From Athlete To Entrepreneur: Former NFL Pro Quinton Porter On The 5 Work Ethic Lessons We Can Learn From Athletes
The only thing to do when hard times hit is to simply keep going. Like Anna said to herself in Frozen 2 (and I often remind my kids), “do the next right thing”. You don’t have to make some huge move to make up for what has happened, you just need to do whatever you can next to get you back on track.
As a part of our series about the work ethic lessons we can learn from professional athletes, I had the pleasure of interviewing Quinton Porter, VP of North America, Pico — Get Personal.
Quinton Porter went from QB to VP and leads the Pico — Get Personal North American team. Pico is a data-driven fan marketing platform helping sports organizations across the globe identify their digital fans and get to know them personally. After 8 years playing professional football in the NFL and CFL, Porter decided to focus on tech and business full time which led him to Pico. Porter and his team are changing the game quite literally when it comes to fan engagement.
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 grew up in Portland, Maine, the youngest of 5 children. Being the 5th child, my parents thought it was clever to give me the name Quinton. As the youngest, with the closest sibling in age being 8 years older, I was always extra motivated to keep up with them in hopes of matching their own athletic and academic achievements. My father was a social worker and my mother ran a daycare out of the house, so I spent most of my time running through the neighborhood with friends or entertaining myself with various physical activities. My parents met in college and graduated first and second in their class, so academic achievement was always emphasized growing up even more so than athletics.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career as a high-level professional athlete?
As far back as I can remember I simply knew I wanted to either play in the NFL or NBA, so I think the pursuit was always there. Of course, there was Joe Montana, Michael Jordan, and others who lit a fire in me. But my father was definitely the biggest inspiration, which I only fully realized after he passed away when I was in college.
He inspired and encouraged me differently than the stereotypical “dad-living-vicariously” does. He would consistently offer to take me to the court, field, track, etc and play or practice right along with me. We’d even compete against each other, which not only made it fun and developed my skills but also created some of the fondest memories of my life.
One memory is of him putting me to bed the night I had become the first 3rd-grader in school to win a school-wide 1-mile race that the entire neighborhood would come out to watch. He said something like, “Quinny, your body is special. Whatever you want to do in sports, you’re one of the few who can do it. You just need to work hard for it”. That triggered something because I would often think back to it and still do.
At a large family gathering, after I had signed with Boston College to be the first and only player from Maine to earn a Division 1 full-scholarship for football, I mentioned what my dad had said to me that night. With everyone listening, he simply replied “I was planting a seed”. That’s when I knew he was my biggest inspiration.
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?
This really comes back to my father again. He never forced me or applied pressure to get involved and stick with sports. He always made sure to make it fun and at the same time naturally assume and expect nothing but excellence. And while yes, I wanted to impress him on the field, I never felt that pressure from him. It was always taught to me to enjoy what I’m doing and who I’m doing it with. And luckily, throughout my career there were a number of coaches who were positive influences and mentors as well.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your sports career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
I can think of two:
At Boston College, during my first year as the starting QB, Matt Ryan (current Atlanta Falcons QB) came in on a recruiting visit and I was assigned as his “big brother” for him to shadow and see what life at BC was all about. At the time, I remember feeling really bad for the guy because he was as awkward as a high school senior could be. I even said to my girlfriend “the poor kid is tragic” at a campus party I took him to. I legitimately started feeling bad for Matt Ryan!
Fast forward 2 years we ended up competing with each other for the starting role and I thought to myself “wow, I really should not have felt bad for this kid”, especially when I was injured in the season and he took over my position. While this situation is ironic, and kind of funny, it taught me to never judge or underestimate people at first look because you never know if you’ll compete against them someday (and they might take your job!). Matt Ryan needed no pity, especially from me.
The other was in the biggest game of my college career. It was against Florida State, 3rd game in, and we were both highly ranked teams. ESPN College Gameday was on campus all week and there was an enormous media build-up for the primetime Saturday night matchup.
The game starts and…on the very first play I trip over my running back and throw the ball directly to a defender who takes it back for a touchdown (which I had never done before). And my second throw on the very next drive… Another pick 6! Literally, two in a row to start the game and BC is losing to FSU 14–0 in a matter of a couple of minutes. The millions watching were witnessing a kid from Maine flop in his biggest moment. Looking back, it’s tragically funny. I remember thinking “my NFL goal is literally over at this moment”.
Luckily, instead of listening to that voice, I was able to turn the rest of the game into the best performance of my career up to that point. We ended up not only catching up but taking the lead, and the stadium was electric (until I got injured in the 4th quarter and Matt Ryan came in LOL). It turned out that the plays I made after how the game started is precisely why the Houston Texans decided to select me in the draft. This showed me that no matter what happens, or how down you ever get, there’s always a chance to turn it around and it can happen sooner than you’d ever imagine.
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?
- LETTING GO.
I used to have intense anxiety before high-pressure games and game situations, and it took away from my ability to perform at my best. At some point in my career, I decided I needed to figure out why and fix it. I realized that it was because I had attached my entire identity to being a football player and to success (or failure) on the field. I was clinging to the outcomes I wanted as if it was life or death, which had the opposite effect because it consumed so much of my energy and attention that there was too little left of me to do the actual task at hand in the moment.
When I realized that my true identity is much bigger and more open than simply a quarterback trying to win games, it freed up a lot of energy I had been leaking. It allowed me to relax, and in turn I could “show up” in the big moments in ways I previously wasn’t able to. While football meant a lot to me, it was just something I was doing at that time and it wasn’t the entirety of who I am anymore. This also improved the other aspects of my life, so I’m very grateful to have discovered it.
Given the strategy above, just relax and have fun! Let your body and mind do what they know how to do. It became clear to me that 99.9% of the hundreds of thoughts running through my head every minute before and during a game were not only mostly untrue, they were also counterproductive, especially for making split second decisions in front of millions. When I relaxed my mind, it relaxed my body, and my body was then able to perform at its best.
Gently focusing on my breath and practicing calm inhales/exhales helped me relax and be more focused and in turn, play more naturally. When I tuned into my breath, I was in tune with my body and more importantly with my coaches, my teammates, and situations in the game.
I still use all of these strategies in the critical moments of my business career.
Can you tell us the story of your transition from a professional athlete to a successful business person?
For sure. When it came to my career post-football, I considered going into Venture Capital or Private Equity since I had a finance degree and MBA. When I first stopped playing I worked for “free” over the summer at a private equity firm in Maine to get experience. I was also floating the idea of working at a startup because I was energized by the idea of being part of a company that’s challenging the status quo and growing on its own terms. I knew that being part of building something would be exciting and gratifying. I started looking through investment opportunities at the firm and I was introduced to the first startup I ended up joining and growing successfully.
Keep in mind, I was starting my sales career at 30 years old, from scratch — a true clean slate. I jumped right into my position sending emails and making calls on day one. This was actually good because I didn’t come across like a typical salesperson, so naturally, the reception from prospects was warm. What brought me success there was the work ethic habits I developed as a player — waking up early, arriving to the office by 6 AM, prepping myself, building out lists, honing my pitch, etc. It set the tone for the day and led to much more productivity.
However, like any startup, we struggled at first. And similarly, in sports there are always inevitable struggles. This ultimately prepared me for developing sales skills, shrugging off rejection, and always pushing forward — I wasn’t scared of rejection and losing deals because I had been knocked down in front of millions of people and faced angry coaches for years. It only motivated me to keep pushing even harder.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting new projects you are working on now?
Working at Pico — Get Personal, the data-driven fan marketing platform, has been really exciting. To be able to see firsthand the growth and maturity of the company is incredible. And as I spearhead efforts into expanding our base in North America in general, has been incredibly rewarding. Growth and maturity of pico as a company is exciting
We’re solving a very specific problem for sports teams and leagues right now that as a sports fan myself, I appreciate. We’re helping teams understand and know who their digital fans are so that they’re able to connect with them on a more personal and effective level in terms of fan marketing, communication, and providing overall just a better fan experience. This is crucial these days with the constant overload of ads on digital, targeting, and generic messaging — — our technology allows them to speak more personally to their fans, and will make for an improved industry all around
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?
I think so. I am just as motivated to make the company I am with, and our clients, succeed as I was at being a quarterback and winning games. I have the same passion for my Pico team and journey as I did for my football teams.
The same way I woke up every morning in 3rd grade to train, I now wake up and prepare for my day in business confident in the fact that I am outworking the competition. Most startups don’t succeed but the ones that do are the ones who outworked the industry, stayed hungry, and simply kept pushing. That’s something that every successful athlete learns as well.
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.
- Set clear and defined goals.
If you don’t know what you’re looking for you’ll never find it. Most people carry some vague high-level goal like wanting to be happy, wanting to be rich or famous, or wanting to get some promotion but they have no clear path or plan for how to achieve it. I think people need goals in order to feel they have purpose. But if you don’t set very specific near and short-term goals, and map out a realistic path to achieving them, then it’s like a boat drifting in the ocean with no one driving while you stand on the shore merely hoping it’ll make it to the dock. Not only does this not reliably achieve the goal, it also doesn’t produce the sense of purpose needed to get up every day with the energy and focus needed to make the goal a reality.
2. Take responsibility.
This is a big one. If you don’t take full ownership for the goals you have and the steps to achieve them, and push blame onto others then you’re leaving it all up to chance. By taking full responsibility of as much of the process toward your goal as you can, you take the actions needed to sufficiently address the inevitable challenges you’ll face and vastly increase your chances of success.
3. Wake up early and take breaks.
I’ve found that by getting up early and having a few hours to handle remaining tasks and plan for the day at your own pace makes a world of difference in terms of making each day as productive and effective as possible in the service of achieving your goals.
The whole “just keep pushing” is an important mindset, but people can get burnt out and lose productivity very easily if they don’t take breaks and put their work aside entirely for a little bit. When you put your mind and interest on something else that you enjoy, you’re able to come back to your work with your full attention and be more effective. This is also needed in order to be happy and generally fulfilled in life. Life is much more than career and work.
4. Do something every day that gets you closer to your goals.
Activity is not the same as productivity. Sometimes people can look at the clock at 4:30 having spent the whole day busily working, but then realize that none of those tasks got them closer to the goal they’re working toward. I try to make sure that I can look back at each day before I shut my computer down and know for sure that I got closer to my goal today.
5. Just keep going.
Like I’ve already mentioned, you will get knocked down. You’ll lose a deal, miss a quota, churn clients, but it does no good to dwell or let it get you down further. The only thing to do when hard times hit is to simply keep going. Like Anna said to herself in Frozen 2 (and I often remind my kids), “do the next right thing”. You don’t have to make some huge move to make up for what has happened, you just need to do whatever you can next to get you back on track.
What would you advise to a young person who aspires to follow your footsteps and emulate your career? What advice would you give?
I would honestly say, don’t follow anybody’s footsteps. Find what it is that you love and what truly excites you. And then go for it, without hesitation, however, and whatever feels right to you. Don’t look back or hedge your bets. Just go!
You are by all accounts a very successful person. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Because I am not sitting in a cubicle and working a typical 9–5, I have a lot of flexibility in my schedule. And I’m able to give back to my community through mentoring programs, speaking engagements, and working with kids to instill life lessons that I feel athletics is uniquely able to instill.
Now I’m developing a local athletic facility and program where we focus on contributing to the overall mental and emotional wellbeing of the members. We’re using sports as a way to help people live happier and healthier lives.
And as a Mainer, born and bred, I’m using these platforms to set the goal of putting Maine on the map for sports given it has historically been well behind most of the other states.
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. :-)
For people to be kind to each other. There’s so much division and anger in the world right now. We’re forgetting that we’re one team, we’re all people on one earth, and everybody benefits if we’re all kind to each other, regardless of any differences we might have.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
“Stop acting so small you are the universe in ecstatic motion” — Rumi
I’ve had periods in my life where I felt small and believed that I was small and couldn’t make an impact. With that perspective, it’s easy to feel afraid of the world and others who might harm and/or judge you. But that’s not who we are — in reality, we are the whole thing. We are everything merely acting as a particular thing we call “me”. When I am able to come from that place, my day, my life, those around me all seem to be much more positive.
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 :-)
Without a doubt, it would be Bob Dylan. He always took his own path, no matter what anyone said, he always did what he believed and he made his art the way he wanted to make it. No matter the media or fan comments, he did it without ever looking back. And look at what he created and is still creating. He has had a serious lasting impact on the world and generations through his music. I would love to grab a bite with him and hope that his passion and productivity of singing and songwriting might rub off on me. Either way, it’d just be super cool!