Can You Build a Business Swinging For Singles?

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Yesterday, my friend and insanely smart dude, Charlie O’Donnell retweeted this:

And, it got me thinking. So, I tracked it back to Jonah Peretti’s original series of tweets to get a bit more context.

Jonah’s next two tweets were:

I get what Charlie and Jonah are saying.

In many sports, you often do better if you don’t step up and swing for the fence or try to drive your golf ball 300 yards, but rather, have the intention to simply make good solid contact with the ball. Why?

Because, swinging harder usually means adding speed and coordination often degrades at higher speed (until you’ve practiced at speed for a long time). Two, when you set extremely high expectations, you increase the level of stress and that can interfere with concentration, coordination and performance. So, Charlie and Jonah were on the money when it comes to sports. But they weren’t talking about baseball.

They were using sports as an analogy to talk about business, especially start-ups.

And I started wondering…are these things really true in business? Especially in the world of start-ups and entrepreneurship?

In that world, I’m not so sure if I buy the notion that swinging for singles makes you more likely to hit home runs. I haven’t experienced it, nor have I seen it unfold all that often with other entrepreneurs I know.

And, imagine an entrepreneur presenting to a venture capitalist and saying:

“We’re not interested in home-runs, we’re all about bunts, singles and line-drive. Ya know, the safe, incremental stuff. And, we’re banking on the fact that we’ll lull our competitors into complacency with singles, then sneak past them when they’re not looking to dominate our market.”

Or, what if an entrepreneur used that same line to try to rally great people to join their team or to lead their team to work toward a mission. If you were a prospective or current teammate, would you be inspired by a quest to hit singles?

Setting your expectations lower may take the pressure off and allow you to perform more consistently at a lower level, but is that why you’re really in the game…in the biz? And, are you looking to build a team of people who are striving to perform together on a more consistent, yet lower level? I don’t think so.

Why not commit to hitting it over the fence AND then add in a set of daily practices and rituals that’ll let you deal with the stress of the quest?

As always, I’m just thinking out loud here.

What do YOU think?

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22 responses

22 responses to “Can You Build a Business Swinging For Singles?”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jonathan Fields, SarahRobinson, Terry Starbucker, TwittyBean, Santi Chacon and others. Santi Chacon said: Can You Build a Business Swinging For Singles?: Yesterday, my friend and insanely smart dude, Charlie O’Donnell re… http://bit.ly/bhkVOk […]

    • Could we just accept that singles are OK? Not everyone needs to hit a homerun. Some of us are OK with hitting singles every day, making a good living and not being the NEXT FANTASTIC AMAZING EVERYBODY-WANTS-TO-BE-ME success. Less stress is quite OK. Maybe that’s the key to the current holy grail, sustainability.

  2. In general, I agree with what you are saying here, and am only adding my .02 to say that sometimes, depending on your market, swinging for singles with a purpose-built strategy can be effective. Our business, which is a start-up, is effectively built to deliver lots of singles and doubles profitably, because delivering home runs (giant, oversized, expensive, “me too” textbooks for intro courses) is an exercise in futility given the hegemony of the market. We’re more interesting to capital, frankly, with a long-tail, swing-for-singles strategy than we would be with a “me too” home run business plan.

  3. Rick says:

    But what about this: relaxed and fluid AND seeing the little victories to feed your confidence in swinging for the fences later on? That was my thought as you started this post and then I think it’s counter to how you ended. Thanks – stuff to think about.

  4. Sticking with the baseball metaphor (in an amusing coincidence, I wrote a post about baseball today, too), I think it doesn’t matter so much whether you hit a home run or four singles: what matters is touching the plate (in this case, growing your business).

    Sure, home runs are more dramatic, but incremental progress is progress nonetheless. And if the determining factor for success is in how many runs you score, then it doesn’t matter if they’re big, sweeping home runs or a big, fat run of singles.

  5. For someone thinking out loud, you think well Jonathan 😉

    *I* think that for entrepreneurs wanting to hit a home run, a good idea is to aim to (as you say) make contact with the ball.

    The cinch is making that contact consistently. If you can hit it every single time, then eventually, you’ll hit a home run. The guy who always misses, then gives up…. will never come close.

    So yeah. Lower the expectations. Focus on “just hitting it”. Do it a lot. Get a home run.

    I like it 🙂

  6. I think team chemistry is important too…a team of home run hitters might not play the best defense, they won’t be able to steal bases, bunt in a pinch, and they will often strike out a lot…limiting the at-bats of other players. I think the point is if you don’t set out to hit homeruns, you never will. You’re limited by the goals you make for yourself.

    Basketball teams need role players that can rebound, shoot and distribute the ball. You can have the best quarterback or running back in football…but doesn’t go far if you don’t have a line to protect them.

  7. For the “big-picture”, we definitely have to think and speak about the home run. For the day-to-day execution, however – singles and line drives and stolen bases.

  8. sara davis says:

    I think whenever you try to apply “universal truths” like the ones in analogies, you end up stumbling. This one is a good example.
    Life is so much more complex than analogies allow for. But we love analogies so much because they do allow us to simplify an idea for easy communications. Sometimes though it ends up miscommunicating the idea.
    I think Steve Woodruff’s thoughts are pretty accurate. Except I think of it as having a huge goal and breaking down the hug goal into smaller more manageable task goals. So the home run/single analogy doesn’t work for my idea at all.

  9. Sherif says:

    I believe you aim and concentrate with the home run in mind without all the hype, stress and propaganda of the home run. I wouldn’t think that an entrepreneur will stand up against a bunch of VCs and say: Yes, here is our fantastic business plan that will kill Google and Apple at the same time in 6 months, don’t think anybody will believe that either. I think they would like an original idea with strong execution and realistic numbers topped with optimism and confidence. That’s my opinion at least.

  10. Karen says:

    I think that a solid line drive doesn’t translate to swinging for singles. A solid line drive can grab you a couple of bases as well as advance your teammates who are already on base to home plate.

    Playing your best game involves your solid best effort consistently. Sometimes that will result in a home run sometimes a solid line drive.

    BTW, isn’t the whole Japanese business model (with which I am admittedly only passingly familiar) based on incremental steps?

    Having said all of this, I have started my itty bitty business with no financial backing or other means of financial support (aka the proverbial day job.) Solid line drives yes, but God knows I need to hit a few out of the park!

  11. I was expecting this to be a post about whether it was possible to build a business hooking single people up with swingers. Yes, still working on first cup of coffee. This makes much more sense, and I completely agree. I don’t care how long it takes me, I’d rather take the time to create something that feels exciting. I can hit line drives with the dishes.

  12. Like most things I think it’s a balance. You shouldn’t swing for the fences every time but you should know when it’s worth the risk and when you should just play it safe and wait for your opportunity.

  13. Nicky Hajal says:

    Frankly, I’d say both analogies somehow work and I’ve been thinking about how that can be.

    Worth considering is that a homerun does not exist in isolation. It has been developed over the course of many, many more singles in play and in practice.

    It would be like saying why go for a home run, just win the World Series. But winning the World Series, too, takes many singles and many homeruns.

    I find this to be quite similar in business. Every ‘single’, every goal met, every project finished, every article written eventually goes into hitting the homerun.

    -Nicky

  14. Jon Strocel says:

    When I think of startup home runs, I think of venture capital and the need for the billion dollar exits for everyone to be happy. It’s a home run, but it’s essentially a lottery ticket. You go for the maximum number of users instead of getting a product that makes money on Day 1.

    Thinking big is absolutely important, but organic growth is the way to get there. You get organic growth by creating a great experience for every new customer that comes in the door. The home runs then take care of themselves.

  15. Evan says:

    The Innovators Solution is about entering at the bottom of the market and dominating a

  16. Evan says:

    The Innovators Solution is about entering a market at the bottom, picking the low hanging fruit and gradually moving up in easy stages. This sounds like the same strategy and doing the easy stuff. They give numerous examples.

    Venture capitalists (for all their rhetoric about risk) want guaranteed returns – and of a very high margin.

    Small and easy can work. The longest journey can begin with, and continue with small and easy steps.

  17. Dan Holloway says:

    Gosh, it’s been too long since I was here, Jonathan. Your posts always stimulate the grey cells. I think, if I may say, that you are both right, and that what you’ve hit on is one of life’s paradoxes, retrospection versus prospection.

    As an analyst, one can look over the data and say, OK, what HAS worked. And in the lines I’ve worked in, yes there is always absolute clarity of vision, but often success comes to those who (sorry, I’m a Brit, I will get the vocab wrong) bunt for singles.

    On the other hand, if you’re talking to entrpreneurs, you have to give them prospective advice. And prospectively, the best advice is to be driven in pursuit of the home run, for the simple psychological reason that it is almost impossible to get into the right zone, and maintain the drive necessary for hitting singles.

    Is there a resolution to the paradox? Yes, I think so, and it has to do with generality and specificity. Of course, we are more relaxed about smaller goals, but that is not the key to bringing them about. They reason we are so much better at them is that they tend to be specific. Most people starting a business in their front room will have a very clear picture of a client base of a hundred people or firms, having a secretary, tech support, a couple of freelance outsourcers, a small sales team, and an office. And they will have a very clear picture of the work to be done to bring that about. They will find it almost impossible to put the flesh on the bones of what “being a staggering success” means – what does having a workforce of 10,000 LOOK like (I mean, ACTUALLY – how is it different from having a workforce of 9,000, or 15,000?). It goes back to the old adage about needing to be a great COO to take your business to level one, and then needing to be a great CEO to take it from there.

  18. Very stimulating conversation, as a New Zealander we don’t play baseball but I get the analogy. Here’s what I think, home runs or singles are short term strategies to achieve something much bigger like winning a game, or taking out the world series or building a legacy of a great team. This will be a great reminder to entrepreneurs I meet struggling to get it clear in their heads what goal they’re trying to achieve and what’s the best strategy to get there. Oh yeah, and even Kiwis know that fans get up out of their seats for home runs.

  19. Mark says:

    When I read this, I thought about a few of the PR disasters that have been happening already this week (with #TacoTuesday, @DoubleShot/#BF, and the Yelp fiasco in AZ http://goo.gl/o9iT ). All of these companies argued that they’d hit plenty of homeruns, so we should ignore their strikeouts.

    As a business owner, my customers would MUCH rather have us bat for on-base-percentage, and hit at least a single with each of them. Striking out with my client base is simply unacceptable as a business strategy. Will it happen occasionally? Perhaps. Is it something that creates long term sustainability or profitably? Nope.

    Preparation and practice allow you to discern what opportunity is in front of you as you choose your swing. When you have discernment and choice, you are best able to hit anything that is thrown at you. Not every pitch in baseball or business is a homerun. Just about every pitch, though, is a chance to advance your game.

    ‘Hitting singles’ is about on-base percentage. The more players you put on base, the more chances you have to score and win. Swinging for the fence may look great on the highlight reel, but its not what wins games consistently.

    In my experience, it far more difficult for a business to achieve long-term consistency (which creates wins), compared to one or two remarkable feats on occasion (which creates novelty). Prepare like every pitch might be a homerun ball, and choose your swing to make sure you stay in control of the game.

  20. Wim says:

    What is the goal? To hit a home run or win the game?

    Most entrepreneurs are not in it for the money or glory but the enjoyment of the sport. A true entrepreneur competes with themselves with every action.

    It is about spotting the right moment when to swing for the fences and in most cases the base hit will keep you ahead in the game.