How Formula 1 World Champion Jenson Button Manages Risk As an Entrepreneur
In an exclusive interview, the multi-win racer describes pivoting from the raceway to the business world.
Jenson Button has, by a variety of standards, achieved a lifetime of success in but a few decades of life. From his early days as a racer, this winner of the 2009 Formula 1 World Championship (among many other first-place finishes) racked up victories like a kid grabbing candy, yet manages to come across as remarkably approachable for someone once partially defined by the checkered flag and all of the swag that comes with it.
Sitting across from him, there was no experience of pretense or reticence. Button was casual in dress, approach and manner, and expressed early in our conversation a belief that, without skin in the game, all efforts in the entrepreneurial world are just vacuous expressions of vanity. The 42-year-old is British by birth, yet his "roll up your sleeves" mentality rings true across many cultures, and it is that same approach he applies to his role with British Formula 1 motor racing team, Williams Racing, and a variety of other companies for which his sweat equity is a component.
"Williams Racing gave me my opportunity back in 2000 to race in Formula 1, as they did [for] so many young drivers — giving them the opportunity and see if they had the skills, 'the minerals', as we say," laughs Button. "It's such a lovely team… family-oriented and welcoming. When they asked me to become involved as a senior advisor and ambassador, they brought me in [as] a bit of fresh blood. They put everything in place to develop this into a front-running team, but it takes time… a couple of years. Everything is in place now, but it takes time.
"I owe them something in return for giving me my opportunity in Formula 1," he adds. "Frank Williams, the owner… we were very good friends. I felt it would be nice to be part of this team again. I have a lot of experience and decided to do my small part in helping the team."
The Turning Point
Asked about what awaits many sports professionals after their competitive days are over, Button explains that, "Many struggle to find purpose and direction. They're searching for something that gives them that same energy as fighting for wins. When I won the world championship in 2009, I remember crossing the line in Brazil — finishing fifth in that race, but [that] meant that I'd clinched the championship. I celebrated with loved ones, family and friends, and it was such a special moment. I went back to the hotel, showered, headed out to the party with the mechanics and shook everyone's hands, thanking them for their hard work.
"I found myself leaving after 20 minutes and going back to my hotel room… just sat [there] on my own, and it was the strangest feeling. I'd worked so hard for 23 years to achieve my goal, and sat there thinking about all my life experiences to that point… sacrifices as a kid, my mates, all that I went through, and it was very emotional. But then I thought, 'What happens now?'
"I didn't plan on what would happen after I reached my goal. I don't believe anyone ever truly does. So, it was a weird feeling: I didn't know what the future held for me, but at that moment knew that I needed a new challenge. While I still raced in Japan and [at] Le Mans, I needed something else in my life that I could see as a future. I enjoyed the TV stuff I was doing with Sky Sports F1, but remember getting nervous. My wife used to say, 'What's the worst that can happen?' She was right and has remained very supportive."
From Racer to Entrepreneur
"People say that when you leave Formula 1, you do so at the same age as when you arrived as a driver," said Button. "Everything is done for you in the sport: You drive a racing car, but everything around you is controlled and looked after. Paying bills, ordering food at the circuit, when to eat, getting a massage setup by my physio, meetings, etc… it's all handled so you can focus on the driving element of the job.
"So, it was a reality check leaving Formula 1, but I've loved the process. I enjoyed finding things outside of driving that I'm good at. For example, Radford, a car building company, has fantastic people, and we are working with manufacturers on limited-edition cars, one based on an old Lotus model. Being involved in the design aspects of this stunning car is an area I'm particularly good at. This is a startup with passionate people behind it, working tirelessly day and night.
"I'm also working on other projects - TV, Williams Racing and a whiskey company that makes a Scottish blend called Coachbuilt Whiskey, and my business partner there is a whiskey connoisseur. Sometimes, when you [attach] a well-known name to a brand, it doesn't work because you've taken the easy route and gone for something that isn't high quality, hoping that a famous name sells it. For me, it was the other way around. I only wanted to work with an amazing whiskey, and the only way to do that was to work with a whiskey connoisseur."
Button was born in Frome, UK, and brought up not far from there in Vobster, Mells. Of those earlier days, Button recalls that, "I lived in a village with a handful of houses… my wife was from the suburbs of Roseville, California. I had a great upbringing, with simplicity, but now we live in Hollywood — Bel-Air specifically, and it's different. It's a lovely house with a garden and swimming pool, but it's not necessarily set in reality. It's important that my kids grow up with the same upbringing I had to see what's truly important in life.
"Flying on private jets to Hawaii for holidays is not necessarily normal, so understanding the worth of money and the importance of being a good human being is key. If they're good human beings, that means a job well done for mom and dad. If either wants to go into race car driving, that's fine, but I would never push it. It's important that they find their own direction."
"Skin in the Game"
Button insists upon being materially involved in the brands he supports— that they not be simply endorsement components of a larger equation. He invests directly in those he's a part of, for example, and explains that such a stance makes a real difference. "I'm in a lucky position, [in] that I have had the funds to put into businesses when they've not been doing well," he says. "I've [sometimes] had to put more money into them than I initially thought. It's about being brave, and believing in something enough to put my own money in, not just my name. There is an added commitment if you've got skin in the game."
"I'm not sure I'm the best person to ask about incorporating risk, being a Formula 1 driver, " laughs Button. "When I raced, I knew the dangers were there. There's risk, but it's in the back of your mind. You go through a high-speed corner, and push the way you think [about] limits. It can hurt if you hit the barriers, but it's not at the forefront of your mind.
"I would say I've actually been more scared after Formula 1. Getting into business has been scarier for me. It's probably because I'm not fully in control. I was a control freak, like every racing driver, but you're often not in that position in business, and that's tricky, but it also breeds adrenaline and excitement."
A Holistic Approach to Success
When asked for advice regarding success attainment, Button was quick to recommend "…not jumping at the first thing you think is a great opportunity. Instead, try and understand a company and do your research. I've fallen foul by jumping into something that sounds fantastic but not doing my homework, believing it would be great. Doing that work is key. It's also really important to understand the people you're in business with and what they're looking to get out of the situation."
The multiple championship winner may have once had a singular focus on the car in front of him, but in business he's made a point of widening his gaze — adopting a more holistic approach to the challenge of winning, and that includes being unafraid to acknowledge areas of weakness… to invite strengths into every new garage (as it were), and to hold tight to the conviction that, in many ways, his race has only just begun.
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