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What the intense world of ski-cross taught me about running a business

While my years of working for Google honed my commercial and strategic mindset, it was my tenure as a ski-cross competitor that arguably contributed the most to running my own business.
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I was born in Norway to a family of skiers. They say Norwegians are born with skis on their feet, which my clan had firmly taken to heart – my dad was a Norwegian champion in cross country, while my brother performed in the Junior Olympics in the US. Even then, who would have thought I’d land in the world of ski-cross?

As soon as I was old enough to stand, I had planks strapped to my feet and would hurtle headlong down the mountain. At the age of 11, my family upped sticks and moved to Switzerland – and before long I’d joined the ski team of Verbier, as the first non-Swiss on the team.

While my affinity for the slopes started out with competing in Big Air and Big Mountain competitions, I somehow managed to end up moving into ski-cross.

For the uninitiated, ski-cross requires competitors to go head-to-head over an intense downhill run strewn with jumps. Broken bones and head injuries are a pretty regular occurrence during races.

While I went on to come third in the Swiss National Championships, the legacy of my time doing the most intense – not to mention foolhardy – form of skiing extends beyond this accolade and still resonates with what I’m doing as chief executive of InMyBag.

For one, it takes some pretty serious single-mindedness to stand at the top of a slope at the start of the Swiss Nationals, cut out the sound of spectators and concentrate on the task at hand. A second-long lapse of concentration could be the hairline difference between victory and serious injury.

Running a company requires a similar singularity of focus. The insuretech space, where InMyBag sits, is growing so rapidly that it’s terribly easy to move beyond your core offering.

We wanted to start a business that offered a practically instantaneous – well, by the industry’s standards – gadget replacement service for professionals and SMEs that can ill-afford to wait over 24 hours to get vital tech replaced. By focusing on this speedy replacement for lost or stolen items, our USP is clear and there’s no risk of dilution or mixing us up with other players in the industry.

Ski-cross also requires mastering adaptability – on the mountain, conditions can change in a heartbeat and circumstances around a race can swiftly evolve.

Gustav Holst Stuge came third in Swiss National Championships

Gustav Holst Stuge came third in the Swiss National Championships

The more I think about it, the more I realise that overall small businesses are similarly unpredictable. No matter how strong your business plan is, you can face headwinds from the likes of cashflow problems, regulatory changes and spiralling red tape. Agility and a responsiveness to unforeseen issues are vital.

Similarly, in my former life working in Google’s fintech team, I was able to benefit from the humility I learned as a skier.

Nothing is more levelling than speeding down a slope at 70 MPH, knowing that a wrong move could land you in serious trouble. This teaches you that no matter your skill, you are ultimately at the behest of the mountain and a healthy dose of luck.

In business, understanding this is key. Helping to grow small businesses is about realising that little companies have everything to take from the big players – this will become more and more evident over the next few months as the Open Banking initiative opens up a treasure trove of customer data to fintech companies, helping them to take bites out of the banks.

While I don’t plan on returning to the break-neck speeds of competitive ski-cross in the imminent future, running a business provides its own fair share of adrenaline rushes.

Gustav Holst Stuge is CEO of premium insurer InMyBag

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