The Games Startups Play

April 4, 2014

Every startup plays two complementary games–the air game and the ground game. The air game is always more romantic. It is the emotional narrative of how your startup revolutionizes a market. It’s the aspirational hope that the company could become one of the great ones. It’s the buzz in the market, the great PR machine, talented people fighting to get in, and investors who can’t get enough money into the company.


The ground game is much uglier. It is the day-to-day operations in which all the blemishes are visible. It is nearly impossible to live up to the expectations set by the air game and execute to your startup’s lofty aspirations. The ground game has metrics that you are embarrassed to share with anyone. It has nasty elements, such as falling short of milestones, founder conflicts, people getting fired, and missing quarterly numbers. Even solid performance with the ground game feels under-appreciated. Achieve 70 percent of your insanely ambitious goals and everyone is disappointed. The grind of the daily operations can be so exhausting that sometimes you lose sight of why you started the company in the first place.

In the startup world, early-stage companies are largely valued–at least for a while–on the air game, which tends to be way out ahead of the ground game. However, if your ground game lags for too long, the air game can get ugly as well. Talent starts to leave, and it’s hard to attract more. Investors become disenchanted, and finding new ones is nearly impossible. At some point as your company is growing, the ground game will become the focus, for better or worse.

Ask most founders about their toughest moments and you’ll almost always hear about the horror stories from the ground and the overwhelming obstacles they had to overcome to make the air game look so good from afar.

Though most companies are better at one game than the other, both are necessary for success. The air game gives the ground game cover. It allows time to fix the ugly details, thanks to enthusiastic capital and access to great talent. With a great narrative for your company, you’ll have more room to make mistakes. However, if the gap between the grand vision of the air game and gritty details of the ground game grows too large, don’t be surprised when your company starts to face cynicism.  

Companies that thrive on the ground game, but struggle to build buzz, face an equally uphill battle. As someone who executes really well, you probably feel slighted by the lack of enthusiasm for your company. The numbers should speak for themselves. Why doesn’t anyone (investors, talent, press) appreciate the facts? You scoff at overhyped companies and have little respect for peers who don’t put their heads down and operate. You are great at blocking and tackling but never seem to get the valuations of less-impressive competitors, which means you can’t get the cheap capital you need to expand and you lose out on the best people. Playing great on the ground without air cover feels like a Sisyphean feat. These companies rarely win. 

The challenge is to be great at the air game–by building huge enthusiasm for the long-term potential–but never oversell the near-term ground game. Inspire people with your company’s lofty long-term vision, but set near-term goals that are ambitious but achievable. Use the air game to energize your team, attract the right leaders, and raise inexpensive capital, but never forget that your success as a company will ultimately come down to how well you execute. It’s a difficult balance–underestimate either game and you’re likely to lose both.


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