Entrepreneurship

The Correlation Between Successful Entrepreneurs and Endurance Athletes

Think back to statistics class and the concept of the correlation coefficient – this month we are exploring the R2 between successful entrepreneurs and successful endurance athletes. While hard core statistics show that the odds are against accomplishing either if “success” is measured by generating millions in an IPO or being a top finisher at Kona, I had the chance to interview 12 entrepreneurs who are very successful in their entrepreneurial pursuits and when you layer on top their endurance accomplishments, we would all agree they are simply amazing.

While we cannot conclude there is a scientific causal relationship between successful entrepreneurs and endurance athletes, there is no doubt that similar characteristics are embodied in both classes of individuals: discipline, extreme drive, and vision. “Successful entrepreneurs and athletes must have a vision – and the dedication and drive to make that vision a reality,” comments Ryan Wuerch, Chairman and CEO of Motricity, “As an entrepreneur and an athlete you face challenges and a level of intensity that sometimes seem too great to overcome, but in both cases, you push through.”

Bud Whitmeyer, General Partner of Research Triangle Ventures agrees,”Both classes of individuals need to have the ‘stick it out’ mentality.” Chef Sarig Agasi knows the recipe – he takes his time in the kitchen at Zely & Ritz named by Organic Style as one of the Top 20 Organic Restaurants in America, but not on the road. His best inventions, including special athlete menus, come to mind while training to break 3:00 in the next Boston Marathon.

Donna Jensen, former CEO of Startups.com in the bay area and now running Vibrant Ventures in Chapel Hill, believes the correlation between entrepreneurship and endurance sports is “a good, healthy supply of ‘endorphins’…the most successful entrepreneurs have high-energy levels and tremendous stamina probably due to the powerful effect of endorphins.” She adds that she does not know of any entrepreneurs on steroids! Jensen always loved to run and when she shut down Startups.com in 2002, she signed up for her first marathon and “discovered that euphoric feeling again at about mile 10 and was hooked.” She discovered that she was not alone. “While training, I came across numerous other dot.com CEO casualties who were also training for a marathon or triathlon. We laughed it off saying it was better than hitting the booze, but I think we all knew that we missed the energy and excitement of it all.” So, endurance sports are also a perfect fit for entrepreneurs between ventures.

This also rang true for me – in 2001, after I completed my one year cross country tour of duty integrating OpenSite Technologies here in Durham with Siebel Systems out in San Mateo, I started to train for my first marathon with Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training, and now am a trustee and board member where our mission is to eradicate blood related cancers.

Austin entrepreneur Kevin Przybocki, co-founder of Anue Systems, makes a profound statement that I have also observed from the behavior of my bay area, Boston, and RTP entrepreneurial colleagues — “It’s not for the fame, money or health benefits. There are plenty of other ways to make money and to get in shape. For these activities it has more to do with challenging oneself, reaching goals, and achieving things that are personally satisfying. In both cases, it is a way of life, and a mind set, rather than an event. ‘It’s in your blood’ to be an entrepreneur or an endurance athlete.”

David Motsinger, CTO of StrikeIron, describes his entrepreneurial goals as not focused first on money but “to succeed in creating value that helps others, helps myself and allows me to learn something new. If in the process I can score a financial win, then that is good too.”

Pete Durand, CEO of Integrian echoes Przybocki’s ‘blood’ sentiment when he states his entrepreneurial goal – “build a great company, have a successful exit, do it again.” All the entrepreneurial athletes I interviewed, like me, don’t stop – we are all energizer bunnies.

Bryan Bergeron, President of Archetype Technologies, who serves on the medical advisory board of Cary startup Virtual Heroes, and on the faculty of the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences Technology program adds this important note — “Endurance sports require the ability to work alone as well as within a group.” Team work certainly is critical at successful ventures and where would Lance be without the strategic peloton drafting of the Discovery Channel Team? Cohesion of teammates can make or break a successful finish.

Individually, entrepreneurial startups and endurance sports each take a large investment of time.

Together, does one get hurt by the other? When asked if endurance pursuits hinder or promote his entrepreneurial endeavors, Ryan Wuerch commented, “My physical training has positively influenced my entrepreneurial endeavors by creating in me a confidence, energy, and discipline far stronger than what they were before I began training.”

Several entrepreneurs mention what Whitmeyer believes – that he has “less downtime due to illness” and is more productive. Przybocki believes that his endurance pursuits motivate his staff – when he started riding his bike to work, it encouraged other people to ride as well (either for commuting or otherwise), creating a healthier workplace.

Wuerch is leading several athletes from his company to form “Team Motricity” for the LA Triathlon- just a few days before one of their industry’s largest trade shows, to be held in LA. “I think that the excitement and camaraderie generated by the triathlon will be a great start for the show.”

While endurance pursuits certainly demand time away from entrepreneurial endeavors, Bergeron believes there is a symbiotic ‘momentum’ effect between the two which more than makes up for the time ‘lost’ and therefore makes him more effective and efficient overall.

Henry Kaestner, Co-founder and CEO of Bandwidth.com, whose Co-founder, Chairman, and President, David Morken competed in Kona last year, states for him there is just the right balance, “While I’m fortunate to work and train with a phenomenal endurance athlete, I’m not at the level where work would hold back my ambitions for mega stardom..I just don’t have that opportunity and therefore I don’t have that tension. I find that a long bike ride can release pent up stress that comes with being the final point of escalation for business challenges.”

What are the endurance pursuits of these 12 star entrepreneurs? Whitmeyer enjoys masters cycling competition and will participate in the Hilly Hellacious Hundred in Asheville. In addition to several triathlons, Wuerch plans on running the NYC marathon and has set a goal to participate in an ironman in 2008. Durand builds endurance through long bike races of 125 miles. Keith Boswell, Vice President of Marketing at rPath, has included his family down to his 7 year old who has his first kids triathlon at UNC. This makes his time management easier because he can train for triathlons with his wife and kids. Boswell is aiming for Pinehurst Olympic Triathlon, Inside Out Sports half marathon this fall, and the White Lake Half Ironman in May 2007.

Kaestner states, “I have some unfinished business left at the Blood, Sweat, and Gears Century…illusions of grandeur caused me to be near the front of the ride during the first part, only to bonk significantly after only 20 miles…I’d like to improve next time.” Morken has on his plate Assault on Mt. Mitchell (100 miles and several thousand feet of climbing), Duke Liver Half Ironman, and Blue Ridge Brutal (another 100 mile + sufferfest with about 14,000 feet of climbing). He states, “I actually enjoy the high intensity and duration of these sports, and one of the benefits is higher energy and efficiency at work.”

Interesting training for busy business travelers include Bergeron’s running of stairs every other day for 90 minutes – “all you need is an iPod and a stairwell in a high-rise.” He comments that this is great training for the Double Dipsea adventure race in Sausalito.

How long do these entrepreneurs hope to pursue endurance sports and which will last longer? Bergeron praises a 90-year man, a former Boston Marathoner, who he sees on his step run in Boston. “He doesn’t run the steps anymore, but he carries a backpack filled with weights…I hope to follow in his footsteps”… I think he means literally! While some think their bodies will give out before their brains and others hope to pursue their endurance activities even more often when their entrepreneurism streaks end, still others are like Wuerch who says “I plan on being active and being an entrepreneur the rest of my life.”

Agasi who started racing in marathons when he turned 41 recounts, “My mom had just been diagnosed with cancer and that made me decide I needed to change my lifestyle to not only cook and eat healthy but also to start acting and being healthy…I was literally running for my life.”

Morken, who started his first company in middle school and started triathlons while in the United States Marine Corp a decade ago, precisely states, “I expect both pursuits to die with me simultaneously.” Not a surprising response from the first overall finisher from North Carolina in the 2005 Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii.

There you have it – the spirited drive in entrepreneurs who attack endurance sports with passion. From this snapshot of 12 successful entrepreneurs and strong endurance athletes, I would say there is a definite correlation between the two drivers. I commend you and wish you all the best in both your ventures and races!

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