Why is a no-punt strategy in football like being an entrepreneur?

I listened to a wonderful interview of Kevin Kelley, coach of the Pulaski Academy’s high school football team in Arkansas.  The interview is from Slate’s Hang Up & Listen sports podcast.

Coach Kelley does not believe in punting.  He also does not believe in normal kick-offs; he always does onside kicks.  If you don’t know anything about football, then just skip this interview and my blog post.  But if you do, perhaps you are as intrigued as I was when I first heard the topic.

I’m an occasional football fan, watching a few games a season, and understand the basics of the game. The notion of not punting sounded radical to me.  At a 4th down, it was always a thrill when the team decided to “go for it” rather than punt.  Those 4th down tries made for some of the most exciting football moments in the game.  It seemed very daring, very brave.

The Baylor Bears punt against Texas A&M in a 2007 regular season game.
Yet Coach Kelley ALWAYS “goes for it” by trying for the 4th down, and never punting.  Is he crazy? The Coach explains that he made this decision based on the data.  Since our company Grok is into data science, this notion intrigued me.  According to the Coach, while you indeed won’t make every 4th down, you will make a high enough percentage of them that when stacked up against the yards gained on a punt, it argues for always going for it.  Of course, if you’re playing the percentages, you need to be consistent, so it is only in very narrow circumstances that the Coach actually punts.  Listen to the interview – this guy is winning tons of games.

So what does this have to do with entrepreneurship?  As I listened to the Coach, it all sounded very familiar to me.  Here are some reasons why.

1. entrepreneurs need to defy conventional wisdom

Just because something always has been done one way doesn’t mean that it’s the best way.  Coach Kelley challenged that conventional wisdom.  Much of what an entrepreneur does is to challenge conventional wisdom, going deeper into the question to see if it still makes sense.

2. entrepreneurs take calculated risks

The general public perceives entrepreneurs as crazy risk-takers.  Nothing is further from the truth.  (Successful) entrepreneurs figure out which are the key risks to take, and try to de-risk everything else.  On the risks that they take, they try to understand the odds.  Coach Kelley knows that he won’t make every 4th down, but he has calculated the benefit of winning a percentage of them.  The Coach is not taking risks just for the heck of it and he’s not being crazy, he’s just trying to win.

3. entrepreneurs need to be willing to fail

Why don’t all the other coaches change to this strategy, given Coach Kelley’s success?  Well, for a few reasons (this one, and the next one!).  Many people simply are unwilling to risk failure of any kind.  It just goes against their nature.  These people should not become entrepreneurs.  Many of the best companies and products have come out of companies and products that were failures at first, but the learning gained informed a better, next generation.

4.  leadership teams and owners must be aligned

Many coaches could not change to Coach Kelley’s strategy because, as he points out, the first time that they did not convert the 4th down, they would be fired.  If you want to have a team or group that tries bold strategies, you can’t punish them the first time the strategy fails.  This philosophy is part of the culture of Silicon Valley, where smart venture investors act as team members with the company leadership to agree to risk taking strategies.

5.  act, adjust; act, adjust

Coach Kelley describes the crazy onsides kicks that they use instead of kick-offs.  They have many varieties.  If one style of kick works, they keep it.  If it doesn’t, they scrap it.  The team is constantly experimenting, just as are entrepreneurs, rapidly adjusting to feedback from the market.

6.  there’s a lot to be said for momentum

Part of the Coach’s argument for on-sides kicks is that regaining possession just after a touchdown is a huge momentum swing.  That momentum can carry the team to the next touchdown.  I see the same in high tech.  Once a product starts gaining momentum, it gets talked about and shared, and that momentum accelerates the success.

7.  manage for the long term, not the short term

Coach Kelley is structuring his team’s play not just to win a particular down, or a particular drive, or even a particular game.  The Coach’s strategy is aimed at winning a particular season.  He knows he will lose some downs, drives, and even games, but he’s confident that over the long run, he can win a higher percentage, and his stats support that.  An entrepreneur has to think along the same lines (and has to have an investor who agrees to that approach).  So much of a new business is uncertain that one has to be prepared to tune it over time in order to achieve success.

8. if you’re smaller than the other guys, you better figure out a different way to play

The Coach points out that as a small school, Pulaski simply can’t compete by having the biggest, strongest guys.  So he had to figure out a way to “change the rules” (within the rules, of course).  An entrepreneur often is up against leading players in the market, and has to do the same.  When we were starting Palm, our competitors were big computer companies such as Compaq and Hewlett-Packard.  When we were starting Handspring, doing the first smartphones, our competitors were even more frightening, like Nokia and Motorola.  In each case, we “changed the rules” by creating a product that met different customer needs.  For example, the PalmPilot was smaller, less expensive, and less-featured than the competitive products of the day.  But it met the need for being simple and fast to solve certain problems like tracking your daily calendar, an approach that ultimately was much more successful than the other products, despite their big company and big brand backing.

Thinking of Coach Kelley makes me smile.  I love someone who manages to totally change my view of a question, particularly one that I’ve held for many, many years.

3 thoughts on “Why is a no-punt strategy in football like being an entrepreneur?”

  1. Love the no-punting concept tied to the analytics, and really appreciate the connection back to being an entrepreneur – a lot of it is super applicable for me right now!

    Related: I think you’d like this robot who judges all 4th down calls in the NFL! http://www.nytimes.com/newsgraphics/2013/11/28/fourth-downs/index.html?smid=tw-nytimes
    “For every fourth down of every N.F.L. game in the 2013 season, NYT 4th Down Bot analyzes over 10 years of N.F.L. game data to determine whether a team would have been better off had it punted, attempted a field goal or gone for a first down. In general, it finds N.F.L. coaches far too conservative.”


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