each race, drivers and their race teams go through a longstanding pre-game ritual known as the “track walk.” As the name implies, teams walk the track, pausing with regularity to take note of potential dangers and opportunities that would otherwise be overlooked at race speed.
When it comes to racing, this is about as “quiet” as it gets, and you can only imagine the patience and discipline required for a driver to “slow down” in the leadup to a race to examine the minute intricacies of the track – but it is ridiculously important.
How to set-up the car, including things like camber, caster, tire pressure, damper, springs and dozens of other factors come into play. Other big ticket items of interest include finding the right line, figuring out where to brake and where to accelerate, isolating trouble spots where you might cut a tire, identifying when to turn-in and when to pass – these all get processed long before you start your engine. After some test laps, your team may choose to make additional adjustments, but the basic thesis was likely established well in advance – and this is not unlike launching a startup.
“Without a plan you fail. In a car, at high velocity, it’s a steep learning curve.”
In recent years, I’ve heard many VCs say that “startup founders don’t need a formal business plan.” As a longtime founder, let me just say, that is utter nonsense and, for entrepreneurs, that is likely some of the worst advice you could ever buy into.
First of all, I don’t know what the difference is between a business plan and a “formal” business plan. You either have a well thought out and reasoned plan, or you don’t. This is not a place where you can just waive your hands and say the magic words. Without a plan you fail. In a car, at high velocity, it’s a steep learning curve.
In business, you need to know your track (the market), its many challenges (the problem), your cars capabilities (the product / solution), and the proper line (your go-to-market strategy). All of this should be examined in advance of launch.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of getting to market quickly and iterating – but that doesn’t preclude a business plan. Far from it. The plan is not to validate your ideas in the eyes of investors. It’s for you. It allows you to anticipate issues prior to encountering them at “race speed.”
Done properly, this does two things: 1) it forces you to really analyze every aspect of the market and your business, and 2) it allows you to better anticipate future needs and/or difficulties.
I’ve got over two decades of experience as a startup founder, and I still write detailed business plans for every new venture, redesign, go-to-market and product launch. In fact, whenever I find myself having to react to multiple “unforeseen” events in my business, I know that my original plan was flawed, and I revisit the entire exercise.
Always remember to “walk your track” in advance of launch.
2. The car goes where your eyes go
When driving, most people focus on the patch of road just beyond the nose of their car. I first became aware of this when I trained for my CDL. You see, when you drive a semi, a large box truck, or a city bus, you sit so far forward that it is difficult to use the nose of the vehicle to reference your vehicles position in the lane. As such, you’re taught to continuously monitor the tail of the vehicle (or trailer) in the sideview mirrors to see if you are centered in the lane – in effect, you’re driving your future by looking at your past.
Racing is the exact opposite. In fact, most of what you think you know about driving is useless. Most casual drivers view the road through the bottom half of the windshield. In racing, the general rule is that you want to be looking well ahead, viewing the road through the top 1/3 of the glass.
One thing you’ll hear from almost all racing instructors is “look where you want the car to go, and it will go there.” Trust me when I tell you that this really works.
“If your eyes get drawn to the wall, then that’s where you’ll end up.”
Unfortunately, it works both ways. If you get in trouble and you start losing control, don’t stare at the wall. Instead look for a clear line out of trouble. If your eyes get drawn to the wall, then that’s where you’ll end up.
At race speed, you need to be anticipating, not scrambling to react to the next required skill or challenge. Your eyes should be looking ahead, while your hands execute on what you saw a second or two earlier. Your eyes will tell your hands where you want to go and, as if by magic, the car will go there.
The same is true in business. Teams focus on what they think the founder or CEO cares about – it’s just human nature. So, if the first question you ask your team every morning is about one specific metric, then that’s the metric your team will focus on over all others and, ultimately, that’s where your business will go.
When it comes to your business, where are your eyes?
3. Don’t Panic
In a race car, there comes a point very early in the process, when things start moving faster than you’re used to, and you realize that rapid unplanned deceleration is no longer just a hypothetical problem. This is a key moment, and something of a rite of passage.
Unfortunately, when this happens, your adrenaline will kick in and your autonomic nervous system will decide to go on vacation – which is generally bad news. What’s more, this happens to pretty much everybody at some point, and there’s not much you can do to prevent it. Preparation and planning can help, but you can’t account for everything, particularly on a track. Most instructors will tell you that your best defense is to build your skill over time, not to push beyond your abilities, and to count on your training to guide you home.
Driving a race car is a specialized profession, and it’s not for everyone. The same is true for startups. Some people just aren’t cut out for it.
Startups are riddled with chaos. If you want to thrive as a startup founder, you need to get comfortable with the concept of being uncomfortable. Over time, you will come to understand your own resilience and you will learn that marshalling chaos is something of a superpower.
“In a startup, chaos is just untapped potential.”
The faster you grow, the more likely it is that you will face challenges regarding founder conflicts, logistics, sales management, compensation, personnel, budgets, and countless other items. In a startup, it’s important to remember that chaos is just untapped potential. Think of it as efficiency waiting to be released.
In a race car, if you’re constantly sawing on the wheel, then you’re losing speed. The same is true in business – quiet hands equal growth. If you’re startup is growing despite all the chaos and disorganization, imagine what it will do once you solve those issues.
Keep calm and maintain focus.
4. Slow Hands / Fast Car
As noted above, the less you turn the wheel the faster you will go. If your hands are constantly whipping about on the steering wheel, then you are wasting tons of energy by depriving the tires of grip and by forcing the suspension to work overtime.
“slow hands in the fast stuff, fast hands in the slow stuff”
In racing, it’s important to use “slow hands when moving fast, fast hands when moving slow, and smooth hands all the time.” This valuable lesson applies to business as well.
When things are moving fast, you need to make small adjustments, as every decision will be greatly magnified, and will place greater strain on the overall system. When things are moving slow, you can increase the quantity and magnitude of adjustments to compensate for the lack of momentum, but in all cases, you want to remain true to your ultimate vision, maintaining consistency and focus.
If you’re constantly changing directions or whipsawing your team, then you’re wasting energy. Settle down and pick a course, your team will thank you for it and your business will thrive.
5. Not all corners warrant the same attention
In racing, you spend a lot of time learning about corners, with terms like pedal transition, braking point, turn-in, apex, and exit occupying your thoughts. In general, corners suck. They cost speed, take lots of concentration and scare the crap out of anyone with even a scrap of sanity. They also play a huge part in the overall outcome of the race.
“take a line that allows you to get back on the throttle as soon as possible”
There’s far too much to cover here, but the general goal is to take a line that allows you to get back on the throttle as soon as possible, and since you really accelerate coming out of a corner onto a straightaway, you really want to prioritize those exits. This means that, when dealing with multiple turns, the best line will usually put more emphasis on the very last turn.
Applying this thinking to business, you need to know where to pick your battles. Not every issue warrants your full attention – or any of your attention, for that matter. Knowing when to delegate, when to ignore, and when to drop everything to address an issue, is a key management skill.
From my experience, “walking the track” with someone who knows the ground allows you to identify the right line in advance. In the same vein, if you do your research, compose a well thought out plan, and surround yourself with experienced advisors, you should be able to identify what’s important, and what’s just noise.
Further, if you are deliberate in your hiring (hire slow / fire fast), then you will find that most problems will resolve themselves before they ever make it to your desk.
Pick your battles and get back on the throttle as quickly as you can.
6. Brake hard before the turn-in
Braking is one area where “what you think you know” can really get you into trouble on a racetrack.
On the street, most people are taught to ease into the brakes. On a track, and particularly as you approach a curve, you want to apply significant braking force just before your turn-in point (where you actually turn into the corner). This moves energy to the nose of the car, adding grip to the front tires, which are connected to your hands through the steering wheel. It also slows the car while all four wheels are still pointing forward, which is generally a good thing for your overall health.
This is easier said than done, as you don’t want to lock up the wheels. You want to begin by feathering in the brakes until the weight shifts forward to the nose compressing the front suspension. At that point, ramp up pressure to somewhere between 70% and 90% braking power, and then ease off right before corner entry.
By slowing down and increasing traction to the front, without losing traction in the rear, you’ll carry more speed into the turn. Seems counterintuitive, but it works.
I equate business challenges with the corners on a racetrack. The bigger the challenge, the tighter the corner, and the greater the need to slow the car and transfer the energy. In other words, greater challenges require more decisive action.
We saw this recently with COVID-19. Teams that acted decisively early on, cutting costs, raising bridge rounds, and adjusting budgets, are much better positioned today. In similar fashion, teams that act decisively in the face of a necessary pivot, are much more likely to succeed than those teams that delay such important decisions.
In racing, there’s a great saying “If your car isn’t going where you want it to go, why would you want it to go there any faster?” Hit the brakes and pick a better line.
7. Smooth is fast
In racing, it pays to be smooth. You never want to jerk on any of the inputs. This includes the wheel, the brakes, and the throttle. You want to ease transitions from one to the other, with everything under control at all times.
As an example, you want to ease off the throttle as you approach the turn. Then dial up the brakes and slow dramatically before the turn-in. Now ease up on the brakes and let momentum and possibly some throttle carry you to the apex of the corner. Finally, roll into full power as you exit the corner, letting your foot get heavier as the track straightens out.
Being smooth is equally important in business. If you’re constantly jumping from one initiative, feature, or emergency to the next, you’re going to quickly lose the confidence of your team. You need to have a strong vision of where you want to take the company and that vision should operate like a North Star. Any changes to that bearing should involve serious reflection and should not be taken lightly.
Try not to get distracted by each new shiny object.
8. Make incremental adjustments
On a racetrack, you don’t make ten adjustments each time you pull into the pits. Instead, you try and make one or two minor adjustments to maximize the handling characteristics of your vehicle.
There are multiple reasons for this approach. For one thing, pit stops are short, so you don’t have time to rebuild the car, so teams are forced to focus on what really matters. In addition, if you make too many changes, it’s difficult to know what is working for you and what is working against you. If you change just one thing, then you have immediate feedback on its impact – but if you make six changes, then you really have no idea which of those played any role at all.
These same lessons can be applied to your business. Be very careful when adding multiple features to your product and when making systemic changes to your business processes. If you try to work with too many inputs at once, you won’t be able to derive any sort of usable data from the outcomes.
If you want actionable data, you need to make incremental changes. Otherwise, you may see an improvement, but you won’t have any idea what drove it.
9. Racing is compromise
In many ways, racing is just a series of tradeoffs – things like power, weight, traction, etc., all balanced against the need to go faster. As an example, I was taught to imagine two chains coming from the six o’clock position on the steering wheel and connecting to the car’s gas and brake pedals. To press down on either of the pedals, you first need to straighten the wheel. In contrast, in order to make a turn, you have to let up on the gas and/or the brakes. You see – always compromising.
The same is true in business, and particularly in tech.
In fact, there’s an old adage in tech development “ you can have it cheap, you can have it fast, or you can have it good – pick any two.” Like it or not, this is almost always true, and it’s something you need to get comfortable with. Think of it as a natural law of startups.
You need to be prepared to make compromises, and you need to spend a great deal of your time deciding which of those compromises will cost you some lap time, and which ones will put you into a wall.
10. It’s a race – that’s why it’s called racing.
You don’t win a race by winning a single lap or by executing the perfect pass on lap three. You win by putting together the best combination of laps.
In similar fashion, it’s rarely the most challenging combinations that will give you trouble. You’ve likely spent a great deal of time preparing for those sections and you’ll give them your full attention as they draw near. If you end up in the wall, it’s far more likely that you either lost focus, or you were caught off guard. The same is true in startups.
It’s rare that any one decision will put you in a ditch. Keep your focus and play the long game. At the same time, don’t ignore the small details. Startups are constantly trying to shave time off each lap by making small adjustments to their products, features, go-to-market strategies, etc.
If you are an early stage entrepreneur, then this is another superpower that you have at your disposal. You don’t have a lot of stakeholders (employees, investors, partners) with high expectations, so it is much easier to make changes to the product based on actual user feedback. Do not waste this unique opportunity.
Please don’t try these techniques in your daily driver. First off, I’m not an instructor - I’m just a guy who’s been instructed. Second, your car is probably not a race car. Finally, you’re not on a track.
The racing tips promoted here should only be attempted under the guidance of trained professionals, utilizing the proper equipment and safety gear, while on a professional racetrack.