Skiing and Startups

I woke up this morning to this awesome blog post by Jeff Atwood of our portfolio company StackOverflow. Jeff says that this scene from Better Off Dead fully explains how they run the company.

Go read the post. It's a good one.

It reminds me of a conversation my partner Brad and I had when we were raising our first USV fund in 2003. We likened the VC business to skiing a mountain for the first time. You get to the top of the mountain and start heading down the cat track looking at one black diamond after another. You don't know the runs and can't see past the first steep. But eventually you pick a run and go for it. You really don't know what you are in for, but you just have to take the run as it comes to you. And when you finish, hopefully still standing, the feeling is awesome.

So I am pleased to see that entrpreneurs, particulary entrpreneurs we are skiing the same run with, see the world the same way we do. Nice post Jeff. I loved it.

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Comments (Archived):

  1. ErikSchwartz

    I love that movie.

  2. reece

    great analogy. classic movie.

  3. paul s

    very cool. I’m a programmer and I find stack overflow to be an invaluable resource, I recommend it to everyone on my team. it’s a great product and only getting better.

  4. John Frankel

    Skiing is controlled falling. Entrepreneurship is controlled standing up. Similar achievements, battling against unseen forces. Great clip, great post.

  5. ShanaC

    i’m too young for this movie (great scene though)

    1. Dave Pinsen

      Funniest scene in this movie is when John Cusack’s character decides to hang himself. I just spent a couple of minutes trying unsuccessfully to find it on YouTube to post the link here for you, but now I’ve got to run out for a quick brunch before the Giants game.

      1. ShanaC

        Well how was the game?

        1. Dave Pinsen

          A little sloppy, but the Giants won 31-18.________________________________

    2. scottythebody

      It’s a must watch. Classic, IMO.

      1. ShanaC

        I’ll get there…

  6. CliffElam

    Ha, I had forgotten that clip.My first few startups were like that, except that in “real work” I’d been trained not to turn, but to bull my way through things. That works well at Northern Telecom, Systemhouse, or Oracle but at a startup you just usually have to figure out how to go around stuff. Quickly.The clip I keep close to mind is the Underpants Gnomes sequence from South Park – it’s a good reminder to make sure that “step 2” is never a real black box.-XC

  7. Brennan Knotts

    I once heard an analogy about writing that has stuck with me and encouraged me to just start anything, even when I can’t see a clear path to where I want to go:”Writing is like driving in the dark. You can only see as far as the headlights, but you make the whole trip that way.”

    1. Donna Brewington White

      Very true, Brennan! I will have to share this with the myriad of writers in my life. Thanks.

  8. Gulp Media

    Much more important character in “Better Off Dead”….entrepreneurial little brother. Constantly focused on the goal.

  9. Patrick Graham

    Fred… “Wise words from a man who know how to ski” (in my best Howard Cosell voice)Great analogy!

  10. LIAD

    I recently analogised entrepreneurship to walking through a forest at night – little more sombre than the skiing analogy – but you get to the same place, namely keep moving forward, dont lose faith and hold onto your pants!

    1. Mark Essel

      I hate wearing pants, shorts rule.

      1. LIAD

        Life is not measured by the number of days we live, but by the number of days we spend wearing shorts and flip-flops

    2. Nathan Beckord

      Nice one. I love startup analogies. A few months ago I ‘analogised’ startups and sailing:http://www.seedstagecapital…But seriously, I think there’s real value in applying an unrelated “lens” to reflect on the startup life, whether that’s sailing, skiing, hiking, beer pong, etc. It helps keep things in perspective. Nathan

  11. David Fishman

    Screw the cat tracks, runs, + crowds …. off-piste is the only way to ski 😉

    1. Dave Pinsen

      So you’d be pissed off if it’s not off-piste?

  12. Mark Essel

    Classic movie, perfect strategy for trailblazing.I submit for your review the PR defensive version of moving fast. version was even more surreal (sound edited)…found it with youtube instant creator of youtube instant got offered a job on twitter by Youtube’s ceo…

    1. Donna Brewington White

      Had missed the story about the job offer via Twitter. Gotta love that! Speaking of jobs and offers — hope things are working out for you one way or the other!

  13. Toshi O.

    Glad he didn’t pick Booger from Revenge of the Nerds.

  14. Elie Seidman

    Entrepreneurship is like entering a room with the lights turned off. You work at it and work at it and eventually you find the light switch at which point everything changes. But to be successful, you first have to become comfortable with the dark. The hardest part of becoming comfortable with the dark is emotional and psychological, not intellectual. At times you feel like you’ll never ever find the light switch – even though rationally you might be very close.

  15. Keenan

    Great analogy, it could go so much deeper, the terrain, the speed at which you chose to go, the snow conditions, the other people on the hill, the weather, etc all impact the run. Like skiing, there are a lot of things you can’t control that can impact you. It’s how you respond to the conditions.I like this.

    1. Donna Brewington White

      Keenan, just like you guide people on the slopes, you are guiding a ski novice like me through this analogy. Thanks for the added insight.

    2. Tereza

      Based on your temperament and experience, you could panic…or not. Or maybe even totally invigorated by it.My own angle is, I really prefer skiing, never could get into snowboarding. And the reason is, in skiing the default position is standing up. In boarding, it seems to be on your ass. And that’s not where I wanna be!

  16. Dale Allyn

    Good stuff. Thanks for the post and the referral to Jeff’s post.

  17. kirklove

    $2. I want my $2.

  18. paramendra

    Great metaphor.

  19. Jesse Middleton

    Fred, great point about not knowing what’s around the corner. I recently talked about it ( from a different angle — The one that says that while you may not know everything that’s up in the future, you should be thinking about each and every second and realizing that without customers (of any sort), your business will fail.

  20. RichardF

    I like the metaphor, taking it a step further is walking up the mountain on a pair of skins to get fresh tracks the equivalent of bootstrapping ? and does that mean when you can afford to go heliskiing you’ve scored a great second round.Also a great way to work out which VC is going to be a loyal partner is to take them up to the top of the Aiguille du Midi and ask them to rope up to get to the cat track to ski down the vallee blanche with you.

    1. Donna Brewington White

      Breathtaking photo. Thought-provoking VC analogy.

  21. Denny Ferrassoli

    The first time I went snowboarding my friend decided to take me through the trees. I spent most of my time falling on my ass. The important part was that I kept getting back up and eventually realized “wtf am I doing in the trees?” I “pivoted” myself out of the trees and found a much better route. I still landed on my ass a few times but not nearly as many times as I did while going through the trees, and it was much more enjoyable.

    1. Evan

      That’s some friend.

  22. Aviah Laor

    It’s a funny scene.But Joel and Jeff started it on Apr 2008 ( and had a significant planing and thinking through period.When you lay the ground right, things are easier later. If anything, their success proves the DON”T-throw-something-too-fast approach.When the founders have years of expertise and knowledge, they can figure out staff alone.(many posts on endorse the thorough planning and specs writing beforehand)

  23. matthughes

    I have skied that exact run – at Snowbird, UT.AKA “K-12” in the movie.Excellent analogy.

  24. Pete

    This is pure snow! Do you have any idea what the street value of this mountain is?

  25. RJ Johnston

    Jeff says Curtis Armstrong, I say BOOGER!

  26. abnerg

    I’ve always loved that scene.Of interest to the skiers and venture folks, there has been a bit of a bloom in start-up ski companies here in the US recently. Scott Raynovich just did a quick post on the topic this past week:

  27. AwimAway

    The analogy is fine but remember, you would fall a few times. And when you do, pick yourself up and keep trying. The secret is in getting the balance right (both in skiing and start-ups) and when you achieve that….. you get addicted to the enjoyment you get out of it!

  28. Andrew Livingston

    Agreed that this is an awesome post. I’m just starting out with a web startup and we are a very tight knit group, so we huddled around to watch and had a good chuckle. We’ve not seen the movie, but we’re going to be rectifiying that soon. The origin of Boyd’s Law is also very interesting; Coding Horror explains the origin in his February 7, 2007 blog post. Nothing like stories of dog-fights, F-86s, and MiG 15s to spark the imagination.I’ll be staying tuned into your blog…great reads. It’s a double diamond we’re on, but we carve through, even when icy terrain surrounds. Which of course ensures that there’s never a dull moment! And it makes the powder dumps all the more enjoyable.What criteria in your mind indicates a company that is iterating with sufficient speed? If you evaluate of new startup, what metrics, what indicators of performance, what website aesthetics do you tend to key in on? How can one measure innovative thinking and implementation within a web startup?

  29. Vasudev Ram

    Excellent post, Fred.Thanks for sharing.- Vasudev

  30. Jordy Leiser

    As a big skier/snowboarder from colorado, I don’t think there’s a better sensation in the world.As an entrepreneur trying to make it in nyc, I don’t think there’s a better sensation in the world.

  31. Rakeback

    Thank you for the video and also the link to the original post. Keep it up !

  32. miele vacuum

    Just watch the video—it’s excellent..Based on your temperament and experience, you could panic…or not. Or maybe even totally invigorated by it.