From Ironman to Start-up Founder: What competitive sport taught me about running a business

Ann Juliano, CEO and Founder of Muse Finance, above and below, discusses the lessons she learnt from the world of competitive sport and how it helped her prepare for running a business.

One of my most vivid sporting memories is of seeing Sian Welch and Wendy Ingraham crawl to the finish line at the 1997 Ironman, in one of the most epic race finishes of all time. At that moment, I promised myself I’d someday race the Ironman in the Hawaii championships.

Four Ironmans later and having competed in the Tae Kwon Do Olympic trials, I still haven’t achieved that exact goal. Instead, the lessons I’ve learnt from competitive sport about pushing yourself mentally and physically have massively helped me in my professional career. Now, after 20 years working in finance and founding Muse Finance, I’m able to share those lessons to help other founders navigate the journey of starting and running a business.

Lesson 1: Visualise your goal and break down your plan

In the early stages of wanting to do an Ironman, I felt silly. Afraid to tell anyone except my coach. Your goal may seem unrealistic but when you break it down the finish line gets closer. My target time for the Ironman was 11 hours and 30 minutes, which felt like a lot of time to be focused and performing at my best. So I had to break it down and make my goal more attainable.

Beyond helping me prepare physically, my coach helped train me mentally. For example, when I was on the bike I knew I had to either take a bite of a protein bar or have a swig of my drink every 15 minutes. For the swim, I just focused on going from buoy to buoy; for the run it was 1m to 1m. Before I knew it – the 11 and a half hours were done. It’s the same in the early stages of creating your business; if you can break your business plan down into ‘bitesize’ goals, your vision will eventually come together piece by piece.

Lesson 2: Find your cheering squad

Great friends – even one solo cheerleader – can make all the difference. Your support network is vital and it shouldn’t be just your mentors or investors. You need someone outside your day-to-day management without judgement or opinions. Getting Muse Finance through COVID when we didn’t have approval for the Government support scheme was not an easy feat. One of my investors asked how I did it and the answer was simple: good friends, stubborn optimism, a goal I was passionate about and lots of pizza! I had one of my good friends positioned a third of the way on the marathon that had three laps in South Africa. Nothing was more fun than knowing I’d see her when I got through to that area. Similarly, I had another friend at the Bolton Ironman, positioned at the top of the hill cheering me along. Just one or two supporters will get you through the tough times and help you to celebrate the great times. Running a business doesn’t need to be a lonely experience.

Lesson 3: There’s no such thing as a perfect race

As much as you plan and strategize, the race will never go as planned and you have to be ready for the unexpected. Before my first race, a coach told me that I would be hit with unknown obstacles and I just had to get through them.

Nothing could be more true for business. The minute you’re done writing your financial model, the business plan is almost certainly out-dated. At the Bolton Ironman the gears on my bike went out on lap two or three, and I told myself it was just part of the game. Although frustrating, I couldn’t let it bother me so I cycled up and down mountains without the ability to shift gears. When you’re dealing with an endurance race there’s always something that is bound to go wrong. The same thing can be said in business. Part of the job of being a founder is having the confidence and strength to not let it get to you – you will make it through, no matter what might be thrown your way.

Lesson 4: Show up – experience is what gives you confidence

Nothing feels better than showing up to the start line knowing the hours you’ve put in. You’ve taken the advice of your coaches, followed their plan and you are now ready for what’s ahead. As a founder of a Fintech business, I’ve had 20 years of experience in the financial markets, working and scaling teams in both the US and Europe and put the hours in on strategy as well as developing and implementing a plan. Never doubt your experience and passion for starting your business, and it will give you the confidence to walk into any meeting and convince investors of your vision.

Lesson 5: You have to want it

From the football pitch growing up, to the international competition mats as a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, to the final mile in a marathon – the only way I was able to get there was by visualising success, and wanting it more than anything else. My inspirations, the best athletes and the best business people, didn’t get there overnight. All the elements of the above coupled with the desire to win and achieve goals is what has gotten me to the various goals in my life. Always remember what led you to start your business in the first place, and never lose that feeling – it will help give you the drive to keep going even when times are at their toughest.

Lesson 6: It’s an endurance race

Don’t sprint, don’t deny yourself substance, if it was easy – everyone would be doing it. Planning your meals on race day is like planning your funding rounds. Make sure you have the right amount (not too much and not too little) from the right sources. Too much sugar (or fast capital) and you’re likely to blow up. Just as it’s important to have the balance between good sugar and good solid nutrition, consider what balance of capital and funding is needed to keep you on track to reach your goals comfortably.

And so, I hope these lessons I’ve taken through my career may act as guidance for other founders. One of my future goals for Muse is to eventually list on the New York Stock Exchange within the next five years. I know we will get there by planning, executing and hitting our milestones – our buoys, cadence and pace, make it that much easier. There’s a lot for us to achieve at Muse Finance so I guess it’s time to put those running shoes on.