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.


A version of this post was originally published on


7 Responses to “The Games Startups Play”

  1. Great post. As a founder from outside the valley (Australia), I do struggle with the crazy valuations of companies with little substance. But being here for the last few years, I’ve grown to understand it’s a fine balance between both sides of the same coin. Thanks for the article Eric.

  2. epaley Says:

    Thanks. Balance is the right word to describe what is needed between both games.

  3. Eric – love the analogy. Makes complete sense and totally agree that the air game often gets way too far ahead of the ground game. One problem I often see in a seed round is that the early founders are “trained” from their mentors/investors to describe the air game so well, that when they are asked about how the ground game is going, they seem illiterate by comparison…

    • epaley Says:

      Great comment. At the start there isn’t much to show beyond the vision – air game. Most venture-backed companies start off strong on vision, particularly when trained by accelerators etc., and have a lot of catching up to do on the ground game.

  4. great analogy Eric. The narrative of the air-play is what gets you, your first customers/early adopters, your first investors (besides you and your mum) and your first lifestyle-mags covers, but needs to be followed up by an incredibly well executed ground play. The ground play is when you hit reality.

  5. As an international founder setting up shop in USA, I’ve seen that the Silicon Valley almost *expects* a lofty Air Game, especially if you’re with an accelerator. And the downside is when you describe Amazing Real World numbers coupled with an pitch that is quite down to earth but describes a real opportunity, You end up having to fight Disbelief.

    More than anything, its the suspension of disbelief that gets investors those great deals, those “unicorns” who were always awesome. people just mistook them for another “air game”.

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