Saturday, March 26, 2011

Triathlon Season Is Here... But For Businesses It Never Left

Recently I had the pleasure of welcoming Bernie Borges of Find and Convert to Free Webinar Wednesdays as our guest to talk about ways to leverage social networking to enhance job and career development. I've been a fan of Bernie's for a long time and have most of his podcasts downloaded to iTunes and have taken him on training runs/rides over the years in my iPod. So, as you can image, it was a joy to actually be able to talk "with" him during our webinar session and actually hear him talk back!

One thing that I thought was pretty ironic (and he had no idea when he put together his slides for the session) was that he made the comparison to how training for a triathlon was synonymous to the type of dedication one must undertake to be successful in taking charge of their career. He didn't pull any punches and this recommendation was front and center on slide #2 and helped to set the stage for the rest of his discussion. The triathlete in me couldn't wait to hear more!

Regardless of whether you are a self-employed entrepreneur, someone that has a job but is "looking" to make a change or completely happy with your employer - chances are you are always looking for ways to improve. This reminded me of my 70.3 mile triathlon that I did last year at Cedar Point with my good friend Shayne. Call it a mid-life crisis, but I figured turning 40 deserved a "big" event to celebrate, so I set my sights on a "half-iron" distance triathlon. Not only was the experience one I'll never forget, each of the points that Bernie shared in his session rang true with me both as a triathlete and as a business owner. So, while I may be paraphrasing Bernie's words a bit, here are some of the ways the discipline of training for a triathlon can help shape your success in business.

Set Written Goals
For my Cedar Point event, I knew based on prior shorter distance triathlons that I wanted to break 6 hours. That was my goal, I wrote it down and when I was training that number was front and center in my mind. But, to get to that goal, I had to create smaller, more realistic goals when I started training early in the season. In April I wasn't prepared to go out and break 6 hours for 70.3 miles, but each week worth of training had smaller goals that related to laps swam, miles run/rode, target heart rate, etc. These little steps led up to the bigger goal and I accomplished my goal and came across the line in September under my 6 hour goal!

I did this same thing when I decided to leave my job as a community banker and knew what sort of goals I needed to achieve to be successful running my own business. Just like my end goal of sub-6 hours for my triathlon, I have a desired goal for my business but to expect that to happen immediately after leaving my job at the bank (which I had for 15 years) was unrealistic. However, I have set goals that relate to sales, speaking engagements and other strategies that all lead up to my end goal of being a successful business. Good news is, that's working too!

Get a Coach
As someone that had spent their time mostly behind the bars of a bicycle (road or mountain), I knew that in order to be successful in a triathlon I'd need people to help me along the way. I had run in the past, but not very fast. And, as for swimming... we'll let's just say that I spent more time on my WaveRunner playing ON the water than exercising IN it. Fortunately a good friend of mine who is competing in the 2011 RAAM had done several triathlons (successfully), offered to give me some tips, which was great. Additionally, one of my customers (The Studio Path) in Kalamazoo also helped me put together a plan and get improve my running (and flexibility). I also had several others that offered assistance along the way, so you could say that I was fortunate to have several coaches for my event.

When I made the decision to leave my banking job, before making the announcement I reached out to a few successful business owners that I knew and also sought their advice. I considered them (and still do) my business coaches and their advice on what to do (and not to do) was invaluable in my transition from a steady paycheck to the world of entrepreneurship. In both cases, I was glad to have great coaches in my corner to help me along the way.

Accountability Partner
They say "misery loves company". While I don't want to give you the impression that my event was (all) misery, the reality is that you can easily get off track and lose focus when training for an event like a 70.3 mile triathlon. That's why I'm so glad that I had my good friend Shayne to help me along the way. While he lives in Ohio and I'm here in Michigan, it's easy to keep in touch and share successes along the way to keep motivated. I'm not sure about him, but I can say it would have been much more difficult to remain dedicated to the event had I been doing it alone and not had him right there with me (in spirit) knowing that both of us would be lining up at the starting line together. Find someone that will keep you motivated to "train" with and that will make a world of difference.

That goes for business too. Many times in the start of my business I had moments of "panic" wondering if I did the right thing. The good news was I had a close friend that quickly joined me in the self-employed world and we leaned on each other quite a bit. I considered him (and still do) my business training partner and today Jeff and I get to work together every week on Free Webinar Wednesdays and talk quite often, sharing successes and keeping each other motivated.

Join Clubs
Surrounding yourself with people of like interests and motivation can make a big difference in your ability to keep going, even when there are times when you think about quitting. I ride for Team Active Racing out of Battle Creek and my teammates are great at keeping me motivated, and many also will go out and run with me as well. You learn things from others (and can also share what you know), which makes for a great "community" type experience and being part of something "bigger" is also a pretty cool feeling.

When it comes to business, I also have relied on several "clubs" along the way. I'm a proud supporter of my local Chamber of Commerce, belonged to BNI for networking early on in my efforts and also belong to the two state banking associations in Michigan since that's where a lot of  my customers (and potential customers) are. There are many others as well, but each of them provides me with opportunities to learn and share information, making both sides of the relationship better in the long run.

Develop a Routine
Every Wednesday in the summer at 6:30 I'm rolling out with 15 or more other cyclists on our group ride from Team Active in Battle Creek. Tuesdays and Thursdays were run nights and the weekend involved at least one swim and either a long ride or run. Of course, there were other workouts that I worked in as time permitted, but there were some non-negotiable items on my calendar that I committed myself to. This was my routine and having one in place helped me keep other items in priority and not interfering with my training efforts (because that was a priority). I can tell you from experience that if you just try to "wing it" you will get distracted and will never get as much done as if you follow a routine. Believe me, that was one of the big reasons I finished under 6 hours (because I made the time to make it happen).

That same can be said for business, especially when you are running your own business. That dreaded ADD (and some would say that I suffer from HD-ADD, "high definition attention deficit disorder") will kick in faster than you think if you don't have some sort of a routine that you follow on a regular basis. I have to give my wife full credit here (and commend her patience with me). She "retired" from a very successful 20+ year career in sales to help grow the business and one of the reasons that she was so successful is because of the routines that she created for herself in the process. She knew when to make sales calls, when to work on proposals, when to work on projects, etc... I have to admit, it makes me a bit jealous that she's able to stay so focused on things, but taking her advice I've been able to create my own routine that has helped to keep me on track. Granted, when she reads this (love you, honey), she'll probably be rolling her eyes, but the fact is that a routine is very important to keeping you on track and making sure that the important things get done.

Work on Your Technique
I mentioned earlier that I didn't have much experience with swimming, so I knew that was going to be the biggest area to improve upon. Not only is good technique helpful to being efficient in the water, the reality is that you can actually drown if you do it really poorly. With either running or cycling you can stop, your feet are on the ground and you're safe. In the water, that's not always an option, so it may be an over dramatization to say it's a matter of "life and death", but you get the picture. It took me time to get comfortable with the stoke, pulling through the water, kicking, breathing, how to hold my head, rotating my hips, etc... You can see, there's a lot to it and at first I was terrible. Someone watching me probably wondered what all the splashing was about, but over time practicing all of these elements helped. But, the important part to note here is that I didn't try to master all of them at the same time. There would be days in the pool when I'd just focus on my stroke and hand position in the water. Other days would be devoted to my kick and using my legs or maybe breathing on the left side (I'm a right-side breather). But, it was important to get comfortable with one element and then move on, otherwise you'll get frustrated and give up.

When you own your own business there are a LOT of things that you are now responsible for doing yourself. The first year while my wife was still working for someone else, I did it all. That meant sales, project work, marketing, accounting, billing, accounts receivable, etc... There were things that I didn't do very well (just like swimming). I loved sales and talking to people (just like I loved cycling), plus I was good at it. However I had to focus on some of the items that made me uncomfortable or I was not going to be a very good business person. That meant I had to get better at the accounting and paperwork or, just like in a triathlon, I was going to sink to the bottom of the lake. Not good! So, practice your technique in all your disciplines and you'll be better for it in the long run.

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In addition to my coaches, teammates and training partner, I also checked online for tips and information about triathlons that would make me better. I found great information about swimming workouts, tips for a faster transition and other helpful information that made me better. With the Internet there's really no excuse for not taking the time to research your chosen area of focus and learning more. It's right there, just go get it!

I regularly use RSS feeds to blogs, newsletters, podcasts and webinars to consume information about my industry. A someone that deals with the Internet, things move quickly (sometimes almost too quickly), so it's important to have ways to stay educated and keep informed with what's new. One of the best tools that I have for this now is my iPad, which makes it possible to take volumes of information with you, wherever you are. As someone that spends a bit of time on planes traveling to speaking engagements, the iPad (and other iPod devices) make it easy to read, listen and watch helpful information at any time. I've got an RSS reader on my mobile phone, so even standing in line at the grocery store I can quickly catch up on my articles and you just never know when you'll be learning about the next big thing that will help you with your next customer or land the next deal.

Make a Commitment
As Nike says "Just Do It!" Sounds simple, but executing this strategy is tougher than you think. One of the tricks that I discovered years ago was making my end goal more than just about "me". For example, I've been doing events like this to help raise money to fight child cancer, so not only do I want to complete the event personally, but I've likely had people support me with their donation(s) over the year and know that I owe it to them to also finish what I've started. I started using Endomondo, a feature on my mobile phone that tracks and then publishes my workouts to Facebook, to further help increase the "peer pressure" and keep people informed of my training efforts. The encouragement I get from others when that 30-mile ride goes out to my friends on Facebook is a great way to keep me committed to my goal of not only completing the event, but raising money for a great cause in the process. I'm proud to say that I've helped to raise over $20,000 over the past several years and completed some great events in the process!

When I left my job in banking, I knew that too was a big commitment to myself and my family (I've got a wife and two doggies counting on me!). "Failure is not an option" was one of the sayings that kept playing in the back of my head and I knew I was going to do whatever it took to make it happen. There are days when I'm up to 3 am working on things for my customers, but if that's what it takes then I've decided that's the commitment I must make. I've built a great group of people around me that provide the support I need to stay motivated and have been able to embrace all of the elements listed above to help further increase my chances of success. I've found that the more you are doing right, the easier it is to stay committed to your goal(s). If you're having problems, chances are there may be opportunities to improve in one of the key "triathlon tactics" above.

So, what do you think? Ready to go out and sign up for a triathlon yet? Ok, maybe not... but what do you want to accomplish today, this week, this month, this year or even in your lifetime? Following these "triathlon" principles certainly can't hurt your efforts! Good luck with your training...

~Eric
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