Movie BusinessBecause Rocky says, ‘Keep moving forward’: The ONE lesson that start-ups need to learn from the Rocky Saga

When you saw the title of this article some quotes from the Rocky franchise might have popped into your head. 

 “Adrian” – Rocky (1976)

“Except for my kid being born, this is the greatest night in the history of my life.” or “Yo, Adrian, I did it!”Rocky II (1979)

“I don’t hate Rocky; I pity the fool”Rocky III (1985)

“If he dies, he dies”Rocky IV (1990)

If you can think of a better quote from Rocky IV, good for you. I rank high in the slew of fans who tend to ignore this film. And don’t you be surprised if you see Sylvester Stallone be the first name on that list.

My favourite quote from the entire series, however, is from Rocky Balboa. Released in 2006, it was the sixth film in the franchise. Then again, perhaps a majority of people won’t even remember this.

“Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It is a very mean and nasty place and it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t how hard you hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward. How much you can take, and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done.”

Rocky Balboa

This quote is pivotal as it depicts Rocky’s attitude and mentality. This quote shows us, the audience, what allows Rocky to overcome challenges. I will go as far as to say that Rocky’s philosophy and mentality is exactly what a start-up needs and should have. I know being in a start-up is not easy. There are plenty of ups and many more downs. But I also know that someone out there needs to read this today.  

Now, I did not start this article with the aim of just being able to talk about Rocky and getting this great quote in front of the people who need to read it. No! I started this article as I can see an overarching thread–a greater story beyond the films which allows us to mirror Rocky’s journey to that of a start-up founder.

Over the course of the Rocky Saga, we see Rocky as an underdog who punches his way up to become a world champion and eventually a mentor to Adonis Creed in the Creed Series. While you might think, “What the hell does this have to do with a start-up?”, let me assure you there are parallels that you haven’t drawn yet. You will see these movies in an entirely new light once I lay it out for you and show you what I can see. There’s more to these movies–we just need to look at it through a different lens.

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In Rocky, we have Robert “Rocky” Balboa (also known as The Italian Stallion), a nobody who gets a shot to go toe-to-toe with the World Champion, Apollo Creed. If this were to be any other movie with a fairy-tale ending, we would have seen Rocky win that fight. But he didn’t. He lost even though he went punch for punch and showed his courage and determination.

Much like Rocky, not all start-ups succeed in their first attempt. Research shows that 21.5% of small businesses fail in their first year. To be able to even give that first year a try, the business needs drive and determination. It also needs to put in the hard yards as can been seen in Rocky’s training montage. Otherwise, heartbreaking as it may seem, they wouldn’t make it.

There are numerous reasons that can cause established businesses to fail. There are even more reasons behind a start-up being knocked out. Start-ups have the additional challenges of trying to break into a market, marketing products or/and services to customers, and then selling to those customers. And if there hasn’t been enough focus on those customers before the launch of the start-up, the business is destined to fail. Without a clear focus on what the problem that you are solving is and who the actual customers are, your business will never breakthrough. And you cannot simply create a competing product at a lower price point, as you can then be subject to that same undercutting by another business.

Another cause leading to a failing start-up is jumping into the development of a product too quickly. This, in nearly all cases, ends in disaster with timeframes and budgets being completely blown out. We’ve also seen instances where the wrong product was developed. It didn’t serve the customers, was not focused on solving the right problem, and just had too many things of what the owners wanted and not what the customers needed.

Now, this is where that quote from above comes back into the picture. You’re not always going to succeed and what matters is how you pick yourself up and move forward: whether that is pivoting your business, starting a new product, or founding another start-up.

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In Rocky II, we see Rocky retiring. (Don’t lose heart. There’s this movie and seven others that follow! So, for obvious reasons, this is not the end of the man, the myth, the legend!). Let me just phrase it differently–he retires from boxing for a while as he’s content thinking that he at least gave it a try. But as various events pan out during the course of the movie Rocky realizes that his survival depends on him being able to box again. He ends up training again for a fight against Apollo. But he trains differently and learns to box with his right hand (he’s normally left-handed, a southpaw) and eventually wins to become the Heavyweight Champion.

We’ve seen similar things play out with many different start-ups. Initially, they fail because of a number of reasons. Then, they either go back to industry and work or take a break. But most of them have the start-up itch and want to give it another go. This is when they either found a new start-up or resurrect the old start-up by pivoting, just like Rocky trained with his other hand. If they’re successful and have made the right moves, they won’t be a part of the 21.5% of first-year failures and will succeed and survive a little longer in the business world. Their first bite of success, however, won’t be like that of Rocky’s instant rocketing to the top; it would rather be reflected in a steady increase in sales or projects, lining up the right contracts, and making moves in the right direction to running a successful business.

In Rocky III, we see Rocky as a successful Heavyweight Champion. While Rocky, as the incumbent champion, defends his title trying to prove that he deserves to be there, there’s also Clubber Lang, the new upstart, who trains harder and has more hunger than Rocky. At this point, Rocky is relaxed and comfortable in his position as Champion and is willing to retire. Life has different plans though. Clubber challenges Rocky to a match that Rocky loses as he is not taking it as seriously as those earlier movies. In fact, he thinks that he doesn’t have to because he’s already at the top. I won’t go into a full plot summary but Rocky is then trained by Apollo and regains his hunger; has a rematch with Clubber, and proves, yet again, that he is the champion.

As with most things in life, including businesses, when things are working and working smoothly, most people do little to change as what is working is working. But just like in Rocky III, there are always new upstarts trying to challenge the existing players. There are going to be start-ups that are more agile and have the drive to break into the market and even disrupt. While the businesses running on cruise control are beholden to shareholders or large organizational structures along with multiple levels of management which can make it difficult to overcome challenges and compete with those start-ups. That is how a well-established organization that dominates the existing market is taken over by a new innovative start-up that disrupts the market. A few well-known examples of these organisations include Kodak inventing the Digital Camera in the 70s, Xerox Parc inventing the Graphical User Interface and modern computer environment, and Sony inventing the MP3 player.

These Rocky-esque comebacks are rather rare in the business world though.

But if the organization is running using a start-up model where they create spinoff start-ups to run on their own and eventually overtake the main business it can happen and that’s how most innovative businesses move forward in an evolving market. Think of Apple creating the iPhone to cannibalize its own market share of the iPod and killing an extremely profitable and well-known product.

And here we are at Rocky IV, the movie I find the most entertaining. It is the most over the top pure 80s movie in the franchise and doesn’t shy away from being ‘entertaining’ before anything else. In the movie, we have Rocky planning his retirement at the top of his game when an apparently far superior overseas competitor dominates by killing Apollo Creed, one of the greatest boxers ever. The movie then culminates into a cold-war style boxing match between the US and USSR in Rocky Vs. Drago.

To tell you the truth, there’s actually just one parallel to draw between a start-up and this movie. Rocky wanted to leave the boxing world when he was at the top of his game because he wanted to retire as the world champion. When this happens in start-up land, we see a start-up being acquired or the owners selling their shares and then moving on. This is how a start-up or business can end on top: by making a successful exit. Depending on how ‘disruptive’ the start-up is, how ‘innovative’ they are, or how many ‘users’ they have, this acquisition or sale will happen at a different time in their lifecycle. There could be a large incumbent business that is already dominating the market and is looking to buy another business to complement theirs and help them break into a new market. We see this with the constant acquisitions by Alphabet (parent of Google), Amazon, Apple etc. In very rare cases, we even see a business launch a new product that takes over the market by storm, like the Apple example used above. However, this rarely has anything to do with a start-up.

In the final Rocky movie, Rocky Balboa, where the great quote used above comes from, we see that the fire within Rocky never faded. He comes out of retirement for an exhibition match. While the movie doesn’t have the fairy tale ending where Rocky wins that match, we still have a satisfying conclusion to what was meant to be the last Rocky movie. In stepping up and taking that fight, which Rocky loses, we see that fire, drive and determination that allows him to get into the ring and give it his all. He is happy that he tried. This is shown with Rocky walking out of the ring and not caring about the decision.

From this part of Rocky’s life, we can draw parallels to a seasoned business owner, who, our start-ups that have succeeded from earlier have now become. They have sold their business and are in retirement, but they can’t sit still, they still have that start-up itch. They want to be involved, to create things, to provide value and continue doing what they do best. I’ve been lucky to meet quite a few of such seasoned business owners in my business journey. What I’ve learnt from these kinds of people is that if you’re passionate about something, that spark, that ember, that fire never really fades and you want to keep coming back and back.

This is not the same story for every founder of a start-up. Some sell and retire. If they were lucky enough, they are happy now. Then, there are others who are in their 70s, 80s and perhaps even 90s and are still in business. In contrast to those, we have the Elon Musks and Jeff Bezos’ who are successful here on earth and have tried and failed more times than we actually know; and are now trying to leave the earth to push mankind forward.

But for every business person who is retired and is content and for every business person who just keeps going because they love it, we have the Mentors. These are the business people who are somewhere in between the bunch described above. They have a passion for business, they could either have retired or not; but they want to help educate and guide aspiring business people in their journey. This is where we see Rocky, in the spin-off movie saga: Creed. Rocky Balboa was meant to be the final film in the series however 9 years later, we saw the release of Creed, which told a tale similar to that of Rocky. In this saga, we see Rocky as the mentor to Adonis Creed, the son of Apollo Creed who was killed in Rocky IV. Throughout the film, we see Rocky mentor and train Adonis which allows him to give his all in a fight for the title. However, in true Rocky spirit, Adonis Creed loses his first fight but proves his worth.

Mentoring is not a one-way relationship. It is symbiotic as seen with Adonis helping Rocky and Rocky helping Adonis. The ground rules are the same in the real world. In any mentoring situation both sides of the relationship help and assist each other; sometimes teaching an old dog new tricks or showing them the new way things can be done. In this mentoring space, the drive to improve and learn doesn’t fade and is something that continually pushes you forward whether you’re directly involved in a business or mentoring or are indirectly going on that journey again.

Throughout the Rocky Saga, we see plenty of ups and downs in Rocky’s life and occasionally it seems that he is about to give up and stop moving forward. But that is not the Rocky way, there is always something that fans the ember back into a flame and allows him to prove his worth, push forward and continue regardless of how hard he is knocked down. This is the biggest takeaway that any business person or start-up founder needs to understand and follow. You will have challenges; you will fail and you will make the wrong decisions. These can either sink your business or set you back quite a lot which will either make you quickly pivot or start a new business. Simply remember and follow what Rocky says, “But it ain’t how hard you hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward.”
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