When I started my company 13 years ago, money was tight. Every penny counted, in terms of both the company's funds and my own. Any expense that could be avoided was. I was working 13 hours days and weekends, too. About four months in, a friend who had invested some seed money in the company called to check on me and find out how things were going.
As I finished telling him about all the tasks we were working hard on for the company, he surprisingly asked, "And what are you doing for exercise?" I thought he was crazy--exercise was not something I had time or money for, and I told him as much. He argued with me and told me that taking care of myself was essential to the health of my company and he urged me to find a physical outlet, even if it was just a few times a week.
His idea turned out to be one of the most important pieces of advice I heard on my entrepreneurial path. So when you are deciding how to allocate your start-up dollars, no matter how meager they are, make sure you include exercise funds. I did, and it changed my business--and my leadership of it--three different times in monumental ways.
In the early days of building my company, I was struggling with getting us past start-up roadblocks that could easily have put my business under--money ran out sooner than expected, orders came in that we lacked financing for, and we were sued by a former employer to try to put us out of business before we even got out of the gate.
As someone who has always been a fighter, I dug my heels in and refused to back off. But it was truly when I forced myself to go to a 6 A.M. boxing lesson twice a week (despite my misgivings about spending the money) that I learned the skills I needed in order to make it through rounds against even the toughest opposition, both in and out of the ring.
Boxing taught me it was not just important to stand my ground and punch hard, but also to be fast on my feet and stealthy in my approach. As I donned my gloves and practiced pivoting and resetting, using light shots to unbalance my opponents before coming in with the real force, and deflecting blows to come out stable and unscathed, I was not only changing my body, but also my mind. I channeled my aggression and frustration into the ring, and exited each round with well-thought out strategies that would allow us to gain market shares fast, to creatively finance in order to survive, and even to issue a TKO to the former employer trying to shut us down.
Had I not gone to the gym, my business would have gone to the grave.
Stroke, breathe, stroke
As my business grew and made it through the first five years, I gave up boxing due to an injury and began to swim instead. At first it annoyed me, because it seemed so passive, but I began to look forward to those solitary and repetitive laps where the distractions of the world around were muted by the sound of my hands and feet as they rhythmically cut through the water. In the pool, my 20 laps grew into 40 as I learned how to better regulate my breath and keep a solid cadence with my kicks and strokes.
On dry land, I brought that same sense of control and tempo to my company's challenges. When cash flow became difficult because of some unforeseen obstacles, I didn't thrash about like someone about to drown--instead I remembered to look for the opportunity to pull ahead by methodically focusing on the long game, finding every chance I could for us to get back on track, whether through sales pushes, asking vendors for additional support, or just insisting that there be an order to everything we did.
Swimming taught me to shut out the unnecessary noise and to remain clear about where exactly the finish line was and the pace needed to get my company there in every race. We didn't worry about our competitors, we just kept reaching and pulling, staying in our lane, and ultimately swam our way to clear waters. Swimming was never something I was passionate about, but without the lessons it afforded me, my business would have been pulled down by the undertow.
2 more, 1 more, hold it
The latest iteration of my exercise was to work with a personal trainer. I wasn't interested in sculpting my muscles, but rather in developing core strength, so I could make it into the later years of my life with a sound body, that could withstand the test of time. Again, both my company and I have been richly rewarded.
The trainer I worked with made me see that having a healthy organism is not about power-lifting, but rather about fortifying your structure one part at a time. He made me think about my intent, visualize the motions I would need to go towards it, and then, only when I was in the right position did I actually make my move. This process of taking the time to gather information, reflect on it, and put into play the correct internal elements before actually doing anything changed the way I lead my business as well.
It made me find better and more constructive ways to speak with my business partner. It made me opt to hire more staff earlier than I would have in the past, and thus avoid scrambling when growth hit. It made me push us in the direction I felt we needed to be going in a much more focused way than ever before. Personal training didn't teach me how to lift heavy loads--it taught me the fundamental importance of breathing correctly first.
Exercise should not be seen as a diversion or a drain--it is essential to every entrepreneur looking to be a longtime leader of a lasting entity.