How Coaching T-Ball Is Like Running a Startup: Insights From Matt Hulett of Mpire

5/11/09Follow @gthuang

While the Mariners are still in contention for the American League West lead, I thought it might be useful to make some analogies between baseball teams and startup companies. This came out of a recent chat I had with Matt Hulett, the chief executive of Seattle-based Mpire, makers of the Widgetbucks ad network and AdXpose software for marketers and publishers. Hulett, an Xconomist, also has previous experience at Expedia, RealNetworks, and Atom Entertainment.

Lately, he has been coaching his young son’s T-Ball team. Besides it being lots of fun, there happen to be some important parallels between running a sports team and running a startup, he says. (I know a number of other executives and investors around town who coach sports as well, and I’d like to hear their thoughts on this too.)

Here are a few points of advice from Hulett, to get started:

Clarify roles and responsibilities. Kids in the field like to play all positions at once, unless they’re told exactly what to do. A third baseman might run over to first base during the course of a play, for instance. The same goes for startups. “The natural thing at a small company is everyone does everything,” Hulett says. For example, the chief technology officer might be the main development engineer as well as the head manager. “But as a company gets bigger, it’s hard to give that power out.” This, he says, is ultimately fixable by clarifying everyone’s role.

Do lots of drills. As we talked, Hulett stood up and demonstrated a five-step drill to help his kids learn to throw the ball (don’t forget to follow through). They do it repeatedly to master the skill. “A lot of companies pivot too much, so they never get really good at anything. They don’t have the muscle memory in their company,” Hulett says. The startup equivalent to these drills might be focusing on one particular product area, or having employees work diligently to improve specific skill sets.

Figure out when to bring in fresh talent off the bench. “There is an art to when you bring in the relief pitcher,” Hulett says. He would know—he was brought in as a new CEO in 2006, when Mpire made the switch from an eBay seller-tool business to an ad network. To me, this point sounds like it’s about being able to adapt to the market, and your competition, as much as knowing your own team.

T-Ball analogies aside, Hulett also pointed out a broader and more difficult challenge that startups face: management bias. That means that the management team’s inherent way of thinking, based on the industry and roles they have come from, may not always match the market their startup is going after. “Engineering-oriented companies make engineering-based decisions, and are not necessarily customer focused,” he says. An example of this might be Microsoft. As a company gets bigger, Hulett says, there is often a divide between its customers and the people who make the products.

So which big companies have done a particularly good job of staying customer focused? Hulett points to Nordstrom and Southwest Airlines, to name a couple. “Most businesses are customer facing, but most businesses don’t do the best job organizing around the customer,” he says.

One last piece of advice: customers will never tell you what to build, Hulett says, but they’ll give you insight into what problem to solve. As a startup, you should jump on that. “As you get bigger, though, it’s easier to take your eye off the ball.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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