What boxing has taught me about startups

Focus. Repeat. Adapt. Breathe.

I was 25 years old and living in Denver (2012), when I first learned how to box. I had wanted to try boxing for years, but I always came up with an excuse to not show up to a gym.

Who knew that all it’d take to jump into a combat sport was a move across the country, a bad breakup, a corporate job I didn’t enjoy, and a few weeks of depressing nights all alone.

9 years later; I’ve been fortunate enough to have boxed in Denver, Dublin and, since 2014, here in Ames.

In early 2016, I found myself falling into a coaching rhythm that led to becoming Assistant Boxing Coach for Iowa State University. Throughout the past 5 years of coaching (with a 2-semester sabbatical in 2019), I’ve helped teach fundamentals and train over 500 boxers. Iowa State Boxing has been fortunate enough to produce a 2-time National Champion (Go, Olivia!), along with Golden Glove winners and various Nationals contenders—so far.

Throughout every single week of building startups, I’ve found myself applying lessons learned from boxing.

Boxing forces you to focus on the present.

If you’re in the ring with an opponent, and you begin to think about anything else, you’re letting your guard down. As a result, that’s usually followed by physical pain.

Work is never done. That’s just how building a company goes. If my mind starts to wander about upcoming deadlines and decisions, I’m not going to get today’s work done. Boxing brings you to the present, and the only place you build a company is in the present.

Repetition is key to succeeding in boxing because it creates muscle memory.

To create muscle memory, you need a BIG sample size of repeating a routine. Have you ever watched someone work mitts and throw a flurry of punches that all land at the correct angle and create the perfect Pop! noise as their gloves connect with those mitts? Or have you ever watched someone shadowbox? That boxer has probably thrown that combo of punches hundreds to thousands of times. They know it takes a proper sample size to get it right.  If I holler out “quick stick” in a boing practice, those boxers know to throw a 1-1-2-5-2-3-6 over the next 2 seconds.

To build a company from scratch. To bring a product to life. To scale and master distribution of that product. There’s only one way to accomplish all these uphill endeavors. That’s by doing. Eventually, you’ll have pitched so many times and learned. You’ll have iterated the product so many times and learned. You’ll have messed up so many times…and learned.

“Everyone has a plan 'till they get punched in the mouth.”

That quote holds true with every single new boxer I’ve encountered. You may think you know what it feels like to box, but you won’t know until you try. It takes a lot of courage to become a boxer. Throughout that journey, and while you’re in the ring, you are constantly having to adapt.

If you’re about to start a company, you should surround yourself with people who have started companies. They have the battle scars. They’re the courageous ones. And, most likely, they’ll share advice that can save you capital and heartache. Watch out for those who have never started a company before, because they are still the ones with a plan and no reason to adapt.

THE fundamental of boxing is breathing (correctly).

Throughout practices with newer boxers, I become a broken record; often repeating “hands up, elbows in, chin down, eyes forward.” My second most repeated phrase is “breathe.” If you’re in a fighting stance, your body naturally wants to tense up. If you’re throwing a punch, it doesn’t feel natural to exhale as you’re throwing that punch. If you’re being punched, one of the last things you want to think about is to exhale. Breathing properly through your nose and exhaling properly through your mouth can keep your rhythm and cadence intact.

The anxieties of building a company often creep up on me of an afternoon. Sometimes there’s an overwhelming feeling that at any moment, things may go bad, or growth will stop. Imposter syndrome is sometimes there. Investors writing checks aren’t always there. No matter what, I must remember to breathe (and to breathe the right way).

Focus. Repeat. Adapt. Breathe.