Symmonds has an impressive array of running accolades. But while regular people like myself can never run an 800 as fast as Nick Symmonds, they can relate to what he does off the track. Nick Symmonds has a startup called Run Gum, a gum company that makes caffeinated gum. Due to age and injury, Symmonds is no longer an Olympic runner, but Run Gum was an $800,000 valued company as of January 1, 2019. Symmonds also started a YouTube channel with over 353,000 followers.
When you watch Nick Symmonds on YouTube, he doesn’t strike you as an Olympic runner. He just strikes you as a personable, charismatic guy with a sense of humor. As a runner myself, he provides an inside view into the precarious world of professional, Olympic-caliber running that I previously knew nothing about. He simultaneously entertains, informs, and educates in a way I have seen no other runner be transparent about. I used to put Symmonds and his elite speed on a pedestal — now I realize he’s just a relatable person who I have more in common with than not.
To me, the world of running, and particularly middle and long-distance running where Symmonds specialized, is very obscure. Few non-runners can name who the best distance runners in the country in the country are, as the sport’s popularity pales in the face of basketball, football, baseball, hockey, and well, you get the point. Running is simply very far down the list of America’s sports.
What Symmonds has done is incredible — he has popularized running beyond the tight-knit circle of the running community and engaged an audience previously inaccessible.
Symmonds spoke to Pete Danko at the Portland Business Journal in 2019 about how he built a business while being an elite runner. Run Gum has exceeded his expectations — it went nationwide with Target and is being sold at Walmart too. I personally have never used Run Gum and can’t vouch for its effectiveness as caffeinated gum, but Symmonds also strategically chose Eugene, Oregon, as the business hub of Run Gum. Eugene is the running capital of America, home to the University of Oregon. This gives Symmonds the opportunity to hire “great talent” with a low cost of operation and cost of living.
There are pros and cons to no longer being a professional runner for Symmonds’s business and brand. Symmonds’s most impressive running accomplishment was earning a silver medal at the 2013 World Championships, ranking second in the world. Being the second-ranked runner in the world gave him plenty of media attention to launching Run Gum.
However, at the time, he found it difficult to focus on his business because running was the top priority in his life. With a goal of tripling his company’s revenue, he can now work 80 hours a week in service of his business.
Symmonds sees all his business and entrepreneurial activities as intertwined. Symmonds’s YouTube videos routinely get over 100,000 views. He has a series of videos where he challenges strangers to beat him in a race, offering $100 if they can defeat him. One video where he challenges random people on Venice Beach gained 6.7 million videos. For him, YouTube gave him a platform to build a platform with the running community, and particularly for people who take themselves very seriously to loosen up and have fun.
Interestingly, Symmonds has gained a lot of criticism in the running community, and particularly on the running forum of LetsRun. One poster, who previously called Symmonds one of his favorite athletes, now calls him a “clickbait youtube stunt performer.” Other commenters have more scathing words for an athlete they once respected, but the numbers speak for themselves — having over 350,000 YouTube subscribers and a company worth over $800,000 is incredibly impressive for any runner.
Symmonds not only makes money from his business, but from YouTube. He is transparent about making $2,000 or $3,000 for a video that makes 1 million views, but the fact remains he lives a very different life now than he did when he was a professional runner. For Nick Symmonds, “being a pro runner sucks 90 percent of the time” due to the hard work of traveling and training that leads you to miss your family and have a personal life. Not to mention he was constantly getting sick and injured then, and he feels healthier now. He says he spent many of his years as a professional athlete very, very depressed, having to make so many sacrifices for his sport.
Interestingly, Symmonds lists his top post-running career pursuits as climbing the highest peak in each continent and getting a private pilot’s license.
When Symmonds retired, however, the New York Times called him a “polarizing force in track and field.” Symmonds was transparent about seeing running as a way to market his products. He was also more vocal about politics and athletes’ rights than most runners, being outspoken on gay rights and gun control. He was in the news for refusing to wear Nike gear at the 2015 world championships since he was sponsored by Brooks. He sued the United States Olympic Committee and USA Track & Field for violating antitrust laws. With most athletes struggling to make ends meet, Symmonds has made proposals for getting Olympic athletes paid more.
He is now a social media star, but I wouldn’t call him an influencer as much as he is an entertainer. He has a lifetime of making headlines throughout his life — he dated Paris Hilton, he criticized an anti-LGBTQ law in Russia while competing in Russia when he won a silver medal. He developed a reputation for always speaking his mind, whether people liked it or not.
“Maybe it’s the arrogance of youth or just high from coming off winning that silver medal, but I’m like, ‘I’m untouchable right now, I can say whatever I want,’” he said in 2013.
Now as an entrepreneur, it’s clear to me Symmonds is being himself, having fun, and speaking up for what he believed in. Some coaches attribute Symmonds’s entrepreneurial success to his discipline, but Symmonds says his biggest regret is that he didn’t start his YouTube channel earlier in his life. As a runner, I know the discipline the sport requires, and Symmonds has translated many of the demands of training as a world-class athlete to making a flourishing business and YouTube channel.
I’m confident Nick Symmonds is just getting started. If the trajectory of his business and YouTube channel were like the 800 meters, I would not say he’s even 400 meters through. And 400 meters in, Symmonds is almost never in first place — sometimes he’s even in last. But he has a lot more left in the tank to finish strong.
“In the last decade, Nick had a big influence on what athletes believe they own and what rights they are entitled to,” said Adam Nelson, the president of the Track and Field Athletes Association.
How Symmonds has succeeded as an entrepreneur and a YouTuber is through leveraging his brand and credibility as an Olympic runner and athlete. However, he has done more than leverage his credibility. He has leveraged his personality. Nick Symmonds is simply a funny and relatable person who isn’t afraid to say what’s on his mind, and he clearly treats every person he interacts with with respect in his videos. While he is no longer dominating headlines for the sponsorship episode with Nike and USA Track & Field, Symmonds empowered many athletes to advocate for themselves, and is now doing so in a new manner.
Whatever you think about Nick Symmonds, whether you love him or hate him, you can’t help but respect his willingness to put himself out there and garner attention in very unorthodox ways. No matter what snide comments people have of Nick Symmonds on LetsRun, it’s clear those opinions don’t phase or define him much.
Entrepreneurship, like running, has its ebbs and flows. Some days just feel terrible when you don’t get the results you want in a workout. Some days, you can have the best race of your life and run the third best time in American history, and still come in 5th place. Some days you can feel invincible and on top of the world. Whatever happens, each day is very uncertain.
Nick Symmonds is more than just an Olympic athlete, entrepreneur, business owner, and YouTuber. He is a regular, relatable person who loves to have fun — perhaps that part of his business is the biggest key to his success.
Originally published on Medium on 4/19/2021.