What I learned about starting a business from Roller Derby

Posted January 5, 2016 By Anne Dougherty

Before I started ILLUME I started derby. I am convinced that if I did not go out on a limb to start skating (and to have the support and love of you get from the fresh meat process), I would not have had the heart to start my own company.

Me after my first bout. See that look of total bliss?

That said, after we launched ILLUME, I had to step back to get ILLUME off the ground. But now that I have an amazingly strong and talented team, I am skating again and I love it. Here’s what I learned along the way:

1. Women can do anything.

Derby is a volunteer-driven, women-led, and woman-affirming sport. Women organize the leagues. Women train each other. Women make the rules. Women built an empire that has it’s own governing association comprised of 329 leagues and 97 apprentice leagues (the current count in Women’s Flat Track Derby Association). Leagues can have as many as six teams comprised of women. The sport supports derby-specific skate shops and enterprises and has even inspired a men’s league and a dedicated fan base. If I ever doubted that I could start a woman-owned and led business, derby erased those doubts.

2. You will be terrified.

Is it terrifying to skate super fast and throw your body into other women? Yes. How about throwing yourself in to a woman twice your size? Or a woman who clearly wants to take you down? Absolutely terrifying. Skate against an amazing team? Join a scrimmage with veteran skaters as a newbie? So scary! But you do it anyway, because that’s what you’re there to do. Take on giants. There is always a bigger firm, a more established team. Who cares? You don’t start a business to shy away from competition. You start a business to become a player.

3. You will fall down, hard.

In derby, if you let your fear of falling get the best of you, you will never bout. Some women have to learn to skate (at all). Others, like me, had to learn to skate for real. And then you have to learn to fall on skates, defend yourself on skates, take and receive hits on skates, etc. You fall all the time. ALL THE TIME. And you forget about it instantly. You get up, you skate. If I took every lost proposal or work bid personally I would have quit in the first two months. You have to learn from you losses but you also have to just let it go. You have to stay focused and move on because it will happen again and again.

4. Focus on what you are doing, not others.

If you waste any time in derby worried about what other people are doing you will quickly lose faith in yourself. As a new business, there is no point in trying to deliver the same thing as well-established firms or worry about who is trying to beat you, play you, or undercut you. Like derby, you only get better if you focus on self-improvement and your own goals. Which leads to my next point.

5. You have to have heart.

Starting a business is not for the faint of heart. Nor is derby. This sh** is hard. There is no way around it. But you do it. Why? Because you want to be a part of something bigger. Because you want to challenge yourself. Because this life is short. You do it because you don’t feel alive unless your heart is in everything you do.

6. There is no should, only do.

There is no time for excuses in derby. You have to just do it. If you don’t practice, you won’t get better. If you don’t put the time in, you’ll get injured. The best skaters are not the naturally talented athletes. They are the most consistent athletes. Play derby long enough and you’ll see women who could barely stand in their skates because lead scorers for their teams. They show up. Every time. In business, you have to show up to be great.

7. You have to plan and commit to the plan.

Derby is demanding. Practices twice a week. League obligations and volunteer time. Playing derby and running a business requires my village. It requires careful planning and communication with my husband so we have clear parenting expectations and carefully divided responsibilities. It requires that everyone on my team at ILLUME is in front of, and owning, their work and responsibilities. It requires that I plan it all out. Conferences, work trips, practices, my daughter’s days off of school, girl scouts, soccer, vacations. I schedule out and work around my husband’s work trip – even my business partner’s work trips and vacations.

8. It takes a village.

Derby wouldn’t happen if people were only focused on their personal success. The derby empire has been built by women who watch each other’s kids on practice nights, who carpool, who pick up dues for others who can’t swing the payments in a given month. We all have to be cared for to do great things. Business is no different. At ILLUME, I need to have my team’s back and they need to have mine. We pull-in (to use Laura’s language) on other people’s projects when it is needed, we work late when it has to happen, and when things hit the fan for someone personally, or they simply need a break, we step up. You don’t ask questions, you just step up. This what it means to be a part of a village.

9. You will feel free.

I have always focused on excelling in response to other people’s expectations. But with derby, you have to let go of all of that. If you’re not having fun, it’s just too hard. It’s too much work. I realized quickly that if I didn’t laugh off my mistakes or relish the feeling of skating fast and hard (vs. worrying about how fast I am skating), I would trip up.

No one expects you to play derby. Just like no one expects a woman in her mid-30s with a great job to start a company in a male-dominated industry full of well-established firms. No one. But when you do it for your own reasons, you begin to feel limitless. You feel open and honest and vulnerable, and you’ll never feel more free. Like that peaceful state of bliss when you roller skate super fast and everything goes silent. You know that feeling? It’s like that.