Guest columns

3 startup lessons you can learn from this Texas Olympian turned entrepreneur

Whether it's in the gym or the boardroom, the ability to pick yourself up after a failure is key to success, as this former Olympian learned. Getty Images

I've hit rock bottom more times than I can count. As a gymnast, I overcame injuries that would have ended many other athletes' careers — only to watch my Olympic dreams slip out of reach. As a businessman, I built a successful startup — and then lost it all.

The main thing I've learned? Setbacks can be productive if you're willing to learn from them. Today, as I lead a successful company, I constantly inform my decision-making with the lessons I learned as an athlete and entrepreneur.

Three of those lessons can help everyone — both in the gym and in the boardroom.

First, never give up.

When I was 12, I trained under gymnastics coach Ralph Reeves, the toughest coach I ever had. I would spend hours perfecting my craft — getting up on the pommel horse as I tried not to look down at my cracked and bloodied hands. Upon finishing each routine, Coach Reeves would utter one word: "Again."

Not, "Nice work, how about one more?" or, "Can you do another?" Just, "Again." And so I would get back up on the pommel horse — again.

As the Junior Olympic Games, the pinnacle of high school gymnastics, approached during my junior year, it looked like my hard work was about to pay off. Then, I blew out my knee and tore my ACL, MCL, and meniscus while training. Refusing to let my injury determine my fate, I went on to win my first national championship.

Next, I headed to the University of Oklahoma to learn from legendary gymnastics coach — Paul Ziert. While my high school coach gave me my discipline, Paul gave me my style. My teammate Bart Conner taught me the true meaning of "first one in last one out." He led by example, encouraging the entire team to practice extra hours. His ability to inspire without uttering a single word stayed with me.

I eventually graduated from the University of Oklahoma as a five-time All-American and NCAA champion with a spot on the Olympic roster. But due to President Jimmy Carter's boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, I never got a chance to participate.

I was devastated, but I picked myself up — again — and transitioned to the business world. More setbacks awaited.

Second, forgive others.

In the mid-1980s, I started my first company. But before I knew it, the relationship I had with my business partner had soured and I found myself broke, divorced, and living in a tiny apartment on a loan from my ex-father-in-law.

That episode would have been enough for a logical person to never open another business — to never trust anyone again.

Call me illogical. After this incident, I went on to build and sell multiple successful companies. I say this not to brag, but merely to prove my bona fides to other entrepreneurs who are just starting out and facing their own challenges.

It's crucial to forgive your colleagues, your subordinates, even yourself. I didn't dwell on losing my Olympic dreams; I moved on to compete as a businessman. And I didn't vow revenge on my ex-partner, I forgave him.

In fact, if I ran into him on the street, I'd thank him for teaching me the greatest lesson of my life. The day I stopped hating my ex-partner was the first day I felt joy again.

Finally, trust, but verified.

As an athlete, I had to trust and listen to my body, my doctors, my coaches and trainers to overcome my injuries. After my experiences, I've learned to pay very close attention to what people are saying — and more importantly, what they aren't saying — in the boardroom. Reading body language and getting to know people before you do business with them is just as important as studying their qualifications on paper.

Today, as I lead a business, I spend countless hours strategizing for and planning out my board meetings. Sometimes my preparation lasts three times as long as the actually meeting. But as I learned throughout my athletic experience, preparation is the best way to ensure success.


If you're an entrepreneur, you will eventually experience a business setback. It's inevitable. But the next time you do — pause, make a game plan, and think to yourself, "again."

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Michael Wilson is the CEO of Healthcare Highways.

The music industry has adapted to the digital age — so should financial securities. Getty Images

One of my favorite movies growing up was Empire Records. It was the mid-1990s, and the closest we got to Instagram feeds was who had the best mixtapes. If you're not familiar with Empire Records (or what a mixtape is), I recommend watching the movie, but you don't have to worry too much about mixtapes any more.

Since Empire Records was released in 1995, the way we purchase and consume music has fundamentally changed. The physical music store was displaced by iTunes, and then the music industry evolved even further into a streaming economy. It took 24 years, but music evolved and it now operates in a fundamentally different way. Digitization of music was initially viewed as an existential threat to the industry, but in the end, music was digitized globally and the music industry very much survived.

The music industry has evolved and adapted to the digital age. The same happened across countless other industries, including financial services. Today we can invest in publicly traded stocks through a mobile app for free. However, a critical segment of capital markets has not evolved yet. The private securities space.

Transactions in private securities are still done on paper (no, DocuSign does not count as securities digitization.) Administrative costs are kept high due to the amount of paper that is processed and pushed through this system. As long as the foundation of private securities is paper, there is no amount of administrative technology out there to create an efficient market.

Public markets took the plunge into digital long before music did, and digitization of public markets enabled exponential growth globally. Trading volume, access to capital, and liquidity have all increased, and a large part of that can be attributed to the efficient and transparent nature of most public exchanges.

Efficient markets rely on price transparency and information equality. Currently, the private securities markets do not offer either of these characteristics. This is nothing new to people in the alternatives space, but how to reach these lofty goals, to create liquidity and reduce costs, is what I am excited about.

The reduction of cost does not relate only to commissions. There are administrative costs associated with private securities. Information distribution is slow and unilateral, forcing investors to depend on antiquated systems in order to track their investments. Nearly all of these costs are absorbed by the investor, and most efforts to date have not helped address the core issue, analog private security transactions.

Digitization of private securities is fundamentally different than tokenization. Tokenized securities are considered bearer securities. A digitized security, on the other hand, maintains its original status as a registered security, as long as its digitization is implemented in a manner that fits current regulatory requirements. Until recently, that had not been possible in a scalable way. Blockchain changed all of that.

Initial attempts at utilizing blockchain for private markets applied tokenization. Essentially, this configuration took securities that had clearly defined ownership records, anonymized them and put them on a public blockchain such as Ethereum. While there are some benefits to this approach, it also opened doors to significant fraud and securities regulation violations. Tokenization may provide liquidity, but the long-term risk far outweighs the value of liquidity for any prudent investor.

Blockchain does provide a framework that supports compliant digitization of private investments, it's simply not tokenization. The solution lies in using private permissioned blockchains that allow an appropriate degree of technical security while also ensuring transparency and accountability.

Blockchain enables us to maintain a statement of record that is both compliant, and scalable. Across the financial services industry, and across most other industries, blockchain is being deployed to help solve problems that were previously unmanageable. The blockchain is even helping farmers track their crops through IBM's blockchain. iownit has integrated blockchain at the core of our technology, proving that compliant digitization of private securities is possible and scalable.

The United States has a free market economy, so in the end, winners are determined by the market. It is our belief that the digitization of private securities is the responsible way to help this industry evolve. If you're still skeptical, just look at how the public securities markets have evolved since the '70s when electronic stock trading was enabled and the first digital public security trade was placed. Now try and imagine how private security markets will look in four years.

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Yosef Levenstein is the head of marketing at iownit, a Houston-based financial technology firm that is democratizing how investors and private companies transact.