What Entrepreneurs Can Learn from the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers

By Ismail Abdur-Rahman, CEO iVIBES

Look, I’m going to say this unapologetically. I’m a Jersey boy. Growing up between Brick City and Illtown, my childhood was basically a Naughty by Nature video. Without going all Jay Z on you, it was a hard knock life, but growing up in the urban jungle definitely instilled the virtues of toughness, hustle, and perseverance in all of us who managed to escape alive. That’s probably why I’ve always been a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. No disrespect to my local NY Giants, but the Steelers have been good for much longer, and if nothing else, they’ve always been tough - an admirable trait in my neck of the woods.

This year, my squad faced an uncharacteristic amount of adversity, even by their standards, though, to be honest, most of it was self-inflicted. Ultimately, the Steelers failed to make the playoffs despite having some of the NFL’s best skill position players, making this season an unequivocal failure.

To say that the Steelers merely underperformed in 2018 is a gross understatement of the catastrophic season they had this year. Pittsburgh has a QB-WR combination that has been dominant over the past 6 years, firmly cementing Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown as likely first-ballot Hall of Fame inductees, making this season’s meltdown even more painful to bear.

Despite their largely underwhelming performance, there are some valuable lessons that entrepreneurs can learn from my troubled team.


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The Steelers’ season got off to a rocky start, as they began 2018 with a record of 1-2-1, likely the result of the chaos that ensued after a protracted holdout by star RB Le’Veon Bell that would eventually result in him missing the entire season.

Despite the historically bad start to their season, the Steelers didn’t hit the panic button, and they went on a 6-0 run that positioned them atop their division by mid November. So, how did they turn things around after the early-season disappointment? They got back to basics and focused on the details of the game plan execution.

Because 9 out of 10 startups fail, one of the most important traits successful entrepreneurs possess is intestinal fortitude, i.e., resilience. They know that there will inevitably be some challenges along the way, and sometimes, you have to pivot in order to better meet the needs of your market, especially in markets that are not yet mature relative to the product or service offered or the industry being served.

If you adopt the perspective that a setback is a setup for a comeback, you’ll learn to lick your wounds quickly, re-evaluate your early assumptions about the market, and rethink your strategy. The important thing is to learn from the setbacks and use them to improve your business model for better market penetration before you run out of money.

Culture is Everything

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One of the popular explanations for the train wreck of a season that kept the Steelers home for the playoffs is that there’s a culture problem in Pittsburgh. In short, NFL analysts say that the head coach has enabled bad behavior and poor leadership by the team’s most high-profile players by not clearly communicating expectations for leadership performance to the team and subsequently holding people accountable when they fall short of said expectations.

A company culture that’s built for sustainable success has to start at the top of the organization. Leadership has to embody the company’s values and ensure that these values are communicated throughout the company and that all staff conducts the business of the company while implementing the same values in their internal and external business processes. In poor leadership environments, you’ll often observe startup founders wearing too many hats and not delegating tasks that could be performed more efficiently by team members.

One of the worst things inexperienced entrepreneurs can do is to try to be a Jack-of-all-trades because the result is usually that they master none. They say that teamwork makes the dream work, but true teamwork must be built upon a foundation of transparency, collaboration, and accountability. Building a team of collaborators who share the vision and are equally committed to the grind is essential for moving your startup forward and gaining traction. Establishing clear lines of communication by which expectations can be articulated also helps with decision making and problem solving processes. However, if you have individual members who go rogue on the rest of the team, trust will quickly be lost, and the startup will never meet performance expectations.

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I’m sure you’ve heard the saying widely attributed to Aristotle, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” This is a nod to the notion that irrespective of the depth of individual talents, when disparate parts are brought together in such a way that a system (or team) is formed, the performance potential increases exponentially.

However, for this to be true, we need to refer to the old adage, “There is no I in team.” Sometimes individuals, and their corresponding egos, need to take a back seat in favor of advancing the objectives of the organization. In order to achieve such lofty goals as winning the Super Bowl or taking a startup public in 3 years, everyone has to commit to selfless sacrifice with a laser-focus that refuses to allow outside noise to spoil the efforts of the team by corrupting the culture.

Building buy-in from all internal stakeholders is a crucial step towards helping an early-stage startup succeed. A single dissident, a disgruntled employee who cares more about self than team, can be enough to sink the ship before you get out of the port.

There are several strategies you can use to incentivize your team members’ full participation and dedication to your mission, but we can discuss those at a later time.

Finally, if despite your best efforts, internal turmoil is undermining your startup’s success, do what the Steelers should have done - call a timeout, huddle up, re-evaluate your position, and pivot. Most of all, don’t let internal challenges dampen your entrepreneurial spirit.