I have been a martial arts student since I was 11 years old. After being bullied at school, my mother enrolled me in Shotokan karate to learn how to defend myself.
I always found the primitive, gritty look of combat compelling and continued to practice martial arts for many years, eventually earning my second-degree black belt in karate.
More recently, I started Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ). Devoting so much time to this new form of martial art has highlighted the parallels between being on the mat and running a startup.
There is a concept I learned while studying karate called bushido. It translates directly to “the way of the warrior” and refers to the unshakeable spirit of the samurai. In some ways, this same code of honor and tenacity is necessary to successfully run a business.
Even when you’re about to be submissive, you still have to give it your all and persevere until the very last second. And I’ve found that the same is true for business challenges.
Here are some lessons I learned from practicing martial arts and what they taught me about running a business.
Tenacity is the key
Startups are tough; they are not for everyone. Neither do martial arts.
When I show up at my dojo (gym) to practice BJJ on any given day, I have no idea what I’m going to face. It is important that I arrive with a flexible mindset, ready to handle whatever this session throws at me. Since I don’t yet have the muscle memory associated with BJJ, I learn something new every time I step onto the mat.
The same can be said for running a startup. You need to be tenacious and willing to learn. More often than not, this means being committed and humble to learning and practicing things over and over again until you acquire that “muscle memory”.
Whether it’s hiring, writing lines of code, or running tests, doing something repeatedly – and not quitting – is the only way to become better. Running a startup comes with many challenges, and some days can push you to your limits. Between performance constraints, technical complexity and product launch issues, it might seem simpler to retire and work for a big company. Having the courage to continue is essential.
I have a confession: I almost quit BJJ a few months ago. After feeling defeated after being beaten for what felt like weeks straight, returning to karate would in many ways be a much easier path. Ultimately, learning something new is hard: it’s the reason so many white belts quit and startups fail. When it comes to dealing with work-related challenges, practicing martial arts has taught me what it means to get ahead.
Think a step or two ahead
Sparring is like playing chess: you have to keep an eye on your opponent and anticipate their next moves. In a split second, you can go from having the upper hand to being put in a chokehold or an arm bar. By considering your opponent’s next moves, you are more likely to act and react appropriately.
The same can be said for running a startup. You often face changing and unpredictable situations and circumstances. It is impossible to know what will happen tomorrow, next week or next month, so anticipating and being agile is a necessary strategy.
It is essential to stay focused on the mat and at work. In BJJ, looking away from your opponent for even a fraction of a second can be the difference between winning or being submitted.
Staying focused takes discipline, especially in a startup context. There’s so much to do that it’s easy to get distracted and get skinny. No one can tackle ten different things at once, so my advice is to focus on one or two things at a time before tackling more.
Something that improved my ability to focus at work was hiring my exceptional management team. When I first joined the company, I made it a point to hire the right people who had the experience to run the business. The integration of this team allowed me to redirect my attention towards a greater presence in my role as CEO.
Fellowship is everything
When you enter a dojo, no one knows who you are or what you do outside of the academy. You are simply a human being – things like ethnicity, background and status are irrelevant.
I strive to create that same level playing field for Cape Privacy employees: it’s all about people. It means celebrating every success, no matter how big or small. Running a startup requires a lot of trial and error, just like practicing BJJ: no one becomes an expert overnight.
Our core values are trust, collaboration and inclusion. It continues our camaraderie, especially as a distributed team that operated remotely even before the pandemic. Both at work and in the dojo, it is essential to know that the people around you support you, celebrate your achievements and can communicate effectively with you.
Come to the mat (and work) with a white belt mentality
Whenever I “ride” BJJ, I often come up against people who are younger, stronger, more flexible and more experienced than me. Your ability and willingness to learn from people who have strengths different from yours is integral to your improvement.
My karate Sei Shihan (senior master) taught me that having a “white belt mentality” means putting your ego aside and being open to learning. As professional mixed martial artist Georges St-Pierre mentioned, “I keep the white belt mentality that I can learn from anyone, anywhere, anytime.” I totally agree: everyone at every level, whether at work or in the martial arts, has something to learn from someone else.
Martial arts and running a business have taught me more lessons than I ever thought possible. The courage and perseverance required to perform on the mat isn’t all that different from the scrap metal needed to succeed as a startup. And through it all, staying humble, staying focused, and leaning on your team is what makes it all work.