What startups can learn from the Philadelphia 76ers

Sizing up the NBA MVP Race
Sizing up the NBA MVP Race


If you've read anything about the Philadelphia 76ers recently, it was probably written at their expense. At the start of the 2014–15 NBA season, Vegas' over-under for Sixer victories was 16.5 games. Lowest in the league. Scratch that: lowest for any NBA team in the past decade.

But while the haters hate, the Sixers have been quietly going about their business. And, believe it or not, they are doing some kinda amazing work. Three quarters of the way into the season, the Sixers do NOT have the worst record in the NBA (they don't even have the worst record in their division). And while I'm 100% sure most NBA fans just snarted at the suggestion that the Sixers deserve praise - because, yeah, their record is still quite dismal-they ARE beating the odds, and it's no accident.

So, how are they doing it? They're beating the odds because some really clever and hard working people are finding ways to over-achieve.

Cut to my professional life ... my "team" is trying to beat the odds, too, by building something new that people will use, like, and pay their hard earned monies for. This sounds familiar to anyone leading a startup. What may feel unfamiliar - nay, downright surprising-is that I've found as much inspiration and wisdom in studying the Sixers as I have in any startup blog or mooc.

I know, I know. Hear me out.

Lesson No. 1: "Culture" is jargon for caring a lot

You might think that playing for the most mocked team in the NBA would break one's spirit. But damned if the Sixers don't play their hearts out.

"You can question my shooting. You can question my ceiling. Just don't question if I'm giving my all every single night. Don't talk to me about tanking." - Ex-Sixer Michael Carter-Williams

Now, you can call it marketing, but it's not just marketing; Carter-Williams speaks the truth. I go to the games. These guys Play. Their. Hearts. Out. They surprise other teams by caring so much. They fight their way into the lead against teams that have cut players who would be instant Sixers starters. And win or lose, Philly's players keep their chins up, smiles on their faces (usually), and support each other with a consistency and potency that genuinely warms the heart.

Entrepreneur types like to talk about the importance of great "company culture." They (we?) also like to point out that this ethos means a lot more than just setting up a company ping pong table. Snart! Clearly culture is more than the opportunity to play table sports at work?!!

So what does company culture mean?

The answer often seems pretty hand-wavy for something so damned important. And yesterday, listening to Sixers coach Brett Brown talk about his team, it struck me: culture is just a code word for caring a lot. For passion and aspiration. For dedication and ownership. It doesn't matter whether you're more of a "dog company" (as Google self-identified) or a "cat company"; it doesn't matter whether you have a kegerator or a juicebar. That stuff's fun. But these fringe benefits are definitively NOT why "culture" lands on everyone's list of most important startup concerns. These benefits are, at best, mere mechanisms for nurturing a culture of ownership and caring.

Lesson No. 2: Vision trumps

Establishing a habit of 'no' is a celebrated maxim of effective entrepreneurialism. It's sort of about time management but, more than that, it's about avoiding knee-jerk reactionism; about privileging vision and long term goals over the never ending stream of distractions.

Has any entity practiced this maxim as daringly as the Sixers in the Sam Hinkie era? Their vision is to craft a championship team -- a team with enough stars to be best team in the NBA -- that can compete for multiple seasons in a row. Each and every decision is made to that end. If a player is good and well liked, but not essential to that vision (because he's not good enough, or simply because of tactical considerations like contract, fit, etc..), the Sixers are willing to trade that player for a future asset that has a shot at helping to enable the overall vision.

Yet the organization takes a TON of abuse for it. From fans and non-fans alike. It's painful at times. People took the Michael Carter-Williams trade personally.

Entrepreneurs call these "hard decisions." Ability to manage these hard decisions if often the difference between startup success and failure. The Sixers are walking the walk. (If Philadelphia fails to craft a championship-caliber team over the next five years, this lesson shall be deleted in its entirety and I will deny it ever existed.)

Lesson No. 3: Honestly positive leadership

Please let me take this moment to introduce you to Brett Brown, my favorite sports coach anywhere.

Player Malcolm Thomas once said, "I've never met anybody more positive than Coach Brown." As a fan who is invested in the team, I'd echo that sentiment. The man's positivity is downright contagious.

After each Sixers home game, I race back to the car to flip the radio on, just to listen to Brown give his post-game press conference. He always finds a way to thank the fans, but never in a cloying or put-on way. He supports his players, but never disingenuously.

It's precisely because Brown avoids blowing smoke up his audience's bottoms, he succeeds so wildly at giving his audience hope. He doesn't insult our intelligence; he admits when something is risky, or sad, or disappointing. But, dagnabbit, all of this honesty comes with an authentic belief in his team. He's basically the Sixers' No. 1 fan.

It's tempting to describe this as a balancing act; to argue that Brown is masterful at balancing honesty with optimism. But I think that would be entirely wrong. It suggests that he's navigating a trade-off.

The magic in Brett Brown's leadership style is that there is no trade-off between positivity and honesty. His authenticity and his enthusiasm are two sides of the same Brett Brown coin.

This, I think, is the essence of that-thing-you-can't-put-your-finger-on about great leadership. I don't know how you learn it. Maybe you just have to unlearn all of the crap you thought you knew about salesmanship and self-editing. I don't know. But next time I have to prepare board slides or a customer pitch or a team pep talk, I'm going to prep my brain by listening to some Brett Brown press conferences.

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