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Parallels between yacht racing, business

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The Cape to Rio Race gets underway. Picture: Adrian de Kock.

Ocean racing is tough. One wag quipped that it’s like standing fully clothed under a cold shower while tearing up your cash. It’s certainly exhausting, physically and mentally, but I see many other, more useful parallels between the two worlds in which I operate: sailing and business, and each offers insights into the other.

Preparing for the Cape to Rio yacht race, which started on January 4 in Cape Town, I was struck by a number of these similarities in my role as navigator on the yacht DStv Explora and as chief executive of Indaba Mobile, which develops mobile social apps, mainly in emerging markets.

The first parallel is the importance of insight. The role of navigator and router is obviously pivotal from a strategic and tactical perspective. We’re using weather data for the course from as far back as 1949 and we’ve modelled conditions and possible routes with thousands of permutations. We have examined the yacht’s performance from five previous round-the-world races, using that to build scenarios for progress during this race. While sailing we are also collecting performance data on the boat in real time and comparing it with the predicted performance. This is a full-time 24/7 job. Our boat may not be the newest or biggest boat in the race, but we know it and we know how to make it perform.

There are some clear parallels here with business. Market research and business intelligence are crucial, as is being able to sift the information and glean what’s important. The navigator’s job is all about information management, and like a business chief executive is pretty straightforward as long as things go well, which they never do. With the deluge of information the navigator receives there’s an art to distilling what’s important, but there are also no excuses for, say, steering your boat into an area where there’s no wind. A navigator who shakes his fists at the sky when the weather turns nasty is evading his responsibility.

Apart from tracking and predicting weather patterns, advances in technology also enable us to examine the performance of other competitors: again, the ability to analyse that decisively is vital, especially in potentially make-or-break moments. It’s here that ocean racing becomes like a vast, shifting, sleep-deprived chess game that is highly addictive when you are an integral part of the ultimate outcome.

As in business there are times that caution is advised. In some heavy conditions, it’s better to slow down than risk breaking the boat or exhausting the crew. This echoes Warren Buffett’s much quoted quip: “Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.”

This applies as much to ocean racing as it does to investment. One crew may, for instance, be very good at sailing at night, exploiting the caution exercised by other crews at that time. And this is apparent after a year with trading conditions in which Indaba Mobile opened in London, São Paulo and Melbourne, and is targeting markets in Africa, Europe, Latin America, south-east Asia and Australia. We’ve been able to be bold at a time when many other sectors and individual companies aren’t.

Any crew has to know its strengths and that of its boat, and play to them, just as companies must know their strengths and those of their people. In the same way as a rising tide raises all ships, business leaders can’t confuse a good business climate with good leadership, as many tend to do.

Good commodity prices, for example, say nothing about a mine operator’s efficiency; honing a competitive edge despite a market downturn does say something.

Another parallel is the need for both business leaders and sailors to embrace expert advice on how to improve their position. Ocean sailing now benefits from the science of dieticians, biokineticists and sports psychologists. All these become important as the race wears on and fatigue sets in. There’s undeniably an element of “toughing it out”, but underutilising the new science available is arrogant.

Serious sailing isn’t about champagne and canapés, but hard work and stamina. It’s why our crew comprises not only experienced sailors, but also endurance sportsmen who have excelled in endurance events requiring physical and mental toughness. We have found good sportsmen in a variety of other sports with strengths to apply to this one. This cross-skilling also applies when looking at how to exploit new new areas of business or expand into unknown markets.

The final important lesson is your team knowing what’s expected of them: a 60-foot boat such as DStv Explora would normally have a crew of 10, several of whom would have just one job to do. But we have gone with just seven crew, so people have to be able to multitask and not have the comfort of being immersed in any one task for the whole race. We also need – and I believe we’ve found – a team with the competitive attitude that is critical in a winning team.

I have sailed two Cape to Rio races, this being my third, won a Mauritius Race, as well as done the Whitbread Round The World Race (now Volvo Ocean Race) and the Americas Cup aboard Shosholoza, and I know that in racing, as in business, preparation is everything. We’ll find out just how well we’re prepared over the 13 days and 3 400 nautical miles to Rio and like any experience in life, hope to glean lessons that can be applied not just to business but also life lessons during the adventure.

 

Ken Venn is the chief executive of Indaba Mobile and navigator of the 60-foot yacht DStv Explora for the 2014 Cape to Rio race. At the time of going to press it was due to be the third yacht and first South African entrant home, reaching Rio de Janeiro sometime tomorrow. The boat lay sixth overall on

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