Good entrepreneurs: How competitive athletes benefit from their experience

Manuel Heyden, CEO and founder of the fintech startup nextmarkets.


Manuel Heyden learned early on what discipline means. At the age of 15 he trained in the tennis academy of the legendary coach Günther Bosch in Salzburg, who led Boris Becker to two Wimbledon victories. His workload comprised four to six hours a day – in addition to school lessons and homework. He played in international youth tournaments and was aiming for a professional career. “Then came the point where I knew I wasn’t good enough for this,” he says.

Today Heyden is an entrepreneur. At 19, he founded his first online marketing company. He is now CEO of the Cologne-based fintech startup Nextmarkets, in which star investor Peter Thiel also invested four years ago. With his brother and 35 employees, Heyden wants to make stock markets accessible to everyone via an app. According to its own information, the company has annual sales of millions.

“There are certainly parallels between competitive sport and entrepreneurship,” Heyden explains in an interview with As CEO, he benefits enormously from his experience. Even in tennis, he had to set himself ambitious goals and, to achieve them, always surpass himself. “I worked very hard,” he says. As an entrepreneur, it is no different.

Mastering defeats with confidence

A study by the EBS University in Hesse shows that competitive athletes can generally be good managers. The study’s authors write that athletes are career-oriented, disciplined, committed, confident, and stress-resistant. All of these qualities that also help you in your professional life.

Another advantage: Those who often compete learn to deal confidently with defeats and setbacks. “Self-reflection is important as an entrepreneur,” says Heyden. A tennis match can last up to five sets. Whoever wins the first two can still lose.

The founder and CEO draws an analogy to corporate management. “It goes up three steps, and shortly afterwards two steps down,” he says. When an order goes to a competitor, you have to be able to continue. Likewise if an investor’s pitch fails.

It’s similar in training. Again and again an athlete has to analyze where his weaknesses lie – and work on them. Good managers should also have the potential to spot problems and work on them until they are resolved. “In the end, it is the substance that prevails and not the superficiality,” says Heyden.

Curse and blessing at the same time

These personality traits can be a curse and a blessing at the same time. The study by the EBS University also shows that athletes are extremely determined and focused on their performance. Of course, this helps on the one hand in the job. On the other hand, it is difficult when someone is leading the staff, not looking left and right on his way.

HR managers interviewed during the study warned that exaggerated involvement is a hindrance on the part of former athletes when they are like “acting in a tunnel” or “overshooting the mark”.

Heyden is less critical of this. “You can’t make the mistake of being arrogant even when things are going well,” he says. His impression, however, is more that competitive athletes learn early on that a certain degree of humility is important and therefore tend to be less likely to overestimate themselves.

Always keep your goal in mind

Heyden’s tip for professional success: Always keep your goal in mind. “Even if it doesn’t go up.” It is important not to let yourself be dissuaded from an idea, a path or a product that you want to develop if there are setbacks.

As an entrepreneur, Heyden also had a lot to learn. In tennis, when he wasn’t performing, it mainly affected himself. As the CEO of a start-up, however, he is responsible for all of the company’s stakeholders.

People still love to go to the tennis court. Even if Heyden did not become a professional, the many hours of training in his youth were certainly well invested – maybe they brought him a little way to where he is today.


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