What Entrepreneurs Can Learn from Olympians


As the world gathers in London for the summer Olympics, we all marvel at the feats they are able to accomplish. Just by making their respective teams and participating, they already are winners. Those who win medals have truly accomplished something marvelous.

Olympians are inspiring. They are supremely driven and dedicate their lives to pursuing their goals. They are great role models for all Americans, particularly small business owners. Olympic athletes have the same qualities that are important for entrepreneurial success.

Perseverance -- NBC's coverage of the Olympics will undoubtedly present stories of athletes overcoming tremendous odds to reach the pinnacle of their sports. For instance, American gymnast Danell Leyva’s parents brought him to the U.S. from Cuba when he was a baby, while his teammate John Orozco started competing thanks to a program geared towards opening up the sport to the economically disadvantaged.  Orozco, who grew up in the Bronx, traveled 30 miles daily to a train in upscale Chappaqua, which also is the home to former President Bill Clinton.

Entrepreneurs also frequently conquer significant challenges. Many of them come to the U.S. from other counties and surmount language barriers and prejudice. Nisha Khanna was denied funding by numerous banks before she found the money to purchase her Sweet & Sassy franchise in 2009. Further, small business owners can benefit from programs designed to assist immigrants and minorities. For instance, the SBA's 8(a) Business Development Program helps small disadvantaged businesses compete by providing access to federal contracts.

Dedication -- Michael Phelps famously trained at least 5-7 hours per day, seven days a week for many years. Hundreds of athletes leave their homes and their families to train full-time at the U.S. Olympic Training facility in Colorado Springs, CO. Their entire being is dedicated to the pursuit of their Olympic aspirations.

Similarly, entrepreneurs make great personal sacrifices in pursuit of their goals. Owners of startup companies typically work 10 or more hours a day and often do not take days off. They frequently put their families and their social lives on the backburner in chasing their dreams.

Investment -- Training for the Olympics is not cheap. Superstar athletes such as Michael Phelps, LeBron James, and Serena Williams do not need financial support. However, competitors in sports such as shot put, kayaking, and wrestling have minimal sponsorships and sacrifice potential earnings in the business world as they pursue their athletic endeavors.

Entrepreneurs often forgo higher paying jobs as they commit to launching their own businesses. Thomas DeGeest, founder of Wafels & Dinges, gave up a six-figure job with IBM to become a pioneer among New York's gourmet food trucks. Small business owners put their own money into their enterprises, frequently pay themselves little salary, and often reinvest whatever money they make back into the company. It may take several years for a firm to reach the break-even point and longer to start making a significant profit. Just like athletes, many small business owners fail, never reaching their dreams of success, while others strike it rich and become famous.

Speed and Flexibility -- Being successful in an Olympic sport requires a great deal of speed and flexibility.  Gymnasts need to build up speed in order to do flips and vaults. Divers, such as David Boudia, need flexibility to contort their bodies in mid air. We all watch runners and swimmers get loose in order to go faster. They never want to tighten up.

Entrepreneurs must learn to quickly seize upon business opportunities. Gaining a competitive advantage and being first to market with a product of service is crucial to early success. Additionally, they must be flexible. Things are not always going to work out the way they are originally designed to. Small business owners cannot be rigid, they must be flexible enough to handle obstacles that arise in the course of action.

Leadership -- Olympic teams have faith in their abilities and aspire others to achieve greatness. The Olympics have no shortage of great leaders, including Coach Mike Krzyzewski, who heads the 2012 Team USA Basketball, and Bob Bowman, whose long-term planning guided Michael Phelps to superstardom.

"Successful coaches must first build trust with their athletes. When athletes have faith in their leaders, they can accomplish things as a team that they might never have thought possible. Having strong leaders is an important part of success in the Olympics, just as it is in business," said Jed Hughes, vice chair and global sports practice leader for executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry, a long-time football coach and expert in developing sports and business leaders.

Optimism -- Even underdogs, exhibit optimism and supreme confidence in their abilities. Soccer gold medal favorite Spain was shocked by Japan 1-0 to start the 2012 London Olympic tournament. In Athens, the 1996 U.S. women's gymnastics team stunned the heavily favored Russians and Romanians to win the team gold. Greco-Roman wrestler Rulon Gardner shocked the world in 2000 by upsetting Aleksandr Karelin, who had won gold at the previous three Olympics and still is considered the greatest wrestler in history. The story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team was voted the greatest sporting moment of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated.

Entrepreneurs are inherently optimistic people; if they weren't, they would most likely be sitting behind a desk and working for someone else. One year ago, Barry O'Donovan, owner of Kilkenny House Pub in Cranford, NJ, saw his enterprise devastated by flooding from Hurricane Irene. Against great odds, he believed  that he could get his restaurant up and running in six weeks. Buoyed by friends and supporters, was able to secure an SBA Disaster Loan and reopen by mid October. For his recovery efforts, O'Donovan was given the national Phoenix Award by the SBA.

Olympic champions and small business owners dedicate their lives to making their dreams come true. Their sacrifices and success inspire others. Their will to win, combined with the opportunities that are available in the United States, bring them to heights they otherwise might not reach. We laud their effort, sympathize with their failures and, of course, revel in their success.

This opinion column was written by Rohit Arora, co-founder and CEO of Biz2Credit, an online resource that connects small business owners with 1,100+ lenders, credit rating agencies, and service providers such as CPAs and attorneys via its Internet platform. Since 2007, Biz2Credit has secured more than $600 million in funding for thousands of small businesses across the U.S.