Startups: 5K or Ironman?

I had an experience at Starbucks this week that left me intrigued by the gap I see in major brands between employee engagement and customer engagement.

I am an extremely engaged Starbucks fan.

starbuckslocalstore To give you an idea of my engagement level: I’ve carried my Starbucks Gold card with pride since 2008, this site I keep that card on “auto reload” so that I don’t have to be bothered reloading it all the time. I have Starbucks city mugs from 11 different countries on display in my office. I am the proud Foursquare “Mayor” of my local Starbucks store. My Christmas tree is covered with a collection of 7-8 different Starbucks ornaments I’ve collected over the years… I’m highly engaged.

Starbucks has done a fantastic job of keeping me engaged. Through emails, information pills twitter responses, adiposity Foursquare ads, and “Gold card insider” emails, I am a loyal, caffeine addicted member of the Starbucks universe.

Last month I got a BIG insider tip about a new mug coming out. A Starbucks mug to top all other mugs. I was excited. I was engaged. The mug was coming out on a Monday morning and each store would only have a limited number of them. I marked my calendar for the day (still a few weeks out) and when the day came, I woke up early to get to my local Starbucks nice and early.

fousquarestarbucks As I arrived and logged into Foursquare (a location based social media app), there was a pop up that told me about the special mug that arrived today! New excitement filled my heart.

I walked in and eagerly looked for the mug, but didn’t see it. I would have expected a display, but decided to get in line and ask a friendly barista:
“Hi! I’m here for the ‘January mug’! Where are they?”

The barista looked back at me with a blank stare, “The January mug? What is that?”

Oh, maybe that isn’t the name I thought. I responded, “The mug that came out today. The mug that gives you free coffee for all of January. It was released this morning.”

She looked at her manager with the puzzled look and said, “Did we get new mugs in today?” The Starbucks manager replied, “We get stock in on Thursdays. What we have is out.”

I froze, disheartened. This was my chance. I didn’t have time to get to another Starbucks before going to work, and I knew they would sell out by lunch. These disengaged employees who clearly didn’t care to find the answer, succeeded in undoing the prior work of a great  marketing team.

Clearly the marketing team at Starbucks had done a fantastic job communicating this campaign through multiple channels.  However, the company dropped the ball on the customer experience by not communicating to their employees. The end result is still a disengaged fan. In order to engage your customers, your employees need to convey both knowledge and excitement about your campaigns.

How does a brand create brand advocates out of their employees and create fans of employees? What are your suggestions for creating super engaged employee for your company?
70.3 miles. That is a long way to swim, pills
bike and run, help
and that’s only half of a 140.6 Ironman.

I completed my first 70.3 Ironman a couple of months ago and it was a very interesting and challenging experience. My body ached. My mind ached. Both of them wanted to give up and give in many times throughout the 70.3 miles, here
but I persevered and crossed the finish line.



In the midst of this challenging experience, I learned a few principles about startups that have kept me going in the startup I’m working on currently. I started Hands On Test in early 2012 and I can see the parallels between participating in an Ironman and starting a company. It’s been a wild ride of emotions, but I’ve learned a few principles along the way that have kept me going when things get tough.

Here are a few parallels to think about regarding starting something and an Ironman.

  • Startups are NOT 5K’s

Most of us can “wing” a 5k. Most of us can just show up, in whatever shape we are in, and finish a 5k race without much complication or risk. It’s only 3.1 miles and we can brute force our way through it.

Startups are not like a 5k. Most of us will not be able to just show up and make it work. Most of us don’t start off week one with thousands of customers. It’s a lot harder than that and not about sprints but more about persevering for the long run. Startups are more like an Ironman.

  •  You have to commit!

When competing in an Ironman, you have to commit from the beginning. Like I mentioned above, most of us can’t just show up and do a 70.3 or 140.6 Ironman. We’ll embarrass ourselves and put our health at risk. Months before the event, you have to commit to train appropriately so you can put yourself in a position to complete the Ironman successfully.

Startups are the same. You have to commit. You have to commit to finding out if your idea is viable or not. You have to commit to finding out your right product/market fit. You have to commit to the development of a business and not just a product. You can’t ride the fence when starting something. It takes commitment to survive and thrive.

  • Startups are very emotional

Startups, like participating in a 70.3 Ironman, are very emotional experiences. It’s literally a ride of ups and downs. One day you get great news from a potential customer or validation of your idea/product and you are sky high. The next day you get news someone isn’t interested or no one will respond to your request for a phone call and you are down in the dumps. Emotions are all over the map.

Starting something will bring a wide scale of emotions, but you have to keep going and understand there will be good and bad days. It’s part of it. You’ll ride the emotional roller coaster almost daily, so you have to stay committed to the process and vision. 

  • 90% or more of the fight is mental

Participating in an Ironman event is very taxing mentally. That’s where the battle takes place and that’s where we are tempted to quit. My temptation to quit wasn’t physical, but all mental. When it’s you and your mind alone on a bike for 56 miles, it’s a battle.

The same is true for your startup. Perseverance is the key to survival. If you have an idea and you work to get your assumptions validated as soon as you can, then perseverance is going to be a key to your success. You’ll want to quit, trust me. There will be days when it’s really low and days when it’s really high, but you have to keep the vision in front of you and keep having those interviews/conversations about your product.

  • Get one or more trusted advisors

I learned a long time ago that I’m not really good at interpreting my circumstances in a vacuum. I need objective people to help me interpret what’s going on around me with my startup. I need for them to encourage and correct when needed. This is why having a one or more trusted advisors is very important in helping you understand the best next steps for your startup. They may see something you can’t and be a great source for providing direction.

Hang in there and buckle up for the long run. Your startup is an endurance event and not a sprint. Stay committed to the plan/process and pivot when needed.