What Entrepreneurs Can Learn from Danny Ainge

Tuesday night the Boston Celtics won the NBA World
Championship (4-2) by beating the Los Angelels Lakers by 39 points in game six
at Boston Gardens.

The Celtics won only 24 games last year, but this year
experienced the single biggest turnabout in NBA history, after Danny Ainge
orchestrated two major trades
last summer, bringing Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen
to Boston.

Danny Ainge is my favorite basketball player/coach/general
manager of all time. While most people will agree with me that Michael Jordan
is the greatest NBA player in history, and it is popular to say, “I want to be
like Mike,” personally, I’d rather be like Danny.

Basketball was big at BYU. I started attending games at age 5 when Kresimir Cosic, the first All-American from a foreign country and Yugoslav Olympic star, filled the stadium. BYU led the nation in attendance with 21,818 fans per game back in 1971-72.

I was such a fan of Cosic, that my mom wrote this about me in my Book of Remembrance (I should do a blog post on this sometime–it’s what my mom did instead of scrapbooking, for each of her 8 kids) when I was six years old:

“You were a
devoted BYU basketball fan, and throughout the basketball season, you followed
every game with diligence. You were especially interested in Kresimir Cosic and
cheered his every move. You wanted to go to every ballgame, and because you
couldn’t, you carried the radio around with you at home, settled down in some
corner, and listened with your ear close to the radio. Whenever someone made a
basket, you cheered and reported it aloud to whoever might be nearby. Your
enthusiasm was something to behold, and the entire family enjoyed your
enjoyment of the sport as much or more than the sport itself.

“Each
morning as you got out of bed, you raced upstairs to check the ratings of the
BYU team in the sports section of the newspaper. When they achieved 9th
place standing in the nation, you made as much fuss as if you had won the world
championship yourself. If they dropped a notch or two, you took it as personal
disappointment. One morning as you called to me from the other room with “Where
is BYU” I answered, “in Provo.” You
kept asking me the same question, over and over as though I hadn’t heard you
right. Finally I learned that you meant, “Where do they stand in the national
ratings today?”

“Your
teacher told me that when she put all the ‘C’ spelling words on the board for
your class, you raised your hand and said, “You left one out, Miss Piquet.” She
checked the list again and said that she thought she had them all. Still you
insisted that she’d forgotten one. Finally she said, “Paul, what word did I
leave off?” Grinning broadly, you replied, “Cosic.” Because she understood you,
she accommodated you by adding Cosic to the list.”

I remember that Miss Piquet didn’t actually know how to
spell Cosic, so she asked Mr. Mike, the janitor, and he knew how.

Ainge was the next huge BYU basketball star. According to Wikipedia:

“Ainge played basketball at Brigham Young University and became a
household name after hitting one of the greatest shots in NCAA March
Madness
history against Notre Dame in 1981. His coast to coast drive with
only a second remaining gave the Cougars a one point win. Ainge concluded his
senior year by winning the Eastman Award as well as the John R. Wooden Award, given to the best
collegiate player in the nation. During his four-year career at BYU, Ainge was
an All-American, a two-time First Team Academic All-American, the WAC Player of
the Year and a four-time All-WAC selection.”

His play against Notre Dame is one of the great moments in
college basketball history. ESPN once rated it the 6th best ending
in a college game. During the 1981 Sweet Sixteen against Notre Dame, with just
9 seconds left in the game, Ainge took an inbounds pass and drove the length of
the court, past all 5 Notre Dame defenders and made a finger roll layup over
outstretched defenders hands with a second left to claim a 51-50 BYU victory
over Notre Dame. You can watch the video of Ainge’s drive on YouTube.

When you are 15 years old, and you get to watch the best
college player in the country almost every week, you grow fond of the guy and
he becomes a hero for life.

I remember consciously imitating how Danny Ainge walked
(slightly turned-in toes), how he wiped dirt off the bottom of his shoes on
the opposite sock, where he stood when the opposing team was shooting foul
shots, how he would save possessions by throwing balls off opposing players
legs when falling out of bounds, his no look and around the back passes, and on
and on. Nearly every good move I had, I learned from watching Ainge.

As you may know, I was a wanna-be basketball player. (See my
blog post on “53”.) I didn’t even make my high school team, but my church team
did win three tournaments my junior year, our stake, region, and area
tournaments. I kept a journal from age 14 including my own basketball stats–I guess I was blending family history and competitiveness even back then. During my senior year in high school, playing church ball, I averaged 28 points per game my senior year, ranking me right up next to NBA leading scorers LeBron James and Kobe Bryant this year. :)

The highest compliment anyone ever paid to me when I played
church ball was when a friend of mine on an opposing team used to call me
“Danny” after I made a great play.

Ainge was an incredibly smart player, and really a player
coach all throughout college.

I also saw him do something once that I’ve never seen any
college or pro player ever do, and I’d love to see a Youtube video of this
sometime. Once while at the foul line, with his team slightly down, before
everyone was really set, he kind of grabbed the ball from the official (they
used to hand you the ball and not throw it to you), threw it off the front rim,
got the rebound, and made a layup. That pretty much blew my mind.

So, to make a long story short, Ainge went on to play 14 years in the NBA, win 2 rings with the Boston Celtics, and ended his career as one of only three players who had made 1,000 three-pointers.

Following his NBA career, Ainge "joined TNT as a color analyst for the 1995-96
season before returning to the court with the Phoenix Suns as an Assistant
Coach prior to the 1996-97 season. Just eight games into the season, he was
promoted to Head Coach and guided his club to a 40-34 record after the team
started the season 0-8. He spent the next two-plus seasons as Head Coach of the
Suns and compiled a 136-90 (.602) record before stepping down on
December 13, 1999 and returning to TNT as an analyst. In his three-plus
seasons as the Suns coach, he guided
Phoenix to three playoff berths.” (source: NBA.com)

He retired from coaching the Phoenix Suns to spend more time with his family, which is another reason I admire him.

In 2003, the Boston Celtics hired Danny Ainge as Executive Director of Basketball Operations.

Last year was a disaster. Everyone wanted his head. Celtics fans were calling for the owners to get rid of both Ainge and head coach Doc Rivers.The Celtics won only 24 games, 2nd worst in the NBA.

Then Ainge orchestrated the trade of the century. Sports Illustrated has the best article about how he pulled it off.

When I think about Ainge’s career, I think about how he went from player to coach to GM.

I think entrepreneurs go through a similar evolution.

When I was in my 20s, entrepreneurship was about how much work the founders could
do, how many all-nighters we could pull, how hard we could work.

In my 30s, it became more about networking, and discovering how much smarter we could work if we knew the right people and read the right books and attended the right conferences.

But in my 40s, entrepreneurship for me is about finding the
best people can to be on my team, and then watching them go to work. If I carefully scout for the right investors, the right management team, the right
partners, the right business model, and provide the right motivation and occasional feedback for everyone, then magical things start to happen.

Business Lessons to Learn from Danny Ainge

  • It’s all about getting the right people
  • Do whatever it takes to get the right people
  • When you get one right person (Ray Allen) it makes it easier to get the next right person (Kevin Garnett.) Like attracts like.
  • To know the right people, it helps to be the right kind of person. Ainge’s years as a player at ever level, and as a coach, gives him a feel for the game that is extremely rare and valuable. Be a player first.
  • Don’t give up too soon. Before you experience the thrill of victory, you almost always experience the agony of defeat. Most successful companies that I know about almost didn’t survive the early years.
  • You can spend more time with your family and still have a successful career

Danny Ainge is once again a World Champion, but this time he
didn’t make a single point, or throw a single pass, or play a single minute. He
didn’t even coach his team. He sat on the sidelines watching the players and coaching
staff that he helped assemble satisfy their thirst for a championship, and after the game he was swarmed by Garnett, Allen, and Perkins. Their smiles said it all. "We did it because you brought us together."

My top goal at FamilyLink.com is to assemble the right people to build a great company. For me that includes getting the right investors, the right management team, the right employees, and the right business partners, and to make sure that our business model fully motivates and compensates everyone on our team.

It helped to start with three key engineers who had actually built Ancestry.com and MyFamily.com from the ground up. That was like starting the year with Paul Pierce on board. Working with Cliff Shaw (founder of genforum.com, gencircles.com and creator of Family Tree Legends) and his brilliant designer to build our next generation family tree collection engine (coming soon!), is a lot like getting Ray Allen, the purest shooter in the NBA on board. And it might take us six months or a year, but we are working hard to recruit our equivalent of Kevin Garnett.

I think Danny Ainge knows now that it’s all about getting (and keeping!) the right people on your team.

I think Warren Buffett, the world’s greatest investor, would agree. He never takes risks on unknown people. When he buys or invests in companies, he almost always leaves the proven management in place.

I heard him say at a Berkshire Hathaway investor conference that he saw no reason to take risks on people or business ideas, and had no interest in doing anything early stage, because it involved risk. From what I know about Buffett, he spends the great majority of his time scouting for undervalued good businesses with excellent management teams, and only makes a trade every year or two, a lot like an NBA GM.

I heard Jon Huntsman, Sr., one of Utah’s billionaires, say at a BYU lecture/dinner that he wouldn’t hire anyone directly out of college, but that he waited for them to get 2-3 years of work experience on someone else’s dime, and then he would hire them. That is an interesting idea.

The main lesson I think entrepreneurs can learn from Danny Ainge is to know who the right people are, and then do what it takes to get them on your team. And then hold on until things gel.

The next lesson, of course, is to attend BYU, and send your kids there too.

Go Cougars!

Go Celtics!