What Does Building a Start-up Have in Common with Completing an Ironman?

Starting your own business isn’t a sprint. It’s not even a marathon. It’s an Ironman– where mind, body and will are tested to the extreme. I know because I have had the chance to do both – at the same time – and am still living to tell about it.

In May 2013, after graduating from SMU’s Cox School of Business Executive MBA program, I set out on two adventures. The first was a business dream: to fix healthcare economics (not easy!). The second was an athletic goal: complete an Ironman (not easy either!). Twelve months later, Opargo was launched and I had finished my first 70.3 and full Ironman.

Here’s what I learned from both:


A large hill to climb

There are a hundred moving parts involved in considering and executing a start-up business: defining and developing a product or service, identifying a target audience, securing financing, creating a team, launching a marketing program, to name only a few. Each requires time, dedication, strategy and decision-making.

The same is true of an Ironman, which I often call “one really long day” – swimming the open waters for 2.4 miles, cycling 112 miles, followed by running a marathon (26.2 miles). Not only are all stages grueling, but different skills and challenges are unique to all three.


Planning precedes performance

It’s not enough to know all the ingredients that constitute a successful business. That’s actually the easy part. The real challenge is mapping out how it’s going to be done, when it’s going to be done, why it’s going to be done and by whom will it be done. At Opargo, my business partners, my team, and I had to spend as much time devising a business plan as we did in executing it.

Completing an Ironman also requires a specific and well-formed game plan. Without the help of a training program that gave me daily, specific and measurable practices, and a diet and rest regime that kept me properly fueled and rested, my hopes of becoming an Ironman would have sunk at the first swimming stage. My plan gave me focus, direction, and specificity.

Hope is not a strategy. As such, if I failed to plan for either my start-up or Ironman, I would have been planning to fail.


It’s lonely out there

Though Opargo had me and my co-founders, it was truly built and realized by an army of programmers, employees, and contractors. A support network of advisors, friends, and seemingly everyone else in between assisted it. But in some ways, my Opargo journey was very solitary, filled with self-examination, second-guessing, and even doubt. I often felt that my task was as large as setting out to discover a new world, with the weight of this one on my back.

Ironman training is no different. Along single six-hour rides, in empty pools at 4 a.m., and running through the flat Texas darkness, I often asked myself the most profound of questions, most notably, “Are you nuts? What in the world are you doing?” Sure, I had coaches, peers, my wife, and other family to encourage and advise me along the way (as well as a lot of praying!), but this was my individual endeavor, in which I alone was responsible for the input and would be judged by the outcome.


It doesn’t always go to plan

Even with all the work and preparation, the unexpected often happens. In business, a product launch gets delayed, a customer going live doesn’t go exactly as planned, etc. But in all of this, you need to have the perseverance and ability to get over these bumps and get through.

The Ironman (for me at least) was really similar. All was going to plan and I was about to hit my goal time until two-thirds of the way through the run I bent over and partially tore my hamstring. That was incredibly painful both mentally and physically. But getting through those last 8 miles of the run (which really ended up as a walk!) was what needed to be done to finish the goal.

All in all, not only have my start-up and Ironman experiences been two of the more challenging adventures I’ve recently experienced, they’ve also been very rewarding. Starting with an idea and building a successful business, and transforming my body and mind into the greatest physical and mental shape of my life demanded things of me I never knew I could accomplish. But through planning, determination and a fantastic support group, it was possible.

Posted in: Start-up