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”