How Running 250km Across the Gobi Desert Made me a Better Start-up CEO by Greg Nance
CEO & Founder of Dyad.com
Sprawling across Northern China and trailing into Southern Mongolia, the Gobi Desert is the second largest desert in Asia and one of the windiest and driest in the world. The 7-day, 250km long Gobi March is the ultimate test of human limits, but CEO and founder of Dyad.com, co-founder of Moneythink and ultramarathon runner Greg Nance proved that no race is too long for him to run. Greg took this challenge head-on and battled the harsh terrain, sub-zero temperatures and a crippling knee injury to emerge stronger and more perseverant.
It was this dogged determination that pushed Dyad.com, a Shanghai-based startup which connects students with mentors to guide them on university admissions, out of a rough patch and to success. Under Greg’s leadership, Dyad.com was named “Asia’s Most Promising Startup” by Paypal in 2015 and was crowned the “People’s Choice for Asia’s Best Startup” at the Echelon Summit in the same year. Since its launch in 2012, Dyad.com has aided over 1800 students in earning more than $24 million in scholarships to world-renowned universities such as Cambridge and Oxford. In his Arcadier Inspire Summit talk, Greg shares about how he drew on his experiences as an ultramarathon runner to build endurance and become a better startup leader.
Endurance is the Key to Survival
What is endurance? In Greg’s words, it is “the capacity to withstand”. Endurance is important because the finish line is always farther than we think it is, and it is up to us to forge our path through the hurdles that life throws at us, be it in ultramarathons, academics, businesses or simply life. The ability to persevere against all odds is what differentiates the winners from the losers.
Leadership is the “ultimate endurance challenge”. When setting up Dyad.com, Greg was confronted with numerous “lowlights”, from not being able to find a technical co-founder to facing uncountable, seemingly never-ending venture capitalist (VC) rejections. Life was fraught with difficulties, and Greg even had to call the office couch his home as he grappled with not having a salary for 6 months. Yet even during some of the darkest moments of his life, Greg did not give up, and relentlessly trooped on. As Greg said, “You need to push through months of tough times before you get hope again”. After several months of failure after failure, Dyad.com finally pulled through and received $1 million in funding from top VCs such as 500 Startups and SOSV.
Greg Nance completing the Gobi March in 2014 despite a wrecked knee. Photo credit: Greg Nance
Obstacles are Opportunities
According to Greg, “Obstacles are opportunities to learn, grow, develop and transform yourself.” “The biggest obstacles are the biggest opportunities” and if you can successfully take advantage of them, you can “become a stronger version of yourself”.
“The only thing that will stop you are the limits you place on yourself.” These are the words which Greg lives by. During the Gobi March, Greg had to contend with the forces of nature and scale nearly 250m tall obstacles and cross countless rivers all while bracing himself against the extreme temperatures. Although tough times abound, Greg shared that it is only when you “embrace the suck” that you can get back on your feet and move forward. When Greg busted his knee during the Gobi March, it was his unyielding drive to move forward, one step at a time, that propelled him to complete the race. The road to achieving any lofty goal is filled with immeasurable setbacks, but it is only when we turn those obstacles into opportunities that we can finally cross the finishing line.
There are no Shortcuts
A common pitfall that people tumble into is what Greg calls “Shortcut Fantasy Thinking”. Instead of staying grounded and focused on their goals, people are enticed by wishful thinking. In reality, shortcuts to success rarely ever work and falling for them can in fact sabotage your goal. Greg firmly believes that “shortcut fantasy thinking is the biggest barrier to elite performance in athletics, startups, life”. It is only when you sweat that you succeed.
No one is immune to shortcut fantasy thinking, not even Greg. When Dyad.com was still searching for a technical co-founder, Greg nearly fell into this tantalising trap which almost ruined Dyad.com for good. Though having a technical co-founder would certainly be a step forward in pitching to VCs, the reality was that the startup would still need to go through several intermediary steps, of which each was a labourious process, before it could even propose its idea to VCs. Greg eventually realised that he would need to create and test prototypes, build a product roadmap and network with VCs along with other things before Dyad.com could secure funding.
The same principle applies to running. Thinking that you can register for an ultramarathon immediately and complete it after reading Greg’s inspiring account is another example of shortcut fantasy thinking. Let alone winning, in reality, you will need to put in hours and hours of hard work and miles and miles of running before you can even stand a chance at finishing the race. On top of that, you will need to steel yourself for shin splints, sleep deprivation, wind and sunburn and more during the marathon.
Recognising that there are no shortcuts “liberates you to do the work and fully embrace the challenges ahead”. Eliminating shortcut fantasy thinking will get your head out of the clouds and give you “sustainable fuel to keep moving forward”.
Greg at Ultra Trail Tai Mo Shan, a 100 mile ultramarathon in Hong Kong. Photo credit: Brooks Running
Commit to your Goals
Besides endurance, commitment is also a critical ingredient for success. A nugget of wisdom from Greg is that, “If you can plan your work, you can work your plan”. Setting clear objectives for yourself and your team ensures that everyone is on the same page and is working towards a common goal. Remind yourself of your goals constantly to keep track of them. Greg jots down his goals in his notebook, types them down on OneNote, and even puts up printouts of them in his room and office to keep them at the forefront of his mind.
The next step is creating a training regimen for you to visualise tangible ways to reach your goals. When raising funds for Dyad.com, Greg first set an objective of achieving $500 000 in funding from VCs. He then outlined a concrete strategy for accomplishing this objective. First, he familiarised himself with the subject matter by reading “Mastering VC” and sought advice from mentors. Subsequently, he put his plans into action by clocking in at 8am sharp every morning to refine his deck, prepare financials, contact VCs and follow-up with them within 8h.
Procrastination is the enemy. As Greg says, “Many of us have the will to win, but few of us have the will to work to win.” At the end of the day, “average speed wins”. It is not about how much you can work in one day, but whether you can sustain the pace in the long run. If you stay focused, you will be astonished at the results you can accomplish.
Watch the full Arcadier Inspire Summit talk by Greg Nance: