To lead in the downturn, think like a cyclist


The recent crash in high-growth Big Tech stocks is encouraging many tech companies to slow their burn rate. Venture capitalists are warning startups to ‘consider an extremely capital constrained environment’ as the sector scales back after a record year of venture capital funding. Their advice? Focus on efficient spending rather than growth at all costs – the road to recovery can be long.

Two of my passions outside of work are road biking and mountain biking. While reading this news, I noticed that many of the techniques I use as a cyclist also apply to startups looking to navigate less forgiving market conditions. These techniques have guided me to become a smarter leader throughout my career, and they ring especially true whenever I’m preparing for a challenging sprint or business venture.

The thing is, even if you’re working in a market that’s somewhat insulated from the effects of the recession (in the case of my business, expense management, which arguably becomes more critical in a downturn), these times can shake confidence. people. Steady leadership is more critical than ever. That’s why during an economic downturn, startup leaders need to think like a cyclist would: maximize effort versus expense, look for roadblocks, and commit to the long term. Here’s how.


When a road cyclist wants to increase their RPM (revolutions per minute), they train by covering long distances at slower speeds. Training below your lactate and heart rate threshold helps build the muscle needed to perform the best sprints. Interval training improves endurance while minimizing stress on the body.

Like a road cyclist, companies that want to improve their pace of growth sometimes need to intentionally slow down. This is especially necessary when approaching uncertain market conditions, pivots, sales or acquisitions. It’s the cycling equivalent of scrubbing our speed before reaching a bend or any other type of danger zone. Cycling teaches us to brake gently and let our momentum and body weight carry us through the turn, for several reasons.

First, we can’t always see what’s happening around the bend. If we take the turn at high speed, we don’t have much time to prepare for what lies ahead. The second reason is that it is simply easier to brake while standing on the bike, moving in a straight line. You are more likely to skid or wash out when braking while cornering. Finally, if you pump too hard on the brakes, you will slowly turn the corner and lose momentum.

When we approach change with confidence, we can use that momentum to propel ourselves through, maintaining speed and control and perhaps even winning over our competitors. As famed accelerator Y Combinator recently wrote to its startups: “You can often gain significant market share in an economic downturn simply by staying alive.


When descending or ascending a trail, mountain bikers should look 20 feet ahead. If they just look for what’s just ahead, they won’t see the obstacles ahead. They might swerve left to avoid a giant boulder and encounter a larger boulder. It happens all the time in business; when leaders are sucked into the problem of the daythe next problem may sneak up and hit them even harder.

Looking “ahead” can mean anticipating market changes, what products your customers might want next, or what technology stack your employees will need in 2-3 years. Think of the companies that seamlessly transitioned to remote working at the start of the COVID pandemic – most already had digital transformation initiatives underway. They may not have anticipated a pandemic (any of us?), but they anticipated a more flexible and decentralized future of work, and that’s what made the difference.

In a downturn, planning for less capital and longer funding cycles can force tech companies to increase their revenue streams and be more productive with marketing budgets. Those who do will find themselves in a strong position to take their next step.


A few years ago I took an uphill bike course. The biggest advice from my instructor was to keep pedaling to the top of the hill. When you think you’re there, push a little longer. This helps you maintain momentum, which you would lose if you started riding too fast.

In business, if you quit when you think you’re ahead, you’re likely to be defeated once you let your guard down. A salesperson passes up a closed deal because they are “just waiting for the contract”. He never follows up and never gets the signature. One company controls 60% of the market while its competitors compete for smaller shares. Satisfied with the majority, the company does not notice that a competitor is constantly attacking its stronghold.

Sometimes the market shows signs of recovery before taking another turn. The first sign of life may not be the right time to abandon your war tactics. Remember that there is only one way to know for sure when a certain market phase is over: when it enters a new one. Keep going up the hill until you feel gravity doing the hard work for you.


I’ll end with my favorite visual technique in the world of mountain biking: where you look is where you’re going. If you notice that a log has fallen and you think, “I don’t want to have to bunny hop,” then almost inevitably, that’s what you’ll end up doing.

Our responsibility as leaders is to choose a path and pursue it while guiding our team past the distractions: non-critical goals, past failures, and competitor strategies. An intense and clear goal is how we get strong performance for the least amount of energy expended. As any serious road cyclist knows, maintaining a sustainable pace allows us to attack later in the race when the time is right – to break out of the peloton and claim victory.

Eric Friedrichsen is the CEO of Embourse, a global leader in expense solutions, whose mission is to humanize work.


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