Why Startup Founding Teams should Learn Martial Arts

BK
6 min readJan 14, 2020

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Boxer throwing a cross against another.

The startup life isn’t for everyone. Most startup founders live pretty scrappy lives at the start of their careers, often having to put up with low salaries and long hours while they work their guts out on ideas that may not work out in the end after years of toil. Moreover, founding teams have to make do with limited resources and put up with the fog of war (AKA the lack of systems and processes).

Boxing was probably one of the best sports I ever picked up because it trained me to develop focus on the present to get things done. Not only that, it trained me to get things done when the going gets tough.

During my time in Shanghai, my former instructor would place me in gruelling “king of the hill” 45 minute rounds where sparring took place until one of us gave up. It really made me learn how to be able (and willing) to take hits and keep going. Also because I am highly competitive I was able to push myself beyond what I thought was possible.

With everyday feeling like a battle against time and dwindling resources, it might be a good idea for founding teams to take up martial arts as a way to cultivate a fighter’s mentality in order to cope with the highly stressful and fluid environments that today’s startups are in. In a lot of ways, the startup and martial arts worlds are quite similar, but to draw the links between both worlds, we should first define martial arts.

What is a martial art?

Martial arts have four distinct characteristics that separate them from other forms of fighting.

One of these characteristics is the word “martial.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “martial” as “of, relating to, or suited for war or a warrior.” For a fighting style to be considered a martial art, it needs to be able to be used in a warlike setting.

A martial art also needs to have a codified system of combat practices. The techniques involved in the fighting style needs to be able to be written down and explained in a systematic way. If the mode of fighting is random or can’t be explained in a step-by-step fashion, it is not a martial art.

The third necessary characteristic of a martial art is that it enables the practitioner’s mental and spiritual development. If a particular fighting style does not help you develop mental fortitude and a sense of spiritual fulfilment while you learn the fighting style, it is not a martial art.

The fourth feature of a martial art is that it preserves some kind of culture or heritage. There needs to be a historical tradition behind a fighting style for it to be considered a martial art.

Similarities to the Art of the Startup:

  1. A startup functions like a merry band of warriors who have a singular purpose in mind; whether to scale or reach the next investment round. Just like fighters, the goal is driven by pragmatic reasons; to survive and to win.
  2. As a startup matures, the founding team begins to build the systems and processes that define the organisation, similar to how the rules and regulations of a martial art begin to form over time to govern the sport.
  3. Startups require solid mindsets and skillsets to be able to survive in today’s highly competitive market, and just like in combat sports, you’re either going forward, or going to get knocked out. Both require self awareness and a willingness to learn, fail and learn again.
  4. Culture is vital to the flourishing of martial arts as it is to the startup ecosystem. Within a Muay Thai gym or jiu-jitsu dojo, the culture refers to the shared values of instructors, fighters and apprentices and how people treat each other. Likewise, the culture of the startup would be the shared values and prioritised actions that will come to define its modus operandi.
Muay Thai or Thai boxing appealed to many MMA fighters early on because of its practicality and utility.

3 Benefits of Learning Martial Arts

01: You develop grit.

I would argue that grit is one of the most underrated but highly prized skills to pick up. Stretching beyond our comfort zones is not something we are programmed to do and takes a bit of training to get to. Founding teams often have to stretch themselves beyond what is humanly capable to get things to scale. To do that requires a lot of tenacity and spirit.

In developed countries, people have gotten used to the luxuries and abundance that less fortunate countries can ill afford, to an extent where the culture that is bred is one of complacency and dependency.

Boxing helped later on as I worked with important deadlines to build a minimum viable product (MVP) as part of a startup founding team. It was tough and gruelling, but hold on long enough and you can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

02: You learn how to take decisive action with incomplete information.

With today’s hyper-stimulated and information-overloaded environment, there will be many people who struggle with analysis paralysis; the inability to make a firm decision due to overthinking.

Martial arts will guide practitioners to be bold and act fast, anticipating and reacting to your opponent and being confident in dealing with whatever may come along the way. Time slows down in the heat of combat and everything that comes after seems not so stressful after all.

Whether you learn striking, grappling or both, performing drills and perfecting form and technique through practice and using them in a real world setting like sparring will allow you to develop those fast-twitch muscle fibres and react to new stimuli with ease outside of the ring.

03: It trains your fight-or-flight responses.

As a result of evolutionary biology when we are stressed, our bodies produce cortisol to react to the environment. It may have worked in the past to pump adrenaline into our bloodstream so we could avoid danger, but prolonged cortisol exposure is the cause of many a heart failure in our modern age.

Prolonged stress can be avoided by understanding our fight-or-flight responses. By understanding the gravity of the situation and measuring it with detached objectivity, we can learn how to manage our own physiology.

Most martial arts cultivate a philosophy of understanding fight-or-flight responses. With boxing, it would refer to the distance between fighters; the pockets of space where you should be engaging or not engaging in based on your physical attributes and skillsets.

Understanding this philosophy of engagement can help to differentiate what is a genuine problem or threat to be addressed in a startup environment versus a problem that does not require urgent action. This can reduce the stressors that can impact everyone on the founding team.

A team that doesn’t understand fight-or-flight responses.

Conclusion

Martial art principles can be applied not only in the startup environment, but everyday life as well. Understanding some of these basic principles can provide us with better tools to manage ourselves in today’s rapidly changing world. Learning martial arts is also a life-long appreciation; there are no shortcuts, just like there are no shortcuts in life. It takes a long time to get to that happy place, but with a little self-awareness and commitment we can all get there.

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BK

Product Design in Fintech | Web3 | Crypto and currently at Secured Finance