Reject the Narrative

by Matt Flanagan May 1st, 2021

When we have meetings with founders, I can't help but see similarities between the way they build their venture and how I navigated my football career. Getting to the next milestone was always a result of making bets on myself, grounded in understanding the reality of a situation regardless of what the narrative was.

My high school wasn't a powerhouse football program by any stretch. There was a slew of private schools in my area with the ability to recruit, who dominated their public league opponents. With a finite amount of time able to spend on the road, college coaches focused their efforts recruiting out of these schools. I figured if they weren't coming to mine, the only shot I had to get noticed was to go to theirs. So each summer I mapped out a road trip and went to all the college camps my parents were willing to drive me to. I just needed to find one coach willing to take a chance on me and let the recruiting hype beast take care of the rest.

Getting a scholarship offer from a Power 5 school was a lot like getting interest from the "signal firms" in VC. Once the Sequoia's, Benchmark's, a16z's of the world are on your cap table, there's rarely a shortage of people who want to give you money. In the same way, colleges trust the diligence done by competitors and recruiting websites that use a five-star system to rate players, often determined by how many scholarships they've received. I heard stories from players at these camps who received offer letters from schools they had never talked to before, simply because they were given a scholarship from a rival in their conference. Before they knew it, they had double digit scholarship offers and a few more stars added to their recruiting profile.

I wasn't one of those guys. I had trouble getting that first domino to fall. It seemed no matter how well I did in those camps, once a coach learned that I hadn't received my first offer yet, the conversation changed to how strong their walk-on program was and how they had a track record of guys who earned a scholarship with playing time. In their eyes, I didn't fit the profile of a player who was deserving of a scholarship. It was frustrating, but I had seen behind the curtain and knew how arbitrary the buckets were. In between the whistles at these camps, matched up one-on-one against scholarship players from powerhouse schools, the stars on their recruiting profile didn't matter anymore. I thought my upside wasn't being properly underwritten by these recruiting systems and was willing to bootstrap my way to a scholarship if that's what it would take to prove them wrong.

This sensationalism exists in most human resource funnels. Staying within the realm of football, every year during the NFL draft process we listen to talking heads critique measurements and movements from the combine that rarely translate to a football field. Despite a number of studies finding no consistent statistical relationship between combine tests and professional football performance, there has been no effort to re-evaluate the process of determining the potential value someone can bring. This points to a psychological issue, not a capital constraint, within most personnel decision makers. Historical data from assessments and surveys builds a narrative of what their "ideal candidate profile" looks like, which in reality can be far separated from what would constitute success in the role.

Using a process, no matter how ill-fitting it may be, softens the anxiety of making decisions. I attribute it to our inability to accept the randomness of the future - human nature. We find comfort in looking at the past because it's tangible. We can assign discrete values to it and point to them as we write a narrative to proclaim what we "know." By commoditizing data analysis, we've sunk further into the comfort of forecasting and have improperly weighted it when evaluating people. I think Andy Samberg summarized it best here:


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