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What can sport teach us about entrepreneurship?

Ivan Popov running a marathon in Tryavna
Image credit: Ivan Popov, founder of Vipe Studio at the ultramarathon in Tryavna in July
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Kodzha Kaya is a mountain peak in the Balkan mountain range with a stunning view, just an hour’s drive from Varna, the seaside capital of Bulgaria. It’s also the name of a 25 km sky run trail with 1600 m denivelation that takes six hours to complete. 

It is where it all started for Ivan Popov, a 27- years old web developer. After a ten-year pause, he started running again, and it transformed his professional life. 

A teenagehood injury prevented him from pursuing professional development in modern pentathlon, an Olympic sport that comprises five very different disciplines – fencing, freestyle swimming, equestrian show jumping, pistol shooting, and running. Ivan turned his other passion – coding, into а career and spent several years as a technical leader for different companies. 

But it was when he put all his efforts into his own business in the heat of the pandemic that he rediscovered sport and learned and grew from both experiences. 

So, what does sport have to do with running a business and leading a team? Well, everything, the young founder argues.  

The Recursive met with Ivan Popov, founder of Vipe Studio, a company for web development, specializing in WordPress to find out why personal and professional development should go hand in hand. The founder shared why he turned encouraging and supporting employees’ hobbies into the company culture.

Persistence is key to success

That April day on Kodzha Kaya Ivan Popov showed up with nothing but clothes on his back only to discover that people were loaded with climbing equipment, food, and winter gear. He didn’t even have a bottle of water. But he endured 25 km of hiking three mountain peaks, crossing rivers, and meeting wild animals. He describes this footrace as the ultimate test of the will. 

Within the course of a few months, Ivan completed four other competitions for amateur and professional athletes such as marathons and triathlons, including the State Championship for modern pentathlon. Together with his teammates, Ivan finished third in the professional tournament, even though they haven’t been training together for ten years. 

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That level of commitment and persistence guided him through his accomplishments both in sports and his professional life. He built his first website when he was just 9 years old and sold the first one for money three years later. But he says it was never about talent for him. It took him much longer to excel at something, but he believes that it always pays off if you put effort and hard work. 

The combination of skills that you need to compete in the five very different disciplines of modern pentathlon trained him in strategic thinking and long-term vision.

“I have been training since I was a child, and I know that your brain is formed in a way that you can’t do only one thing at a time. The younger and faster you are, the better you are at swimming and running. The better experienced and thoughtful you are, the better in fencing, shooting, and equestrian skills,” Ivan Popov explains.

Ivan Popov riding a bicycle at the triathlon in Burgas
Ivan Popov at the triathlon in Burgas earlier this year

Don’t underestimate anybody

“Pushing, fighting, giving everything you possibly can to win is not a metaphor in sports, ” he adds. “It gives you this feeling of looking out and giving chances to all the possible scenarios.”

So, after spending several years in corporate jobs, and on the brink of burnout, in 2020 Ivan Popov explored the possibility of managing his own business. He bootstrapped Vipe Studio with his investments and in one year managed to turn it into a profitable business that is building reputation and gaining clients’ trust. Among their clients in Bulgaria are the electric car-sharing service Spark and Ciela publishing house. 

Another lesson that Ivan Popov took from sport and tries to apply in the business world is to never underestimate others. “Sports gives you another perspective on people that you can get only by starting at an equal start with someone and running alongside each other. They might not be better than you, but you can learn how they do it,” he shares. 

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The same goes for business, he believes. One shouldn’t underestimate small companies just because of their size. They can be experts in what they do and you can still learn a lot from them. 

“I don’t have time for sport”

In parallel with developing Vipe Studio, Ivan Popov decided to come back to sports and started training two times a day. “People always say ‘I don’t have time, but at some point, you realize that if you take these 24 hours, organize them, and put them in order, you have plenty of time,” the founder says.  

At first, he thought that if he spends so much time in training, his job will suffer. But the opposite proved to be true. He says that wasting time transitioning from one topic to another or from one task to another used to be a big problem for him. But sport helped him tremendously to build rhythm and organization into his day and this allows him to train in the mornings and evenings, run his company, and still be able to code because he enjoys it. 

One of the best pieces of management advice I received from a manager I used to work with was that the best employees are the ones who are good at their hobbies, ” Ivan Popov remembers. “Being good at something you are not paid to do, means you are hard-working and you know what it’s like to make efforts,” he adds. 

So, as a manager, he seeks that in people and encourages employees at Vipe Studio to pay as much attention to their hobbies, as they do to their work. Valuing people’s private life outside of work makes them happier and more open to sharing, he says, and that’s important in their company culture. 

 +++ Read another founder lesson on how to encourage emotional intelligence in the workplace. 

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Zornitsa Stoilova is Editor-in-Chief at The Recursive. She has over 15 years of experience in journalism and the management of editorial teams.