Startup analogies v.1— startups & professional sports — VCs pick startups like Liverpool picks players

Yrjö Ojasaar
4 min readOct 4, 2022
startups have a lot in common with professional sports

Now that our investment period at Change Ventures is ending, I wanted to gather my lessons learned from the past eight year with Fund I (USA), Fund II (EU) and the 30+ investments to date, together with the thousands of startups mentored/coached and evaluated as a judge/coach/board member at Prototron, Startup Wiseguys, Ajujaht and Latitude59, etc.

I have decided to publish a series of startup lessons based on analogies — comparing startups to various other fields that may be more familiar to most readers — sports, movies, aquariums and more, which I hope will make them easier (and more fun) to understand.

PART 1. Startups & Pro-Sports

AMBITION

Ambition in Sports

1 million high school football players take part in football teams every year in America. Approximately 74,000 (7.4%) of those make it into college football. National Football League (NFL) drafts 254 (0.003%) football players every year. As such, the chance of a high school player making it all the way to NFL is roughly 0.00025%. To put this in perspective, half the high school football players will never even “encounter (playing with or against) a [single] future pro player during an entire season.

Numbers are similar for basketball. Out of the 500,000 high school basketball players 16,000 or 0.032% make it into Division I, II and III college teams. National Basketball Association (NBA) drafts 60 players per year, but approximately 110 college basketball players (or 0.0069%) will make at least one NBA appearance in their career. As such, the chance of a high school player becoming an NBA player is roughly 0.00022%.

The road to become a professional player is a very tough journey and is definitely not for everyone. Only the most dedicated, talented and lucky athletes will make it. Outstanding documentary about this struggle and epic ambition it takes to make it into the pros is Hoop Dreams (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0110057/). The film follows two kids from inner-city Chicago as they try to make it into college basketball and get into the NBA.

Ambition in Startups

Investors frequently tell founders that they are looking for teams with “a lot of ambition.” However, it seems to me that founders often do not fully understand (or can't calibrate in their minds) the level of ambition sought by the VCs. It is probably like an NBA scout telling a high school student that they are only looking for the most ambitious basketball players.

Investors only make money when startups exit (are sold in M&A or go public in IPO). For fund’s financial math to make sense investors will only invest in startups that can be “fund returners” — meaning that a €50M fund would get a €50M for equity sale in the startup exit. Therefore, the minimum valuation of the startup must be €1 billion (5% of €1B=€50M) in the exit to be a “fund returner” for a €50M fund. Yes — you read that right — a unicorn is the minimum level of expected success.

As Guy Kawasaki has described this process: “2 million new businesses start per year in the US. VCs probably fund about 5,000 of them.” That means about 0.0025% of all the new American businesses get venture funded. It is one thing to raise venture capital, its a whole other thing to become a unicorn.

In 2018 the likelihood of a venture funded company becoming a unicorn was approximately 1%. As unicorns have become much more plentiful in the recent years, the chance of a investor funded company becoming a unicorn may be as high as 2.5% according to more recent Angel List data.

Therefore, the level of ambition that pre-seed and seed VCs are looking for in founders is extremely high — superstars that will build that 1 in 4000 startup (0.00025%) that could exit at unicorn valuation. This is very much comparable to rates of success that an average high school athlete has to become a professional NBA, NFL or NHL player.

VCs pick startups into their portfolio like Liverpool picks its players for the team. VCs scout their players at demo-days, hackathons and pitch competitions, and put them through the combine of pitches, meetings, due diligence before they make the investment.

The difficulty of making it big in sports and startups is pretty similar, but there is some good news for entrepreneurs:

  1. You have your whole life the be an entrepreneur, while for most professional athletes their careers were already decided between age 9 and 19. In fact studies have shown that startup superstars are generally not high school or college standouts, with the average age of a successful startup founder is 45, and median age of unicorn founders is at 34 years;
  2. The likelihood of a career ending injury (caused by self or others) is much higher in sports than it is in entrepreneurship (the primary concern for founders centers around their mental health);
  3. The average career of an NFL player is only 3.5 years, for an NBA player it’s 4.8 years, but for entrepreneurs it is much longer (median age of a unicorn at the time of an exit is between 8 and 10 years)
  4. As a startup founder you get to make your own team and don't have to wait to be drafted by someone else — putting more control and power in your hands.

Part 2 — to follow soon…

--

--