How This Olympian, Soldier, Dad and Entrepreneur Does it All
Editor’s Note: Entrepreneur’s “20 Questions” series features both established and up-and-coming entrepreneurs and asks them a number of questions about what makes them tick, their everyday success strategies and advice for aspiring founders.
Staff Sgt. John Nunn is a busy man. He serves his country in the U.S. Army Reserve, is planning to attend the Army Physicians Assistant Program and owns his own cookie business, Ella’s Cookies, with his daughter, Ella. Oh, and he also happens to be on his way to his third Olympic games in Rio in the 50 kilometer race walk.
Nunn does it all in hopes of making his biggest fan, Ella, proud. “I want to be a better person and a stronger contributor to society so that she can see what she can grow up to be like,” Nunn says. “At the same time I want to be a good person, because I want her to be proud of me and be happy that I’m in her life.”
Nunn says that it surprisingly isn’t difficult for him to transition from his athletic mindset to his business mindset, as he explains that the two jobs are very similar. “The mindframe that you have to be an Olympic athlete parlays easily into entrepreneurship,” he says. “There’s an awful lot of groundwork that has to be laid and things have to be done and nobody is going to do it but you.”
For now, Ella’s cookies is staffed by Nunn and his daughter, but they are looking at the possibility of expanding and finding more employees -- of course, that can come after Rio.
We caught up with Nunn before he headed to Rio to see how he does it all and to find out what makes him tick:
1. How do you start your day?
I start my day by checking the specific gravity of my urine, because it lets me know whether I am dehydrated or not. That way I can keep track of whether I’m ready to go workout for the morning or whether I need to drink something and wait a while to let my body become more hydrated before I go workout.
2. How do you end your day?
Reading the news and catching up on current events. I don’t watch tons of shows, but I will lay in bed and check the news on my phone out of curiosity of what happened around the world so that I can stay current.
3. What is a book that has changed your mind and why?
A Lucky Child. It’s about a boy who escaped dying in concentration camps during World War 2. I was fascinated by just how lucky he became. Weird things kept happening, but his life was saved in the long run.
That parlays into athletics and business. You can be aggressive and accomplish things but also be kind at the same time. You’re going to acquire more friends and more respect through kindness and saying thank you than you are being mean and violent towards those around you.
4. What’s a book you would recommend?
The same book. Noticing the people who went out of their way to help this little boy, unbenounced to the boy, and they had no reason or interest to help him, other than being kind. It opened my eyes about how it’s a good thing to be nice to those around you.
5. What is a strategy you use to keep focused?
I’m pretty intense when it comes to training and doing the cookies. After about an hour or so at work I will take some downtime for a couple of minutes. If I’m training, even if the workout is two or three hours long, after I’m done I will take 30 minutes and relax before I move on.
6. What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a podiatrist. I figured everyone uses their feet and ignores them until they start hurting, so I thought, great, I will always have a clientele base.
7. What have you learned from the worst boss you ever had?
I think it goes back to being kind, there are so many things that can be accomplished in life either by being a complete jerk or having compassion for others -- those who have compassion seem to advance further in life than those who are complete jerks. I have had a boss or two in the past that were complete jerks and got things done, but the morale was way down.
8. Who influenced you most when it comes to how you approach work?
It’s been a handful of various people and different qualities about each of those people that I try to emulate and incorporate into my own life.
I met a guy who was one of the most fascinating people I ever met. Prior to World War 2 he served a Mormon mission in Germany. He was over there for three years, and in the process fell in love with the people. He came home and within a couple months was drafted and sent back to Germany to fight those same people that he grew. He said unfortunately, it was just how life happened, and I served my religion and my country, but I’m a good person and I did what was asked. It was amazing sitting and listening to those stories and realizing the lack of hatred and the lack of filling jaded or upset.
9. What is a trip that has changed you?
After the London Olympics, my daughter and I took a trip around parts of Europe, and we got a chance to spend time together and see some iconic locations. It really opened her eyes, and she realized that the world was a bigger place. You have all of these people that are here living different lives. That was the point: to try to provide more opportunities for her and help her realize that the world is a great place. It changed my outlook on life, too.
10. What inspires you?
My daughter. I want to be a better person and a stronger contributor to society, so she can see what she can grow up to be like, while at the same time wanting to be a good person, because I want her to be proud of me and be happy that I’m in her life.
11. What was your first business idea and what did you do with it?
When I was a kid, I remember one of my older sisters and I went to the store and bought a bunch of candy, set up a card table, and just started selling candy in front of our house. We were so excited, because on the first day we had made $20 each. Lack of attention or losing interest caused us to move on to other things.
12. What is an early job that taught you something important or useful?
When I was 14 I worked at McDonald’s and remember hating going in. They couldn't let me do much, I was so young, but I could work the register and do french fries. It sounds so ridiculous but they stuck me on french fries for six to eight hours at a time. All I would do is bag french fries and hand them to people. I thought life cannot get worse than this. I realized if I can get through this, I can get through anything. It taught me how to be diligent and persistent. Work will always come and go, but what you do with it is what’s going to matter.
13. What is the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Treat others the way you want to be treated. I find especially in the world we live in today -- with political unrest, wild things happening due to human interaction -- it would solve so many issues if people treated others the way they want to be treated.
14. What is the worst advice you ever received?
Training for the Olympics is a very selfish thing. I get told during it, “now’s the time to think about yourself.” That’s always been hard for me to do, and I’ve always thought of it as bad advice.
I have worked very hard at learning how to juggle all the many things I have going on, and I found my life to be more complete when I am thinking about others and trying to be a good person.
15. What is a productivity tip that you swear by?
I think it’s that persistence pays off. There are many times, especially with training and the cookie business, that I just have no interest in doing what I have to do to be successful. But as I continue to be persistent and just keep dealing with the daily grind, eventually light shows up at the end of the tunnel, and you accomplish things you never thought you would be able to accomplish.
16. Do you use any apps or productivity tools to get work done?
No, other than the calendar on my iPhone to put things in. And I have a Garmin watch that has heart-rate monitors and things like that on it, so it notifies me when things are happening that I need to take care of.
17. What does work-life balance mean to you?
Trying not to put all your eggs in one basket. I try hard to balance the day out with multiple things, and it makes life a lot less stressful. If something goes bad I have a very short time to think about it, because I have to move on to something else.
18. How do you prevent burnout?
I have a handful of things going at the same time. I am able to focus more on the most important thing but knowing that there are other things that I have to accomplish makes it easier, so I don’t feel exhausted or overburdened by one event or one thing that’s going on.
19. When you’re faced with a creativity block, how do you overcome it?
Usually taking a break. I will do something I enjoy and then come back. My mind is a little more clear and usually things start coming back.
20. What are you learning now and why is it important?
Right now I am finishing up some classes, so I can get into the Army’s Physician Assistant Program. I have also been reading books on how to be a better person. Everyone always wants to work or interact with someone who is kinder and is willing to listen to them.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.