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March Madness

Posted by SBC Team Mar 23, 2010

Five things the NCAA basketball tourney can teach your small business


For sports fans, the last two weeks of March inevitably bring forth a smorgasbord of men's and women's college basketball commonly known as March Madness. Business owners, on the other hand, may lament the arrival of the NCAA basketball tournament season as nothing more than a period of lost workplace productivity. But fear not. Not only are those statistics for productivity losses wildly over-inflated (for more on this, check out:, March Madness actually offers some worthwhile lessons to help you run your small company. So read on.


1. Reinforces the need for different definitions of "success:" Of the 129 school invited to the men's and women's NCAA Division I basketball tournament, only a dozen or so have a realistic chance at bringing home the two national championship titles. This doesn't mean that all but two teams should define their tournament experiences as failures, however. Indeed, most of the smaller schools and even some of the so-called mid-major colleges view getting to the NCAA tournament as a something of a victory. In one respect, it's easy to see why. This year, simply playing in a first-round game of the men's tournament earns a school $222,206 in TV-revenue sharing money from the NCAA. But even beyond that one-time payoff, a small, relatively unknown school sharing a nationwide stage with a perennial powerhouse like a Kansas, Duke, or Kentucky also brings with it the kind of priceless advertising and brand recognition that ripples far beyond the final score of one game.


Similarly, small businesses, particularly those just starting out, would be wise to keep their expectations for short-term "victory" grounded in reality as well. Your small company will rarely be a sales threat to an established brand name or big-box store starting out, so having more humble, attainable aspirations makes more sense. Merely getting your business name increasingly recognized by others or perhaps gaining the opportunity to share shelf space next to a more mature, established brand should be viewed as a real victory, even if you don't end up defeating your competition in sheer numbers.


2. Over time, surviving can eventually lead to larger success: Indianapolis-based Butler University is certainly not a basketball powerhouse on par with in-state rival Indiana University. The Indiana Hoosiers, after all, have won five NCAA national titles and 60 tournament games all-time, while the Butler Bulldogs didn't get their first tournament win until their fourth trip to March Madness, which didn't happen until 2001. However, after the school's initial tournament berth as a #14 seed in 1997, Butler notably improved its seeding each successive appearance, leading up to its first tournament victory. And despite the relatively quick exits of those early appearances, they nonetheless provided a great platform for that school's coaching staff to learn what it takes to perform against much bigger programs in pressured-packed situations. The pay off from all this experience is increasingly evident. Since that first March Madness win, Butler has appeared in the tourney five out of the past nine years (one more than Indiana over the same period), posted an impressive 7-4 record (including its two wins so far this year) and reached the Sweet Sixteen in 2003, 2007, and again this year.


The lesson here for small businesses is that persistence and continued improvement can pay off even if your company's initial forays into a crowded, cutthroat marketplace meet with failure. By sticking around long enough and learning from one's mistakes (and from your competitors' successes), an entrepreneur can better navigate the waters of the marketplace as well as better recruit the types of team members necessary to eventually help his or her business grow and prosper.

3. Beating the big boys may mean sticking to your game plan: One of most well-known upsets in March Madness history took place in the first round of the 1996 men's tournament, when unheralded Princeton, a #13 seed, shocked then defending national champion UCLA. The Tigers strategy for victory was to stick with the same methodical-some would say "outdated"-offense that they had used all season. Relying upon countless screens, passes, and backdoor cuts to slow the game to a crawl, Princeton frustrated the fast-paced Bruins, who had never practiced defending against such a system, and eked out a 43-41 victory in one of the lowest-scoring games in NCAA tournament history. And though not quite as dramatic, similar upsets happen nearly every year in March Madness's early rounds, as #14 Ohio's three-point shooting-fueled 97-83 victory over Big East powerhouse Georgetown last week proved.


Small businesses don't suffer from the same constraints or have to follow the same conventions that larger companies and multinational corporations often do. As a result, they can be more nimble and more in tune with what their customers want, even if that means taking a slightly unorthodox approach to sales or marketing. Larger competitors, however, may be unaccustomed to dealing with such an approach and poorly equipped to compete with it. Savvy entrepreneurs should look for these mismatches in business as well and not be afraid to exploit such an advantage--even against an intimidating foe--when it comes their way.


4. You don't have to defeat everybody out there: While the men's and women's NCAA basketball tournaments each feature more than five dozen teams, each year's respective champion only defeats six opponents.


Starting and running a small business can be a daunting proposition, especially since hundreds of other start-ups are launched every day as well. But it's important to remember that business is rarely a zero-sum game when it comes to resources or even customers. The true number of direct competitors in your market space is more likely to be a much smaller figure than it appears, and if you're launching a particularly innovative product, you might not have any real competition at all at the outset.


5. Sometimes your direct competition isn't whom you would expect: Each year, the NCAA tournament selection committee leaves some basketball fans scratching their heads after it announces which teams have been assigned to the four geographically-named brackets. This year, for example, Syracuse was seeded atop the West bracket while Kentucky was given the #1 spot in the East bracket. Likewise, in-state rivals New Mexico and New Mexico State wound up scattered among the East and Midwest brackets, respectively, meaning that couldn't have met until the national championship game. On the other hand, teams from Ohio University and Ohio State were grouped in the same half of the Midwest bracket. This annual seeding-or seed-scattering, if you like--ritual can make for strange bracket bedfellows, creating unexpected cross-country match-ups and prompting some fans to briefly become supporters of their fiercest archrivals.


With the advent of the Internet and the increasing ease in which even the smallest businesses can compete on a global scale, the idea that your direct competition is always the shop around the corner, in the next town over, or even within your same state should similarly be put to rest. Instead, entrepreneurs should be open to expanding their sense of their company's potential marketplace and to forging alliances with other local businesses they might have once have considered to be rivals.
What can a business coach or mentor do for your small business?


By Reed Richardson


Entrepreneurs, by their nature, prefer going it alone. Listening to others tell them what can or can't be done just isn't part of their DNA-that's why they hung out their own shingle in the first place. Still, even the most self-assured and independent-minded small business owner can look for a little outside guidance, a simple sounding board, or maybe just a bit of ‘been there, done that'-type wisdom at times. That's when a business coach or mentor can be of help. But how does an entrepreneur swamped with what feels like a million other tasks find that someone and when is a good time to seek such assistance out? To get some answers, read on.


What is the difference between a business coach, mentor, and consultant?


While all three terms-coach, mentor, and consultant-can at times be used synonymously, there are generally accepted differences in what each will and will not do for a small business.


Typically, a mentor is a businessperson more senior or experienced than the entrepreneur seeking help, preferably someone who ran or is running their own small business, possibly in the same or a similar profession or industry. Mentor/mentee relationships are usually informal and non-binding, with the former volunteering to lend a friendly ear and some anecdotal advice to the latter. As a result, mentors are free of inherent conflicts of interest-they're not trying to sell you their services-but, then again, there's no real sense of accountability either. Interactions between a mentor and mentee often occur infrequently-over an occasional lunch or during a late-evening phone call, say-and can range from very broad discussions about strategy to incredibly specific questions about things like operational or sales tactics.


Business coaches, by contrast, represent a formal step up from mentors. Typically, they are hired by and work for the client in a professional capacity, much like an attorney or accountant. As such, they are paid a commensurate rate for their services-typically ranging anywhere from $150 to $1,000 an hour. As with mentors, businesses coaches can help the entrepreneur deal with big-picture or in-the-weeds issues (or both) and they usually maintain a one-on-one counseling relationship with an individual, remaining apart from the day-to-day interactions of the client's business. They can challenge your conventions, make periodic recommendations, and facilitate solutions, but in the end a coach's real goal to is to empower a client so they can achieve their desired business goals on their own.


Bringing in a professional consulting firm is a much more complicated and less common occurrence in the small business world, since the significant costs and the highly intrusive footprint involved rarely matches up well with the balance sheet and the independent ethos of most start-ups. Consultants also differ from mentors and coaches in that they typically work for their clients on a temporary or project basis; their mission is to come in, fix a problem, and move on, not build a long-term one-on-one relationship. (For more on these differences, check out this online video:


When is a good time to seek out a coach or mentor for a small business?


There is no right or wrong answer for when an entrepreneur should seek out a mentor or business coach. It's really all about what feels right for your situation. Many start-ups go from a one-person, home-based side business to a bustling, full-time small company with dozens of employees without ever once talking with a coach or mentor. Other entrepreneurs may lean upon the advice of a mentor or coach from the earliest brainstorming stages, long before they ever formally launch their business. Most often though, an entrepreneur's mentoring or coaching needs arise when a change (or lack thereof) in their small business's circumstances don't align with their particular business skill set.


For example, a software engineer with a great idea for the next "killer app" may be strong on the technical aspects of his potential product, but may lack confidence when it comes to launching his own company to bring that new product to market. In this case, he might be well served to seek out an experienced small business mentor from the very beginning, someone who can talk knowledgably about the broader planning, managing, and operational issues involved with starting a business. On the other hand, consider an entrepreneur who has been running a small company for several years but still hasn't achieved the sales and revenue growth she initially expected. Feeling locked into an endless cycle of sameness, she might be a good candidate to formally hire a professional business coach, one who has a demonstrated expertise in specific business functions like increasing profitability, streamlining productivity, or improving time management.


Whatever your timing and reasons, to really get the most out of a mentor or coaching experience, it's critical that you be able to define what you want them to help you and your business achieve down the road. At the outset, however, it's not uncommon for these objectives to be very loosely defined and more emotional than financial or operational in nature-like simply wanting to regain a feeling of control or to reignite that motivational spark that prompted you to start a business in the first place. From this vague starting point, a good coach should be able to drill down to the underlying business issues contributing to those feelings and then help you develop a concrete action plan to overcome or correct them.



How do I find a mentor or business coach?


Finding a business mentor or coach is easy, perhaps too easy. Practically unheard of a generation ago, the profession of business coaching has grown astronomically since, with more than 20,000 people worldwide now defining themselves as a full-time "business coach." As a result, if you plug that phrase into a search engine, you'll be overwhelmed with responses, each one with a different pitch, spiel, or specialty. Some of these so-called coaches are of questionable legitimacy and experience, however, having earned their credentials by simply paying a small fee and/or sitting through a weekend seminar rather than having spent years running their own business. As a result, an entrepreneur should perform considerable due diligence before hiring any outside expert for help. Reputable business coaches understand this and usually agree to a free initial consultation to ensure there is a good fit between coach and client.


To further separate the worthy from the worthless business coaches, experts recommend choosing a professional that has been credentialed by one of the professional's trade organizations, like the International Coach Federation ( or the Worldwide Association of Business Coaches ( Both of these groups have widgets on their websites that will allow you to find a coach using various search criteria, from geographical location to subject matter expertise.


For those entrepreneurs who can't afford coaching sessions at several hundred dollars an hour, though, there are still many opportunities to get valuable business mentoring for little or no cost. Perhaps the best of these opportunities involves the non-profit Service Corps of Retired Executives, or SCORE, which is now in its 46th year. With 364 chapters and more than 12,400 veteran business owners as members, SCORE counselors provide tens of thousands of small business owners with free mentoring on a range of topics both large and small each year. (SCORE also offers a handy 60-second guide to finding the right business coach on its website:


One newer, mentoring option specifically aimed at helping small business owners involves the website MicroMentor ( This free online service is an offshoot of the non-profit community development organization MercyCorps. MicroMentor acts as a volunteer online meeting place for existing small business owners to both seek advice and share expertise as mentee and/or mentor.


In addition, each U.S. state offers a Small Business Development Center (, run in partnership with the federal Small Business Administration. These SBDCs are typically housed within the business schools of a public university or on the campus of a local community college, but, despite their academic location, their primary mission is to provide training and mentoring to private-sector entrepreneurs. (To find a SBDC office in your state, go here:

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