Published on October 29th, 2012 | by Hersh Tapadia0
Startup Lessons From a Day Spent Autocrossing
By Hersh Tapadia.
Two years ago I was an avid autocrosser. I had spent the previous three or four years travelling every month to small towns in North Carolina with semi-abandoned airfields to spend a Sunday racing. If you aren’t familiar, Autocross is a sport where cars are raced on a time trial basis in a course made of cones. It’s fairly simple, the cones dictate the course and you travel through it. Fastest time wins.
There is a bit more nuance to it than that of course, if you hit a cone, it adds 2 seconds to your time; the cars are classed and each class has an index multiplier (called PAX) to even the playing field; and the courses are usually fairly intricate meaning you really have to learn all the turns. Overall, it’s a lot of fun and very beginner friendly, if you have even a passing interest in motorsport it’s the most accessible way to get in. All you need is a car and about $35.
After suffering from, as a friend of mine announced over the loudspeaker last Sunday, “A spectacular control arm failure” I didn’t come back for a while. This past Sunday was the first time in two years I had been back on the track and in anticipation of the event my mind wandered to startups.
Autocross teaches you to become a better driver of course but a lot of the lessons can be translated fairly easily to startups. So here is my take on Autocross Startup theory:
1. Walk the course
Each course is generally about a minute long. In that short time there may be 15 – 20 course elements (slaloms, lane changes, u-turns, etc.). You have to know what the course looks like before you start driving because there simply isn’t enough time to figure it out on the fly. At the beginning of each event you get the opportunity to walk through the course and really learn where you’re going. It’s not a direct translation to driving the course but you get a feel for where you need to be.
Startups are similar. When you are starting out, it makes sense to survey your roadmap. Talk to your potential “elements”, your customers, your investors, your partners and get a feel for where you intend to go. Jumping in with no clue of what lays ahead is rarely successful in startups or autocross.
2. Look ahead and let your hands follow your eyes
The course is fairly tight and each element is not that far apart. You don’t really have time to think about what action you are going to take at each turn. The key is to point your eyes where you want to go and your hands will follow in turning the wheel. If you spend your entire time looking at where you are, you won’t be ready for what is next.
The correlation here is fairly straightforward the more time you spend thinking about your present position the less prepared you are for the movement of the market, your competitors and the industry trends. If you spend all your time obsessing over right now you will never be anticipating the larger trends. Your organization will always be reactionary. By looking ahead and letting your vision guide the decisions of the organization, you will always be taking action that adds to your foundation
3. Full steering OR full throttle
Imagine there is a piece of string connecting your foot to your wrist. When you turn it pulls your foot off the gas and when you press the gas it straightens out the wheel. Internalize this as it is a necessary piece of laying down a fast time. You only contact the road in four places and each of those tires have limited grip. If you are going faster, you have less grip for turning and vice versa. So when you enter a turn you need to ease off the gas commensurate to the radius of the turn so that you stay at your maximal level of grip.
As you navigate your company through its myriad twists and turns that seemingly all startups go through there are times to pour on the gas and go full bore and there are times to steer the company towards the appropriate markets. You can’t do both, particularly given the limited resources startups have. Fundamentally this is the pivot concept and if you are pivoting, figure out your new direction THEN pile on the resources.
4. Don’t hold the wheel too tightly
When driving and particularly when autocrossing if you have a death grip on the wheel you will not be fast and you probably won’t even make it through the course. Your grasp on the wheel needs to be relaxed but firm. The courses are rarely smooth and your turns are tight and jarring. Let the car give you feedback and respond appropriately. One of the biggest lessons I learned early on was that if I eased off the turn a bit and then turned back in I could cut my turn radius down significantly rather than just holding the wheel and wishing my tires had more grip.
If you hold the line too strongly whether in regard to your market, your features, or your employees you will probably miss big opportunities. Allowing the feedback you receive to guide your company vision is a critical success factor. Empower all of your staff to be listening for guidance and be open to hearing criticism. Most ideas come from a general dissatisfaction with a certain market already. Once you have the idea, it can continually be refined by the feedback of your customers.
That is not to say, however, you shouldn’t sometimes reject the feedback. Listen closely to your market and consider whether or not the deviation is in your best interests. Hitting a bump is different than losing grip, even if you don’t have a death grip on the wheel your grasp should still be firm.
5. Position then speed
Fundamentally, everything you can learn about autocross culminates in this. The number one goal is to refine your racing line (the path you take through the course.) If your line is good you can add speed but if your line is bad, adding speed will only take you further and further off track. You can subtract time much quicker by navigating correctly through a slalom by making sure you are positioned near the cones and at the right rhythm. On the other hand if you try to power through it, chances are your rear end will quickly be facing the direction you want to travel as you spin.
Just as it is in autocross this is the general startup lesson. It’s the gap between the seed round and the A round. Establish your market proof, get the data showing your growth opportunity, and make sure your MVP is built. Once poised for launch is when you turn on the growth capital and step on the gas. Do that too early and you will probably find yourself showing your back end to customers and investors.
There are a lot more ways autocross correlates directly. The best thing you can do if you want to explore this is come out and try it. Tar Heel Sports Car Clubwww.thscc.com is a major NC organization and they run affordable and safe events and they love new people. If you do come out, send me an email or look for my car, I am usually classed and numbered as “STU 2”.