If Bill Walsh was a Startup Founder

Bill Walsh is one of the most successful coaches of all time in any sport. In addition, his principles and process are even more impressive than his results. The peak of his career was in San Francisco, so an interesting thought experiment is to imagine what Bill Walsh would be like as a startup founder. How would his approach translate to a different world and a different era? There are a few key ideas and habits that Bill Walsh applied consistently which provide some clues.

Find diverse talent
For Bill Walsh, finding the best people was critical to success. He knew that relying on standard methods to find talent would not be enough. That’s why he found a wide receiver named Jerry Rice from Mississippi Valley State University during his usual habit of watching college football highlights on Saturday nights. At the coaching level, he was a pioneer in opening career opportunities for coaches like Dennis Green and Ray Rhodes, resulting in the NFL renaming its minority coaching program after him. So, in the startup world, you can be sure that Bill Walsh would be looking for talent from every source, with a particular emphasis on places where others were not looking, to find hidden gems of talent.

Lead by example
Even though his nickname was “The Genius”, Bill Walsh knew that leadership was not about ideas or talking, it was about action. In his own words, “I knew the example I set as head coach would be what others in the organization would recognize as the standard they needed to match (at least, most of them would recognize it). If there is such a thing as a trickle-down effect, that’s it. Your staff sees your devotion to work, their people see them, and on through the organization.” As a founder of a startup, there is no doubt that Bill Walsh would be leading by example for the entire team as the starting point of leadership.

No cult of personality
Bill Walsh created an entire system of success and was explicitly aware of the dangers that come from ego driven leadership and leaders who dominate their organization. He believed an an open forum, with everyone participating in the decision making process and made it clear that he expected everyone to volunteer their ideas proactively. The ultimate proof was the team’s success even after Bill Walsh retired while still using his system. In addition to the obvious Super Bowl wins, the team was consistently one of the best even during years when they did not win everything, the hallmark of a true system rather than simply a lucky year. If Bill Walsh was a startup founder, he would surely avoid the cult of personality approach and instead build a sustainable organization that would continue to thrive long after his retirement.

Brains over brawn
As per “The Genius” nickname, it is widely recognized that Bill Walsh was extremely smart. In particular, his innovations related to passing revolutionized the entire game. In the beginning, other teams sometimes tried to look down on his approach as too complex. After his success, however, many others adopted his strategy and now the majority of teams are using some variation of his passing approach. His teams were also able to out think their opponents consistently. To be clear, it is not to say that his teams lacked toughness, but rather that they placed a high value on having a superior strategy and plan. In the startup world, this means that Bill Walsh would ensure his company had an innovative strategy and product. In addition, everyone in his organization would also apply this approach in everyday actions and decision making. There is no doubt that a Bill Walsh startup would be a game changer based on his approach to innovation and new ideas.

Excellence from precision
When Bill Walsh discussed success, he emphasized process, not simply results. The title of one of his books was “The Score Takes Care of Itself”, a reference to the importance of process and daily habits as drivers of game results. In particular, he used the phrase “Standard of Performance” to encompass his expectations of excellence. This required a commitment to both thinking in detail and then effectively executing. There was no tolerance for cheap shots or players not acting with respect. While this philosophy may seem old fashioned, it resulted in a very disciplined team which turned excellence into a daily habit. Bill Walsh teams were extremely successful in big games because these felt no different from normal practices, as precision led to excellence. In the startup world, we know that execution is what transforms promising ideas into breakthrough businesses. Bill Walsh would certainly build a startup that would be execute at a consistently high level based on his philosophy of excellence from precision.

Taking these ideas together, we would expect that a Bill Walsh startup would combine diverse talent, leadership by example, teamwork, innovation and excellent execution. In other words, it would be a superior team building a fantastic business because of the same principles and process that led to Bill Walsh’s success in football. Different world, different era but the clues suggest it would be similar outstanding results.