by Rich Russakoff and Mary Goodman

“What is the single difference between a good and a great driver?” Phil Wicks asked. Wicks has been racing small cars for 50 plus years and owns Phil Wicks Driving Academy. It’s not ability, experience, talent, or timing – though those are important. It’s focus — the ability to be 100% present to what you are doing now. The best drivers can totally focus just on the turn they are in, while they’re in it.

As Phil spoke, it occurred to us that race car drivers and entrepreneurs have a lot in common. Here are five tips we picked up from the racetrack that are just as relevant for fast-growing companies:

  1. Where you look is where you go
    “Don’t look at the cones. If you do, you’ll hit them. Instead look between them, dead center. That’s where you want to go.” Often we are so focused on the obstacles that we can’t see the path around them. As Debbie King, owner of DSK Solutions succinctly put it: “…quit fixating on the problem and concentrate on the solution.”
  2. Don’t brake in a curve
    “Slow down before you get into the turn, not in the middle of it.” The residential real estate market has always been a predictive indicator for the furniture industry. When Four Hands Furniture in Austin, Texas saw the housing market start to crash in 2008, they anticipated their sales would drop considerably. They reduced staff and production accordingly. Because of this preemptive move, they were able to remain profitable when their sales inevitably declined. After the crash, they were well positioned to get back up to speed in the market.
  3. Races are won or lost in the turns
    Downturns and business cycles are inevitable. They’re our “turns.” It’s how we handle these that will determine how we’ll finish. The trick is to anticipate the turn, adjust our speed before, stay steady through, then hit the gas coming out of the turn. In the heyday of subprime lending, MV Acceptance, a division of the Arizona-based sub-prime lender Presto Auto Loans, held fast to its lending standards (subprime as they were) despite competitive pressures to be more lax. They survived while many of their competitors crashed and burned.
  4. Take a couple of practice laps
    The purpose of the practice laps is to get to know the course and your competition. Test markets and pilot programs serve as practice laps. Learn as much as you can from them.
  5. You can’t outdrive your car
    “No matter how good you get, your car will always have more potential than you have as a driver.” Think about it. Apple’s astounding success was not just due to Steve Jobs ability to drive; it was the performance, talent, and efforts of all of its employees. Your business collectively has more potential than any individual — including you.

Originally published on CBS MoneyWatch as “The Race Car Driver’s Guide to Building a Fast Growing Company” on August 5, 2011.

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