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From Athlete To Entrepreneur: Austin Ramos of Brand Velocity Partners On The 5 Work Ethic Lessons We Can Learn From Athletes

Recognize and elevate the people around you to build winning teams. This is an easy one to understand in athletics, especially team sports where you’re constantly striving for the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts. It’s also directly applicable in the business world. I grew up with a family business, now third generation-run. My grandfather, who founded the business in 1951, always stressed the importance of respecting and expressing gratitude for the value that each individual contributes, regardless of his or her role. Both good athletes and good business leaders recognize the value of a great team.

As a part of our series about the work ethic lessons we can learn from professional athletes, I had the pleasure of interviewing Austin Ramos.

Austin is a Founding Partner of Brand Velocity Partners with a focus on building sustainable, scalable businesses that prioritize their most valuable aspect: people.

Austin was a four-time All-American long-distance runner, UCLA record holder (3000m), and Adidas-sponsored professional athlete. He lives in Sacramento, California with his wife, Kate, and two young boys, Miles and Graham.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is a great honor. Our readers would love to learn more about your personal background. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I was born and raised in Sacramento, California and, until college, never moved from the house I was born in. I was the oldest of three boys and there were three other boys around the same age in our cul-de-sac. All six of us were very athletic and hyper-competitive.

None of our parents supported us watching TV or playing video games. That forced us all to spend most of our time playing outside. It’s hard to think of a sport we didn’t draw blood in. We played soccer, football, basketball, baseball, roller hockey, tennis, volleyball, and water polo, among most anything else that could be turned into a competition.

This experience shaped our lives. My two brothers and I all became Division 1 collegiate runners. Those three neighbors of ours? One swam for the University of Tennessee, another served in the U.S. Army, and the third is a decorated Navy SEAL.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career as a high-level professional athlete?

My first memory of wanting to be a professional athlete was at about age six. A close family friend, Sandy Becker, asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told her that my calling was to be a professional soccer player and she felt the need, for whatever reason, to educate 6-year-old me on the downsides to that career. I’ll never forget Sandy saying, “But you’ll lose all your teeth.” Of course, I disregarded it because who needs teeth when you could be a professional soccer player, right?

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

That’s absolutely true. My parents — products of great parents themselves — have been the catalyst for everything, both “on the field” and “off the field.” For example, I would never have had the opportunity to find my love of sports without them. I started playing soccer when I was four years old and my two brothers played as well. At our peak (which lasted for about twelve years), we each were meeting our teams at least three times a week for either practice or a game. My parents effectively ran a pro bono logistics business!

My broader family, coaches, teammates, physical trainers, medical staff, and mentors from the business world have also played very important roles.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your sports career? What lesson or takeaway did you learn from that?

I’ve had my fair share of embarrassing moments. When I arrived at UCLA, where I ran track and cross country, I was told by older teammates that our coach based our training off of Jack Daniels. For the longest time, I thought that it was their way of saying he got liquored up before compiling our training schedules. An odd coaching approach, yes, but the positive results spoke for themselves. It wasn’t until much later that I learned Jack Daniels was the actual name of a renowned coach in the running community, and it was his philosophies that our coach used.

Lesson/takeaway: be careful when making assumptions!

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As an athlete, you often face high-stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high-stress situations?

My athletic career taught me a few things about handling high-pressure, high-stress situations:

1. Like most athletes, I don’t like to lose. One strategy for athletes (and entrepreneurs) is to recalibrate the definition of “winning” to include learning. While sometimes easier said than done, I work to never lose — I either win or I learn in preparation for the next time around. This way, no opportunity is ever wasted.

2. In cross-country, they say “the race doesn’t start until the second half,” meaning that much of the competition is about being strategic and balanced in order to wait for the right moment to get ahead. In the business world, that endurance to persist — which can come in the form of managing through setbacks, rejections, or any other friction along the way to a goal — often makes all the difference.

3. Ninety percent of everything is mental. This applies to most things. Being an athlete forces you to better understand your body and, within the body, everything starts with your mind. For me, in high-stress situations, things seem to slow down and I’m able to focus on what’s most important at that moment in time. I noticed in my teens that I could influence my performance with my mind. It started by working to quiet my mind and actively slow my heart rate before big competitions. This evolved into other things such as intentionally increasing my anxiety right before a race in order to perform better at the start and then, shortly after the initial race phase, quieting my mind and relaxing my body to preserve energy while under high stress. There’s a direct parallel in the business world. Everything you’re involved in can be viewed as a performance or competition, and your body is most often what you have the best opportunity to control, so you should actively work to control it.

4. The last strategy is to be prepared to sacrifice. High-level performers, like athletes and entrepreneurs, know what it means to sacrifice in order to achieve their maximum potential. Immediately after we launched Brand Velocity Partners there was a six-month period during which we were very under-resourced (most entrepreneurs can empathize here) and working to simultaneously acquire two companies. I ended up putting a blow-up mattress in my home office and sleeping there at least 90 of those 180 nights just to maximize my potential. My (exceedingly patient) wife and I have a young family, but this was a sacrifice we needed to make in order for me to do the proper due diligence and get the deals done.

Can you tell us the story of your transition from a professional athlete to a successful business person?

While at UCLA, I started to explore other non-sport competitions where I could leverage the skills I developed in athletics. Ultimately, my drive was channeled into private equity.

Right out of college, while I was still competing, I interned at an investment bank. I went running every morning before work and again in the evening after I got home. I transitioned following my banking internship to an analyst role at a private equity firm. Two years later, I followed my now-wife (the amazing one I mentioned before) to New York City for her to attend nursing school. While there I worked in private equity and met Steve Lebowitz, who is now my business partner at Brand Velocity Partners.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting new projects you are working on now?

At Brand Velocity Partners, there’s always an interesting project taking place, whether we’re accelerating the growth of a company we currently own, acquiring a new company, or taking one of our portfolio companies public. At the moment, we’re in the middle of all three!

Last year, we acquired BBQGuys on behalf of our investors (including the Manning family and other notable professional athletes). For anyone who is not familiar, BBQGuys is the largest e-commerce platform selling higher-end barbecue grills, grilling accessories, and outdoor living projects. We are now working on transitioning BBQGuys into being a publicly-traded company and are excited for this next stage of growth.

At the same time, we are actively in new acquisition conversations with a couple of business owners that I personally respect. Hopefully, we’ll have more to announce soon!

Do you think your experience as a professional athlete gave you skills that make you a better entrepreneur? Can you give a story or example about what you mean?

Yes, I absolutely do think so. My career as an endurance athlete has taught me the value of persistence and pain tolerance. Long-distance running requires one to tolerate both physical and mental stress; to push his or her body to the limit while controlling their mind over an extended period of time. In my business career, that persistence has helped me tolerate failure and rejection, and that pain tolerance has helped me perform under exhaustion.

For an athletic-related example, I got injured during my last season at UCLA, but I tried to make the best of it. To make NCAA nationals, there are a number of qualifying races and I was looking to qualify in the 5k (3.1 miles). Within the first mile, another runner stepped on the back of my foot which popped off my shoe. With no time to put the shoe back on, I keep running at the same pace wearing just a sock and relying on my callused mind. I finished the race. However, this was in Arizona in May and the track was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The sock disintegrated and the track ultimately wore off much of the skin from the bottom of my then-mangled foot. Not only did I not place where I needed to, ending my collegiate running career, but I also was on crutches for the next few weeks while the skin grew back. But as American wrestler Dan Gable once said, “Pain is nothing compared to what it feels like to quit.”

Ok. Here is the main question of our interview. Entrepreneurs and professional athletes share a common “hustle culture”. Can you share your “5 Work Ethic Lessons That Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Athletes”? Please share a story or an example for each.

Entrepreneurs and elite athletes have a lot in common. Entrepreneurs fundamentally understand the “hustle culture” that high-level athletes thrive in. Here are a few lessons that aspiring entrepreneurs can learn from athletes:

1. Hard work will win when “wishing” won’t. Embrace the hustle culture. High-level competition is won and lost on the margin. At the top, everyone is fighting over a game of inches. Anyone with the ambition to achieve the highest levels of success cannot do so without being all in.

2. Be persistent and willing to sacrifice. Throughout my running career, I sacrificed. I ate very healthy, avoided alcohol, monitored my sleep, and trained for multiple hours a day. Looking back, the discipline and persistence that enabled me to succeed in athletics have also helped me in my private equity career.

3. Balance hard work with “smart work.” In distance running, there are only so many miles a human can run before the body breaks down. Personally, when I ran over 80 miles a week (professional distance runners often run much longer) I would get stress fractures in my bones that ultimately prevented me from running further. I work very hard but strive to balance that with awareness of what does and does not work well for me.

4. Cultivate your network. The network I cultivated through athletics has continued to benefit me throughout my private equity career. I love finding creative ways to leverage my skill set and network — and the complementary skill sets and amazing networks of my colleagues — to support the companies we own. It’s never too early to start building these relationships.

5. Recognize and elevate the people around you to build winning teams. This is an easy one to understand in athletics, especially team sports where you’re constantly striving for the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts. It’s also directly applicable in the business world. I grew up with a family business, now third generation-run. My grandfather, who founded the business in 1951, always stressed the importance of respecting and expressing gratitude for the value that each individual contributes, regardless of his or her role. Both good athletes and good business leaders recognize the value of a great team.

What would you advise to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your career? What advice would you give?

Young people looking to enter private equity should be prepared to face rejection, especially while applying for jobs. I graduated college in 2008 and, in the middle of the financial crisis, applied to work at over 100 private equity firms. My athletic career helped open doors for me, but many of the people I spoke with just didn’t have openings or weren’t enamored with my background. Of course, it all worked out in the end, so my advice is to be persistent and tolerate rejection well.

You are by all accounts a very successful person. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

When I entered private equity, one of my mentors paraphrased Karl Marx by saying, “Capital is a commodity, human talent is not.” It’s absolutely true. The people who we work with are incredible at what they do, from ensuring the facilities stay clean to running various departments to running entire companies. My competitive strength comes from working with these individuals, not solely from the dollars that I invest. However, capitalism hasn’t evolved to recognize that through a more balanced distribution of profits.

Unfortunately, there is a large gap between the highest-paid workers and the average worker, and that gap has only grown during the pandemic. Executive compensation consulting firm Equilar conducted a survey of public company CEOs for The New York Times in 2020. The newspaper reported that the CEOs’ who were surveyed pay jumped 14.1 percent last year compared with 2019, while median workers got only a 1.9 percent raise. According to the data, in 2020 these CEOs made 274 times the pay of the median employee at their company.

My business partners — Steve Lebowitz and Drew Sheinman — and I are all troubled by this trend. It’s important to us that each person on our broader “team” meaningfully participates in the financial profits which they helped to create. For that reason, we dedicate 10% of our total carried interest pool (our primary means of compensation as investment managers) in every investment to the non-management team employees of our portfolio companies. This program, called “Share the Gains,” is a commitment to ensuring that all employees of a company — not just senior management teams and the private equity owners — share in the benefits of our collaborative efforts. Not only is this the right thing to do for everyone in the workforce, but it is also good for business.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I appreciate that “enormous influence” compliment though I’m not sure my two- and five-year-old boys would agree during our bedtime routine. Nevertheless, if I could inspire a movement right now, I would definitely double down on Share the Gains. According to the American Investment Council, almost 12 million employees in the U.S. work for private equity-backed businesses. Share the Gains is a simple way for our entire industry to have a dramatic, positive impact. Other private equity firms can and should adopt and advance this philosophy.

Below are a few anonymized comments from a few individuals within our portfolio companies about how “Share the Gains” will impact their life.

- “Being a cancer survivor and a single mom, it would allow me to put a down payment on a house on my own. Change my life considerably.” -Elizabeth

- “Well depending on the amount, I could pay off an $8,000 credit card debt with 26% interest. I applied for a loan for this amount for a 10.5% interest rate and was denied. So it would be a life changer by the stress of credit card debt. Might would [sic.] help me sleep better at night.” -James

- “I would be able to get my leg fixed that is slowly crippling me over time.” -David

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

Albert Einstein famously said, “Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.” We too often see private equity firms succeed at the expense of their hard-working, non-management employees. My goal is to add value for all stakeholders, including those who haven’t traditionally been recognized.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them :-)

I’m inspired by and would love to sit down together with Ben-Saba (Ben) Hasan, Chief Culture Diversity Equity & Inclusion Officer at Walmart, and LeBron James. Ben himself was not only an athlete but has also led incredible change for employees of the largest employer in the world. LeBron has consistently made decisions to leverage his success and transcend athletics for the betterment of communities. It would be great to brainstorm with Ben and LeBron about how the private equity industry can make the lives of everyone we interact with materially better.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

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Edward Sylvan, CEO of Sycamore Entertainment Group

Edward Sylvan, CEO of Sycamore Entertainment Group

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Specializing in acquiring, producing and distributing films about equality, diversity and other thought provoking subjects