At Unusual, we are obsessed with providing unparalleled help for seed stage entrepreneurs. One of the primary reasons for starting the firm was to build a set of programs that empower entrepreneurs to be the best versions of themselves. At the same time, we recognize our support has limitations because at the heart of any startup’s success is the entrepreneur’s vision, passion, and talent. Vision is often easier to assess, but equally important is their talent and their willingness to learn and persevere. Said another way, we meet entrepreneurs every day with big dreams, but we aspire to partner with the few who also have the drive to master their craft.
So, what exactly does extraordinary drive and talent look like? Where does it come from and how does it grow? Contrary to popular belief, it turns out genius isn’t accidental or inherited. In his book The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle examines so-called “talent hotbeds” or otherwise unremarkable places around the globe that regularly produce star athletes and musicians. From futsal parlors in Brazil to Russian tennis academies, he found that they all shared one thing in common: the way they practiced.
It turns out that talent is the product of highly targeted, error-focused practice or what Coyle calls “deep practice”. When average people engage in deep practice, they create more skill with each passing second. They tap into a neurological mechanism where certain patterns of targeted practice build skill and without even realizing it, they enter a zone of accelerated learning.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the theory that to be world-class at something, you need at least 10,000 hours of practice. But it’s not simply about total volume of hours — it’s the type and quality of practice that over time builds extraordinary talent. Coyle discovered that exceptionally talented people repeatedly engage in deep practice and further hone their craft through master coaching. However, none of this is possible without the ignition or what psychologist Ellen Winner calls the “rage to master” that compels them to work diligently at their craft. That’s the formula for the production of excellence and what separates the world-class people from everyone else. When I first heard this phrase, it resonated deeply with me. At Unusual Ventures, we all have the rage to master understanding what it takes for entrepreneurs to succeed at the seed stage and it’s behind all of our efforts — particularly Unusual Academy.
Chunk it, repeat it, feel it.
Deep practice consists of three parts: breaking down a skill into smaller “chunks”, repeating it over and over again, and eventually learning to “feel it” or automatically sense any deviation from successful execution.
As Coyle describes, “chunking it up” is a strategy for mastery of technique undertaken by breaking a subject into concrete, manageable chunks of material (i.e. a challenging two-note measure of sheet music or the twisted arc in a complicated dive), slowed way down in practice, and then reassembled into an integrated whole.
Deep practice requires that you then repeat this process over time until you eventually learn to “feel it,” or practice to sense the gap between what you are aiming for and a mistake (i.e. the feeling of a backhand spring with too much force or an ear for a note that’s the slightest bit off.) Finding the sweet spot means picking a target, reaching for it, evaluating the gap between the target and the reach, and returning to step one. The deeper you practice, the better you get.
Target the struggle.
I’ve read that when we fire our circuits in the right way by struggling through deep practice, our brains build up more white matter or “myelin” that helps neural signals travel faster. But what is the “right” way to practice?
It just so happens that the core principle of deep practice is built on a paradox: struggling in certain targeted ways makes you improve. Try to slow down your golf swing so it takes 90 seconds. See how many errors you detect. By practicing in this way, you delay the automatizing process. The mind wants to turn newly learned skills into automatically performed skills but the mind is sloppy and will settle for just good enough. By slowing down and breaking skills down into “chunks” and repeating, you force the brain to internalize a better pattern of performance.
The more we generate impulses by encountering and overcoming difficulties, the more myelin and scaffolding we build and the faster we learn. It’s the experiences where you’re forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them over and over that end up making you more skillful without your realizing it. It then becomes apparent that struggle is not an option — rather, it’s a biological requirement for survival.
Certain talent hotbeds systematically produce so many stars because they have figured out how to reliably recreate this process. Coyle describes a tennis academy in Russia where they have rallies without a ball. Similarly, futsal in Brazil — or soccer played in a room with a smaller, heavier ball — creates more opportunities for contact with the ball. I lit up when Coyle described his time in Brazil, recalling my own 10,000+ hours playing soccer growing up. The aim is to focus meticulously on technique, creating laboratories of improvisation that permit players to practice more deeply, to slow down, struggle, make errors, and learn from them.
Unusual Academy shares something in common with the Russian tennis academy and the futsal parlors of Brazil: it is built around the systematic production of excellence. The Academy is our own “laboratory of improvisation” born out of the desire to train great entrepreneurs and increase their learning velocity through deep practice. We do this by giving founders “more contact with the ball” and coaching them through the mental and emotional struggle to build the conditioning they need to succeed.
Coyle points to master coaching as an essential component of cracking the talent code. Master practitioners are like farmers — carefully and deliberately cultivating myelin in their students. They possess vast and deep frameworks of knowledge and propagate this expertise in their students by running error-centered, well-planned, information-rich practices. Thrashing blindly doesn’t help, but reaching under the guidance of master coaching does.
We created Unusual Academy because we believe entrepreneurs should have access to training with world-class experts who can help take them to the next level by practicing deeply with them. It’s like taking a tennis lesson with Roger Federer, and having him guide you through the motion of swinging the racquet to build the same muscle memory. It’s that ‘aha moment’ where you learn to “chunk” and build the right scaffolding.
How can Tom Brady play football at 41? Because before the ball is even snapped, he looks at the field and knows where to go. He’s spent well over 10,000 hours developing the myelin to perform in action. Similarly, Shan-Lyn Ma understands the nuances that translate into a delightful product for users, and she does it much faster and better than just about everyone else because she’s built the skill over many years of deep practice. How does Adam Grant understand hiring and culture? He’s studied it for 10,000 hours plus. These experts “chunk” to the right answer. It’s the difference between someone who knows a language and someone who doesn’t.
We’ve created a method where these experts show you the right technique and we run deep practice sessions, so entrepreneurs can learn the most critical skills they need at the seed stage.
Unusual Academy is our way of unlocking the true talent within entrepreneurs by pairing them with the best in class and creating an interactive, learn-by-struggling environment. We’ve learned that a real encounter is far more useful than several hundred observations. That’s why we designed the sessions around the see one, do one, teach one model. Each session of the Academy is designed around one of the seven skills that entrepreneurs must have at the seed stage, such as finding your first customers, getting your messaging right, and building out a team. It is designed by taking the master of that skill, showing you that skill, and guiding you as you struggle through learning it for yourself. Most VCs want and will give you advice. But here’s the thing — everyone can tell you, “Here’s how you hit a back-hand or forehand,” or “Here’s how you make a customer call.” True partners roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty to help you get better. They take responsibility for coaching and struggling alongside their entrepreneurs. That’s what we promise to deliver at Unusual Academy.
Most entrepreneurs know they should talk to 100 customers to validate their insight and find product market fit, but it’s the technique used in those conversations and the resulting decisions that makes the difference between success and failure. This is one of the critical skills our Partner Jyoti Bansal mastered while building AppDynamics and Harness and teaches to early entrepreneurs in Unusual Academy. In a four-hour session, he walks you through a customer conversation and teaches you his actual techniques for deciphering between someone who’s intellectually interested and someone who’s in pain. Then he shows you how that translates into product and engineering roadmap priorities. That’s life and death for a seed-stage startup, where time and resources are scarce and only customers in pain will become paying customers.
Andy Rachleff does the same when he coaches entrepreneurs through their fundraising pitches. The minds of great VCs chunk because they have the benefit of history and success. Over the years, great VCs have seen so many successful companies and so many failures, which gives them the ability to quickly recognize companies that will be successful — and ultimately, who they want to invest in. Andy walks you through what your pitch has to look like, so it appeals to the best VCs. Participants get up and give their presentation and he critiques them, so they can recognize errors, course correct, and feel the pattern that the best VCs want to see.
By engaging in deep practice with master coaches, you improve and build skills much faster. Unusual Academy is deep practice with the right technique, that ultimately builds the myelin that makes up skill and expertise. In essence, we rapidly accelerate the way entrepreneurs become world-class.
To be clear: deep practice alone is not what makes a great entrepreneur, just as futsal is not the only reason many Brazilian soccer players become world class. But deep practice and sharpening the saw with a master coach is the lever through which those other factors — like domain expertise and market conditions — transfer their force.
It’s the ultimate cheat code for founders who want to master their craft. You use time more efficiently and your small efforts produce outsized returns. You have positioned yourself at a place of leverage where you can capture failure and turn it into mastery.
But if building skill is so systematic, why is it so rare? It’s because it takes an enormous amount of concerted energy to engage in this type of deep practice. It only works when you target and embrace the struggle. It’s hard and emotionally taxing work, with a delayed payoff horizon. Deep practice requires “the rage to master” or the inner drive and intensity that sets some of us apart from others in skill development and performance. If you think about it, starting a company is slightly irrational. You’re forgoing comfort now in order to work toward some bigger potential benefit later on. For whatever reason, some of us possess that rage to master and desire for total victory more than others. These sorts of self-driven entrepreneurs are rare and are blazingly self-evident.
Practice or intent alone isn’t enough to succeed. You have to have the rage to master your craft. It’s hard. It’s exhausting. It’s real struggle. If you don’t have this rage to master or inner drive, you’re never going to commit to 10,000 hours of deep practice and fight through the struggle to become the best. You have to have this obsession to fulfill your potential and make your idea a success. The best entrepreneurs are willing to lean into the struggle before coming out on the other side. That’s what both Unusual Academy and Unusual as a firm are all about.
If you’re an enterprise or consumer technology entrepreneur with a single-minded obsession with fulfilling your potential, we invite you to apply for a chance to learn from the best this fall as part of our Gamma Cohort and turn that rage to master into your startup’s path to success.