EntrePROneurs: Business Savvy Professional Triathletes

Necessity is well known as the mother of invention, and no one understands the needs of triathletes better than the athletes themselves. We profile three of our sport’s top professionals—Alicia Kaye, Hillary Biscay and Jesse Thomas—who, in addition to achieving success on the race course, have created thriving businesses borne of needs that each experienced as they pursued their athletic dreams.

Hillary Biscay

Tri claim to fame: 63-time iron-distance finisher, Ironman champion, 2013 Ultraman world champion
Entrepreneurial acclaim: Smash (Smashfestqueen.com), triathlon, cycling, running and casual apparel for women

Between her own prolific long-distance training and racing, and the roster of athletes she coaches—something she’s done from day one since taking leave of a Ph.D. program in English and teaching at USC to pursue professional triathlon—Biscay has never been one to sit idle. “I need something else on the side besides just training and racing,” she says. “I know some people do better when they can focus 100 percent on training, but I would go insane.” And since the launch of her Smash apparel line in 2012, this go-getter has been firing on all cylinders 24/7. “There’s no downtime, but it honestly does not feel like work, ever,” she says. “I love all my projects.”

Smash stemmed from Biscay’s failed attempts to find the exact technical gear she dreamed of among existing brands. “It seemed like every couple of years a new company would come out and make a couple things that were heading toward what I envisioned and wanted to be training and racing in, but not quite nailing it.” As a sponsored athlete, she had the opportunity to provide feedback to several brands but still never saw her wish list quite come to fruition. This became fodder for conversation with one of Biscay’s best friends who happens to have a design background: Michele Landry.

“For years, every time we got together we talked about the latest gear for women—what’s out there, what’s good, what’s bad, what’s still the same,” Biscay says. Finally, in May 2012, during yet another such conversation, the women said to one another, “Let’s just do this ourselves!”

Biscay serves as the brand’s “human billboard,” marketing mind, technical adviser and warehouse. Landry brings the apparel business experience and artistic side, translating Biscay’s visions into fun and functional designs. Their biggest challenges come from the learning curve of manufacturing—keeping up with demand, exploring cost-effective ways to expand overseas, and first and foremost, keeping their commitment to quality. “When you’re dealing with something that someone is going to be wearing while sitting on their bike for six hours, it’s got to be perfect,” Biscay says. “I’m not going to screw something up that someone’s going to race an Ironman in—period!”

Smash is currently available online and via “traveling trunk shows” at race expos and in communities where the demand is high. But it’s not just women getting in on the action. A handful of men, led by Biscay’s husband, pro Maik Twelsiek, insisted on having their own Smash kits. “We had these dudes saying they would race in women’s kits if we didn’t make men’s. So we made a few,” Biscay says. “We’re very much trying to be a women’s brand, but if our cheering section wants to wear the same stuff, then that’s OK!”

RELATED – Dispatch: This One Time, At Tri Camp…

Jesse Thomas

Tri claim to fame: Three-time Wildflower champion
Entrepreneurial acclaim: Picky Bars (Pickybars.com), gluten-free, dairy-free, real-food energy bars

When Jesse Thomas turned pro and ramped up his training, his appetite increased accordingly. But the big eater was also a picky eater, having been home-diagnosed by his wife (running phenom Lauren Fleshman) with gluten and dairy intolerances. Fleshman, along with best pal Steph Rothstein, a professional marathoner with celiac disease, set to work in the kitchen, crafting an energy bar recipe that her husband could stomach. Their culinary experiments eventually led to Picky Bars, a company officially launched in October 2010, which Thomas now helms as CEO, overseeing the legal, financial and marketing aspects of the business, as well as four employees.

“It happened really organically,” Thomas says. “I was eating a ton of our bars, just churning through prototypes. We had extras, so we started giving them to our runner, cyclist and triathlete friends. They really liked them and asked for more. We decided we’d start selling them a little bit, so I figured out how to put up a WordPress site with a shopping cart plugin. It said, ‘Welcome to Pickybars.com.’ That was it.”

RELATED – Triathlife: Lessons Learned In Finding The Work/Life Balance

The three entrepreneurs also parlayed the strength of their athletic social media platforms into a unique distribution model, inviting fans and followers to join the Picky Club, a subscription service for direct monthly bar deliveries. Thomas projected that 50–100 people might sign up; instead, the club boasts almost 800 members, and is now a priority for the company’s investment and growth. “We want to create a community around Picky Bars, to enable people to live the Picky life, to balance their lives just like we do with athletics and business and family,” Thomas says. “Part of that is connecting with people one to one. That’s what the Picky Club enables us to do.”

Thomas’ schedule is typically erratic: He logs anywhere from five to 40 hours weekly working on the brand, depending on the demands of training and racing. “Business is my break from athletics, and athletics is my break from business,” he says. “And there’s a real yin and yang there that provides a cool counterbalance in my life.”

For Thomas, creating a physical product that connects him to age-group athletes is “the coolest experience.” He recalls a particularly poignant moment at the 2012 Ironman 70.3 World Championship, where he suffered miserably on the run and considered dropping out. “All of a sudden I saw a Picky Bars wrapper on the course. I thought, ‘Someone out here racing ate a Picky Bar. That is awesome!’ It was so random, and it fueled me to the finish. Knowing that we made an impact on this crowd in some way—it was the coolest thing ever.”

RELATED: Bars For Picky Eaters

Alicia Kaye and Jarrod Shoemaker

Tri claim to fame: Kaye—2013 Life Time Tri Series champion; Shoemaker—2008 Olympian
Entrepreneurial acclaim: Endurance Shield (Enduranceshield.com), athlete-inspired skincare products including sunscreen, lip protectant, chamois crème and muscle-relief cream

“We weren’t looking to start a company. We were just looking to buy sunscreen,” Kaye says. But after frustrating trial and error with numerous products already on the market, Kaye and her husband, fellow pro Jarrod Shoemaker, were referred to Cherie Dobbs, a veteran spa-quality skincare product developer. Call it kismet—Dobbs had recently created a sunscreen for athletes, yet lacked an inroad to the industry.

The Florida-based couple worked with Dobbs to fine-tune the formula, addressing various barriers to use and even adding a moisturizing element to combat the constant drying of swimmers’ skin. “Pros have so many excuses for not wearing sunscreen on race day. Nobody wants to inhibit their sweat. They say, ‘I don’t want it to run into my eyes. I don’t want it to fog up my goggles.’ There’s a whole laundry list of reasons why we personally were never using sunscreen on race day,” Kaye says, “and we were not alone.” Yet she and Shoemaker slathered themselves in the stuff during training, causing skin-irritating rashes and clogged pores. Their quest for quality, comfortable, athlete-friendly sun protection ultimately led to the launch of Endurance Shield in March 2012.

Along with becoming experts in SPF, Kaye and Shoemaker have learned invaluable lessons in business ownership. “One of the biggest things that we realized quickly was that Jarrod and I have weaknesses,” Kaye says. “Our priority is triathlon. We were trying to do too much, and we realized we needed to bring on people to help.” Shoemaker serves as the company’s CEO, steering the big-picture decisions, while Kaye is a self-described “worker bee,” building relationships with vendors and digging into many of the daily business details. They contract a director of operations who runs the business when they are immersed in racing, as well as a social media manager.

The couple’s athletic success does provide a beneficial marketing platform for Endurance Shield, and likewise small-business ownership has dramatically influenced their appreciation of their own sponsors. “We enjoy going with the smaller, up-and-coming companies where we can really help them build their brand,” Kaye says. “Even multimillion-dollar companies at one point were just a small company trying to get their product out there.”

The future for Endurance Shield includes exploring more SPF applications, as well as developing easy-to-use methods for athletes to reapply sunscreen on the go. “I think Leanda Cave having skin cancer last year was a big eye opener for our sport,” Kaye says. “Everyone calls skin cancer triathlon’s dirty secret. It’s this thing that everybody is dealing with but nobody wants to talk about. We’re just trying to bring awareness to this, to make sunscreen cool.”

RELATED: 6 Things Triathletes Should Know About Sun Protection