This Tech Exec’s Secret To Life And Career Success? Kitesurfing

By Stephan Dietrich, June 30, 2017

Standing on a strapless board and clinging to an enormous kite, catching the wind as it propels you across the waves at high speed, you’re struck with feelings of awe. Adrenaline pumps through your veins as you contend with one of nature’s most powerful elements.

I first learned to paraglide growing up near the French Alps, but I got into kitesurfing—the airborne sport’s water-based equivalent—after moving to Paris. I’ve kept up my passion for it ever since; it’s the one hobby that’s tracked my career at every turn. I started building a tech company called Neolane in 2001, just as France’s tech boom faltered, but we made it through. As a cofounder, I took the business from a private, pre-revenue B2B marketing-tech startup to a profitable, scalable business, and eventually sold it to Adobe for $600 million in 2013. I’m still with Adobe now, having tripled the size of the business with a growth rate of over 40%.

Had I not been a kitesurfer, I’m not sure I’d have been able to navigate those highs and lows half as successfully as I did. The risk and focus it takes to master kitesurfing have followed me to shore, first as an entrepreneur and now as an exec at a large company. But ironically enough, the landless sport has also kept me grounded.


Taking Risks Under Harsh Conditions

Kitesurfing is all about skillfully maneuvering the board and kite through waves and winds—which means continuously adjusting to variables you can’t control. It’s unavoidable that your kite will crash. When it does, you’re caught in 75-foot lines with 10-foot waves pounding your head. You can drown alarmingly quickly.

Like anyone else, I’ve also found that taking risks can be terrifying. Quitting a longtime career, investing capital with no promise of return, and trusting that others will see the value of your idea—these are no easy challenges to weather. But kitesurfing has taught me how to keep risk in perspective. If you don’t believe in yourself, why should anyone else? To build a successful business, you need a realistic and constantly updated perspective on your odds. Without that, you can’t convince anybody else that you know what you’re doing.

One period in particular where kitesurfing helped me in my work was in the early 2000s, when France was plagued with harsh economic conditions. The aftermath of the tech crash hit my company hard. We ran out of funding and were in a bad place with our investors due to a poor valuation. To survive, we were forced to cut the salaries of our 20-person team by 25%. Fortunately, 95% of our staff stuck with us. Nearly every kitesurfer has faced near-death experiences while struggling to survive a wipeout in a massive current. Sometimes you’re forced to swim half a mile with your equipment to make it ashore. If you panic, you’re finished.

It’s no different in the startup world. Every decision carries some level of risk—and some of them don’t pay off. Maybe your push into a new market or territory fails. Or maybe you’re trying to launch your kite higher into the air than ever before, but a mistake sends you crashing. Either way, it’s all about picking yourself up and learning what went wrong—a habit I learned early on the waves.

Staying Focused When That’s Hardest

When kitesurfing, I’m relentlessly focused. I can’t afford to let my mind wander or lose concentration for a split second. In a world beset by what often feels like unavoidable multitasking, don’t underestimate the power of deep concentration. That’s when your best ideas will come, and you’ll be amazed at the precision and fervor with which you’ll accomplish your work.

Entrepreneurs wear many hats and can be easily distracted, which can lead to lackluster strategies and stunted execution. Focus takes practice. But over time, I’ve gotten better at choosing the projects and tasks that need my total concentration, then pouring all my focus into those. Prioritize, delegate, and eliminate distractions.

Take, for example, my company’s expansion into the U.S. The country is huge geographically, the markets are massive, and the scale is vast compared with our limited startup resources. Being laser-focused meant picking a geography, vertical, market segment, and use-case, and nailing it. We started with a narrow focus, then widened our scope and scaled progressively as we built on one success after the other. I’ve learned how to stay focused this way through kitesurfing; survival mechanisms always apply—whether it’s literally keeping your head above water or preserving cash.

Leaving Work At The Office

Having a job that you’re passionate about and consumes all of your energy is exhilarating. But disconnecting from work and pursuing your passion can make all the difference. I know I wouldn’t be happy if I weren’t able to balance my professional career with the sport I love. The two aren’t totally separate from one another, though—I think of them as connected. I strive to feel that rush of kitesurfing in all that I do.

Disconnecting from the physical world and indulging your inner self is something everybody needs to do in order to thrive, not just entrepreneurs and athletes. You don’t need to be a tech founder or a kitesurfer to realize that when you’re healthy in body and mind, your work and business can stay in balance, too. Kitesurfing has helped me keep this in mind without losing sight of how important it is to do things with passion.

Staying grounded—even when it means hitting the waves—can actually be exhilarating.

Stephan Dietrich is VP of Adobe Campaign.

This tech entrepreneur, now at Adobe, says his passion for kitesurfing has helped him stay focused and (ironically enough) grounded.

Standing on a strapless board and clinging to an enormous kite, catching the wind as it propels you across the waves at high speed, you’re struck with feelings of awe. Adrenaline pumps through your veins as you contend with one of nature’s most powerful elements.


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