It’s been hard to avoid the surprising performance of the Icelandic football team in the Euro2016 playoffs. Just to recap for those who missed it: Iceland with 330 000 inhabitants just south of the arctic circle (yes, its pretty cold most of the year) made it into the top 8 teams of Europe, knocking out mighty England in the process, and even finishing above the ultimate winner Portugal in their group!
How was this even possible? What lessons can be learned from this astonishing performance? Is it possible that startups can learn something here…?
Upon some reflection, being an underdog in a football tournament is not that different from being a startup, facing incumbents with all the resources that you are just dreaming of; lots of cash, great players, the best managers, training facilities, TV, sponsorship income and dedicated fans. But as we know, too much money and past success also brings a certain risk of complacency and underestimating new disruptors!
In a motivational team speech by Iceland manager Lars Lagerbäck ahead of the qualifying game against Holland in Amsterdam last year (which they won too!), he told his squad: “Right now, the Holland manager isn’t telling his team of stars how to defend against little Iceland, but how they shall elegantly score as many goals as possible against us to please their fans…so when we attack, their defence will not know what hit them”. You gotta love it! David v Goliath, ingenuous v ignorant, fast v big, smart v complacent and so on.
So what takeaways from Iceland’s improbable success could be relevant for a tech startup? I’ve tried to distil 5 practical points that I think could be translatable from the football pitch to the startup office:
1. Work with what you’ve got but bring in experienced expertise early
When you manage a national team, you don’t have the luxury of buying players from abroad, except for the manager. That’s exactly what Iceland did. They recruited the former Swedish national manager Lars Lagerbäck, who helped Sweden (another relatively small footballing country) qualify for five consecutive major tournaments (WorldCup and European Championships) between 2000 and 2008. On his arrival he told the Icelandic players that they can win any game if you simply believe it, follow my plan and work hard!
Startup takeaway: Bring in outside expertise where you have shortfalls; someone who’s done it before; inspires winning mentality; and in the startup world the good news is: there is no restriction on multinationals on the pitch!
2. Don’t be intimidated – Just do it!
One of the key changes Lars brought to the Iceland team was to believe in themselves and focus on your own game. Don’t be intimidated by the bigger teams. They are also just 11 men on the pitch and have nerves too, especially when some wild Vikings disrupt their game plan!
Startup takeaway: Your mindset is the basis for success. With a can-do attitude you will face any challenger with the belief that you can win if you work hard and stay focused on a strategy. With the right mindset, you add gradually more skill-set through practice and then its all about action (i.e. get off the bench and sweat it)!
3. Use your unique strengths and keep your discipline
Iceland was criticised by some for playing very defensive football, hitting the opponent on the break – and fast! It was simply a decisive strategy that maximised the Icelandic players skill level and won them games, with one of the highest goal scoring-to-attempts efficiency in the whole tournament. Even as Iceland took the lead in games, defence and fast counter strikes was their game-plan discipline.
Start-up takeaway: Do one thing, and do that one thing very well! If you have developed a piece of software or invented a new disruptive service, stick to your one-thing strategy, become known for it and build your fan/customer base on it. Do not be distracted by adding too many features or extras too early. Don’t try to “boil the ocean”. And when it comes to your “defence”, don’t run out of cash or its game over!
4. Win as a team, lose as a team
The Icelandic team’s combined salary (in their various clubs) was often less than one single star player on the other team. So there is no other option than to work harder than the star-players and execute as a team. The Icelandic players ran more than most teams over 90 minutes. They helped each other in all situations. No one was singled out as the hero – the team was the star!
Startup take-away: Don’t let egos spoil the team spirit. The Founders and CEO are part of the team, at the front line, leading by example. Agree the strategy and work hard (i.e. be a sprinter, not a pedestrian)!
5. Build a passionate fan base
No one in Europe this summer will have missed the Icelandic fans’ signature slow-build-up hand clap with a Viking chant (also referred to as the “Volcano”). Here’s a YouTube clip from the celebration after the famous win against England.
Close to 10% of the entire Icelandic population travelled to France to support their team and many brought with them their families and a friendly non-hooligan contribution to the games (in contrast to others…). Before and after each game, the Icelandic players walked up to the fans to shake hands and thank them for the support. I was myself part of this blue shirted crowd and experienced the amazing reception from people of all nationalities that even joined in the party and wanted to be Icelandic fans too!
As you succeed as an underdog, others want to join your tribe and experience your brand! (BTW: The Viking clap & chant is now performed by lots of fans, not just Icelandic!)
Startup take-away: Build a loyal customer base early. Show empathy with your users and they will love your product and service, even if you make a mistake; admit it and correct it fast. If you’re doing this consistently, customers will want to recommend your service to others. The best example of this “tribe-building” would be the Harley Davidson Owners Group (“HOG”) where people are even tattooing the logo onto their skin and are proud to show it off!
In conclusion, facing the tough odds as you do in a startup, or an underdog in a sports tournament, you need to use all your skills, hard work and team spirit to succeed.
The good news for startups is that it happens all the time and provides inspiration to others that indeed, “nothing is impossible” if you “just do it”!
Áfram Ísland and Áfram Startups!!
Disclaimer: I’m a dual citizen of Iceland and Sweden 😉