small business marathon

Why Running a Small Business Is Like Running a Marathon

By Kayleigh Alexandra

I’ve never been much of a runner, but I have great respect for the dedication it takes to carry out such athletic feats. It’s all about will and self-determination. No one applying external pressure can give you the required drive; it has to come from within.

And really, when you think about it, running a small business isn’t all that different conceptually. It’s just you working your way towards a faraway goal, willing to suffer the hardship and difficulty needed to make it there.

But we can relate the two more specifically than that. Let’s look at some more reasons why running a small business is a lot like running a marathon.

It’s important to prepare properly.

You don’t break a lifelong couch addiction and immediately venture into long-distance running — that is, unless you’re perfectly happy to tear a muscle and end up on crutches for months. You have to steadily acclimatize to the punishing demands of the road by steadily ramping up intensity, extending your cardio sessions and cleaning up your diet.

And when you’re laying the groundwork for a small business, you need to get all the steps lined up, planning what you’ll do at each stage and understanding what you currently have the capacity to deal with. You might start out working around a full-time job because it’s all the time you can offer, building up to the point at which you’re able to make a greater commitment.

If you run a half-marathon and don’t feel tired, you might think you’re perfectly capable of doing a full one, but you can’t know it until you’ve tried. Similarly, you can’t know you’re ready to take your business full-time until you’ve done it. Trial runs are essential.

What To Do: Create an action plan before you take any drastic action. Break it into achievable steps, and make sure you’ve fully completed the step you’re on before you move to the next.

You can burn out if you don’t know your limits.

If you’ve done your marathon prep and you’re feeling confident, you can decide to pick up the pace in a big way, only to realize too late that you overestimated your fitness and end up gasping on the ground, clutching at your chest and unable to continue.

The same principle goes for running and growing a small business. Early success can embolden you to invest heavily in rapid growth, only to run out of funds when things don’t happen as quickly as you anticipated and hit serious financial difficulty. Or maybe you can take on an immense workload with no breaks, just to hit a wall and find yourself unable to cope with the pressure of the situation.

Progressing quickly is good, but progressing steadily and consistently is more important. If you don’t exercise caution as you go, you’ll find that it’s all too easy to go from a strong start into being unable to finish the race.

What To Do: Work hard and commit, but accept that you need to build up momentum over time, and slow down whenever you need to. Flexibility is key to avoiding burnout.

You need help along the way.

Running a marathon is thirsty work, and it isn’t ideal to carry large bottles of water as you run. That’s why top marathons will have water cups distributed along the race path, allowing runners to grab refreshment at regular intervals without carrying it for the rest of the race. Sponsorships make it financially easier to spend a lot of time training on the track and in the gym. And then there’s the support of the cheering crowd pushing runners to keep going.

When you run a business, you may handle the work and make the major decisions, but you don’t operate in a vacuum. You need friends to help lift your spirits when you’re frustrated, mentors to give you some tips as you’re learning, and peers to discuss ideas with.

Now, you can get where you want to go without anyone helping you, of course. It is technically possible. It’s just massively (and unnecessarily) more difficult. You should always seek to make good use of the resources available to you; you don’t get extra credit for working from scratch.

What To Do: Take all the assistance you can get. Listen to business podcasts to get useful tips from people in similar situations, and ask questions whenever possible.

It’s not how you start, it’s where you end up.

Marathon runners all have different capabilities, experience levels, techniques and approaches. Some will power through the first half then leisurely stroll through the second. Others will keep an even pace throughout. You may even find some who sprint briefly, then walk briefly, then repeat that pattern. It only matters that they reach the finish line.

You might prepare as well as you can to launch your business, then find that you get very little business for a year, leaving you stuck in the early stages of the race. But it isn’t over as long as you don’t give up. You can run a marathon in 2.5 hours, 5 hours, or an entire day. When you finally get to the finish line, you’ll still have completed the same race as everyone else.

What To Do: Stay focused whenever you feel that you’re falling behind. As the old adage goes, it takes years to become an overnight success, and it’s never too late to try.

If they put in the work, anyone can do it.

Most marathons are open to anyone who feels like entering, and there isn’t usually an entry fee. There isn’t even a harsh pace demanded. If you can walk, and you have the will, you can in principle run a marathon. You can even do it more smartly than ever before through the use of apps that find creative ways to incentivize performance.

Similarly, there’s next to nothing stopping someone from starting their own business in today’s digital world. Due to the convenience of online connections, automation tools, vast resource pools, ecommerce store builders, and options like crowdfunding, startup costs are as low as they’ve ever been.

What To Do: Just get started. Rely on user-friendly tools to handle the parts you couldn’t otherwise—generate a logo, build a website, get an investment— and keep working.

You can start preparing right now.

Many will never make the fateful decision to take the plunge and start a business, because they know how difficult it is. They might think they could probably make it work if they gave it everything they had, but that sounds exhausting, and it’s easier to carry on as usual.

But just as you can find smarter wars to race, you can find smarter ways to work, and if you’ve been holding back from turning your business idea into a reality, don’t wait any longer. Now is the perfect time to make a start, even if you can’t get up to speed for a while.

Whether you’re running a marathon or a small business, you need preparation, commitment, and resources. Think about the physical stresses of a marathon and remember that running a business isn’t easy— don’t put too much pressure on yourself, and take your time. Being slow is alright if you make it in the end.

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Kayleigh Alexandra
Kayleigh Alexandra is a content writer for Micro Startups -- a site dedicated to spreading the word about startups and small businesses of all shapes and sizes. Visit the blog for the latest micro biz news and inspiring entrepreneurial stories.
  1. Thank you for this article. I’ve recently started a small business and indeed feel like it’s a marathon. I have to pace myself. I jumped into it not having any prior business experience. There is so much to learn and it often feels like I’m drinking from a fire hydrant. It’s exciting but also scary. There are so many aspects of it to manage as well. I just keep telling myself to trust the process and take one step at a time.

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