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The Elon Musk of Baseball: How Startups Hit Grand Slams

Babe Ruth made history by calling his shot during the 1932 World Series. How can you call your own shot? Here are 4 steps to take.

Picture this. It’s the fifth inning of Game 3 of the World Series, and it’s 1932. The Chicago Cubs are playing the New York Yankees at Wrigley Field. Who steps up to the plate? The greatest baseball player of all time Babe Ruth. The score is 4-4. He takes one strike. The Cubs from their dugout are heckling, and the fans are getting into it. Babe holds up his hand and points to center field. That’s where the ball is going. Babe hits hard. It’s going, going, high into the center field stands. It’s a home run.

Just as Babe pointed to the stands and knocked the ball there, so have tech giants like Elon Musk. They’ve pointed to the future where humanity is headed, and if there was an equivalent to Babe hitting a 440-foot home run to center field, Elon is it. But there’s an even more important lesson here for everyone to learn: startups are not like baseball at all; they’re like snowballs,and the more you pack on, the easier it is for them to get big. Once you get going with product market fit, they have so much momentum [that] they take on a life of their own.

Here are four steps to calling your shot:

  1. Point well
  2. Hit the ball
  3. Make the myth
  4. Win the series, not just the game

Point Well

Babe Ruth pointed to center field at a moment where the score was tied. While it’s simple, it’s important to note one thing: he didn’t point to the foul line; he wasn’t pointing to bunt. He was going for a center field home run. You’re at the World Series; you’re tied; and you want to win. What’s the thing that will help your team the most? It’s to put points on the board and in grand fashion.

Here’s the startup lesson. For founders, it’s about choosing the market and problem to solve. You’ve got to find one that matters. Everyone wants to win, but many forget to even ask the question, “What does winning look like to you?”

Remember most founders are long-term pessimists when they should be long-term optimists. What that means is that people rarely try to pick problems that are big enough. Instead of pointing to center field for a home run, they point at the ground in front of the pitcher. They’re just going to bunt. But unlike baseball, where sometimes bunting is the right thing to do, that can be among the worst moves you can make as a founder. You wouldn’t believe how many people are doing the same things.

“Even if you fail at your ambitious thing, it’s very hard to fail completely.” 

Larry Page

The more ambitious something is, the fewer people try to do it and that brings you closer to your goal. Less competition is great, and remember it was Peter Thiel who famously pointed out [that] competition is for losers. If you’re incredibly capable and a world expert at building and creating technology, there’s really no reason not to be as ambitious as possible.

Hit the Ball

Most people, who are quite ambitious and point at center field, never end up hitting the ball. They strike out. Remember vision without execution is hallucination.

We talk about Babe Ruth calling that shot because he actually hit it there, but what also matters is how Babe did it. Babe Ruth happened to be a slugger. He, of course, was going to pick the best way to win for him and that was to hit a home run to center field. But that’s not the only way to win. Ichiro Suzuki, on the other hand, made a name for himself with outrageously high on-base percentage. Rather than slugging, he made it onto first base with finesse way more often than everyone else.

Ask yourself: “What are my strengths? What are my weaknesses?” There’s no one-size-fits-all way for you to build a business or startup that matters. But you do have to know yourself. Just as Ichiro wouldn’t have been successful as a slugger, you might not be the best at certain things. And luckily, once you know what you’re good at and what you’re bad at, you can actually build a complementary team, a team that can win.

If you’re early in your career, deeply invest in improving your skills and experience. If you don’t know how to code, you absolutely can learn. Even if you don’t end up becoming the CTO or primary engineer, you will be a better manager and founder than you were when you didn’t know how. Why? Because you’ll be able to evaluate, attract and retain better engineers than you would have without those skills. So many people try to start a business when they haven’t worked on their skills enough.

(Credit: KCRW)

For me, I didn’t start my company until 27 in part because there was still so much for me to learn. I honed my product management skills at Microsoft; my software engineering, design and team building skills at Palantir; and finally, only then was I ready to strike it out on my own later. If you want to have a shot at the championship, you’ve got to spend the years in advance to be able to play at that level, to be able to point then actually hit the ball there. Know yourself. Be great at one or two things and dangerous enough at the rest, and you’ll be prepared. When your fastball comes, it’s going to be your skills, dedication and years of practice that will maximize your chance at hitting it out of the park.

Make the Myth

Take a moment to think about making the myth. Confession —  it’s not actually clear that Babe Ruth called his shot. In fact, the first few times someone asked him about it, he said he was pointing at the dugout, saying he only had one strike. It was a reporter, Joe Williams, who made the headline “Ruth Calls Shot.” It was widely syndicated nation-wide, and days later, Babe Ruth actually changed his tone. Once it became national news, he started saying, “Well, it’s in the papers, isn’t it?” Babe Ruth was already set to be a legend, but this cemented it.

Mythmaking is important. Don’t be disappointed by this. It’s easy to be disappointed when the true story falls short of the myth. Know that there is a lot of myth-making needed in your startup lore. Storytelling moves the heart and creates the legend you need to be the magnet.

PayPal didn’t start off as something that had ambitions for a global new world order for the financial system. Initially, it was just a way for PalmPilot users to send money to each other. The initial versions that actually worked were all web-based, mainly focused on eBay. So that’s how they built the transaction volume to a level that let Peter Thiel and Elon Musk start expanding their ambitions over time. Know that this is a natural part of every startup; you start with something far simpler, and as you grow and show how big your idea can be, the idea evolves, and you can start telling a bigger story. And if anything, when the story hits you, you’ve got to run with it. The myth doesn’t make itself.

Win the Series

Finally, think about this as an infinite game. Storytelling, like capital, human relationships and intelligence, compounds over time. In 1926, six years before the called shot, Babe Ruth made headlines for another famous World Series home run. He said he would knock one out of the park for a gravely sick child Johnny Sylvester. Johnny fell off a horse and wasn’t expected to fully recover. Babe Ruth heard about it and as a result, dedicated three home runs in Game Four of the World Series in 1926. Johnny Sylvester famously went on to make a complete recovery. I don’t know if those things are connected, but maybe that first story paved the way for this story. And those stories start taking on a life of their own once you begin down this path.

(Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Elon Musk didn’t start working on SpaceX and Tesla right off the bat. He had multiple prior startups that had very successful exits. First, he sold Zip2 to Compaq for $305 million in 1999. It was an online city guide that was an early version of Yelp. He then created X.com, which ended up becoming PayPal and was sold to eBay in 2002. Those are the two things that set him up to start SpaceX and Tesla. Each step in his career set him up for the next one. Larger exits provided more ability to take on bigger and more audacious challenges. And that’s what these things really are — infinite games.

Each at-bat, each game prepares you for the next one. Done right, you’ll get both more social capital and real capital to build bigger and bigger goals. Your baseball can be a snowball, and like Elon, perhaps you’ll push forward and all of humanity to boot.

Babe Ruth ended his career as a Hall of Famer and a legend. The called shot is just one of many stories, but it’s one of the most retold. To me, it doesn’t actually matter if it’s true or not. What does matter is what takeaways it might have for you as you want to start a business or startup that can touch a billion people. If anything, humanity needs it more than ever. Go out onto the field. Point and hit the ball out of the park. You’ve got this.

Thanks for reading! To watch my full episodes that go into detail about these ideas — and more — head over to my YouTube channel.