I have been learning martial arts since I was 11 years old. After being bullied at school, my mom put me in Shotokan karate so I could learn to protect myself.
I always found the raw, gritty side of fighting convincing, and continued to practice martial arts for many years, eventually earning my second-level black belt in karate.
Recently, I started learning Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ). Putting so much time into this new form of martial arts highlights the parallels between being on the mat and leading a startup.
I learned a concept from learning karate called Bushido. It directly translates as “Way of the Samurai” and refers to the unshakable spirit of the Samurai. In some ways, successfully leading a company requires the same code of honor and tenacity.
Even if you’re about to be committed, you still need to give it your all and hold on to the last second. I find the same goes for dealing with business challenges.
Here are some of the lessons I learned from practicing martial arts and what they taught me about leading a company.
Tenacity is the key
Startups are hard; they’re not for everyone. Neither is martial arts.
When I show up at my dojo (gym) to practice BJJ on any given day, I don’t know what I’m going to encounter. It’s important that I arrive with a flexible mindset, ready to handle whatever that session has in store for me. Since I don’t yet have the muscle memory associated with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, I learn something new every time I step on the mat.
The same goes for leading a startup. You need to be gritty and ready to learn. Often, this means being committed and humble enough to learn and practice things over and over until you gain “muscle memory.”
Whether it’s hiring, writing lines of code, or running tests, doing something over and over — not giving up — is the only way to get better. Leading a startup can be challenging and some days can push you to the limit. Between dealing with performance constraints, technical complexity, and product launch issues, it seems easier to fold and work for a larger company. Having the courage to persevere is crucial.
I have a confession: I nearly quit BJJ a few months ago. After weeks of frustration with being beaten up, going back to karate will in many ways be an easier path. At the end of the day, learning new things is hard: that’s why so many white-collar workers quit and start-ups fail. Practicing martial arts has taught me what a breakthrough is when dealing with work-related challenges.
Think a step or two ahead
Sparring is like playing chess: you need to keep an eye on your opponents and predict their next moves. In a split second, you can go from having the upper hand to being choke or boom. By considering your opponent’s next move, you have a better chance of taking appropriate actions and reactions.
The same goes for leading a startup. You often have to deal with changing and unpredictable situations and situations. It is impossible to know what will happen tomorrow, next week, or next month, so thinking ahead and staying agile are necessary strategies.
Staying focused on the mat and at work is critical. In Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, even for a split second, taking your eyes off your opponent can mean the difference between winning or being submitted.
It takes discipline to stay focused, especially in the context of a startup. With so much to do, it’s easy to get distracted and thin. No one can handle ten different things at the same time, so my advice is to focus on one or two things at a time before tackling more.
The thing that improved my ability to focus on work was hiring my great leadership team. When I first joined the company, I emphasized hiring the right people with the experience needed to lead the company. Having this team on board has allowed me to turn my attention to being more involved in my role as CEO.
friendship is everything
When you enter the dojo, no one knows who you are or what you do outside the academy. You are just one person – things like race, background and status are irrelevant.
I strive to create the same level playing field for Cape Privacy employees: it’s all about people. That means celebrating every success, big or small. Running a startup takes a lot of trial and error, as does practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: no one becomes an expert overnight.
The core values on which we live are trust, collaboration and inclusion. This perpetuates our camaraderie, especially as a distributed team that was operating remotely even before the pandemic. Whether at work or in the dojo, it is essential to know that those around you will support you, celebrate your achievements, and communicate effectively with you.
Coming to the mat (and work) with a white belt mentality
Every time I “roll” in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, I often meet people who are younger, stronger, more flexible, and more experienced than me. Your ability and willingness to learn from people whose strengths differ from yours is an integral part of getting better.
My karate master letter (senior master) told me that having a “leucorrhea mentality” means letting go of yourself and being open to learning.As professional mixed martial artist George Saint-Pierre said“I maintain a white belt mentality that I can learn from anyone, anytime, anywhere.” I totally agree: everyone at every level—whether at work or in martial arts—can learn from others.
Both martial arts and running a company taught me more lessons than I thought. The grit and perseverance required to perform on the mat isn’t much different from the fighting spirit required to start a business. In all this, staying humble, staying focused, and relying on the team is what keeps things going well.