Stay in the Pocket

Imagine you’re a quarterback. The center snaps the ball to you. Look up. Take three steps back. Two defenders are coming through the line, one on each side.


What do you do next?

Everything in your body tells you to run, escape. You want to get out of the pocket.

But the right move is to stay in the pocket. Stop, look, and throw as fast as possible. Even if it means getting hit.

Success in startups requires you to stay in the pocket too.

In 2010, I was a 21-year-old founder & CEO, launching Avomeen straight out of the University of Michigan. I felt like a college QB going pro.

Being CEO is like being QB1:

  1. Too much credit for wins.
  2. Too much blame for losses.
  3. Success = staying in the pocket.

My first two years were like a blur. Everything was read and react, daily decisions with millions of dollars of impact.

We grew fast, but I was always looking downfield for another big play.

When I saw it, I scrambled to start Labdoor. We tried every play in the book to fundraise, build our brand, and grow.

I cold emailed hundreds of investors to get the first ~30 angels to fund our seed round.

One time I was so desperate to get a meeting with a famous angel investor that when she offered me a last-minute meeting (provided I could pick her up from another meeting), I rented a car for an hour just to pitch her. (She didn’t invest.)

YC taught me how to stay in the pocket.

Y Combinator is famous for some crazy moves their startups have made to survive. My favorite is the 1,000 Obama O’s and Cap’n McCains cereal boxes sold by Airbnb to fund their early development.

But YC’s real strength is keeping founders focused in the moment. Public companies traditionally track quarterly and annual metrics; YC forces their founders to focus on daily and weekly growth.

My mindset changed once Labdoor got into YC’s Winter 2015 class. I needed their weekly coaching to get comfortable in the pocket as a founder & CEO.

In startups, there are always so many fires burning that you have to learn to ignore the distant flames and fight what’s in front of you. YC partners helped us figure out which fire was closest (almost always the lack of customers) and face our challenges head-on.

I learned to stop worrying about the end result and focus on what I needed to do each moment to give my team the best chance to win. The score takes care of itself.

Now when I’m fundraising as a founder or VC, I can easily get into a zone where I’m doing 10+ meetings a week, knowing that there will be 8-9 nos. I just stay in the pocket and line up for the next play, knowing that 1+ yes a week is all I need to successfully fundraise.

Success in life requires you to stay in the pocket.

I love that this theme was featured in American Underdog, the biopic about Kurt Warner:

This is a key scene in the movie American Underdog (2021) where Kurt Warner (played by Zachary Levi) learns to stay in the pocket.

This movie emphasized to me how important it is to stay in the pocket in all aspects of life.

I grew up watching Kurt Warner as a kid born and raised in St. Louis and was always inspired by his journey from undrafted free agent to Super Bowl MVP.

Kurt’s personal story is what really shows his perseverance. After going undrafted, he worked nights at a Hy-Vee grocery store for $5.50 an hour so he could watch their kids during the day while his now wife Brenda went to nursing school. For Kurt and Brenda and their now seven kids to have made it this far is a testament to their faith and patience.

In his Hall of Fame speech, Kurt Warner summed up his career by focusing on the small things:

“For those who have witnessed my career from the outside, you will undoubtedly use the milestones – Super Bowls, MVPs and, of course, tonight – as the defining moments of my career. But if there’s one thing this process has revealed, it’s that those pinnacle accomplishments on the field were simply byproducts of the moments that made the foundation of the man who stands here this evening.

Kurt Warner learned to stay in the pocket, first in life and then in football. If you like motivational stories, check out American Underdog. (Don’t worry if you’re not a football fan – this movie is really more about Kurt the person and his early struggles and life.)

Thanks Kurt and YC for teaching me this valuable life lesson!

My brother Samir and me meeting Kurt Warner at St. Louis Rams training camp in 2001.
Me presenting Labdoor at Y Combinator’s Winter 2015 Demo Day.

Published by Neil Thanedar

Neil Thanedar is an entrepreneur, investor, scientist, altruist, and author. He is the founder & GP of Utopic, a pre-seed biotech VC fund investing in the future of science. He is also the founder & chairman of Air to All, a 501(c)3 nonprofit medical device startup, and Labdoor, a consumer watchdog with $7M+ in funding and 20M+ users. He previously co-founded Avomeen Analytical Services, a product development and testing lab acquired for $30M+ in 2016. He has also served as Executive Director of The Detroit Partnership and Senior Advisor to his father Shri Thanedar in his campaigns for Governor, State Representative, and US Congress in Michigan.