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If you’ve written off athletes as “dumb jocks” who aren’t cut out for the pressure of owning a business, you might be surprised to know that there are plenty of athletic entrepreneurs, and that their athletic prowess lends itself quite favorably to success in the business world. Meet five athletes who have taken the skills and focus they’ve developed through years of athletic competition to up their entrepreneurial game.
Jaime Van Wye is, literally, a born athlete. She’s the daughter of Los Angeles Laker and Basketball Hall of Famer Gail Goodrich, and an accomplished athlete who is a former assistant rowing coach at UCLA. Her athletic involvement doesn’t end with humans. She’s also a dog trainer and the founder and CEO of Zoom Room, a facility dedicated to dog and puppy training ranging from agility skill development to standard obedience.
While training dogs, Van Wye noticed that many of her canine “students” lacked focus and a proper outlet for their energy. Out of frustration, they’d become disruptive, and destructive. As an athlete, Van Wye could identify with the dogs’ plight.
“Just like people, dogs benefit from exercise, and getting them out and playing and focusing on skill development does a lot for them,” Van Wye said. Unfortunately, the only dog agility facility near Van Wye (who is based in Los Angeles) had a six-month wait list. Realizing a need for more options, she founded Zoom Room, the only bricks-and-mortar dog training franchise in America, and the first dog agility franchise in the world.
As a former coach, Van Wye has found many connections between her athletic past and entrepreneurial present.
“I think successful athletes are used to working really hard, and expect that success only comes with hard work. They persevere through difficulties, and sometimes can think laterally to solve problems that might stump others. Plus, owning your own business, like participating in high-level sports, is pretty consuming. Certainly, I’ve had nights where the exhaustion level of being an entrepreneur reminded me of my time as a college athlete,” she said.
As a martial arts enthusiast, certified scuba diver, runner and cyclist, Steve Greenbaum pushes himself to the limits on a daily basis. But he’s not just a passionate athlete. Greenbaum is the CEO of PostNet, a neighborhood business center that offers design, print, copy and shipping services and focuses on assisting small-business owners in fulfilling business needs. His relentless passion has driven him to grow PostNet to more than 700 franchise locations worldwide.
While Greenbaum acknowledged the similarities of athletics and business in regards to commitment, discipline and time required, he recognized that athletic entrepreneurs are faced with an additional challenge in adapting to business-specific knowledge.
“Between sales, marketing, finance , operations, human relations and technology, you have to be in a constant state of learning and growing as a businessperson and executive,” he said.
Greenbaum also advised entrepreneurial athletes who may be accustomed to success to be prepared for the challenges and pitfalls that come with running a business. Additionally, he stressed that just as is true in athletics, effective leadership is key in building a successful business venture.
Alex Roberts knows how to build a successful team. He was a Chicago Blackhawks draft pick in 1989, and spent eleven years coaching professional hockey teams before becoming president of ProTect Painters, one of the country’s largest painting and decorating providers. His shift into the business world was fueled by a need for a family-friendly lifestyle ; coaching involved constant travel, evening and weekend commitments. Nevertheless, he is thankful for that experience, recognizing that it allows him to relate to new franchise owners who seek more flexibility and control than a traditional corporate career working for someone else offers.
Roberts says hockey was a valuable outlet for honing his business acumen, largely in helping him understand the value of morale as it relates to success. He explained that while he has been associated with winning teams and losing teams in sports, the one main area that separates winning teams from the rest of the pack is a "championship culture."
"Everyone is pulling in the same direction. Everyone cares for each other like they were members of their family. Everyone knows the vision and goals and is communicated to so there is no guesswork on what is expected," he said.
Roberts admitted that the transition from hockey rink to boardroom hasn’t been completely seamless, particularly when business calls for a political and sensitive approach
“I’m not able to drop my gloves in the corporate world and duke it out when I get frustrated. I’ve had to learn to be more patient with others and understand that not everybody is wired the same as the elite athletes I was accustomed to dealing with,” Roberts said.
Billy Van Heusen, former kicker and wide receiver for the Denver Broncos, has already succeeded in the health and fitness arena. Therefore, when he sought a business opportunity that he and his son could open together, the Max Muscle Sports Nutrition franchise in Denver seemed like a perfect fit.
Van Heusen said he felt comfortable going into a sports nutrition business because living a healthy lifestyle is something that he is committed to each day. Besides focusing his business efforts in an arena he knows plenty about it, he has found quite a bit of crossover between sports and business.
“The discipline required to be a successful athlete is carried over into being a successful business person. As an athlete, you set goals for yourself, and then you go about the task of achieving those goals. Basically, you are talking about the same things in business. Although business is a somewhat fluid environment, you have to stick to the basics in order to stay focused,” he said.
Van Heusen sees competition as a healthy component to building a business, noting that it will drive a business owner to work longer and harder to achieve success.
“My success or failure in sports depended on how I performed athletically, not how I interacted with the fans, or customers," he said. Obviously, our customers are the ones who make our stores successful. Taking care of them and providing the best service possible is what makes us successful.”
Brad Ludden has been kayaking since the age of nine, and turned his passion into a profession at the age of 17. He has kayaked in more than 40 countries, and was named one of the top 10 adventure athletes in the world by Outside Magazine.
After witnessing the challenges that accompany illness when his aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer, Ludden started volunteering at local cancer programs, teaching children how to kayak. Energized by his charitable work, he founded First Descents, an organization that provides free weeklong kayak and outdoor adventures to young adults (ages 18-39) with cancer. Since founding the program in 2001, First Descents has hosted 55 weeks all over the country, and expanded programs to include mountaineering, rock climbing, whitewater kayaking and surfing. In 2011, First Descents will host 28 weeks in eight states and two countries.
While Ludden is a natural talent in the water, his success at an early age took him from a “traditional” educational path, which has presented a learning curve in business.
"I never attended college nor did I study any business, so this has been a crash course. As an athlete, I was a one-man team, whereas now I'm learning to work with people,” Ludden said.
He encouraged athletes of any sporting background to continually pursue new accomplishments, even after their “prime” in athletics has passed.
“They say every athlete dies two deaths, but I disagree,” Ludden said. “If you search for opportunities presented by your career as an athlete, you can find an incredible transition into a new life that is as or more fulfilling. Just follow the passion that led you to your sport and know when to move on to the next thing.”