Roger Federer and Entrepreneurship

The last decade has seen an explosion, worldwide, of organized entrepreneurship. Angels, seed funds, mentors, coaches, accelerators and incubators have proliferated (as have VC firms). And a (good) blog post can be found on just about every minute aspect of building a technology business.

While there are numerous positives to be found in all this activity, I wonder if the effect is to drive companies (and founders) to regress to the mean. I am not speaking here about investment returns in a statistical sense (of course that is the case). I mean that the shape of the bell curve may have changed, with a much bigger proportion under the bulge than say a decade ago. All that coaching, mentoring and universal access to the same 10 bullet points on any given startup topic might be sanding down the edges of the best founders and managers.


I have a sporting analogy after being moved by Federer’s Wimbledon victory. For decades the United States was the leader in men’s tennis. McEnroe, Connors, Chang, Sampras, Courier, Agassi -- it appeared endless. But it's been 14 years since an American male won a Grand Slam (Roddick, US Open, 2003); and there is no American in the top 10 and just nine in the top 100 as of this writing.

The great men’s tennis players of the last 15 years -- Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray -- all come from places outside the mainstream (Switzerland, Mallorca, Serbia and Scotland respectively). They have almost entirely avoided being guided by the tennis establishment in their home country (and the tennis establishment in these countries is not much to speak of, certainly relative to the US).

The USTA, the “establishment” in American tennis, has during this period dramatically expanded its youth development activities. Yet all it produces is thousands of journeymen and journeywomen; good performers but not great ones, all with remarkably bland personalities). David Foster Wallace wouldn’t have written something like this about any current American male player.

It seems to me that the top tennis players in any era — men or women — have all been “entrepreneurs”. They have found their own way to success, and have not been overcoached and overtrained. This does not mean they don’t look for professional help — one glance at Federer’s entourage puts that issue to rest — but it does mean that they’ve retained the mental and physical skills, even if not found in a coaching manual, that got them to their initial success. Perhaps that is also the reason they are playing world-class tennis in their 30s.

At Amasia, as for all VC firms, our assessment of the balance between “knowing the basics” and “bringing your own drive and spark” is crucial not just to our investment decision but also to our ongoing work with our companies. Like all VC firms, we will not get this balance right in all, or perhaps even the majority, of our investments. 

P.S. the logic above is one reason to be hopeful about Clare Liu. It is staggering how the US tennis establishment refuses to learn anything from the remarkable success of the Williams sisters; the same myopia is at work in China in relation to Li Na.