Late last month I was hanging out with some of my old gymnastics teammates from Stanford. At their apartment, there were a pair of parallettes, and my buddy Nick challenged me to an L-Seat competition. Neither of us had done one in a while and we both gave it our best shot. I think he beat me by like 10 seconds — and I wasn’t thrilled about it.
Much more than a balance exercise, the L-Seat uses chest, triceps, quads and abs to hold. I decided to make this month’s challenge an L-Seat competition and see if I can ramp myself up so next time we face off, I’ll smoke him.
I was recently speaking with a colleague of my father who works in education and had an idea for a product in the tutoring space. He specifically wanted to know where he could find someone with technical skills to help build out a prototype.
In Silicon Valley, we often take for granted the concept of “ideas don’t matter, execution is everything” and that “your greatest enemy is not the competition, but yourself”. But I think that outside of the tech world and outside of Hacker News, there are still a lot of misconceptions that exist around startups and starting/building a new idea.
So I figured I’d share some of the things I’ve learned about competition that might be a reminder for the experienced, and new to those just getting started in startups.
1) Don’t be afraid to tell people your idea. In fact, speak liberally about it.
When I asked my father’s colleague for details about his idea to get a better sense of what he needed to have built, he hesitated for a second and then told me more about it while stating “of course that everything that I tell you is supposed to be confidential”, suggesting that he was still concerned with people “taking” his idea. While understandable, this predilection for secrecy is mistaken.
The two reasons why you should talk to people about your idea are:
First, if the only advantage that you have is about having some idea that which if communicated to a certain person would give them everything they need to execute and produce this idea, you’re already screwed. You have already lost if the “idea” is the only advantage you have. Most good startup ideas start out sounding like bad ideas so it’s unlikely you’ll even convince anyone it’s a good idea.
It’s also likely that someone has already had this idea and is currently working on it, or has tried it in the past and it didn’t work. Both things were true when it came to Ridejoy. Your idea is not new, it’s the new insight, resources and ability to execute that matters.
Second, talking to people about your idea allows you to uncover new insights and resources far faster than keeping it a secret. We thought we knew a good deal about ridesharing when we got started with Ridejoy but we’ve learned so so much more because we’ve told lots of people about our ideas and gotten interesting insights about the history of ridesharing, or approaches that other people to take into building peer-to-peer marketplaces, or just small anecdotes about their own experiences or their friends experiences with ridesharing – we never would have learned all these things if we kept Ridejoy a big secret.
2) Don’t worry about the competition. You are much more likely to be beaten by the market or your own mistakes.
When you’re trying to innovate in a space that has other players, it’s easy to get caught up in what the competition is doing. Living in Silicon Valley doesn’t help this, all your friends and the press know about the other players and they’re always asking questions like “so how are you different from X?” or “Well, I already use Y – what makes you better?”
There’s a strong desire to quickly differentiate yourself from the competitors, or obsess over their every move. But honestly, it just doesn’t matter. There’s certainly a lot of value in understanding how other players are approaching the market and their products, but it’s far more important to really focus on your own product, your own customers, and how you’re going to achieve your own goals.
When you’re doing a startup, you’re usually tackling a LARGE market, (and if you aren’t, you’d better have a really good reason not to) Large markets mean there should be plenty of new customers/users to go around. Your competition is not “stealing” customers from you. If you are having a hard time getting traction, it’s either an issue with the market (too early, too niche, hard to reach) or with your ability to penetrate this market (weak product, poor distribution). Neither of these things relate to your competition.
[alert style=”green”]I’m always evolving and experimenting with my writing style here. On this post, I tried to write in the style of a magazine article, like something out of the Atlantic or Esquire. Not too pretentious, but a bit more literary than my standard ass-kicking fare. Let me know what you think in the comments![/alert]
I’m standing in a crowd of people covered in spandex and neoprene.
As a former gymnast, this is nothing new. Seeing muscled adult males squeezed in tight, form-fitting material was once a commonplace occurrence for me. What is novel, however, is that instead of being in a heated, insulated gymnasium, I’m standing in front of a dock, overlooking a small harbor on a chilly morning in early spring.
I’m here to compete in my first sprint triathlon.
For a long time, my only knowledge of triathlons was the Ironman ― the grueling 140.6 mile race that is one of the greatest endurance challenges in the world. It’s a 2.4 mile swim followed by a 112 mile bike ride, followed by a marathon (26.2 miles). As the story goes, the competition combined several long standing distance races to settle a debate between several military officers about which sport ― cycling, swimming or running ― was the “greatest”. The first Ironman Triathlon was held in Hawaii in 1978 and has since grown considerably in both participation and renown.
I found out about more manageable triathlons for mere mortals after following a blogger named Joel Runyon, who writes about triathlons , adventure travel and doing impossible things. More personally, I’ve been in touch with a college friend – a former swimmer who, in a renewed focus on exercise and weight loss, found a passion for running and decided to compete in a sprint triathlon.
The buzzer goes off and away we go, paddling through the water. I am surprised and pleased by the ability of my rented wet suit to keep the chilly 55 degree harbor water at a distance. The wet suit does not, however, do anything to prevent the salty sea water from entering my mouth every time I take a breath. Even after a month of swim practice at the YMCA, I find myself struggling to keep a good stroke rhythm going.
Halfway through swim I begin to feel my arms lock up as the coldness starts to affect their ability to move. I try to push onward, hoping that I won’t have to cry out for one of the lifeguards mounted on kayaks to save me from drowning pathetically 20 feet from dry land.
“What was I thinking”, I ask myself “when I decided to sign up for this?”
Triathlons come in four flavors: Sprint, Olympic, Half-Ironman and Ironman, each featuring longer and longer distances. For beginners, a “sprint tri” is relatively doable – with swim distances of 400-800 meters, bike rides of 10-12 miles and run distances of 3 miles or perhaps a 5k. While I personally find the term “Sprint” a bit puzzling as the descriptor for this distance, I can definitely see how it is a faster paced race than any of the longer distances.
How I found myself participating in a sprint tri has been a bit of a surprise and mystery to my friends and family. How does a gymnast of 16 years, used to meets where total time on equipment over six events adds up to less than 10 min of actual exercise decide he wants to race in hour-plus long triathlons?
It all started with a life-long shame in my ability to run.
Running has always been one of my weaknesses. I distinctly remember struggling to run a mile in gym class in middle school one year (the 27 laps around our gym’s hardwood floor feeling like an eternity) and my father chiding me for “losing to girls” with an 11 minute something mile. I was able to write it during my years as a competitive a gymnast, since one’s ability to run a mile has little to do with one’s ability to do a two and a half twisting somersault.
About a decade after that middle school mile, I was lost in the psychological wasteland of a former collegiate athlete. Going to the gym and working out felt empty and pointless. It was then that I tried running again. The first “real” mile I ran after college took 11 minutes and 47 seconds, which translates to 5 MPH, a speed reserved for driving in parking lots.
I am finally catching my breath.
I made it out of the water unassisted (2nd to last of the men in my batch) and am now riding the commuter/road bike hybrid I was borrowing from my roommate along the first of three flat lollipop loops that was the bike course. It’s a joy to inhale fresh air without a mixture of salt and the constriction of a suit.
I have, however, entered a new realm of hazards because while the swim portion was relatively contained with just a dozen or so men in my age group in the water, the bike route has men and women of all categories, including the highly competitive collegiate athletes. Sweaty bikers whizz by in gleaming blurs of carbon fiber and aero bars with a distinct zoom that sound more automotive in nature than pedal-powered.
I actually have to pull over to the curb as one fierce biker shouts for me to get out of her away. Did she say “on your left” or “move to the left”? I’ll never know.
Undeterred by my slow first run, and fueled by the keen desire to challenge and redeem myself, I began to put more miles on the road. My passion came not just from a need to conquer this weakness of my athletic ability, but of my skelo-muscular abilities as well.
I dislocated my left knee in my junior year of college in a disastrous vaulting accident and have undergone over five reconstructive surgeries to rebuild or trim my ACL, PCL and surrounding ligaments and tissues. Yet somehow running, especially in minimal footwear with a forefoot strike, has not given my knee issues and even my surgeon ― after examining my knee in an annual checkup ― grudgingly allowed me to continue running.
I was determined to turn running into a strength. And in the proceeding months, I did just that ― increasing my speed and distances from 5ks to 10ks to half marathons.
But after training for and competing in my first half marathon, I found myself suffering overuse issues in my feet that were frustrating and kept me off the road. And so looking around Active.com ― a website that lists sporting events and various types of races in one’s local area ― I found a sprint triathlon nearby held by my own alma mater.
After getting passed endlessly for miles, I finally settle into a good pace and even catch myself passing a few people. I rip into an energy gel and drink a few gulps of water while trading “leads” with a boy who couldn’t have been older than 15. He’s even gracious enough to give me a “Good Job!” when I passed him. What a sport.
I try to kick it up a notch and attempt to chase down a girl in a white tank top. While I do pass her once, she catches back up and leaves me in the dust. Pulling in after my third loop I’m a little winded and my quads a bit sore, but otherwise feeling pretty good. I’m excited for “my” part of the tri ― the run.
The bike route gives a great view onto the sidewalk where I see triathletes stumbling away with terrible form, more shuffle than stride. I am excited to knock this leg out of the park.
It turned out training for a triathlon wasn’t very easy. The running was straightforward, but I don’t own a nice road bike, nor did my normal gym have pool access. I found a nearby YMCA and squeezed into lanes alongside senior and adult swimmers just looking to get in their morning dip. I suspect the lifeguards had a good laugh as I splashed away like a maniac, panting and half drowning as I put in my laps.
After swimming I’d get one of the spinning bikes and go for 20 or 30 minutes. Of course while those bikes are better at mimicking a real road bike, they don’t give you any digital feedback on distance or difficulty so I wasn’t sure how close this was to race conditions or even how hard I could push myself on the bike. My one cycling foray on actual road was a 12 mile round-trip ride across San Francisco out to the ocean that, with hills and traffic lights, took nearly 45 minutes each way.
I realized I did not really know how the race would go or how much it would tax me.
I struggle a bit to put on my Vibrams Five Fingers (my minimal running shoes that resemble “foot gloves”), my toes uncooperative and unwilling to slide into their proper spots. Eventually they’re wrestle them into position and I’m off.
Everything feels wrong. My legs feel like they’re made out of lead. Shock from each footstrike resonate directly into my chest cavity and my heart feels like the clapper inside a church bell. Suddenly I realize why so many of those runners looked awful ― because they felt awful. I urge myself onward, slowing down my pace a little while I try to get my legs under me.
They come back about a mile in. Finally, I feel like I’m in my element. Foot in front of foot ― I’m moving. It’s pure sport, uncluttered by the brand of my suit, or the material of my frame. I hold an 8 minute a mile pace until I can almost see the finish line, then throw in my final kick, flying through the blue rubber mats that cover the timing machinery.
My total time clocks in a 1:29:40, putting me 2nd to last in the 25-29 year old male age group, and 154 overall, in perhaps 200 something competitors. My splits are 16:08 mins on swim, 43:20 on the bike and 23:28 mins on the run with 3+ minute transition times.
Overall, I am happy with the outcome of my first sprint tri. In retrospect, I think I could have pushed myself a little harder on both the bike and run, though I definitely maxed out my swim. Some smarter racing tactics could have further shaved a few minutes off my time ― for instance my transitions could have been much faster.
There was definitely something exhilarating about running into the transition area, shucking a wetsuit or helmet and switching into new equipment. It felt like a being a Transformer (the phrase “activate running mode” seems like a catch phrase that could go on an ironic triathlete t-shirt).
I can also see the advantages of racing tri’s ― more variety in training and more room for optimization in a variety of area. Beyond just swimming, cycling and running more, improvements can come from learning a skill or technique (for instance, I could really benefit from swimming lessons) and simply buying just better gear. It almost reminds me of those casual Facebook-connected games where you can either earn your currency from in-game activities, or shortcut to them by converting your real money.
I personally don’t find all these areas of optimization very appealing. One of the few ways that gymnastics is similar to running is that the equipment is relatively standardized. While your home gym may differ from other gyms, at the competition, you are all wearing the same kind of spandex, the same wrist supports, hand grips and other attire and none of it guarantees a significant improvement in performance.
Similarly, in a running race, all that really matters is that you’ve got a decent pair of running shoes. Races feel more level and running feels more primal. Distance running feels like the ultimate competition, especially if you believe the claims by Christopher McDougall in his best-selling book Born to Run .
I’ll probably race another tri someday. Maybe I’ll even do the Treeathlon again, next year. I’m proud to have completed my first race and have a new level of respect for those Ironmen. But for now I think I’m going to stick with running. I’ve got a full marathon coming up in July and perhaps some fun races in between.
For once, I’m shying away from the shiny new thing, and pushing farther down simple, (but not easy!) road. I’d like to believe I’m doing things the way a real runner would.
 In fact, he actually recently wrote an entire guide on sprint triathlons that you can check out here.
 In the book, McDougall argues that the ability to run long distances is one of the distinguishing features of modern human beings and may have lead to hunting advantages over Neanderthals.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I pretty much don’t do things halfway. So it won’t surprise you to know that despite having never completed a 10k distance race before I found myself entered to compete in two of them, one weekend after another. Here’s how that went.
Stanford Habitat for Humanity Home Run – 11/12
Great race. As an alumni, I was excited for an opportunity to see the campus again and I was not disappointed: the organizers put together a scenic windy tour around Stanford. I raced in a new pair of shoes (yes, another pair!): the Vibram Five Finger Bikila’s (named after Abebe Bikila, an Ethiopian who won 1960 Olympic marathon barefoot). 
I LOVE my Bikilas.
They weigh about the same as my other shoes (~7 oz) and have the same shape, fit and road grip as my VFF KSO’s, but more of the New Balance Minimus MT20’s “cushioning”. I think the MT20 are better for trails and the KSO’s are more flexible / truly barefoot-feeling but the Bikilas seem to exist to help you run fast. This praise comes with a warning: they really encourage you to run with a forefoot strike, (more than the KSO’s because of the 4mm Vibram outsole) not and even as a guy who runs exclusively in minimal footwear, my calves get a serious workout every time I run with the Bikilas.
My goal for the Home Run 10k was to run a smooth race and not push myself too hard. I aimed for a 9:20 pace and was able to stay roughly on target. I definitely spent most of the run chasing middle aged runners which didn’t do particularly much for my self-esteem 
I ended the race on a strong kick as usual and had a great time. Below is a screenshot of my race as tracked by Runkeeper. I was happy with how it went and of course, the money went to a great cause as Habitat for Humanity was studied in Forces for Good as a high impact nonprofits.
The second weekend I took a trip up to Eugene Oregon to compete in EWEB Run to Stay Warm, their gas/electric provider’s charity race which helps householders in tough financial conditions keep the heat on during the cold Oregonian winter.
I was Couchsurfing in Eugene and was fortunate enough to have my host, Jesse, drive me to the center and he ended up bandit running the race (that’s Jesse in green in the picture).
First off, it’s freaking cold in Oregon. I know all the race organizers get a laugh out of the fact that not only are we helping keep the heat on through the race, but we personally are staying warm in the 37 F weather through running.
I don’t think I prepared adequately for the race and struggled quite a bit in the middle. Here’s what I learned:
Dress appropriately I knew it was going to be cold so brought a jacket and a long sleeve Under Armor shirt. Sounds reasonable except that the jacket wasn’t meant for running and the compression from the Under Armor shirt made it hard to breathe 
I spent half the race with a bunch of crap tied around my waist, which wasn’t great. Next time I do a race in this climate I’d make sure to either have a running-specific jacket, or at least arm warmers and perhaps longer shorts or tights that fit not *too* tight.
Don’t drink too much coffee right before running I drank a big cup of coffee less than an hour before the race — it was really cold (see above) and drinking a hot beverage made me feel better in the moment. However, later in the race my stomach was not doing so great and I think it was in part because of the java.
Get more rest before the race The week leading up to the race there was a lot going on at work, so I don’t think I rested adequately, which is unfortunately a tradeoff you have to make when running a startup.
I was able to pull it together toward the end of the race and finish strong but it was definitely not easy. I am sort of amazed I finished slightly faster than the Stanford race. I definitely worked a lot harder…
Check out the differences in the splits (from Runkeeper)
Now that these two races are over, I’m taking a little time to rest, recharge and prepare for my next race. I’m jumping into a half marathon distance, which I’ve been told is a bit of a leap up from the 10k. We’ll see what happens! As always, I’ll keep you updated on how things go. Shoot me questions or comments down below!
 I’ll be honest, I’ve coveted the Vibram Bikilas since hearing that Vibram was building a version of the shoe specifically for runners, but since I already owned KSO’s and then getting the New Balance Minimus Trails, I didn’t feel it made sense to get another pair. But I’ve kept hearing good things from my running friends and when I got linked to a special 30% off deal, I took the plunge.
 I’m mostly kidding – it doesn’t necessarily feel great to get passed by someone 20+ years older than you, but after reading the book Run Faster from the 5k to the Marathon, I’m heartened by the author/running coach’s rule that most runners don’t hit their peak until 30 and no matter what age you are, if you haven’t been much of a runner, it’ll take about 7 years of serious training for you to reach your lifetime best. So I confident to know there’s so much progress I can look forward to making.
 I don’t know why but after getting this shirt as a gift, I always want to try to wear it for running, despite the fact that it’s a little too small and exerts force against my chest cavity opening and closing – making breathing just that much harder. I definitely learned my lesson this time.
I finished my second 5k race a few weeks ago at Steven’s Creek Trail. I ran with my roommate Michael (who’s doing his own startup OYO Glasses) and completed it in 25:58, finishing 72nd out of 232 people (7th out of the 16 guys in my age group). It was slower than my first 5k by about 90 seconds which is kind of a bummer, but my training was also a bit off (you’ll see why in a minute). Also, this time I had shorts on. =)
I don’t want to turn this blog into a training / race log so I’ll focus on some useful things I’ve learned before and after the race.
Avoiding Feet / Ankle Pain
I ran my first 5k in Vibrams and it was great. But after running in Vibrams all the time on pavement, I found my feet and ankles really starting to bother me. I took some time off to see if I just needed some rest but even after not running for most of August, it still hurt when I started running. I knew I wasn’t running hard to enough to have that serious of an injury, so I needed to try new tactics: Continue reading…