Going for Gold: Small Business Lessons From Olympians-Turned Entrepreneurs

Jennifer Friedman

As vice president of Wolters Kluwer’s BizFilings, Jennifer Friedman is responsible for growing revenue through brand, digital and direct marketing. BizFilings is a leader in online incorporation services for small businesses. Over the past twenty years, BizFilings has incorporated hundreds of thousands of businesses.

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The journey to Rio for the 2016 Olympic Games is a winding one for top athletes — and a familiar path to anybody who has launched a business. Rigorous training, long hours and lots of sacrifices all are in the mix as athletes devote their lives to achieving Olympic gold. Once their competitive athletic years are over (and sometimes even before), some Olympians move on to achieve another kind of success. As entrepreneurs, these former athletes build successful companies by drawing on the lessons they learned from years of devotion to their sports.

Want the startup equivalent of Olympic gold? Follow these four lessons from Olympic athletes:

It takes hard work

Achieving a spot on the podium and launching a successful business both take long, grueling hours of commitment.

In fact, after 20 years of Olympic training and five years as a business owner, Steve Mesler writes that entrepreneurship is “just as challenging, scary, exciting and rewarding as going for the gold on a daily basis.” He should know. Mesler is co-founder of the nonprofit education organization Classroom Champions, which pairs athlete mentors with teachers and students, and a three-time U.S. Olympian, who won gold in 2010 in the four-man bobsled.

Consider Olympic swimmer Josh Davis, who won three gold and two silver medals. As he built his popular swim clinics, he was out of town each weekend, leaving his wife home with their five kids. The hard work paid off. Today, Davis’ USA Swim Clinics have conducted more than 1,000 programs across the country, touching thousands of swimmers, including some who went on to win Olympic medals themselves.

It takes passion

To spend years training for a sport, you have to love it. You also better be passionate about your business if it’s something you want to grow. That’s exactly the lesson Debbie McCormick followed, turning her lifelong love into a thriving business.

A three-time Olympian and world champion in the sport of curling, McCormick needed to create a flexible job that allowed her time for competition. She developed a relationship with Goldline Curling Supplies, a top curling equipment and apparel supplier, and launched Goldline Mobile Pro Shop, a curling store that now travels to sports clubs and events.

“It fits me, it fits my lifestyle, I enjoy people and I love curling,” McCormick said in 2014. “Besides competing, there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.”


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It takes a strong start

A sleepless night. A poor breakfast. Sniffles. For most of us, these little annoyances are hardly catastrophic. For world-class athletes, they can make all the difference between first and last place.

To achieve as an athlete and a business owner, you need to start strong, and stay strong. That means creating an airtight business plan and looking after your cash flow from the day you open shop.

Explore your business insurance options and make incorporation one of your first milestones. Incorporation separates your personal holdings from business assets and qualifies you for some loans and government programs. Your customers also may require it. In many cases, clients will only do business with formal business entities.

It takes a team

Winning athletes get to stand on the podium, but a cadre of coaches and supporters helped get them there. “My teammates and coaches really created an environment that let me express myself my own way,” soccer superstar and two-time Olympic gold medalist Mia Hamm told Forbes recently.

Swimmer Michael Phelps, who prior to the 2016 Summer Olympics, has won 22 Olympic medals, summed up the importance of finding the right leader in the foreword to his longtime coach’s new book, “The Golden Rules: 10 Steps to World-Class Excellence in Your Life and Work.” Phelps wrote that Bob Bowman isn’t just a master at coaching swimmers, “He is someone who can take people with a passion and show them how far they can go with it.”

The same is true in business. Having a strong team can mean the difference between success and failure for a company.

Whatever your goal is —  an Olympic medal or that first big sale  — you’ll need more than dreams to get you there. Athletes know this, and successful entrepreneurs understand it, too.

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