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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.

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Building Houston

 
 

This week's innovators to know include Richard Seline of ResilientH20, Adrianne Stone of Capital Factory, and Ethan Saadia of Wayt. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: All three of this week's Houston innovators to know started something new amid a global pandemic — a new job at a Texas-wide accelerator, a new app to help shops and businesses safely serve customers, and a new resilience-focused hub that launched just in time for hurricane season.

Richard Seline, managing director of ResilientH20

Richard Seline of ResilientH2O Partners explains how he's helping foster new hurricane and flood prevention technologies in the Bayou City. Photo courtesy of ResilientH20

Following Hurricane Harvey, Richard Seline saw several emerging startups focusing on flood tech. Meanwhile, he saw insurance companies very interested in finding new technologies in the same space. But, these two entities were not talking.

"It's two different languages," Seline says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "There's a whole language and a whole mindset within the insurance industry that is not real well known."

Seline, managing director of ResilientH20, along with the Insurance Information Institute and The Cannon, has launched the Gulf Coast & Southwest Resilience Innovation Hub to foster this type of technology and bring insuratech startups and the big insurance players to the table. Stream the podcast and read more.

Adrianne Stone, venture associate for Capital Factory

Adrianne Stone has joined Capital Factory's Houston operations as the company prioritizes digital startup interaction. Photo courtesy of Capital Factory

After spending a year and a half in Silicon Valley on the products team for 23andme, Adrianne Stone is back in Houston, filling the venture associate role for Capital Factory. Stone got her Ph.D from Baylor College of Medicine and replaces Brittany Barreto, another BCM Ph.D who left the position to pursue a new venture.

"The mindset in Silicon Valley is different from how it is here in Texas — in good ways and bad ways. It was interesting to be exposed to a very potent startup vibe," Stone tells InnovationMap. "I'm looking forward to being able to meet all the cool companies, founders, and investors we have here in the Houston area." Read more.

Ethan Saadia, app developer and creator of Wayt

Ethan Saadia, a 17-year-old high school student, created an app to improve the user experience of shopping during a pandemic. Photo courtesy of Wayt

Like most of the world, Ethan Saadia has seen small, local businesses suffer from the social distancing mandates amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Saadia, a rising high school senior, wanted to do something to help.

He created Wayt, a smartphone app that provides businesses and their customers with a platform to communicate making curbside pickup, booking appointments, and even join a virtual line. Ultimately, Wayt has a great opportunity to help businesses — even outside of a pandemic

"From my perspective and experiences from my friends and family," says Saadia, "curbside pickup and virtual lines are definitely here to stay because even before the pandemic, popular places used to have long lines and that presented many new challenges. The pandemic is just accelerating technological change that will make our lives easier." Read more.

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