Insightful takes on scaling your business

Falling out of a boat reminded me how to be a good CEO

Float my boat

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Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten
Story by
Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten

CEO and co-founder, TNWBoris is a serial entrepreneur who founded not only TNW, but also V3 Redirect Services (sold), HubHop Wireless Internet Provider (sold), and (show all) Boris is a serial entrepreneur who founded not only TNW, but also V3 Redirect Services (sold), HubHop Wireless Internet Provider (sold), and pr.co. Boris is very active on Twitter as @Boris and Instagram: @Boris.

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Boris is the wise ol’ CEO of TNW who writes a weekly column on everything about being an entrepreneur in tech — from managing stress to embracing awkwardness. You can get his musings straight to your inbox by signing up for his newsletter!

I’ve got a tiny cabin by a lake, which is a great place to unwind during these challenging times. The cabin is only accessible by boat, which isn’t so much a downside as an excellent quality to have in the case of a zombie apocalypse. It also means I spend a lot of time on a boat, and lately I’ve been pondering the similarities of piloting a boat and navigating life and business.

Seems far-fetched? Let me explain: Actions taken behind the steering wheel rarely have an immediate effect, but can have delayed, yet serious consequences. This means there’s a lot of anticipating, planning, and projecting involved. 

My boat’s pretty small (less than 5 meters long) and easy to maneuver, but almost everything has a delay on a boat: I turn the steering wheel, which turns the engine, which then gently pushes the boat to go into a particular direction. Between the turning of the wheel and the turning of the ship is a noticeable delay. 

[Read: If cocktail bars and strip clubs can adapt their businesses, then so can you]

Then, way before the boat has turned into the right direction, I’m already counter steering, or I’ll overdo the turn. A small turn of the wheel doesn’t seem to have much of an effect, but once the whole boat starts turning, that change off-course can make you miss your target by miles.

Small steps can have grave consequences, and although a lot of things happen in slow-motion, the effects of your actions have a certain inevitability to them — especially mooring, which I almost always get wrong.

Mooring and micromanagement 

It should be just as simple as parking a car, but it isn’t. First of all, a turn isn’t a turn. While ‘drifting’ is really only for skilled drivers to show off, it’s a totally normal part of boating. Every turn you make, there’s some drifting. Some boats are more stable than others, but there’s always some drift — and the current, wind, and how heavy your boat is loaded all have an effect. 

Another thing you don’t need to worry about when parking a car? Tying the ropes to the dock. That’s where the management exercise of boating kicks in.

It’s best everybody on board has a clear idea on what their role is, but if you start to micromanage you end up forcing yourself to do everything on your own… which can lead to your own hilarious ‘downfall.’

Give contradicting instructions, and three people will jump off at the same time, holding the same rope. Take the captain role too seriously, and your children will complain they thought this was supposed to be a fun boat ride, so why are you suddenly screaming at them to follow orders?

Don’t try to do everything on your own, and think ahead

My most infamous incident of trying to take on all the roles by myself was when I tried to move a floating tree limb with my boat. My daughter was watching from the shore as I was tying a rope around the tree, witnessing my great undertaking. 

While I was busying myself with the rope, I thought the engine was idling safely, but I had accidentally moved the gas handle forward a millimeter or two while trying to catch the tree.

The movement was slow, and I didn’t notice it at first, but the tree suddenly felt very heavy (because of the forward motion). I knew I had to make a split second decision; do I follow the tree into the water, or do I lose the tree and stick with the boat? I let go of the tree — the smart move — but I’d forgotten to think one step ahead: The sudden loss of dead-weight hurtled the boat forward. 

I lost my balance, falling backward into the boat while losing my glasses and hat in the process. Suddenly the boat shot forward with great speed, with me upside-down in it, and we shot onto the shore and straight into the trees. 

Only later did I conclude that after falling, I had landed on the gas handle with my butt, pushing it forward into the ‘full-throttle’ position.

It all happened within seconds, and my daughter almost peed herself with laughter, as the whole thing looked like a well-choreographed comedy routine: Dad tries to lift tree, unexpectedly drops tree, falls upside down, boat takes off, dad’s legs are sticking out of the boat, hat floats through the air, boat ends up on the shore, in the trees. Embarrassed dad rises from a stranded boat, wet and confused and disoriented.

Anyway, I’m not complaining, just saying that there are similarities. When you’re running a company or pursuing a career, a lot of small decisions will have a much larger impact later. And anticipating which way your well-meaning intentions float can save you a lot of aggravation and damage, and not just to your ego.

Can’t get enough of Boris? Check out his older stories here, and sign up for TNW’s newsletters here.

Published May 7, 2020 — 16:00 UTC

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