Last month, my team Chupacabra competed in the U.S. Ultimate Frisbee National Championships outside of Chicago. I hadn’t been there since my first trip in 1992 with my college team Nietzch Factor. Of course, I now play Grandmasters-level Ultimate (a euphemism for old and tight-in-the-hamstrings), but a friend of mine looked it up at USA Ultimate and found that my hiatus between national tournaments was the fourth longest in ultimate history. I’ll never make the record books for athletic feats of prowess, but, I’ll take any record I can get at this point. And I’m just thrilled to still be playing.
Ultimate has been a cornerstone of my life, for even longer than working at startups. Just as Ultimate is more than a sport, being part of a startup is more than a job. I’m not the first to notice, either—check out this NPR article about how Ultimate Frisbee is to Silicon Valley startups as golf is to corporate America. But I see even more key similarities, as well.
So, without further ado, here’s my top 8 list of ways that Ultimate Frisbee prepared me for joining the startup universe:
(Quick sidebar: If you don’t know what Ultimate Frisbee is, and you’re on the verge of asking me if it’s like Frisbee golf—please refrain. Instead, watch this highlights video from the co-ed Ultimate Championships from 2017, and be amazed. Or read the full history of ultimate written by my former teammate Adam Zagoria.)
1. Be Hyper-Competitive, but Still Chill
Ultimate players want to win. Startup folks want to win. But both also value being laid back, thoughtful, and fair. How seriously can you take yourself when your sport was started by hippies throwing a pie tin around? Or when your industry was started by college dropouts in some Silicon Valley garage?
“The Spirit of the Game” is a quasi-religious founding tenet of Ultimate. We self-referee, we call fouls on each other and work it out on the field. This remains true, even at the highest competitive levels – there aren’t even referees in professional Ultimate (yeah, that’s a real thing). We give spirit prizes—to the player on a team who exhibits the best sportsmanship and to the most spirited team at a tournament (not always the most losing team). The national championship record books track the spirit winners alongside the conventional champions.
Similarly, startups generally operate in new industries or between the lines of existing industries and are therefore mandated to “referee” themselves. This means there’s a lot of self-regulation that must occur for every startup—there’s rarely a conventional set of rules to follow.
What have startups and Ultimate both figured out? Playing with jerks just isn’t fun, even if they’re super talented and can help you win for a while. Teams choose who they want to play and work with. At Kellogg, a highly team-focused business school, we formed new teams with every class, every quarter. Great people gravitated together. There’s a healthy list of management gurus that stress the importance of ditching abrasive employees, even if they are engineering gods.
Ultimate and startups have both figured the importance of teamwork over self-promotion or a disharmonious competitive spirit.
2. Have an Anti-Authoritarian, Change-the-World Attitude
Both Ultimate (which became a sport in ‘68) and the startup world were founded with much of the anti-establishment, anti-authority spirit of the 1960’s. The spirit of Ultimate clearly came out of the egalitarian, revolutionary mindset of the ’60s.
And have you ever tracked the number of times people use the word “disrupt” or “revolutionize” at a startup conference (mocked most effectively in this episode of Silicon Valley)? Or remember this iconic Apple commercial where they free the mindless drones of 1984?
Yes, many of these sentiments are cheesy. Countless companies can plead guilty to self-delusions of saving the world through creating profits. But concepts like Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” abound in startups. And the contribution of tech leaders to philanthropy is impressive, even if it took a while to get there. In 2007, I had the pleasure of leading the creation of my startup’s foundation launch. It was championed by our CEO, who defined philanthropy as a core value of our company. We based our new foundation on Salesforce.com’s, and they were generous and eager to meet with us and share what they’d learned. Startup folks generally cherish a change-the-world spirit while still being groovy to each other. And in Ultimate, we’re even making efforts at world peace, as captured in this recent New York Times article).
3. Be Passionate, Obsessive, and Quasi-Social Cult-like
People get way into both Ultimate and startups. And once we’re in, we want others to be in too. “Drinking the Kool-Aid” is a popular expression in both cults. We want to evangelize anyone who wants to join for the first time and learn from those who have done it before. We’ve got passion. Once the game or workday is over, we want to hang out after and sip a few microbrews, or maybe kombuchas. The team that wins the tournament party (eg. shows the biggest presence on the dance floor and at the bar) receives substantial glory, but everyone’s efforts are honored.
The startup and Ultimate scenes are incredibly welcoming and social. I met most of my San Francisco friends in the ‘90’s playing pick-up games in Golden Gate Park. We then formed our own teams. Over time, we went to each others’ weddings and participated in other adult rites of passage. When I moved back to Denver, I knew I’d meet my next crew playing ultimate. Similarly, the Denver-Boulder startup scene also welcomed me back to Colorado (my home state) with countless generous tech leaders sharing guidance and introductions along the way.
I’m still deeply connected to many of my colleagues from my first big startup, LiveOps. You live through so many rollercoasters that turn into startup-land that startups create closer personal connections than any other places I’ve worked. One day you’ve almost lost your funding and the next you land your first major client in a space you didn’t know existed three months ago. How cool is that? This means that most startup folks welcome new experiences with open arms and have an audacious tolerance for risk. It also means they’ll generally have pretty great stories and be the people I stay in touch with the most.
For those not into the scenes, both Ultimate and startups can be a bit much. We spend excessive amounts of time and focus with our passions that can take over the rest of our lives. My wife and her close friend started a club in the late-’90 are called POUT—Partners of Ultimate Tyrants—designated for significant others who couldn’t stand even one more discussion about hammers, dumps, and sweet bids. Partners of startup junkies are subjected to a similar battery of terms like MVPs, Agile, CACs, unicorns and vaporware. If you don’t know what these terms are and don’t want to, try to keep your partner out of both scenes, as marital discord can be a side effect of being a startup or ultimate junkie. Brad Feld, a lead venture capitalist, and startup guru, even wrote a book with his wife about managing relationships while working for startups.
Firetruck’s glorious league championship photo—Mile High Ultimate Winter League 2017 (look for me with the Starsky and Hutch tribute mustache).
4. Plays Well Together, and Success Depends on Awesome People at Every Level
People fluidly take on new roles in Ultimate within the game and within every team. In each point in ultimate, you will move from being a thrower (point guard) to a cutter (wide receiver) to scrapping to get back on defense. To quote an Inc article about tech leaders that play Ultimate, “it’s a fast game with a flat management structure where players must perform all tasks as necessary.”
I’ve now captained over 20 league teams and several competitive club teams, too. With each new team, we show up and balance playing where we feel the strongest with the areas that the team needs us the most. I’ve also lead 10+ teams for startups and it’s amazing how similar that approach can be.
Ultimate uniquely offers opportunities to play with a wider range of people than most sports. It’s the best co-ed sport possible. The matchups are more person-on-person than soccer, so if your women rock, your team will win. It also means that if your young, inexperienced players can win their matchups against the other team’s young’uns, you also win.
Startups survive on young, versatile A+ players who just figure stuff out and get amazing amounts done. Every great startup I’ve worked for, including my current company, has survived on a balance of wily vets and new all-stars figuring things out together. If your young all-star ops team can compete with the other guys, you get to invest a lot more with experienced marketing or dev leaders to effectively boost your startup’s growth.
Ultimate Frisbee team putting their thumbs around the disc before a cheer, which we do to start and finish each game, and each break in the game.
5. Celebrate and Cheer Whenever You Can
In most Ultimate leagues, at the end of the game, each team comes up with a unique cheer for the other team. The best cheers involve double entendre and/or Weird Al-esque remakes of classic rap songs. I wanted to include a sample cheer here, but most of them aren’t fit for public consumption. One of our standard Firetruck cheers is “What starts with F and ends with uck?!? Firetruck!” It revs our engine.
Celebrating is a tenet of startup culture too. When you’re moving a gazillion miles a minute, you have to remember every once in a while that you’re making crazy progress too. At a former startup, the engineering team made a unique cocktail every week in honor of some member of the team and created quirky, photoshopped posters of them for the weekly celebration. At Verblio (formerly BlogMutt), we celebrate each major milestone with tequila shots, VooDoo donuts, dog-office days, or in true Boulder fashion, by climbing mountains together.
6. Focus on Playing Well, not Taking Yourself Too Seriously
And now…for some of the less obvious overlaps. Earnest names are frowned upon in both Ultimate and startups. Great names should be ironic, creative, or just really fun to say. While this might seem like a goofy parallel, I think it expresses a value of focusing less on the status and taking ourselves too seriously.
I named a late ‘90’s club team Sassy Sassafras Lollipop Experience. It was a proud moment. We had a deep rivalry with the Feral Cows. Our San Francisco league had a season where each team was named after an NPR reporter. I believe Team Nina Totenberg beat Team Snighda Prakash that season, but it could’ve been the Neda Ulaby team too.
Startups are also famous for oddball names. We don’t have enough room here for that one. Yes, we are indeed called Verblio. (And we have a new fun name coming in October!) I think the commonality here is that we don’t want to take ourselves too seriously and that we want to create our own meaning.
As for dress styles, no one has ever commented on how well dressed a startup team is, and that could not be truer of Ultimate players either. Zuckerberg popularized wearing hoodies to work. I had to actively shop for a less formal wardrobe with more short sleeve shirts once I joined the Colorado tech scene, and now even wear shorts to work. Sacre bleu!
Ultimate consists of a particularly creatively dressed community. Here’s a picture of some of my friends at a recent costume tournament, which demonstrates the point quite well. I’m pretty sure they won the tournament party.
7. It Takes a Village, and Someone has to Step Up and Set Up
Unless someone builds the playground, no one gets to play in the sandbox. Somebody has to set up the fields, get us all together, and make sure stuff happens. Both Ultimate and startups rely on people willing to step forward and create the systems necessary to build community within each.
Every pickup game has a guy who shows up to put the cones on the field. Without that guy, the game would probably disappear. Without the league organizers and volunteer high-school (and now middle-school) Ultimate coaches, nothing happens.
Startups similarly rely on passionate people at all levels of the organization to pull us all together. Internally, there’s the one who makes sure the ping pong balls are replenished, and the Friday beers are local and cold.
As a startup community, we rely on more formal institutions too, like the startup investment community and organizations like Denver Startup Week, started by some local, passionate leaders who wanted to support the growth of our burgeoning scene.
8. There’s Always Next Season
Ultimate players and startup teams are ever-evolving and reinventing ourselves. I’m looking forward to the next season with both:
For my favorite Ultimate team, Firetruck!, we’re looking forward to our three-peat as champs in our fall league team and to writing some epic (albeit NSFW) cheers.
For my favorite startup, Verblio, we’ll be announcing our next evolution and some big news to come with it, too. There will be much competition, poor clothing choices, and celebration. And with it, a brand new startup cheer…