Despite a year of canceled tournaments, 2020 has been a busy year for Venus Williams. The tennis champ been guiding not one but three businesses through a pandemic. We spoke to her in a recent episode of Office Hours, where she shared how defined limits, team values and backup plans help her pursue her entrepreneurial goals. You can catch the video for the full conversation or catch the highlights below.
The following excerpts from the live conversation have been edited for clarity and brevity.
On why she wanted to be an entrepreneur at the peak of her tennis career
I always wanted to have a backup plan because you never know if Plan A is not going to work. My dad had his own busines but being born in 1942 in Louisiana, there weren't a ton of opportunities for him. So, he always encouraged us to be our own boss, always work for yourself. One day I got this letter in the mail that said, “Come to fashion school.” I’m glad I got it. It made me realize, “Wow, I always did like this. I just hadn't paid attention to it.” And that was really the start of it.
On each of her ventures and how COVID has impacted them.
- V Starr - Interior design firm (founded 2002)
This was my first business. We focus on commercial design—hospitality—from hotel to condominiums to apartment buildings to sports centers. I actually started the commercial and hospitality division in the bubble of 2008. Remember that? Because we were starting at that weird time, we realized, OK, goal number one: Let's be diverse. That really saved us—having different sorts of work coming in. And we're going for even more diversity now. We have big dreams, and that diversity includes helping our community. I'm excited about doing more of that next year.
- EleVen by Venus Williams - Activewear line (founded 2007)
We do all things athletic, all things active. The name comes from the idea of pursuing the best you—going past 10 to 11— and not quitting, even on the days when you're defeated. During COVID, I reached out to the community a lot through my Coach Venus workouts on Instagram Live. I worked out so much! I did a lot outside with all these amazing fitness professionals who kicked my butt, but I kept smiling. It was a great way for me to stay connected to the community. And there's been a resurgence in people wanting to play tennis because—guess what?—it's a safer sport for COVID. So that's been exciting.
- Happy Viking - Plant-based protein company (founded 2020)
Happy Viking is about taking a warrior attitude toward your own health. I’m super passionate about wellness. And not just because I play a sport, but because it’s how I grew up. Later on, I needed it because of my own chronic health issues. I'm excited to help other people to be well in the food category because I know what it's like to not be able to control how you feel. We just launched this year, and It’s been so well-received. (We're currently out of stock.) The stars really aligned for us because we are focused on wellness, and that's what people are focused on right now.
On what she expects from herself.
- Be authentic
You have to lead with who you are and try to work on the areas where maybe you aren't as strong. For me, my job is to set the vision and to dream and to help with the culture, not to tell you what to do. I actually don't like making the final decision. I want my team members to do that because they know their jobs. I like to collaborate, and I like to listen and hear your thoughts. And then there's the zero-point-one percent of the time where I'm like, “No, we've got to do it this way.” That hardly ever happens.
- Take ownership
I make sure that I'm leading the culture and fostering it in my behavior every day. Also, I make sure that we're doing things right--really knowing what's going on in the business. So, if I make a mistake or didn't see [something] coming, saying, “So how do I fix that next time?”
- Be clear
A key lesson I’ve learned this year is being able to say no quickly, instead of saying, “Yeah, well, this person is nice, so let's see if it works…”
On building an ace team.
- The groundwork for success
I always say that having an amazing culture is extremely important and it gets you through the hard times. I firmly believe that because of the people on my team, we've made it through. It hasn't been an easy time. But because of our culture--some of our values that are so simple: always keeping our word and doing things with a smile—we’ve survived.
- Must-haves for team members
Humor is extremely important. I lead with humor, and that's just me. So, if you can't take a joke and you're not ready to laugh, you can't be on the team. Next, not taking yourself too seriously. No egos. You’ve got to be humble. We're all here to work hard. We all take out the trash. We've got to have that mentality. Also, a can-do attitude. Having the confidence that “I'll get it done,” and not stressing too much. And passion—really loving what you're doing. If it's just a job, it's just that.
I like to collaborate, and I like to listen. And then there's the zero-point-one percent of the time where I'm like, ‘No, we've got to do it this way.’ That hardly ever happens.
On being effective.
- Allow yourself to be human
We talked about this one a lot in our annual performance reviews recently. Everyone is so passionate. They want to do so well. I told the story of how I was playing the U.S. Open and I was killing it: 6-2, 3-1. But in my head, I was saying, “It's not perfect. I'm not playing well. This is awful.” I lose the match. After that, I had to learn to pat myself on the back sometimes. Even though it wasn't perfect the way I wanted it, it was still really great. That's what I'm aiming for—the super high bar. But I've got to also acknowledge what I'm doing at that moment, even if I have a higher bar.
There's a lot of moments of stress, especially this year. So, you have to learn to separate it. Unexpected things happen. Well, what do we do? For myself, it is a 10-minute rule. I've got 10 minutes to be upset about it, and that's it. For my matches, if I don't win, I give myself 24 hours. But for business it's 10 minutes. About five years ago, I had a partner, and it was wasn't working out with him. It was just in the middle of a production cycle, and I was all the way in India. It was terrible. I was like, “Well, if I don't sleep, I'm going to get sick, and I have to play this match.” So that’s how I started making rules for myself: No emails at night—that's done. I took the Scarlett O'Hara theory: “I'll think about that tomorrow.” And I did. I put on a movie on. I said, “I've done all I can do. I'm not going to get a gray hair.”
- Be Coachable
It’s important to take the criticism. It's hard. It's scary when you know what this person is about to say, and you see their lips about to move. Like, “I don't know if I'm ready for this constructive criticism.” So, I say it’s important to be coachable. And it’s become a joke that we make on the team: We take it everywhere else, like a person is “undate-able”--there's always an “-able” at the end. The point is, though, to keep growing.
- Embrace Losing
Experiencing loss—and getting mad, mad, mad as a dog—inspires me every single time. Because the euphoria from winning is unparalleled, but even more unparalleled is the inner anguish from loss. Everybody loses in business, everyone. You just try to test your ideas first. And then if you've lost, you've lost quickly, and hopefully not too expensively.
- Be Different
I tell aspiring entrepreneurs that there's always room as long as you have something to say. But if you don't, then there's no room. Be sure there’s some point of difference--an amazing product or service—and go fly. Just make sure you get some advice along the way.