Ten habits of successful founders

We may have seen the last of Rafael Nadal, one of the all-time tennis greats, winner of twenty-two Grand Slam men’s singles titles. Nadal was the defending champion at the 2023 Australian Open, but lost in straight sets in the second round, severely hampered by a hip injury. As a result, he exited the top-ten rankings for the first time since April 2005 (912 consecutive weeks), ending the longest top-ten run in ATP ranking history. He missed the entire 2023 clay court season and dropped out of the top 100 for the first time since 2003. He didn’t return for the grass-court nor the hard-court season.

In September he hinted he would like to return in 2024, and recently said the Australian Open in January maybe his comeback, but it might be his last year in professional tennis. Nadal is one of only two men to complete the Career Golden Slam (won all of the four majors) singles, and the first man to win majors on three different surfaces (hard grass and clay) in the same year (Surface Slam). His 81 consecutive wins on clay constitutes the longest single-surface win streak in the Open Era.

For over a decade Nadal led men’s tennis along with Federer and Djokovic as the Big Three and is the second most successful men’s player in the history of tennis behind Djokovic. Djokovic won his twenty-fourth Grand Slam this month when he beat Medvedev in the US Open, putting him two ahead of Nadal and level with Margaret Court, who holds the women’s record. Djokovic has the slight edge over Nadal in head-to-head, leading 30-29.

Perhaps more than any other tennis player, Nadal is a creature of habit. His practice protocols are unwavering. In competition, note the precisely positioned water bottles, side by side, near his courtside seat. In the locker room, his meticulous routine of showering, drying and dressing — diagnosed him as obsessive/compulsive. On the court, he will not willingly step on the lines coming on and off. And even before he offers a serve, there is an elaborate and nuanced 12-step routine:

1. Towels off his face (left side first, then right) and arms, then accepts balls from the ball person. Sometimes, when he is behind, he eschews the towel.

2. After scrutinizing them, he tosses back the fuzziest looking one as he walks toward the baseline.

3. Turning to face the opponent, he places the second ball in his right pocket.

4. Then he slides his right foot along the baseline to clean it, usually taking two swipes.

5. He then flicks the dirt off the hash mark with his left, then right for the hash.

6. He knocks the dirt off his left shoe.

7. And then the right.

8. As he bounces the ball with his racket 10-12 times, he reaches around with his right hand and adjusts the back of his shorts. On certain occasions, he adjusts the front.

9. Still bouncing the ball, he adjusts the left shoulder of his shirt, then the right.

10. Now toeing the line, he wipes the sweat from his nose with thumb and forefinger, curls his brown hair over the top of his left ear, touches his nose again, then curls the hair over his right ear.

11. More often than not, he subtly shifts that tennis ball in his pocket.

12. He bounces the ball three to six times more and begins his toss.

His routine takes between 27 and 31 seconds – longer than permitted – depending on the gravity of the point to be played. But this is his pattern of success, that’s what makes Rafa’s on-court habits so difficult to break. Repeated routines bring him to a Zen place between points. They are his way of shaping his mindset.

The foundation of Nadal’s enduring success is the consistency of his routine and habits. His predictable patterns, his focus on a process, repeated over and over within points, games and matches, are his touchstone. Elite sports are about patterns and executions, and the best athletes repeatedly do things you can’t defend against.

Whether you realise it or not, our lives are a sum of our habits. Some of these habits are good, some are bad. Habits are patterns of behaviour we repeat without thinking or effort. Most habits are automatic, meaning no thought or action is required for them to take place, but there are positive, meaningful habits – as shown by Nadal’s serving routine – that provide structure and discipline and offer a formula for success.

These positive habits can be hard to build into a consistent routine, but when you do, you open up a realm of possibilities for reaching your goals. It takes a lot of self-discipline, but good habits increase your efficiency and help avoid the never-ending distractions we all face, helping you stay productive and focus on the important things.

When you’re in the zone of good habits, working towards reaching your goals, bettering yourself, you will notice that your overall contentment level increases – when we feel happy, our moods change, and we feel more positive. Rather than feeling stressed and anxious, a founder who practices good habits becomes energised, they bring out the best in you and provide a trigger for motivation.

So, reflecting on Nadal’s serving habits and the success they have brought, what are the good habits for startup founders to consider and implement? Here are my top ten.

Habit 1: Always look forward Being an innovative founder is about reshaping an existing market, either seeing an unfilled gap in the market or creating a new market itself. You need to be a pioneer, keeping your eyes open for opportunities to create your own market space. This means taking chances, but it is a critical habit of a startup founder.

Habit 2: Be customer centric Startup success requires an unwavering commitment to the customer. rather than your product. You need to develop an obsessive habit and mind-set of living in your customer’s world. This gives you a greater opportunity to earn their attention. Focus away from profit as the purpose of your startup, focus on finding, winning and keeping customers. Make it a habit to making value for customers. Everything else is noise.

Habit 3: Make decisions You have to be action led,  waffling with indecision just doesn’t work. The ability to make decisions is directly related to trusting your instincts. Don’t create obstacles. When others create obstacles, move on and keep building. The habit of making decisions with momentum is directly related to your speed and direction of progress.

Make it a habit to trust your instincts. As an entrepreneur, you make dozens of decisions every day. If you had to deliberate about every choice, the business would grind to a halt. Hemming and hawing constantly undermine your and others’ confidence in you. Practice listening to your intuition. Decisions will come easier and more quickly.

Habit 4: Avoid the crowds Conventional wisdom yields conventional results. Joining the crowd – no matter how trendy or ‘hot’ the moment, is a recipe for mediocrity or ‘me2’ at best. successful startup founders habitually do what other people won’t do. They go where others don’t because there’s less competition.

Habit 5: Always be selling Founders with the habit of ’always be selling’ secure success. Selling is all about convincing people to talk with you, and then work with you, to build long-term relationships. You don’t need to sell in the traditional cold calling sense,  you just need to meet, be sincere, listen and communicate your value. Getting out of the building is the habit needed. Do it every day, and it creates opportunities.

Habit 6: Start at the end An entrepreneur’s vision sets the direction. Support this with a disciplined plan to lay out every step along the way to make it happen, but then work backwards. Never start small where goals are concerned, the habit of thinking big, looking to the horizon and working backwards is vital to growth. Make visioning and disciplined execution key habits.

Habit 7: Make small bets There is no guarantee anyone will buy your new offering. Your resources are limited, and you don’t want to risk everything on one roll of the dice. Get out in the market fast and let potential customers tell you if you are onto something. Pivoting allows a startup to sense and respond to circumstance to change course and act. The habit of pivoting allows us to learn and to change without being paralysed with fear and uncertainty.

Habit 8: Work on high value tasks Successful founders stay connected to their teams, but they know they can’t afford to get caught up in low level tasks if they are going to build their venture. They have to restrict themselves to only the work that delivers the absolute best possible ROI on their time. Everything else is a trap.

Habit 9: Look for 80/20 outcomes There’s a strange phenomenon in life that almost always holds true: you’ll often see that 20% of the things you do account for 80% of the results you get. Being productive and being busy are two different things. If you want to quadruple your productivity, focus on the 20% first, and if you can, cut the other 80% that just makes you busy. The habit of focussing on outcomes is a key.

Habit 10: Create success routines. You probably didn’t aspire to getting into a regular routine when you first dreamed of starting your venture, you wanted freedom. Then you realise that if you organise your time and have routines, you can reap advantages. You can get more done, and your output is a better.

That doesn’t mean it has to be a repetitive wash-rinse-repeat though. You can still wake up and go cycling or skip down to the beach to surf at lunch time. Success is just as much about scheduling regular time to blow off steam and do inspiring things – make that a habit too!

Each of the habits detailed above will align your startup actions. It’s impossible to grow a startup when you’re always busy putting out fires of hopping across a range of different tasks each day, the distractions squander time, money, effort and opportunities. Without having a clear set of habits to guide your actions, ‘doing stuff’ is letting the tail wag the dog – you’ll be chasing your startup, not leading it. This is a bad habit.

We are what we repeatedly do, nothing is stronger than habits. Like Nadal in doing his, you will live less out of forced habit and more out of focused intent. It’s hard work getting your startup venture off the ground, but don’t fall into a habit of making excuses that it’s all too hard – motivation is what gets you started, habits are what keep you going. Winning is a habit.

How many of these habits do you recognise in yourself? What else do you do that adds to the list? Let me know!

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