What separates the true superstars from the middle of the pack? Raw talent plays a part, but other habits are more important.
With the Super Bowl mercifully over, I tracked down an elite group of former National Football League stars who went on to become successful entrepreneurs. Not only did they perform in a league of their own, they beat the odds when they left the field, especially given that nearly 80 percent of former NFL players wind up in serious financial trouble once their playing days end.
Here's what they learned on the field that can help you in business.
Learn From the Greats
Fran Tarkenton, 74, was the quarterback in three Super Bowls with the Minnesota Vikings in the 1970s, and later played for the New York Giants. After he retired, he ran fast-food franchises and founded several other businesses before starting a software firm called Knowledgeware Inc., which was acquired for $74 million in 1994. His latest venture, SmallBizClub, is an organization of entrepreneurs and small business owners.
Tarkenton said the secret to his success has been seeking out the best people to learn from. During the off-season, for example, he interned at The Coca-Cola Co. because he wanted to learn about marketing. "I talked to the other quarterbacks--Johnny Unitas, Bart Starr, Roger Staubach," he says. "I played in Pro Bowls with Tom Landry and Vince Lombardi, and I wore them out with questions. I've never had an original idea in my life."
Cornerback Ty Law, 39, won three Super Bowls with the New England Patriots in the early 2000s and later played with the New York Jets, the Kansas City Chiefs, and the Denver Broncos. When he retired in 2009, he was sure he wanted to become an entrepreneur and was even more confident he'd succeed. "I really wanted to build something on my own," he said.
After exploring several franchising opportunities, he decided against it and invested $750,000 of his own money to start Launch trampoline parks in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. Now Launch is expanding to Delaware.
Character Trumps All
Ryan Diem spent his entire 10-year NFL career as an offensive tackle with the Indianapolis Colts, which won the 2007 Super Bowl. After retiring, he went on to become an entrepreneur, serving as a director for CloudOne, an Indianapolis company that makes private clouds for IBM software. He was also an early investor in the company with Jeff Saturday, another former Colts player.
"One of the most important things I observed in my 11 years with the Colts was to surround yourself with good people," says Diem. "A group of people with great character makes it easy to build a winning culture, where everyone is focused and driven to succeed and to do it the right way."
Embrace Your Passion
Al "Bubba" Baker, a Pro Bowl defensive end for 12 years, says it took a long time to embrace the talent, and even physicality, that was crucial to his success. Part of the reason, he says, was that while football was his job, food--especially barbecue--was his passion.
"Tuesday was my off day [in the NFL] and I was always cooking," Baker recalls. "I was a baby in a family that was a barbecue family, and my mother was a working mother, so if you didn't cook, you starved."
When he retired, Baker operated a successful barbecue restaurant, then developed and patented a way to debone spare ribs. In an episode of "Shark Tank," Barker convinced Daymond John to take a 30 percent stake in his company for $300,000.
Matt Light played offensive tackle for the New England Patriots for a decade, including three Super Bowl championships and a Pro Bowl appearance. The whole time, he was focused on what he would do once he retired. That meant taking advantage of opportunities the NFL provides for players to study entrepreneurship at top U.S. business schools. "I've always been the guy that, the more I can get into, the more energy I get," he says.
Light invested in real estate and ran a youth camp during the off-season. Recently, he became a partner in Keel Vodka, a "premium light spirit" with the least calories of any vodka on the market.
Muhsin Muhammad played for 13 years with the Carolina Panthers and Chicago Bears before retiring in 2009. In his post-football life, he's been founder and managing director of Axum Capital Partners, which owns Wild Wing Cafe.
"When I was a young kid, my dad would get me up on Saturday mornings and run my tongue out," he says. In practice, "I was always the first on the field and the last one off. You have to take the same approach in business. When the office opens, I'm the first one there."
Muhammad, who goes by "Moose," raised at least $10 million from investors, according to SEC filings, and bought a controlling stake in the restaurant chain two years ago. "It's a really good regional chain, with 35 locations right now in seven different states," he says. "We're still growing, and we project to open between five and seven locations this year."
Tap Your Resources
While true entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled, it can nevertheless help to take advantage of resources when you have them. Case in point: Peyton Manning might have lost the Super Bowl, but owns 21 Papa John's pizza franchises in the Denver area, where sales are up 25 percent. By making appearances at stores and putting life-size cutouts of himself in them, he's helped the business grow with what employees call "the Peyton factor."
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