One of the defining moments of Farell Duclair's life came during a football game in Montreal when he was 13. His team was playing for a championship, a point down, and it had a chance to win on a field goal. The kick sailed wide of the goalposts.
“I was crying my eyes out in the locker room. We worked so hard all season and we lost,” Mr. Duclair recalls. “But I picked myself up, dusted off and tried again. And the next year, we won.”
The lesson he learned from that game would stick with him throughout his career in football, one that took him to varsity teams at the University of Illinois and Concordia and ultimately landed him a spot in the Canadian Football League, where he won the Grey Cup with the Calgary Stampeders in 1998. And that same perseverance, hard work and addiction to the thrill of victory – and the ability to come back after defeat – is coming in handy with this week’s launch of Everest Academy, a private school that trains athletes in Vaughan, Ont.
Mr. Duclair follows in the tradition of many athletes-turned-entrepreneurs who have chased the same competitiveness and desire for success they found in the world of sports. He has also paired his vision with the more pragmatic sensibilities of a business-minded partner, a successful strategy pursued by many business owners before him.
In 2008, he approached Adrian Herschell, a business consultant and former executive at Eatons and other retail companies. Mr. Herschell instructed Mr. Duclair to rewrite his business plan. He pushed him to do demographic research to determine the market demand for the school. He convened focus groups to determine what student athletes would want to see in a school. And he helped him pitch his idea to investors and earn their trust.
The pair still consult weekly and Mr. Duclair credits Mr. Herschell with keeping him on track. Forty students currently attend classes in the morning and spend the afternoon getting intensive training in sports of their choice.
When they considered broadening the school’s mandate to offer arts programs, for instance, the consultant steered them away from that idea.
“It was easy to get deflected by trying to cater to artistic students, too, and trying to reach that market,” Mr. Herschell said. “It was keeping him focused that was part of the challenge.”
Becky Reuber, a professor at the Rotman School of Business and an expert in entrepreneurship, said most start-ups begin life as a partnership.
Ms. Reuber also pointed out several areas where athletic training prepares for life as an entrepreneur.
“If you’re an elite athlete, one thing everyone knows about you is that you’re willing to work really, really hard and you’re willing to listen to advice,” she said. “Both entertainers and athletes tend to be very achievement-oriented; they also tend to be self-motivated.”
An athlete’s psychological makeup may also have something to do with it. “An athlete is a competitive person and business is a competitive atmosphere,” said Don Horwood, a sports psychology expert and retired professor from the University of Alberta. “Plus there’s the adrenalin rush. Every game night there’s an adrenalin rush. It gives you that opportunity to be on, to be battling every single day.”
As he walks the hallways of Everest Academy, tucked into the second floor of a sprawling sports complex, the fit, broad-shouldered Mr. Duclair still looks the part of a running back.
He oversaw the renovations that converted dressing rooms to classrooms, he instructs his staff on how to use the computer system to register students, and he often sweeps the floors himself. When a kid carelessly tosses a piece of plastic wrap on the floor of an upstairs lounge, Mr. Duclair tells him to pick it up and keeps his eye on him as he does.
Mr. Duclair has spent 11 years trying to get the school off the ground, the hardest push coming in the years since he left pro football with a pulled hamstring in 2001.
His first attempts ended in failure because he couldn’t get any parents to sign up. Many were interested in the idea, but they weren’t willing to put down the money. (The rates are $925/month for junior kindergarten to grade 2; $995/month for grade 3 to grade 8; and $1,395 monthly for high school.) In retrospect, he said, he was unprepared to answer their questions about courses and curriculum, and he didn’t have the staff he needed to convince people to come to the school. Over the years, he became involved in other ventures – he runs a gym in Etobicoke – but the idea of a school never left.
“For me to not fulfill my potential, that would drive me to insanity,” he said.
Mr. Horwood, who spent 26 years coaching the University of Alberta’s Golden Bears basketball team, notes that during the early years, most of his players were studying education. In the past decade, however, he has noticed more and more of them studying business, engineering and other professional occupations.
At the end of the day, one of Mr. Duclair’s greatest business advantages is also one of the simplest: Having spent much of his childhood rushing from school to practice, he understands the appeal for young athletes of combining studies and training in the same place.
It worked for Research In Motion and Tim Hortons, and Farell Duclair is banking on it to deliver for his enterprise.
Having a business partner to share ideas with and get encouragement from works best when one side has the vision and the other the cool, rational analysis of an expert.
“What I would say to anybody is ‘find a partner who has the skills that you don’t have,’ ” said Becky Reuber, a professor at the Rotman School of Management and an expert in entrepreneurship. “You want somebody with the business smarts, but you want someone with the knowledge.”
A business-minded partner can also help temper an entrepreneur’s wilder ambitions and keep them focused, said Adrian Herschell, a veteran businessman and consultant with Plutus Consulting Group, who has advised Mr. Duclair on his plans for an athletics-focused school in Vaughan, Ont.
While Mr. Herschell isn’t a partner in his customers’ businesses, he offers frequent and detailed advice, starting with the drafting of a business plan and continuing through the startup process.
Many entrepreneurs, for instance, have a great idea but can’t get it funded. It takes a more business-minded partner to tell them they have to ask for money in tranches in order to prove to investors they can manage it well, he said.
In Mr. Duclair’s case, Mr. Herschell even accompanied him on visits to the bank, to guide his client through the process and to negotiate.
“Entrepreneurs can be very passionate about what they’re doing, but investors want to know someone’s keeping an eye on them,” Mr. Herschell said.