The Weightlifter's Guide to Building a Stronger Business

Article by:
Jesse Lipson EO Raleigh Durham
Jesse Lipson
EO Raleigh Durham

What can weightlifting teach us about building a better business? I recently read Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and have been thinking about how his antifragile theory applies to running a business. Taleb’s concept of antifragility builds on a premise framed in his earlier book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. "Black swan" events—large and dramatic shifts in our economic and social systems—drive the most significant opportunities and results in business, he argues, and yet are virtually impossible to model or predict.

So in Antifragile, Taleb suggests we stop trying to predict the future and focus on protecting against something that we can more easily measure: fragility. Something is fragile if it breaks with small changes in the environment. A system is antifragile if it actually thrives on chaos, growing stronger when the unexpected occurs. It’s like weightlifting: Your business is antifragile when it’s composed of more muscle than bone. Yes, bones can recover from a break, but often in a weakened state. Meanwhile, a muscle is strengthened by damage. Weightlifters build muscle by pushing it past the limit. A stressed muscle is riven with tiny tears, and as the muscle repairs itself, it rebuilds stronger and bigger than before.  

So how do you build an antifragile business?

Embrace volatility. It sounds strange, but one characteristic of an antifragile system is volatility. You need it in order to test your strength and grow. A small amount of volatility shows that the components in your system have a healthy level of independence, and it means that some things can break without dragging everything else down with them. Take technology, for example. If you don’t have a small portion of your customers occasionally experiencing issues, you’ve probably architected your systems to be too rigid, which is really just a corollary to fragility. When a massive outage hits a rigid system, it is more likely to overwhelm your resources. Experiencing minor ups and downs will help you identify weaknesses and address them before they threaten other parts of the business.

Fail frequently in small ways. I recently learned the value of small failures. My company offers a software product for several million users, and our customer base is spread across multiple databases. For years, we kept our databases on separate servers, even though we had very low usage on each server. We decided to consolidate multiple databases onto fewer servers to save on costs and make server management a bit easier. Consolidation made great sense on several fronts— until one of the servers went down.

Before our consolidation, the loss of a single server would have only disrupted the customers in a single database. With multiple databases stored on fewer servers, however, more customers were affected by the outage. Our decision to consolidate saved money and made sense from a technical standpoint, but it also reduced some of the independence that we had inadvertently architected into the system. In this case, I would have preferred smaller failures to the bigger one. This crisis taught me that while centralizing sys- tems can make sense on paper, it often creates larger risks. If you put all of your eggs in one basket, you only have to carry one thing around. If you drop that basket, it’s hard to recover.

Build back even stronger. Being an antifragile company takes you one step further than embracing volatility and allowing for frequent small failures: It requires you to also respond to problems in a deeper way. You can’t just fix failures. Instead, you need to find solutions that make your company stronger than it would have been if the problem had never even occurred. It’s a bit like stress-induced growth, which is a psychological term that describes people who take horrible life experiences and use them as motivators for positive change. Trauma can create strength if you let it.

As entrepreneurs, we can all do a better job of examining crises for opportunities to become more efficient and creative. As a weight- lifter knows, building back even stronger requires that you tear at the muscle. Break things down, change things up, let some stressors seep in and find responses that make you stronger and better than before.

Jesse Lipson is the founder of ShareFile, a file-transferring company he sold to Citrix in 2011. He now serves as the vice president and general manager of data sharing for ShareFile. Fun fact: Jesse is a leader in the transformation of the “Research Triangle” region into an entrepreneurial hotbed. Contact Jesse at [email protected].​

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