By Lisa Suennen

First Posted at Venture Valkyrie on 6/16/2013

Lisa Suennen, The Venture Valkyrie

Lisa Suennen, The Venture Valkyrie

Cheetahs: the savannah’s great predator.  People often think of the lion as the king of the beasts, but if royalty is to be granted based on hunting skills, the cheetahs have it paws down.

I was reading this recent New York Times article about cheetahs and while I read it all I could think about was how similar those spotted creatures are to the greatest of entrepreneurs.  Why, you may ask?  Because of this statement from the scientist who has recently completed a most thorough study of cheetah behavior:

“Cheetahs don’t actually go very fast when they’re hunting,” said Alan M. Wilson, a professor at the Royal Veterinary College at the University of London who studied cheetahs in Botswana and published a paper about them on Wednesday in the journal Nature. “The hunt is much more about maneuvering, about acceleration, about ducking and diving to capture the prey.”

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In other words, and god help me for using this buzzword that I hate, but those furry little scamps are like great entrepreneurs because they know how to read their target and they know how to PIVOT when the first pass isn’t right.  It’s their agility that matters, not their speed.

The team studying cheetahs spent nearly 10 years designing and building a battery-powered, solar-charged tracking collar that features an accelerometer, a gyroscope and GPS technology to monitor movement—sort of like a cheetah Jawbone UP band or Fitbit.  Instead of counting steps, the cheetah tracker counted kills and the maneuvers it took to get them.   If we could design a similar such digital tracking device for entrepreneurs—let’s call it the HitBit or StartUP band–it could similarly count customers acquired and the maneuvers it took from start-up to launch and, dare I say it, revenue.  And what it would find is this:

The great entrepreneur’s ability to maneuver at high speeds far surpasses that of the its closest competitors in that category.  The great entrepreneur is way out there ahead of those others.  They are really the all-around athlete, the all-around pursuit predator. 

Oh wait, that is a nearly direct quote from the same NY Times science article where I substituted the word “entrepreneur” for “cheetah”, but you get my drift.  The ability to run circles around one’s competitors to get the right thing to the market at the right time to make a killing is what it’s all about, and, like cheetahs, truly great entrepreneurial leaders are rare and endangered species.

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Zoos around the globe have created special breeding programs to expand the cheetah population, much like MBA programs and accelerators have sought to breed the entrepreneurial know-how into those with the will who are also looking for the way.  But like those cheetah breeding programs, attempts to create entrepreneurs sometimes result in a bit too much inbreeding and don’t guarantee success. It seems to me that great entrepreneurial leaders are more often born than made.

Commenting on their ability to be both stable and maneuverable at high speeds, one expert said that cheetahs, “have adapted to handle these challenges of physics in a way we hadn’t expected.” And that is exactly what makes a good start-up and it’s leader great—the ability to bob and weave and move towards the market as new information is learned, bending the law of physics in ways that enable one to leap over competitors without slowing down to look back and mourn change.

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Many speak about “first mover advantage” but it’s really agility, not speed, and a singular focus on the target (the customer) that defines real success.  This is why we see first-movers fade (remember MySpace, AOL, the IBM PC) as others flourish in their wake (Twitter, Google, Apple) by–sorry had to say it–changing their spots on the fly while looking forward and in their rear view mirror at the same time.  In the Age of Healthcare Agility, as Forbes writer Dave Chase calls it, this skill will be paramount as healthcare entrepreneurs figure out how to move with the rapidly changing market.  They must be fast, but more importantly flexible and fleet and facile in response to new input in order to come out on top of the food chain.

When we investors are doing our jobs right, it is exactly this species–the all around pursuit predator–for whom we should be looking.  They are not necessarily the ones out-running the pack; they are the ones running circles around it.