Holding the Ball vs. Winning the Goal
Soccer fanatics among us remember Pep Guardiola’s great Barcelona. During the 2008-2009 season, the wonderful team led by Messi, Xavi, and Iniesta burst into our lives introducing the now famous Tiki-Taka method. (Tiki-Taka is a soccer strategy involving short and patient passes throughout the field with the purpose of keeping the ball in the possession of the team) Barcelona had the highest control of the ball in absolute terms, with possession statistics between 70%-80% for all games, and thus produced a high success rate.
Roughly two years had passed, and surprisingly Pep’s incredible team lost the Champions League and the Spanish Crown. Their statistics for ball retention remained very high (and had even increased somewhat), but the results were no longer there (relatively, of course) in terms of wins. Barcelona’s great Guardiola lost the championship in Spain and the Champions Cup. These facts beg the question, what exactly happened here?
In my opinion, this is the perfect example of an excellent strategy which went one step too far. Controlling the ball is very important, but at the end of the day, the winner is not determined by ball possession rate. The winner of the game is the team that scores the most goals. Barcelona’s competition gave them possession of the ball, but the team’s game became rather sterile. In his last year managing the team, Pep preferred players who knew how to keep hold of the ball over those with a stronger ability to score. The result of his preferences and decisions was unfortunate (if you are a fan of the team, of course).
Unfortunately, I have seen entrepreneurs make the same mistake as they build their startups. They create excellent technology, invest in marketing, and build a glorious operation, but neglect their sales. It is very important, of course, to build a strong company in all aspects: technology, product, marketing, etc. But let us not forget that without the exceptional ability to sell, to turn opportunities into paying customers, and to turn customers into satisfied customers who buy more, there is no chance for the company to succeed.
From time to time I hear entrepreneurs (and investors) of young companies who openly say “I do not want to start selling yet because once I do, I will be measured according to my sales. So I prefer to wait.” To me, that is nonsense. How can you know that you are going in the right direction if you are not trying to sell the product? How do you know that your developers are spending their time wisely if there is no customer who uses (and pays for) the product? I am afraid to count how many times I have seen companies with great potential invest a lot of time in development, only to discover at the end of the day that the customer wants something (a bit) different.
One of my go-to recommendations for entrepreneurs is very simple: Sell the product. Their responses are:
“We have not yet developed the product.”
I tell them, “Go sell it.”
“We don’t have the right salespeople yet.”
And I answer, “Go sell it.”
“We need a local partner.”
Again, “Just go sell the product,” and so on…
Yes, even if the product does not exist yet, you will learn a lot if you try to sell it: Is there really a need for it? Do customers have a budget for it? Who is the competition, and does the client know them? What features does the client really need?
Yes, even if you do not have salespeople, go sell it. In the early stages, the entrepreneur is the best salesperson of the organization. In general, how can you know about the product, and the market, without trying to sell it to them?
Pep continues to be my favorite football coach, and he and his successors at Barcelona have learned to find the right balance. The team still holds the ball more than its rivals, but no longer at the expense of scoring goals. The same can be said of the companies that we’ve invested in, all of them enter the market from a very early stage.
When the market responds positively, excellent companies are created. When the response is less positive, we get a better understanding of what the market wants, and can fix it quickly, without spending too much time and money. Almost always, the second attempt is very successful. Another important advantage is that, with our method, these startups are building the DNA of a healthy company from the very beginning: a company whose customers are always their primary concern.
So keep maintaining control of the ball, keep building companies with strong infrastructure, but do not neglect the objective, and of course, score as much as possible!