When you first start on your entrepreneurial journey, don’t just solve any problem, always strive to solve a problem worth solving.
KC has been privileged to serve our great Nation in two capacities, 20 years as a senior human space flight engineer at NASA Johnson Space Center, supporting over 50 Space Shuttle missions, including the Space Shuttle Columbia accident investigation, with his last post serving as the manager of the Space Shuttle astronaut launch & entry suit and crew escape system; and 20+ years, active & reserve combined, in our United States Navy as a Surface Warfare Officer, including deployments to Iraq looking for our missing-in-action, and Afghanistan with Naval Special Warfare.
Where did the idea for Athlete Foundry come from?
Well, as far back as I can remember, up through my deployment to Iraq, I wanted nothing to do with entrepreneurship (or at least the version of “entrepreneurship” I had in my head). At the ripe old age of 6, I made the mental decision that my life’s dream was to become a United States Astronaut.
After decades of intense research, hunting for the astronaut selection secret sauce, and working my tail off as a human spaceflight engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center since 1994, I made it into the final round of astronaut candidate interviewees in 2012. But, alas, no cigar. While I will always be humbly grateful for getting that far into the selection process, I concluded that the process hasn’t evolved in 4+ decades and is unbelievably outdated and full of inequities. If any other mature business or organization failed to evolve their recruiting process, it would become irrelevant. So, why is this allowed in the selection of such a visible U.S. government employee? It shouldn’t.
While working at NASA, I also had the honor to serve our great Nation in parallel as a United State Naval Officer. I’ve served 20+ years of both active and reserve combined. My service included time on ships, with intelligence units, Naval research, special operations, personnel recovery, base operations, and expeditionary warfare to name the “big ones.” Throughout my Naval career, I would temporarily leave NASA for various military deployments, to include a 15-month deployment to Iraq and a 13-month deployment to Afghanistan. It was my life altering experiences during my Iraq deployment that derailed my life’s course, and my Afghanistan deployment that convinced me that my life’s purpose was indeed much bigger than being a U.S. Astronaut. One minor challenge, I had no idea what that was.
After a lot of soul searching, I concluded that my purpose would reveal itself after I connected 3 dots — dot #1 is my passion to crush outdated & broken processes that hold people back from growing and achieving, dot #2 is my compassion to help kids achieve more regardless of their zip code, and dot #3 is my passion to affiliate with groups who mimic military-like qualities such as teamwork, higher purpose, and mission-oriented. After extensive research, speaking with other veteran entrepreneurs, and other athletes, I had the “a ha” moment — student athletes — they represent the cohort of kids in society who start life’s hustle early and exhibit team, passion, and tenacity! And so my journey to build Athlete Foundry began.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
As an EdTech start-up CEO & founder, U.S. Navy Reserve Officer, husband, and father, it’s always about applying surgical focus towards my “why,” priority execution, and intelligent planning. Let me unpack them a bit.
My “why.” I wake-up reminding myself about my “why” — why am I so passionate about Athlete Foundry? I am convinced down to my core that the world needs and that millions of families will benefit from Athlete Foundry. I’m doing this for my kids, my neighbors kids, and those across America. Despite the constant start-up challenges and getting punched in the face (figuratively), it always beats rocket attacks in a combat zone.
Priority execution. As soon as the kids get to school (or set up with an activity in the summer), I waste no time and jump right into executing my daily priorities which I assigned the day and weeks prior. With needing to devote some time to family and my Navy Reserve duties in the evenings, day-time productivity is of essence, so I aim to maintain a 95% efficacy from the morning through late afternoon by only allowing “important & urgent” unplanned matters disrupt my flow (yes, mental breaks are built into my flow, too). I believe I am able to consistently do this because of how Athlete Foundry is organized from team, communicative, and administrative perspectives (I’ve integrated various lean and mean, military best-practices into how I organize and lead Athlete Foundry).
Intelligent planning. Having a clear method to capture, organize, and communicate each teammates responsibilities and expectations is fundamental. I couldn’t find a 3rd party tool that I liked and could afford, so I just hacked one together (again, based on military best-practices). After the kids go to bed and I wrap up some Navy work, I jump back into Athlete Foundry to continue working and before calling it a night, I update my near-term (24 hours) and mid-term (weeks) priorities, plus the team’s mid-term (weeks) priorities. This allows me to take into account recent activities or progress and carefully adjust our forward course (if/ as needed).
With a small, scrappy, and unbelievably dedicated team, we all have to “divide & conquer,” which requires me to be very intentional as to how I split my time between tactical and strategic matters. At times I feel like I’m working “in my company” (tactical) vice “on my company” (strategic), but that’s the nature of the beast. So even for those days when I feel like I’m spending a lot of time on tactical execution, I make sure to spend at least 30-minutes on strategic planning.
Rinse & repeat (for now).
How do you bring ideas to life?
I’ll first answer this question from the perspective of how I brought the idea of Athlete Foundry to life, as I utilize the same framework for ideas about Athlete Foundry’s product.
I have found that an intelligent recipe to bring ideas to life require three elements, #1 – your commitment to pursue a problem worth solving, #2 – a systems mindset in order to break the problem down into first principles, and #3 – intelligence (knowledge about the problem, a wicked team, and broad network of subject matter experts). Each element of course has sub-elements which are the tactics that help put “meat on the bones.”
Depending on the size and complexity of the “idea,” this can take hours, months, or years to fully bring to life.
What’s one trend that excites you?
Empowerment. Whether its ride-hailing, doctor-hailing, remote gigs, or finding a handy-person, technology has lifted, enabled, and empowered more humans across the world in the past 15-years than in the entire human history.
It is awesome to see the creation of economic bridges with lower “barriers to cross” that allow both the highly skilled and skilled labor to participate in the local economy, contribute to society, and begin to directly earn for delivering value. The best part, this is just the beginning.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
My ability to develop a plan of action for a given problem or task. I visually place my mind into a state of hyper focus, then deconstruct the task into building-block steps, then develop a reverse-plan that aligns those building-block steps in order to achieve the objective.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Travel more and when traveling, travel like a local to gain perspectives and appreciate diversity. Only by seeing what others live through can we can appreciate what we so often take for granted, and only by connecting with their stories can we grow our world-view in hopes to lead better, live wiser, and serve with greater purpose.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
“It must exist.” The “it” being Athlete Foundry and our first-of-its-kind platform to transform how parents and student athletes take command of their journey to collegiate athletes, regardless of zip code and regardless of their current roster spot. I view the word “nobody” as almost every single investor I have spoken with in my first three (3) years of Athlete Foundry — they are all good people, but they are short-sided and lack the imagination of the market.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Spend at least 30-minutes a day to free your mind for strategic thinking and creative idea generation. But, the challenge is to find that specific environment, activity, or time-of-day that places you in this amazing “zen” mood. For me, it’s working out, and even more specifically when I run.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
The “slingshot” method.
Before I explain the “slingshot” method, a humble opinion about advice in the business world (there is no shortage). Every business model is unique, environments are different, brand awareness & reputations are different, etc. The point is that even for similar business types, how each business responds to a strategy or tactical impulse will be different. So, it is always best to never “follow” advice, strategy, or a tactic, rather one should “apply” it within the context of your business.
The “slingshot” strategy is inspired by my NASA roots. For example, a spacecraft’s route between two planets may not be a straight line, but intertwined with multiple precision “fly-bys” near other planets. So, going from Earth to Pluto many involve “slinging by” Mars, Jupiter, and Earth (again) at precise times and distances. The fly-by is close enough to each planet to get influenced by the gravitational pull towards the planet, but far enough away to not get pulled into the planet — the end result is that you get whipped, flung, or slung around the planet picking up significant velocity towards your next fly-by.
My application of this with Athlete Foundry (based on our current stage) is that we stack or align the fly-bys around various actions, events, or activities that intentionally and successfully increase our velocity of user acquisition (always starting clearly defined end-state targets). For example, this strategy might include a rapid succession of free give-aways, followed by a fun referral technique tailored to behavior of the free give-away recipients, followed by a fun social media micro-campaign.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
Failure: Making “family time” the lowest priority. I love my family and they deserve more — way more. All decisions in life are choices, so I fully own this. On top of being consumed to get Athlete Foundry off the grounds, our income took a major hit resulting in a significant reduction in kids activities (such as self-defense classes, movies, etc.), regular date nights, and no annual family vacation. Things could always be worse, so we kept things into perspective.
I am still working on fixing this and have given myself crisp milestones over the next 12 months to bring my “family time” into alignment so they don’t suffer. My bride and kids have sacrificed a lot already, I owe them more physically and emotionally.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Suicide prevention. While any suicide hurts my heart, I am particularly heart-broken about the suicide rate amongst my fellow military service members and veteran. A super hard problem, but very worthy of solving.
The suicide “kill chain” is long, starting with mental wellness, life experiences, etc. But, the specific step in the suicide “kill chain” I challenge fellow entrepreneurs to think about involves the final few stages — suicide ideation and suicide action. How can we detect and prevent?
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
Date night with my bride (finally!). Why? Isn’t it obvious! We both needed time with each other and away from kids to reflect, appreciate, and grow.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
Google Business. Whether you love or hate Google’s domination, you must respect and appreciate the productivity it affords your team. While not perfect and in the absence of a home-grown system, I adopted Google Business as Athlete Foundry’s sole platform for storage, collaboration, and email. We have a strict, yet lean, data structure and collaboration process that I designed using my military best-practices, allowing a well-oiled and remote team to be efficient and effective.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
I’ll break the rule and offer two, a professional boo and a personal book.
My professional book recommendation is The Founder’s Dilemmas by Noam Wasserman. This book is chock full of evidence-based data from hundreds and thousands of start-ups, covering a broad range of invaluable topics every start-up founder and CEO should know. I still refer to this book from time to time.
My personal book recommendation is the Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose. I am a huge fan of WWI and WWII stories, with WWII stories at the top of my list. The greatest generation of kids, young adults, and humans that understood teamwork, true sacrifices, tenacity, and humility. In many aspects, our WWII veterans and families represent the human persona we should all emulate; even 5% would make a significant positive impact in today’s social fabric.
What is your favorite quote?
There are countless inspirational, awesome, and soul penetrating quotes, so I’ll share a recent quote I love!
“The purpose of training is to tighten up the slack, toughen the body, and polish the spirit.”
– M. Ueshiba
-When you first start on your entrepreneurial journey, don’t just solve any problem, always strive to solve a problem worth solving.
-Whether it be a task, project, or campaign, always start with the end in mind, define it clearly, then develop a reverse-plan built with measurable building blocks aligned to achieve the end state.
-Success is 80% mental, if you are not fully and completely committed to whatever you are striving to achieve — 100% irrespective of your current mental or physical capacity — you will not achieve it.
-Always lead from the front, ethically, morally, and sincerely. While every individual in an organization should equally accept, live, and pledge to these tenants, it must start, be transparently communicated, and be visible with the leader at the top to set the tone and culture.
-Always have a servant mindset. We do things from the lens of serving others, it amplifies our influence and therefore, magnifies our impact.
Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.