Both sprints and marathons have starting lines, and the people lined up behind them are equally pumped up to start running the race. Adrenaline courses through the veins of a marathon runner on the starting line as surely as it does through the runner of a sprint waiting for the gun. And each kind of runner looks towards the finish line for their race, the end goal in sight.

And yet – what happens between the start and finish of a marathon and a sprint couldn’t be more different. In a sprint, the effort is focused in to mere seconds or perhaps minutes, and the runners push hard, giving everything they’ve got with each foot traveled. It doesn’t matter if they collapse after only running a few hundred yards – so long as they got over the finish line first, they’ve won. The start is critical, as it makes up a huge percentage of the race, and as the race is run, a tiny stumble spells doom. It’s a very unforgiving race – everything must be done just right, or there’ll be no trophy.

A marathon is something altogether different. Everyone knows as they leave the starting line that they’re going to be running a long time, and that if they don’t pace themselves they’ll never make it to the end much less have the best time. The start is important, but pales in comparison to sustained progress. Even a large stumble disappears in to the noise of the race so long as it doesn’t result in any physical damage. And the race is as much against the clock as it is against the other runners, with everyone striving towards their personal best.

Now, I’m more of a sitter than a runner, so I know these things not from experiencing them but rather from watching Chariots of Fire and talking to people who have run marathons. But what I do have lots of first hand experience with is building businesses, and I can tell you that there are important, enduring lessons to be had in this comparison for anyone thinking of starting a business. The external view of entrepreneurship, and the view of many just starting out in it, is that it’s a sprint: all the energy focused in to a small period of time for a huge pay-off at the end. Yet once you have a few months of a new business under your belt you’ll discover that it’s really a marathon, with the focus being on endurance and constant progress. Going really fast turns out to be overrated, and envisioning and constantly moving towards a finish line that is well out of sight is what separates the winners from the losers.

Those who approach business as a sprint quickly burn out. They run the first few months, maybe even the first year or two, with a gusto that seems enviable. And yet, as time wears on, they tire and start to get discouraged, and often collapse well before the half way point. Those who realize they’re embarking on a marathon, however, get off to a good start, and yet quickly fall far behind the sprinters. But soon enough they catch up, and then gradually leave those less prepared behind.

As you think about the business you want to start (I know you have one!), are you prepared for it to be a marathon? Are you ready to stick it out for years to make it a success? Big, sudden success stories are usually the product of years of quiet persistence, or as Sam Walton said of Wal-Mart, “Like most other overnight successes, it was about 20 years in the making.”

So which are you planning to run? A sprint, or a marathon?

Posted by Nathaniel on Jan 12th, 2009

You can still contact Nathaniel at nathaniel@terralien.com