I’ve been a student of martial arts since I was 11 years old. After being bullied in school, my motherrate enrolled me in Shotokan ka so that I could learn to defend myself.
I always found the primal, gritty aspect of fighting compelling, and went on to practice martial arts for many more years, eventually earning my second-degree blackbelt in karate.
More recently, I’ve taken up Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ). Dedicating so much time to this new form of martial art has highlighted the parallels between being on the mat and leading a startup.
There’s a concept I learned from studying karate called bushido. It translates directly to “the warrior way,” and refers to the unshakeable spirit of the samurai. In some ways, this same code of honor and tenacity are needed to successfully lead a company.
Even when you’re about to be submitted, you still need to give it your all and persevere until the very last second. And I’ve found that the same holds true for navigating business challenges.
Here are a few lessons I’ve learned from practicing martial arts, and what they’ve taught me about leading a company.
Tenacity is key
Startups are hard; they are not for everybody. Neither are martial arts.
When I show up to my dojo (gym) to practice BJJ on any given day, I have no idea what I’ll be up against. It’s important that I arrive with a flexible mindset, ready to handle whatever that session has in store for me. Since I don’t yet have the muscle memory associated with BJJ, I’m learning something new every time I step onto the mat.
The same can be said for leading a startup. You need to be tenacious and show up ready to learn. More often than not, this means being committed and humble to learning and practicing things over and over again until you gain that ‘muscle memory.’
Whether it’s hiring, writing lines of code, or running tests, doing something repeatedly—and not giving up—is the only way to become better. Leading a startup comes with plenty of challenges, and some days can push you to your limits. Between grappling with performance constraints, technical complexity, and product launch issues, it can seem like it would be easier to just fold and go work for a larger company. Having the grit to keep going is critical.
I have a confession: I nearly quit BJJ a couple of months ago. After feeling defeated from getting beat up for what felt like weeks straight, returning to Karate would be in many ways a much easier path. When it comes down to it, learning something new is tough: it’s the reason why so many white belts quit and startups fail. When it comes to handling work-related challenges, practicing martial arts has taught me what it means to push through.
Think one or two steps ahead
Sparring is like playing a game of chess: you need to keep a close eye on your opponent and anticipate their next few moves. In a split second, you can go from having the upper hand to being put into a choke or an arm bar. By considering your opponent’s next moves, you have a better chance of acting and reacting appropriately.
The same can be said for leading a startup. You’re often dealing with changing, unpredictable situations and circumstances. It’s impossible to know what will happen tomorrow, next week, or next month, so thinking ahead and being agile is a necessary strategy.
Maintaining focus while on the mat and at work is critical. In BJJ, taking your eye off of your opponent for even a fraction of a second can mean the difference between winning or being submitted.
Staying focused takes discipline, especially within the context of a startup. There’s so much to do that it’s easy to get distracted and become stretched thin. No one can tackle ten different things at once, so my advice is to focus on one or two things at a time before taking on more.
Something that improved my ability to focus at work was hiring my outstanding leadership team. When I first joined the company, I made a point to hire the right people who had the experience necessary to lead the company. Bringing this team on allowed me to then redirect my focus to being more present in my role as CEO.
Camaraderie is everything
When you enter a dojo, nobody knows who you are or what you do outside of the academy. You’re simply a human being—things like ethnicity, background, and status are irrelevant.
I strive to create this same level playing field for employees at Cape Privacy: it’s all about the people. This means celebrating every success, no matter how large or small. Running a startup requires a lot of trial and error, and so does practicing BJJ: no one becomes an expert overnight.
The core values we live by are trust, collaboration, and inclusion. This perpetuates our camaraderie, especially as a distributed team that has operated remotely even prior to the pandemic. Both at work and in the dojo, it’s essential to know that the people you’re surrounded by have your back, celebrate your accomplishments, and can communicate with you effectively.
Come to the mat (and work) with a white-belt mentality
Every time I “roll” at BJJ, I’m often going up against people who are younger, stronger, more flexible and more experienced than I am. Your ability and willingness to learn from people who have different strengths than you is an integral part of becoming better.
My karate Sei Shihan (senior master) taught me that having a “white-belt mentality” means setting aside your ego and being open to learning. As professional mixed martial artist Georges St-Pierre said, “I keep the white-belt mentality that I can learn from anyone, anywhere, anytime.” I couldn’t agree more: everyone at every level—whether it be at work or in martial arts—has something to learn from someone else.
Both martial arts and running a company have taught me more lessons than I ever thought possible. The grit and persistence required to perform on the mat isn’t so different from the scrappiness needed to succeed as a startup. And through it all, staying humble, maintaining focus, and leaning on your team is what makes it all work.