On the heels of the final rounds of the 50th US Open Tennis Championship, TCV’s General Partner John Doran sat down with George Mulhern, former tennis pro and CEO of Cradlepoint to discuss lessons learned on and off the court. In addition to being CEO of Cradlepoint, a global leader in cloud solutions for 4G/5G-enabled networks, George has been instrumental in driving economic growth in the Northwest region as a venture capitalist. Throughout his 20+ year career, George has drawn on his experiences on the tennis court to succeed through the highs and lows of the ultra-competitive tech industry.
Key takeaways include:
- How to develop a competitive mentality that keeps you focused
- The right attitude for responding to adversity
- Why the mindset of your company’s culture determines long-term success
John Doran: It’s not every day I get to talk with a fellow tennis player about what the game can teach tech founders and CEOs. How far did your tennis career take you?
George Mulhern: I went to college on a tennis scholarship and then played for a short time on the American Express Satellite tour, which is like the minor league of professional men’s tennis. That was far enough to know that I would have to make my living doing something else.
John Doran: What did tennis teach you about competing in the technology business?
George Mulhern: One of the most important competitive things you learn in tennis is to never give up when you are behind. You can turn around a match completely, like a major pivot in technology, if you keep your head and adjust your strategy and tactics. It truly is not over until it’s over. An equally valuable lesson, one you usually learn the hard way, is to never let up when you are ahead. If you lose momentum it is much tougher to get back on top, and you also give a big shot of confidence to your opponent. The same is true in business. You can never rest on your past successes. Every day is a new game and you have to approach it with the intention and intensity to win.
John Doran: Pro players often talk about knowing their competition and anticipating how a certain player will try to compete against them. Do you see parallels in your business life?
George Mulhern: My experience was that no matter how much you study your competition before a match, it is impossible to completely predict how they will behave. It is more important to have keen situational awareness, flexibility in your own game and the agility and willingness to rapidly adapt. Then you’re ready no matter what the opponent comes at you with.
John Doran: In tennis, top players often try to balance their strengths and stamina and stay in a match with a view to turning around the momentum. Has there ever been a time when you would conserve energy against an opponent in a long match?
George Mulhern: The context for those comments is that players today are achieving a level of conditioning that is unprecedented for tennis. They’re hitting harder and running more for every ball. So you can win a match by outlasting the other player, not just outplaying them. The same is true in technology. If you are investing enough time and effort into that level of conditioning, you don’t need to conserve your energy. Your competitor should run out of gas before you do. By conditioning I mean ensuring that you have, or are acquiring, the skills and capabilities your company needs to sustain success for as long as you stay in business.
John Doran: It’s often said that success in tennis is as much about the mental side of the game as it is about physical talent. In your world now, as CEO, having a strong mental game is fairly pivotal as well. How do you keep your mental game sharp in the tech business?
George Mulhern: There are all kinds of distractions when you are playing competitive tennis: fans, competitors, weather, injuries, illness, even the last shot you missed. You need the mental toughness to put all those things aside and focus on what is most important, which is the point you are playing right now. It is the same in the tech business. The distractions are different – there is always the latest shiny object grabbing at your attention – but the challenge is the same. You have to stay focused on the key value drivers of your business.
John Doran: On the WTA tour, I understand that coaching is now allowed during matches at certain times, giving the coach a potentially bigger influence on the outcome of a match. Can you share any feedback that you took from your tennis coaches over the years that you still use today?
George Mulhern: My college coach, whom I now think of more as “Yoda,” taught me it’s not about who has the best strokes or shots. It’s about a simple decision you have to make: (Yoda voice) “Winner, do you want to be?” If you do want to win, then the challenges of becoming a winner don’t feel like a sacrifice. They energize you. You are more than willing to put in the hours of practice and conditioning. You embrace the need to change something in your game if that’s necessary, and you summon the courage to fight until the last shot of the match even when you’re tired and it starts to feel hopeless.
John Doran: Applying the coaching metaphor to your business experience, what kind of performance feedback is most valuable?
George Mulhern: Direct and honest is the best. As you rise in an organization, more people will tell you how great you are. You have to find the folks that will tell you the things that aren’t so positive and nice to hear. As you move into higher levels of leadership you need to grow a thicker skin, but with some permeability so you can accept critical feedback and not over-personalize it. It’s just business. You use the feedback to improve and move on.
John Doran: One of the commonalties about this generation of top tennis players, especially in the men’s game, is the ability of the top players to continually improve and add to their games, allowing people such as Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic to stay on top for so long. In the business and technology world, how do you ensure you’re making the necessary improvements to your game to stay ahead of the competition?
George Mulhern: My first year of college tennis, it really hit home to me that I had to get better every day, because there are a whole bunch of other guys out there who certainly are. It is the same in technology. Every technology company’s culture has to instill a sense of urgency and willingness to embrace and adapt to change. Your existing competitors are striving to improve, new competitors are starting up, and they all want to take your market share. At Cradlepoint we say, “stay humble and hungry, or you will be.”
John Doran: Even the greatest tennis players of all time have lost big matches throughout their careers. What can business leaders learn from that? How do they recover?
George Mulhern: It’s one match. Learn from it, adapt where you need to, and get over it. People in your organization will take their cues from you and react the way you do, so don’t run around like your hair is on fire. Just go to work on finding the path to the next success.
John Doran: Did any of the great tennis players of the past inspire you in ways that affected your success in business?
George Mulhern: One of my life lessons came from a tennis idol of mine – Arthur Ashe. When he was asked what it takes to become a champion, he said “start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.” Whenever I am faced with what seems like an insurmountable challenge or problem, I remember that quote. If you just take that first step, the next step becomes clearer, and then so does the next.
John Doran: Thanks so much for your insights, George.
TCV is an investor in Cradlepoint.