How to punch above your weight – Iceland-style

Lewis Ashman
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Supporters cheer on the Iceland team atop four enormous hands

Few things bring people together like an underdog story. Amid the glittering stars, the controversial refereeing decisions, and the fierce, country-sized emotions of the first week of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, there is a story of inspiring overachievement. A humble, dedicated and spectacularly successful team are introducing themselves to soccer’s elite in some style. Iceland, a tiny Nordic island of just 350,000-odd people, have already condemned the world’s greatest footballer, Lionel Messi – and the entire population of much-favored Argentina – to a disappointing opening match. Beyond their abilities with the ball, they are giving a masterclass in how to punch above your weight.

Let’s take a look at how footballing glory can be a template for success in growing your business, and how Iceland have taught us crucial lessons in making the most of what you’ve got.

Iceland: from epic fail to roaring success

The Iceland football team, having qualified for the FIFA World Cup for the first time ever, fresh off the back of giant-killings at the 2016 European Championships, may be just the most visible part of the country’s miraculous recent revival.

In fact, their success on the pitch since 2016 has drawn belated attention toward some of Iceland’s big achievements.

Life has never been easy in the windswept North Atlantic, but the crash of 2008 hit Iceland even harder than most. Faced with catastrophe, they confounded orthodoxy and let the banking sector fail. But, after years of hardship and criticism, they have emerged in healthy economic shape.

A tweet from one of Iceland's players in the subject of Iceland's population being small

We wish this tweet made sense

Icelanders have always been experts in mastering tough conditions. But while anyone would be able to point out seriously inclement weather and the occasional volcano as major hazards, few realize that Iceland also leads the way in tackling teenage drug addiction and alcoholism. Since the 1990s, the ‘Youth in Iceland’ policy dramatically improved teenagers health and wellbeing by replacing bad habits with healthy ones.

And – yes, you guessed it – they are also pioneers in renewable and green energy, too. Since 2015, (almost) all electricity consumed in Iceland comes from renewable sources. So when so many people tuned in to watch Iceland’s first World Cup match last week, the environmental impact was probably pretty negligible.

Now let’s look at four steps we can all take to emulate Iceland’s miraculous overachievement.

Step 1: Creating a community

It may hardly seem necessary to create a sense of community and togetherness in a country of such modest size. But Iceland’s football team have demonstrated just how valuable this can be – regardless of how small the audience is.

Much has been made of the team’s manager, Heimir Hallgrímsson, also being a part-time dentist. The fact he still occasionally treats patients in his local community no doubt strengthens the feeling of common purpose and egalitarianism between the players and coaching staff, and ultimately among their rapidly growing fanbase.

(In fact, some of the players aren’t solely dedicated to football either. When not saving Messi’s penalty kicks, their goalkeeper, Hannes Thór Halldórsson, is a filmmaker.)

But that’s not the only thing that keeps Hallgrímsson connected to the team’s roots. Beginning in 2012 before a friendly match against the Faroe Islands, he held an exclusive, private meeting with fans in a bar near the national stadium, where he explained the team’s tactical approach.

Over the next four years, this pre-match ritual grew from an audience of 15 to one of 400, each attendee hanging on his every word – and, in the process, creating a legend.

Those meetings were the beginning of a profound connection between the team and its fans, culminating in the signature ‘thunderclap’ crowd celebration, now a viral sensation.

Harnessing a powerful sense of togetherness and community can be extremely valuable for your business, too. Creating a loyal, dedicated audience can be the start of building something truly global. Take Airbnb’s early attempts to engage with hosts as ‘Exhibit A.’

When no one knew what Airbnb was, hosts were few and far between – and guests a rarity. This meant founders building personal relationships with a small group of early adopters. Something that would become unthinkable once the business expanded across the world to where it is today.

But this focus on the individual user made that subsequent growth possible, and taught the company important lessons about how to keep innovating.

Everyone has to start small. But if you build a strong core audience at the heart of your business, then you’ll give yourself a powerful platform for future growth.

Step 2: Investing in the basics

Iceland’s footballing success appears to have come from nowhere, but was in fact carefully premeditated. It was only after England lost to the plucky underdogs in 2016 that they realized that Iceland’s investments in football coaching and youth development were smarter and more effective than their own.

Investing in the future is a no-brainer for most businesses, but the priority this is given can vary. Obviously, having the right funding in place is crucial. But having the courage to invest in the right places before you have achieved success is a must.

This doesn’t just mean hardware – we all enjoy using the best gadgets and state-of-the-art equipment. It means people, too.

Founders are, of course, crucial to the success of a small business. We can hardly imagine the fortunes of Facebook without Mark Zuckerberg or Apple without Steve Jobs, for example. But even these guys achieved what they did working closely with others.

Every startup and small business needs to invest time and money in selecting the right candidates for each and every position. The smaller you are, the more important this is.

And it fundamentally boils down to two things: skills and culture. Every recruiter should ask themselves (and the candidate) not just whether they have the right ability, but whether they will fit in and become an integral part of the team. This handy guide by Willy Braun contains a lot of wisdom on the subject.

Step 3: Loving what you do

Having “passion” for what you do can be as much of a cliché in football as it is in business. But that doesn’t mean we can take it for granted.

The dedication and commitment of the Iceland football team are evident when they take to the field. This is so often a deciding factor in matches, and can, when harnessed, make up for a lack of skill or technique with the ball.

“Passion” is not something you can switch on and off, which is why it can be the difference in soccer. It’s something you have to foster and develop.

As we’ve seen, investing in the right people is a crucial step, as is building a sense of community – both externally, with your audience, and internally, between the people who make up your team.

But the work doesn’t stop there. To make people feel valued and genuinely part of a meaningful collective, a company needs to go that extra mile – doing something unexpected, or something that might not seem like a big deal to some, but that means the world to others.

Dropbox’s ‘cupcake policy’ is a case in point. Renowned for the sense of community and satisfaction felt by its employees, Dropbox even went so far as to deliver cupcakes to new hires – more than just an unexpected treat, it was a symbol the company used to communicate the friendliness and sense of fun they thought was a core value of their brand.

The Dropbox Cupcake

One of Dropbox’s official brand values

Step 4: Working as a team

Despite all the attention heaped on football’s mega-star millionaires, any self-respecting pundit will remind you that it’s a team game.

And so it is with life. Where would any of us be without the help of others? (You don’t even want to know what the first draft of this blog post looked like.)

This fact was all too clear when Iceland faced off against Argentina at the World Cup. Gylfi Sigurðsson is by far the most talented (and expensive) player in the Iceland team. The same goes for Lionel Messi and Argentina. But while Sigurðsson contributed effectively to the collective, it seemed at times like Messi was supposed to win the match for Argentina all on his own. And he didn’t.

A larger than life Messi tied down by many little Iceland players

It’s all about the collective

Everything we’ve covered so far shows us the way to where Iceland were at the end of that game: a happy (and successful) team.

You’ve built your community. Invested in the right people and the right kit. You’ve even given everyone cupcakes. Now it’s time to put it all together and work toward a common goal.

Undoubtedly, good communication is at the heart of good collaboration. The Iceland team don’t just all – obviously – speak the same (crazy and ancient) language, they grew up playing with each other and developed their skills side-by-side (and, of course, face-to-face).

At Slack, good communication is the backbone – and very definition – of their success in building a successful team. Their three company mantras (Work Hard and Go Home; Speak with Purpose and Speak Well; Empathy is Key) have helped them enjoy rapid growth and build a product which reflects what the company believes in.

Iceland and Goliath

Here’s where the comparison ends.

While most companies dream of getting bigger, and eventually one day being the big fish in the little pond, Iceland isn’t about to start scaling its population and running away with the World Cup year after year.

But in getting to where they are now, they’ve at least been able to play David to a few Goliaths.

And they’ve taught us some very sound lessons in how to achieve serious success with limited resources and bright ideas.

Do you agree that business can learn from a thing or two from the world of sport? Let me know in the comments box below, and I’ll get back to you (just right after this match…).

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