4 Startup Lessons This Entrepreneur Learned From Playing Semi-Pro Volleyball

As a startup co-founder, I’m constantly looking for lessons that will help me be a better leader, partner and innovator. Sometimes those lessons come from surprising places.

I’ve been playing semi-professional volleyball with my co-founder at Routefusion, Richard Scappaticci, for three years. It’s a great way to blow off steam after a day of programming and decision-making. It’s also a fantastic tool to solidify the partnership we already have in the office, as well as learn how to create a cohesive team player environment with our staff.

What I’ve found is that playing volleyball is a great analogy for how we run our startup, and it provides some useful lessons I hope you’ll consider.


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You need vision and grit

Playing competitive sports is extremely hard. We practice for hours each week during the season and discuss our strategy to make sure we’re aligned on what we want to achieve.

Startup life is the same—it’s very, very hard to get a startup off the ground, and you have to be motivated in order to get through the tough parts. I’m telling you from personal experience, sometimes the path ahead looks like Mount Everest, and your way forward is unclear. What keeps me motivated is keeping that vision in mind and having the grit to weather the challenges.

If you’re a startup founder or are thinking about starting a business, you already know there’s no way around hard work. Both semi-pro volleyball and running a startup are really hard work. Whether you’re practicing your serve for the 5,000th time or writing your 10,000th line of code, you have to put in the effort and the hours, even if you can’t quite yet see that all of the blood, sweat and tears will be worth it one day.

And speaking of vision, it’s important to understand that you may need to be flexible. At Routefusion, we’ve had to pivot from our initial vision. Had we dug our heels in and insisted on continuing with our original vision, we wouldn’t have found our path to success. Sometimes vision means being adaptive to what’s going on around you.


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You won’t succeed without teamwork

There is no star in a partnership, whether it’s in volleyball or business. Both require tremendous amounts of teamwork. My co-founder, Rich, and I have played together as a team of two and have learned that if we want to win, we have to learn how to work together.

We bring that same team mentality we use on the court to our business as co-founders in our startup. We balance each other and know we can rely on one another to move toward our mutual goals for the business. If we disagree, we talk it out until we can come to a compromise.

Beyond our partnership as co-founders, we’ve also surrounded ourselves with a team of A-players. Everyone on our staff is skilled at what they do and understands that we’re all working toward the same goals together. We ensure that team player mentality by empowering each employee to succeed and making everyone feel like a valued contributor.


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You must have mental fortitude

There is never a straight path to winning a volleyball set. There are ups and downs, and sometimes even boring plateaus. Some sets are more intense than others. You need mental toughness to get you through the uneven terrain toward a win.

Running a startup is equally a rollercoaster, and there are no guarantees. Handling that uncertainty requires mental fortitude, as well as a collaborative team that also shares that fortitude.

The key here is communication, and it’s something Rich and I prioritize between the two of us and more broadly among our team. If I’m overwhelmed, I will talk to my co-founder so he can step in and move us forward. If an employee seems to be lagging in getting work done, we have a conversation so we can move forward. This is an important feedback loop.

Strategize around your strengths

Whether you’re playing volleyball or working on a new product, you must strategize around your strengths, as well as your weaknesses.

Rich and I have had to switch our playing style many times to defeat opponents in a game. We know each other’s playing styles so well, we play like an orchestra together.

The same applies to startups. Every team member has his or her preferences, strengths and weaknesses. Trying to force an employee to do what he or she is not good at will only result in failure. On the other hand, giving an him or her assignments that light them up and help them succeed will not only make them want to work harder for you, but they’ll do their best at the task at hand.

If you haven’t considered what your own strengths and weaknesses are, I encourage you to do so. And be open to asking for help with things you aren’t adept at. It may be a blow to your ego, but if you ultimately achieve what you want to achieve, isn’t it worth it?

I think being a volleyball player has made me a better entrepreneur, and vice versa. Running a startup isn’t something you do in isolation; you’re only as strong as the players you bring on and the level of partnership you foster among the team.

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