David DeRam is the co-founder and CEO at Greenlight Guru, a quality management software made specifically for medical device companies. He's David DeRam is the co-founder and CEO at Greenlight Guru, a quality management software made specifically for medical device companies. He's been founding successful companies for almost 30 years across multiple sectors including startups in finance, medical and nonprofit. For more information, visit greenlight.guru.
Alligator blood: an unusual company culture metaphor, but one that works for my team.
Borrowed from a poker term, “alligator blood” is one of the oldest terms in the game. It refers to any player who seems both resistant to the endless psychological blows (have you seen how long those competitions can last?), but also competitive enough to keep pounding away on others when they’re ahead. Difficult to kill, relentless until the end. If it’s good enough for poker stars — and alligators — it’s good enough for my startup team.
Think the alligator metaphor is a bit dramatic? I hear you, but this is why it’s imperative to maintain such a relentless mindset when you’re running a startup. Whether you just hired your first employee or you’re trying to push through to the next round of funding, startups will always be volatile environments. Fight or flight, win or lose. And they have to be that way in order to move forward quickly.
Successful companies don’t start out by moving at a glacial pace. They also don’t back down easily from competition, no matter where they are — miles behind you or right in front of you. You and your team have to be ready, willing, and able to take whatever challenge comes and keep moving forward.
The work we do isn’t easy, but we don’t become entrepreneurs because we crave easy. Alligator blood has become central to our core values and is woven into the fabric of our environment. It constantly reminds us that we can’t quit who we are. The conference rooms are named after places alligators inhabit, featuring The Bayou, The Swamp, The Everglades, and The Gator Pit. We even tell new recruits that we’re going to hang a few bags of alligator blood and start the drip.
If you are planning to start your own company one day, or you just need a fire to motivate your employees, here are some things to keep in mind:
1. Figure out who you are and stick to it
One of the most important things a founder can do at inception is figure out the company identity. Are you going to be a company that embraces a challenge or hides from it? Assuming you say the former, you have to be consistent in that commitment. Never back down. Never turn away. Always welcome the Alpha alligator who wants to kick your ass. You know you can take him.
Amazing ideas come to you when you take on big challenges. Others will be inspired and want to join. You’ll attract the right people and the right energy. Then, when all the old ways of doing things fall to the wayside, it makes room for a clean slate, which is more powerful than you can imagine. Your team will go farther and push harder than you ever thought they could.
2. Everyone on your team has to be on board.
Not all team members will know how to channel a gnarly reptile who can bite down with 2,960 pounds of force. It won’t make sense to them. For my team, we knew that this would be a very difficult road and were driven by the grittiness of the metaphor, but we had to get everyone on board.
Our team set out to change an entire industry, to improve the quality of life. We wanted to create a product that was so far beyond what anybody had seen, we knew that there would be challenges. To aspire to such innovative feats, there is no way around it — everyone on your team has to be willing to take it that far.
Rather than have regular conversations about how hard this business is and was this the right thing to do, we choose to accept that as fact and not waste time whining about it.
If you don’t have a team built yet and you want to establish a team that’s ferocious — use this vision to attract the right kind of person. Leverage a clear and strong intention to make sure people can handle it from the beginning.
3. Don’t quit until you get to the end
When interviewing Navy Seals who make it through the infamous Hell Week, the common theme is they never considered quitting; it wasn’t even an option. They could cross the finish line on a broken foot because they decided they would finish.
When investing in tough challenges, business leaders have to be prepared for the pressures that come with them. You might experience anxiety, fear, frustration and uncertainty before you experience success. To achieve success, you have to invest in top notch people, systems and processes to combat those inevitable pressures and overcome the hard challenges, and of course, don’t even consider quitting.
Ultimately, not everyone will be able to run on alligator blood. It doesn’t make sense for every personality type or every business. However, if the leader can’t embody the company mission, it will fail. You cannot ask your team to do something you cannot do yourself.
To make alligator blood work, you have to embrace the idea that you’ll never give up. Sometimes people fail because they forget what their core values are, so you need to incorporate the theme in everything you do. Constantly remind yourself that what you’re doing is really hard, but never give up the fight.
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