Entrepreneurs don’t usually look to professional or Olympic athletes for the playbook on success. But they should: World-class athletes go from start-up to succession in a highly compressed period of time, compete against the world’s best in their category and develop the skills and traits it takes to succeed at every stage of their sports life cycle. Sound familiar?
As I’ve watched the Olympics in Pyeongchang this week, an athelete I know, Kate Ziegler, has been top of mind. She’s a mentee of mine. More to the point, she’s a world champion swimmer and two-time Olympian.
She’s won 15 medals in major international forums, like the World Aquatics and Pan Pacific events. She went to Beijing for the 2008 Summer Olympics (but didn’t qualify for the finals), then actually competed in the 800-meter freestyle in London, in 2012, as a member of the U.S. Olympics team.
Given all the competition she’s seen — and she’s only 29 — she’s a good role model for aspiring entrepreneurs and growth-stage companies.
I met Kate when she was interning for an ad agency in Knoxille and I’ve mentored her ever since, as she’s made her way from professional athlete, to MBA graduate, to budding entrepreneur. Along the way, I’ve been struck by the similarities between what takes to be an Olympic athlete and what it takes to be a great entrepreneur. In fact, you can learn a lot from someone like Kate, who has spent over half her life pushing water aside.
Develop the desire.
“Believe it or not, I swam laps in our baby pool in Great Falls, VA, when I was 2 and 3 years old,” Kate told me in a recent interview. “I loved the feeling of freedom that swimming gave me, even then. I only wanted to join the local swim team because I thought their swimsuit, and the colored ribbons, were cool. But I was a bit terrified to swim around other kids.
“So, my mom made me a deal: I could get the fancy swimsuit, but I had to join the team and stick with it for one season.”
Lesson: Your heart knows what you love. And you know what that is because it gives you the feeling of weightlessness and freedom. Still, you usually need a kick in the rear (or a mom dangling the fashionista carrot) to help you overcome the fear of getting started. I hear and see this all the time, as a business advisor and mentor. in Knoxville, and Sacramento.
Feed your passion.
Does passion foreshadow success, or does success breed passion? Whether you’re operating in the world of hyper- competitive Olympic sports, or artificial intelligence or even cold-brewed coffee, it doesn’t matter. You’re not going to be around long if passion and success don’t feed each other and propel you forward.
“My passion for swimming really developed when I was 13 and I qualified for U.S. Nationals and medaled at my first World Cup,” Kate told me. “I quit basketball and softball to focus exclusively on swimming. I took a bit of an unconventional approach and joined The Fish swim club, which was a small local swim team, not a swim factory. I’m glad I did, because Ray Benecki spent the time with me to not only be a great coach but my mentor from there on.”
Lesson: Getting a trophy just for showing up isn’t going to cut it. Mediocre results will drain, not fuel, the passion you feel for your craft. And it’s certainly not going to drive you to shatter, as Kate did, a world record — in this case, Janet Evans’s 19-year old world record in the 1500-meter freestyle — by 10 seconds! Passion, mentoring and the rewards of early success are the interlocked trifecta you need for breaking world records — and sales goals.
Be a disrupter.
“Early on, I was more of a sprinter than a distance swimmer,” Kate continued. “So, when Ray asked me to focus on the 1500, I really struggled. That is, until we took an entirely different approach to distance swimming.”
That approach? “I sprinted,” she said. “I started fast, gaining a large lead and then held on, whereas the conventional wisdom was to win the back half of the pool rather than going out fast. People thought I was crazy. But it worked, and I became the top 1500-meter freestyle swimmer in the world.”
Lesson: In order to make your mark as an entrepreneur or growth-stage company, you’re going to have to do things differently, like sprinting in a distance race, in order to get noticed and win. The effort is not always going to be comfortable.
But with the nerve to disrupt the status quo, along with dedication, discipline and good coaching, you’ll have a much better chance of reaching the gold-medal podium.
Bounce back from the inevitable setback.
There are all kinds of stories out there about resiliency after a setback. But, how about breaking both feet when you’re on the way to becoming a world-class swimmer?
“It was literally a freak accident,” Kate told me. “I jumped into 7 feet of water during warm-ups at a local meet, and hit just right — or wrong! — and broke both feet. I was out for two-and-a-half months with a cast on one foot and a walking boot on the other.
“But I only missed two practices, one of those being a Sunday. It gave me the opportunity to work on my upper body strength, endurance and mental game. In hindsight, it was one of the best things that happened to me.” Kate then went on to her career pinnacle, including winning the U.S. Nationals in the 1500-meter freestyle, double gold medals in the 800- and 1500-meter freestyle at the World Championships, surpassing Evans’s record, and participating in two Olympics.
Lesson: Bad things will unexpectedly happen to you as a start-up or growth-stage company, personally and professionally. You can have the victim mentality and shrink from the center stage you’ve worked so hard to achieve. Or, you can say, “screw it,” and use the setback to bounce back even stronger by turning weaknesses into strengths and using those new-found skills to reach new heights.
Know when to call it a day.
Here’s the awful truth; Many, entrepreneurs, like professional athletes, don’t have an exit strategy or realize when their day has come. Entrepreneurs are great at starting and building businesses, but not sustaining or growing them long-term.
“That requires a different skillset and mentality. “When you’re on top, you think it will go on forever; you’re young, invincible and winning,” Kate said. “I had two exits from professional swimming, the last one being at the 2016 Rio Olympic Trials, when I realized I was no longer the best swimmer in the pool, and I wanted to take on a new challenge.”
Ziegler has since gone onto to get her MBA and contribute as a public speaker; she’s now evaluating several start-up opportunities. In typical Kate fashion, she is using her world-champion mentality, humility, dedication and drive to be happy and successful as . . . Kate Ziegler, the person and budding entrepreneur, not just Kate Ziegler, a two-time Olympian, World Champion and 15-time medalist.
Lesson: While there are exceptions, entrepreneurs’ time frame at success is often short and sweet, just like the compressed time frame of an Olympic athlete. For the good of the company, you’ve worked so hard to master your skill, but you know when to let others jump into the deep end and when to leave to find other ponds to swim in.
Soon, you’ll rediscover the freedom, desire, passion and resiliency that brought you your original success, even if that new discovery means doing something just because you “like the colors.”