Last spring, despite the fact that the snow was retreating, a man picked up a pair of cross country skis and strapped them to his feet for the first time. Like the first time Muhammad Ali laced up his gloves, no one expected that greatness would come from that moment - and perhaps no one still does. But what's undeniable is that man is pushing every day down the long, snowy, parallel lines that lead toward the Sochi Olympics in 2014.
Those of you in the Helsinki startup scene have seen Paul Bragiel's name popping up somewhat consistently. From Founders' Week in 2014, to last spring's Pitch Helsinki, to other small meetings here and there, Bragiel spends a good amount of time here mentoring Finnish startups and speaking about entrepreneurship. For those of you who haven't heard him introduced, Bragiel has served as the CEO of three companies, including Lefora, a product bringing forums to the 21st century; Meetro, the world's first location-based social network; and Paragon Five, a games studio. Today he's a founding partner of i/o ventures, a Silicon-Valley based VC firm, and is known for knowing everyone in Silicon Valley.
As the official Nordic Startup Blog for #TeamPaul coverage, we're going to closely follow his trail to Solchi, cheering his victories, agonizing in his defeats, and bugging him with our startup and training questions along the way.
Bragiel will be skiing under the Colombian flag - a story we'll dive into later, but rather than getting behind a nationality, I think in this Olympic race we can get behind the story of a man dropping everything to get it. Here's an interview to kick off our ArcticStartup Sports coverage:
AS: So how did this go from just an idea to actually going forward with it? And how did you end up in Finland?
Bragiel: Around the New Year I was able to help one of my closest friends accomplish one of his biggest dreams. Then a few weeks later I was giving a speech at the largest startup conference in Berlin. I talked about some of my go to topics of shutting up and just starting as well as going for your dreams. That evening over a few drinks it flipped a switch in my head about how I have pursued most of my business dreams but perhaps I should try to figure out how to pull off one of my most impossible childhood dreams. Then next morning I woke up, started doing research and emailed my brothers and a few close friends saying I was going for it and to call me out if I didn't give my absolute effort to make it happen.
Finland happened for a few reasons. First I have a bunch of really close Finnish friends and proudly advise a bunch of Finnish startups. Second and most importantly is because Finland is one of the top countries in the world for my chosen sport of cross-country skiing. As soon as I chose the sport I decided to fly over immediately and start in my search for a world class coach. Within a month and through a bunch of help from my friends, I was able to meet my coach Heikki and have been focused on training since.
AS: At what point did you think you could actually have a shot at the Olympics?
Bragiel: I did a ton of research and found the sports that have more open qualifications. I started to get a feeling that I might be able to pull this off when I was able to get on the phone with a few athletes that were in or near last place in the past few olympics. This was a huge step for me. Unfortunately a few weeks later I found they made the rules much more harder a few years ago... but that initial confidence was all I needed to get the momentum really going.
AS: How is your goal being received by other athletes? Are you "that guy" or is there some camaraderie?
Bragiel: Amazingly well. I really was worried that some might hate how I'm approaching this. Overall everyone has been supportive and they understand the Olympic dream since they share it. They simply have a different goal when at the games. Whats been really amazing is that I now have a very unique perspective that most established business guys don't get. These athletes are amazing when it comes to their focus and determination. Unfortunately, I've also learned that almost all of them don't have the resources I have and many of them go into huge debt while pursuing their dreams and often sacrifice the opportunity for a great education. In seeing this up close I am working on a few initiatives now to help them out both in getting jobs after their careers are over but also in trying to raise money for a few youth and olympic sports organizations.
AS: Have you seen any parallels between training for the Olympics and startups?
Bragiel: Big time. The biggest thing I noticed is that in order for an athlete to get the best results, they need to build a great team around them. Just like the best founders in the startup world. Its also an emotional roller coaster. One day you think that you're going to be amazing... next day you have a bad training session and you want to quit. The odds of success are also probably pretty similar. In other words you just need to be determined and deal with a lot of people telling you that there is no way you will accomplish what you've set out to do. Seeing this parallel has made me appreciate professional athletes even more than I did before.
AS: There's a ton of Skiing and other winter sports on TV in the Nordics. Are we going to be able to catch you on TV soon? What's the best way to follow you?
Bragiel: I believe that you will see me on TV. Starting Nov. 16th I'm going to start competing in my qualification races. Right now I'm set to do 9 races leading up to the games. I'm not sure which ones will be on TV but as soon as I know I'll share that info.
The best way to follow me is to 'like' and share my Facebook page.
I'll also be posting videos weekly on my Youtube channel at: http://www.youtube.com/paul
Finally... please feel free to ask questions here. I'll work with the Arctic Startup crew to get the popular ones answered and try to do q&a sessions periodically as my training schedule permits.