Are Startups like Marathons?

One of the most commonly repeated phrases in the startup community is that “startups are like marathons” - long, arduous journeys that require pacing, training, and support.

As a former founder and current startup employee, I have lived through one side of that metaphor; and after running the ING New York City Marathon yesterday, I have now experienced the other side. I am confident in affirming the three ways that this comparison is completely true — and the one way it is not.

Pacing is essential.

Everyone I talked with throughout my prep for the marathon told me I should start slower than usual. Each pointed out that after all of my training I might be tempted to try for a PR (personal record) in the first half of the race. If I did that, I would burn up essential stores of energy in my body and would “hit the wall” even harder when I got to miles sixteen through nineteen.

They were right.

Whether as a founder or an employee, you must pace yourself and ensure proper downtime, self-care and conservation of energy so you do not burnout. 

You must train properly.

Some people are natural athletes and others, like myself, have to work very hard at it. No one simply wakes up and decides to run 26.2 miles. Though there are many different training philosophies and regimens, the truth that you have to train remains. It is the same in startups. The skill set and mindset required to succeed in startups are not inborn traits for most people. Building technical skills is like building muscles, and preparing for uncertainty, the emotional rollercoaster and constant change of startups requires a conscious mental shift. Whether you want to be a founder or work at a startup, the message is the same: you must train if you want to make it to the finish line.

You cannot do this alone. You need support along the way.

I am not sure how the first Greek who ran 26.2 miles did it, but modern runners benefit from support during their races like water stations, first aid tents and cheering crowds to boost their spirits when the going gets tough. I certainly would not have made it through yesterday without my friend Kristy at mile sixteen who came armed with chocolate milk and corny jokes to distract me. Similarly, to survive in a startup, you need to seek a support system. This is often a combination of both insiders, like teammates and colleagues at other startups. Additionally, mentors and outsiders like roommates, family members and friends who are not part of this community are just as important. The balance is crucial because sometimes you want people who understand exactly what you are going through, and sometimes you seek distraction from it. But there is no question: you will need support along the way.

There is one aspect of the “startups are marathons” comparison that does not work, however. You do not know at the beginning how long the “race” is.

One of my favorite distractions when running long distances is to calculate things in my head:

1. What fraction I have  completed of the race.
2. What my splits were over the last mile.
3. How much I need to improve my pace to finish at a goal time.

This is possible because I know exactly how far I have gone and how far I have to go. It is a defined distance from the beginning. Not so with startups - the most certainty you may ever have is how much runway you have left from a given fundraising round (translation: how many months of cash the company has left). As a founder you should always know this number, but as an employee it may be less transparent. And in either case, it is hard to tell if you will be able to raise that next round of financing. That lack of certainty is one of the hardest parts of working in startups, which is why pacing, training and support are even more essential. 


Christina Wallace is the  Director of Startup Institute New York. Previously, she was the founding CEO of Quincy, a management consultant for BCG, and an arts manager at the Metropolitan Opera. Christina holds undergraduate degrees in mathematics and theater studies from Emory University and an MBA from Harvard Business School. Congratulate her on running 26.2 miles @cmwalla