Fail To Succeed, And Other Business Lessons We Can Learn From Skateboarding

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Rodney Mullen Image

If there was a way to learn valuable lessons about business innovation and techniques while watching skate videos, you would do it, right? I know I would, because I have spent the past few days watching videos of the great Rodney Mullen, pulling off skateboard tricks while giving talks at business conferences.

My discovery of Mullen’s inspiring speeches happened recently, when my husband fell into a YouTube hole watching old Mullen skateboarding videos. We are both huge fans of the famously innovative freestyle member of the Powell-Peralta Bones Brigade skateboarding team (which also included a young Tony Hawk and was managed by legendary skater Stacey Peralta). Mullen went on to turn street skating into an art, and, like Hawk, has had one of the longer and more successful careers in the sport.

Amidst the heel flips and caspers and sidewinders, the video that really caught my attention was one of Mullen giving a talk at the 2014 Strata Conference, an annual meeting for people who work in the data industry. Now 48 years old, a retired skater and full-time successful business owner, Mullen was talking about the art of practice. And he was good.

Mullen is not necessarily a regular on the speech circuit, but he has done a couple of regional TED Talks in Southern California, as well as a few other conferences. He has a humble, engaging manner and an ease in his own skin that is rare to find in a speaker. He gives one talk On Getting Up Again, another called Pop an Ollie and Innovate. (The flat-ground “ollie” a famous skating trick, is just one of countless moves invented by Mullen.)

Yes, he does play skate videos throughout the talks, which are great fun to watch and always astounding. There are also a few epic fails and falls, which are sometimes even more fun and astounding. Mullen even does a few live demonstrations. Mostly, though, he turns skating stories into entrepreneurial lessons. It makes a lot more sense coming from him. Here are a few of his ideas.

rodney mullen 1988

Image source: Flickr Creative Commons; photo credit: Don Walheim

1. The power of the pivot

Mullen was an outsider on the Bones Brigade team. While other guys skated socially with friends, he was a phenom from Florida who spent hours alone learning freestyle tricks. Watch a video of Mullen to get a sense of how good he got at it. He was the unchallenged champion of the style for more a decade.

As good as he was, freestyle lost favor in the 1990s. Once a marketable brand, Mullen fell completely out of style. He had to reinvent himself, or pivot, in startup terms. Mullen took his unique abilities to the street, and that’s when he really made a name for himself as the “Godfather of street skating.”

2. Innovation is about collaboration

Mullen describes skateboarding as a kind of open source community. Everyone takes ideas or tricks from the community, innovates and adds to those ideas, and then gives them back for someone else to add more. This helps the sport advance and makes everyone better.

Within this type of community, the biggest obstacle to creativity is the thing that can’t be done or has never been done before. As soon as something is proven possible, it opens doors for everyone.

3. What we do is fall

Mullen talks a lot about pain, missteps, and injuries. For every small trick that has never been tried before, there are hundreds of hours of falls and bounce backs. Even more significant is the story he shares about skater John Cardiel, who was paralyzed after a freak spinal cord injury and spent hours willing one big toe to move before regaining the use of his legs. In business as in sports, success is all about persistence and practice. And even a small shift in perspective can take you to the next level. In order to achieve greatness, you may have to go through a lot of pain.

4. Winning happens only once, then it’s all about defending

Coming from someone who won 34 out of 35 competitions he entered by 1990,
it is a profound thought. Mullen talks about the feeling of being in a “turtle posture”—backed up, fighting those who would take your win. It is very much how successful businesses feel after their product hits. His point is that innovation and creativity does not happen in this posture. It’s not until you give up the idea of being “champion” and focus on being creative that you truly win.

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