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The Tour de France metaphor for entrepreneurship

In case you didn’t know: In Cambridge, bicycles rule the roads. In the the more studenty parts of the city at least. Ok, it’s nothing like what you get in many Asian cities, but by European standards it’s not bad, as demonstrated by this video (embedded below, or follow this link to YouTube):

Of course, I do virtually all my travelling around town by bike – the traffic is congested, the bus service isn’t particularly good, everything is fairly flat and close together, so it’s by far the most sensible option. And during all this cycling to work or visiting customers, it was just a matter of time before I came to think of cycling as a general metaphor for my approach to work. So here goes. Highly tenuous, but maybe mildly amusing.

I must start with a confession: I sense a kind of simple-minded delight when I can overtake cars while on my bike. Which happens fairly regularly in some spots. The cars are all stuck in a queue, but I can put my weight on the pedals, wiggle my way past them, take short cuts via pavements and back alleys. Not only do I get to my destination in a shorter time, and don’t have to pay for parking, I also have more fun in the process.

Then there are the days where it’s cold and rainy. You get out the high-visibility jacket (praying that it’ll save you from getting run over by a lorry), waterproofs, wrap up warm, and get out there on the road nonetheless. Those are the times which put many people off cycling, and they require the greatest level of determination. But, at the risk of sounding clichéd, it’s also invigorating.

The essence of cycling is that you try to get somewhere quickly and efficiently, but completely out of your own strength. This means it’s more satisfying, more flexible and more cool than any other means of transport. Start-up business is just like that. You try to beat the big guys by being quick and agile, by knowing the short-cuts, by avoiding the traffic jams. It’s a sociable experience if you can convince a few friends to get on their bikes and come along too. And who knows, if you take it seriously enough, you might get to cycle in the Tour de France one day.

Working in a corporate, in contrast, is much more like taking the bus. It’s comfortable, but not much quicker than cycling, and it’s always the same route. If you climb the corporate ranks and get into a more senior managerial position, the experience is more like driving a car. Now you have control over some pretty strong forces, but you have to play very carefully by the rules, otherwise you cause accidents.

Driving the car of corporate careers may take you further in terms of distance, but I don’t think it holds the same level of satisfaction as cycling. Think of the Tour de France. You can still be part of it if you’re a car driver – unfortunately you will not be part of the race itself, but your job will be simply to carry the TV cameras. A sideshow, not a main actor.

I think this metaphor is working surprisingly well. Let’s see how far we can push the comparison between different career paths and different means of transport.

  • Academic research is like walking. It’s definitely the best way of getting around a new and unknown place, or one with difficult terrain. You get to enjoy lots of nice flowers and other details along the way, but it’s slow – you can’t expect to travel very far.
  • Corporate careers are like taking the bus when you start out, and like driving a car when you are more senior. For many people that’s the best way, it’s pretty safe, and maybe a bit unexciting.
  • Start-up business is like cycling. It’s hard work, but you get to discover new and exciting places, you get there pretty quickly if it’s not too far, and you get the satisfaction of doing it out of your own strength. Also, when you’re cycling and you have a bit of spare time, it only takes an instant to become a pedestrian, so you have some of the benefits of academic research too.
  • When a VC (venture capitalist) invests in a start-up business, I see it as being a bit like attaching a rocket booster to your bicycle, putting on a helmet, lighting the fuse and holding on tight. The kind of thing you might expect to see on Top Gear. With a bit of luck you will leave all the cars behind, find yourself at a garage which will transform your bike into a heavy-duty motorbike, and you can go driving around the nicest places in the world for years to come. With less luck, you will fall off and get a few bruises, but probably you will laugh at the kick you got out of it, and you’ll immediately start searching for another bike and another rocket booster to give it another try.

To conclude, I’d say that these are all good ways of getting from one place to another, and clearly some people will prefer one type over another. But you should know what the options are, and make a conscious decision. The same thing applies with work.