Three Startup Lessons From Seattle Seahawks Left Tackle Russell Okung

Seahawks left tackle Russell Okung shared "Lessons from the Line" to hundreds of startup hopefuls and business leaders at GeekWire Startup Day 2016.

BELLEVUE - Hundreds of entrepreneurial novices and veterans alike filled the Meydenbauer Center on Friday for a day of advice, insight, and inspiration from leading startup CEOs, founders, board members, and investors, as well as one 6-foot-5, 310-pound NFL offensive lineman.

Seahawks left tackle Russell Okung capped GeekWire's Startup Day 2016 with a 15-minute message meshing sports and business.

"I truly believe that our worlds coincide," said Okung, co-founder of the Greater Foundation which aims to equip the next generation with tools for success. "I believe there's a very interesting parallel between the startup world and the football world as well, and i'm going to do my best here today to kind of really bring light to that."

On stage, Okung clutched a football, a prop he used to illustrate the first of three "Lessons from the Line" to the audience, most of which consisted of Seattle fans who joined Okung in three "Sea-Hawks!" chants before the 27-year-old's session started.

"The first point I'm going to make today is philosophy," Okung said. "It is all about the ball."

Seahawks fans are likely to have heard that phrase before. It's the central theme of Seattle head coach Pete Carroll's program. But as Okung went on to demonstrate, it has real-world applications, too.

"Everything was about this ball," Okung recounted of his first meeting with Carroll six years ago as a rookie out of Oklahoma State. "The ball is everything. The reason I'm saying that's so important, and to understand what the ball actually does and what it is, is because you've got to have as a company, as our culture, as an organization, we knew to understand the ball. So I don't know what that is for you guys, but I know it's everything.

"In fact, this is so important that Pete, he was fired five times, and if you were to ever ask him, 'Why were you fired? What happened?' He would tell you, 'Honestly, I didn't have a philosophy. I didn't have anything that I stood for. I didn't have anything that was concrete for me to hold onto.' … That's how much philosophy means. That's how much philosophy should mean to your companies, to mean to your startups, to mean to the people who are involved in that. It should mean so much that a product of that environment should know it, should know every single thing about what matters."

Okung, a product of Carroll's environment, used his second point to harp on his coach's endless emphasis on competition. The Seahawks stress competition in every aspect of the workplace at Renton's Virginia Mason AthletIc Center, from basketball shot competitions in the meeting rooms to ping-pong battles in the locker room to 'Competition Wednesday' out on the practice field. 

"The standard for competition is we want to get the best out of every single moment," said Okung. "You want to get the best out of every single moment. You want to understand, in terms of competition, that the standard is getting your best not only out of every moment, but out of everybody that's next to you. Everybody should understand competition and what it's all about."

The third and final point Okung made centered around the concept of teamwork. He formed an 'L' shape with his right hand and lifted it up in the air before relaying to the audience that the 'L' used to symbolize four talented members of the Seattle secondary, the 'Legion of Boom.' Recently, though, the sign took on new meaning, 'Love Our Brothers,' something Okung said Seattle players "were able to capture better than anybody else." He credited that camaraderie and "selfless love" the Seahawks created as "something that's made us unstoppable."

"What's given us so much success, what's given us the power to come back when we're down 31 points, or to go on that last drive in the Super Bowl, or to be unfazed any time we have a setback," Okung said. "It's because there's a love that's deeply ingrained in who we are. A love that says, 'I can't, and I refuse, to let my teammate down.'"

Okung closed by tying his sports references directly back to the business world, citing author Jim Collins' book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don't.

"He talked about the best founders of those companies never once spoke about themselves," Okung said. "They always spoke about their team. The team, the people around them is what made the company, is what made them who they were. I think if we understand that, you're unstoppable. There's nothing you can't do."

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