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What our start-ups can learn from the Olympian achievements of the summer

By Lynsey Cunningham, entrepreneur development manager at Ulster Bank

Published 06/09/2016

Great Britain’s Mo Farah celebrates with his gold medals after winning the Men’s 5000m and 10,000m at the Olympic Stadium on the fifteenth day of the Rio Olympic Games, Brazil
Great Britain’s Mo Farah celebrates with his gold medals after winning the Men’s 5000m and 10,000m at the Olympic Stadium on the fifteenth day of the Rio Olympic Games, Brazil

At the end of a golden summer - at least in terms of Olympic medals, as opposed to the weather - I have really enjoyed watching the amazing achievements of athletes in Rio.

In the midst of so many good stories, what has been particularly successful is the planning that has enabled Team GB to climb from securing a single gold medal in Atlanta 1996 to finishing second overall in the world.

Similarly for Team Ireland, Annalise Murphy bounced back from agonisingly being pipped to the podium in London to win silver in Rio, building herself up again after facing adversity.

For those involved in building this success, the start must have seemed incredibly daunting.

As I work with a talented new bunch of early stage entrepreneurs in the Belfast Hatchery, I'm reminded of some of the similarities - and differences - with the hard, but rewarding, journey that our talented Chiclets are starting out on as they build their own businesses.

One of the underpinnings of Team GB's success was the single-minded focus on funding sports and sportspeople where there was a realistic possibility of securing a medal - inevitably, this meant turning away from those who had the potential to fall short.

In business terms that means brutal honesty with yourself - knowing your shortcomings, your character and how you respond when things go wrong, as well as when they go well.

Only by being that honest can you understand the unconscious biases that guide your thinking and potentially cloud your judgment.

This process helps entrepreneurs make more fact-based decisions, more quickly, and helps them to stress-test their assumptions.

It means being prepared to let go of cherished ideas or plans when the evidence shows that they no longer fit.

This is as much an emotional decision as a logical one and it helps our entrepreneurs to let go of things that don't work quickly, so that they can embrace the new.

It's often a misconception that entrepreneurial businesses need to do everything on a shoestring.

In fact, when budgets are limited it's important that entrepreneurs focus on the two or three things that matter, rather than spreading money too thinly.

Investment in sport has professionalised the structure of many teams and allowed them to deliver outsized returns.

One of the things that we instil in our entrepreneurs is the importance of building sustainable business models that generate the cash they need to scale and ultimately make them more credible and 'backable' for external investors - making people want to invest in you, because you've shown that you can make things happen on your own.

Sport is about submitting yourself to arbitrary rules to enable and inspire people to find new ways of solving the problems this presents - from the Fosbury Flop in the high jump to the Panenka Penalty in football, innovation happens and is adopted when people challenge the status quo.

But one of the joys of being an entrepreneur is that no one can tell you what the rules are - there are thousands of different ways to tackle the same problem, and only your judgement, experience and a good deal of trial and error can help you find the answers that work for your business, in your market.

It is that diversity that makes helping people into the field of entrepreneurship a very rewarding challenge.

Belfast Telegraph

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