The Tour de France is the world’s most grueling bike race and perhaps the toughest multi-day sporting event in the world. It’s a three-week, 2,000 mile (3,600-kilometer) bicycle odyssey that has participants pushing themselves over two mountain ranges as they circumnavigate France.
As I’ve been watching the race over the last few days, I realized that it offers a lot of lessons for company builders. Here are five that occurred to me:
1. Focus on the next turn
Building a company can feel overwhelming when you realize how far you are from your goal, so it’s important to set up and celebrate mini-goals along the way.
Each year the Tour de France map changes, but organizers often include Mont Ventoux and Alpe d’Huez in their plans. They are two of the highest peaks in France, but most people agree that Ventoux is the psychologically harder climb because it includes long stretches of road without turns. These straights — often in excess of a 9 percent grade — are psychologically taxing. They can make riders feel as if they are standing still for minutes at a time.
Alpe d’Huez, in contrast, is made up of 21 hairpin turns — called switchbacks — which give the rider the continual sense of forward motion and accomplishment. With each switchback, the rider achieves a mini-goal and can feel confident as he or she moves on to the next.
2. Shine when it counts
A lot of entrepreneurs can point to specific points in time — a key meeting, a critical sale, the day they made an engineering breakthrough — when they summoned an extra store of energy and focus to create an inflection point for their business.
Likewise, Tour de France champions do not ride all-out for three weeks. They sit in the middle of the pack for most of the first 10 days of the race, content to let the sprinters take the podium at the end of each stage. They save their mental and physical energy for the individual time trial and the mountain stages, where the three-week race usually comes down to a couple of key moments.
3. Let others have the glory
Great business leaders let other people on their team have the spotlight. They do not need to do every interview or attend every customer meeting or get credit for every new innovation. Likewise, the team leaders in the Tour de France will often let a few unknown riders cycle ahead of the group to give individual riders the glory of leading a stage. “Leading a stage” means a relatively unknown rider is followed by the television helicopter for hours, ensuring he will be considered for sponsorships and be received as a hometown hero once the Tour is over. Team leaders will instruct their team to chase down the threat of a leading rider only if their performance in the overall race results — the general classification — is jeopardized.
4. Recognize your team
Entrepreneurs get a lot of adulation from the media, but the best ones are quick to acknowledge their team. Although most people view cycling as an individual activity, grand tour racing is actually a team sport of nine riders. The team leader gets the glory, but every person plays a unique role. The sprinter is there to bring exposure to the team and its sponsors on the individual stage races, and the “lead-out man” is there to lead the sprinter to within 200 meters of the finish line. The team leader must save himself for the mountain stages, so he relies on his “domestiques” (translated from French literally as “servant”) to block the wind, carry food and water and — in the event of a mechanical breakdown or crash — hand over his bike for the good of the team leader. Watch a team leader interviewed at the finish line, and he will quickly acknowledge the role played by his domestiques.
5. Don’t cheat
The sport of cycling and its great race have been mired in controversy over the drugs riders use to give them an edge or help mask the pain of cycling 2000 miles in three weeks. Virtually all of the sport’s big names have been caught or implicated in one drug scandal or another over the years, which has gone a long way to undermining the accomplishments and reputation of the world’s greatest bike race.
Warren Buffett best sums up this point in a famous warning: “If you lose money for the firm, I will be understanding. Lose a shred of reputation for the firm, and I will be ruthless.” Enough said.