The Rungs of Learning with Peter Chee, Serial Entrepreneur and Accomplished Endurance Athlete
Peter Chee and I met in 2019 at a live podcast recording at Nuun headquarters. I was a guest on the podcast as was a friend of his that he came to support. We got to chatting and became fast friends after talking about running (of course) and entrepreneurship.
Every conversation I've had with Peter goes deep fast. He's a consummate learner, super curious and his level of self awareness is off the charts.
I'm confident you'll pick up a nugget or two from him in this month's Rungs of Learning.
Tell me a little bit about your "pre-entrepreneur" background.
I have a technology background in database engineering. I’ve always been a part of startup or small companies which has been my favorite. They taught me how to work hard and launch stuff (I have spent my fair share of working six days a week and sleeping in the office). I know that some things take that kind of effort and know I can put that kind of energy to get something going.
At some point, I think I was working at Disney, I realized that I stopped doing a lot of the core engineering work that I loved doing and I was spending a lot more time doing email and managing conversations with general managers in different business units. Although I’d probably do a better job today then back then, I was feeling like it wasn’t in alignment with what I really wanted to do.
I decided that I need to stop working for big companies and go build something for myself. All that energy I was pouring into building other companies, I could point that energy toward my own company, myself and my family and I wanted to at least try it.
I got out of tech and started getting into some real estate development projects. I’d been involved in real estate since I had my driver’s license. My parents owned some rentals, and my responsibility was to be the property manager when I was a teenager. I realized I loved the physical nature and permanence of real estate versus tech and that was my early entry into entrepreneurship.
How old were you when you realized that the corporate life was not for you?
I was in my mid-thirties when I started to feel like it was time to take stock of where I was putting my energy and time. I valued all the experiences I had and I’m glad I slept on the floor in my office a few times. These things trained me to realize that I can do whatever it takes to get things done.
My pattern in my life has been that every four years or so, something needs to shift and change. Otherwise, I’m stagnating and not growing.
What did you learn during that time that you brought with you when you turned into an entrepreneur? What, if anything, did you leave behind?
One of the biggest things I learned was when I was part of a startup company that raised $21million and I was one of the first employees of the company. We managed to blow through $21million in eleven months. Before we imploded, I could see all the waste and carelessness. That is something I’ve become very focused in on in all the things I do now. It's about financial thoughtfulness in everything I’m touching. I call it being “frugal, scrappy, and happy” and that’s my tagline whenever I start up a company.
The tenacity to get stuff done is also an important piece no matter where you’re working - a big company or as an entrepreneur.
How many companies do you run today and how do you manage them? It seems like it could be complicated. What have you learned? I own four companies right now and I’m learning how to do it. I’m doing a lot of experiments on how to keep them organized and moving forward at the same time. And putting enough care into them and making sure I have the right people around me. If I have the right people with the right expertise around me, things can get done. I’ve learned over time that I can manage people that know way more than me. It took time to build that confidence and now know that I don’t have to do every single thing.
You've been an accelerator advisor or board member several times over. What are some of the most common things you teach them?
One of the things I helped launch in Seattle was the Entrepreneur’s Organization accelerator program. The target was finding founders of companies that had a minimum of $250,000 in revenue or funding and helping them accelerate to reach $1 million in revenue in twelve months. It was about helping them put in the right foundational pillars: sales, marketing, people/core values and operations. It was teaching them to step away from the business so they could work “on” the business. Small companies are always battling that part of it because they’re wearing all the hats and it’s hard to step away from that. We show them how to commit to taking a periodic half day off to focus on the business and not get caught up in the chaos of the day. We also teach them how to avoid big mistakes to have a better chance of surviving.
I think another piece of it is some of the strategy and looking forward toward the unknown can be uncomfortable. Entrepreneurs can default back to the day to day because they know it. You feel really competent in those kinds of the activities but working on the growth of the business can be uncomfortable because you’re unsure that what you’re trying to implement is going to work.
I've heard you talk about learning from failure. Can you share a specific story about this and the key learnings you took from it?
I have a huge list of failures. I think I’ve made every mistake in the book and that’s great because there’s a lot of learning involved there. I used to think that success was achieving some enormous goal like a revenue milestone or winning some award. Also feeling like success is something that someone else has defined as the bar you have to reach otherwise, you’re not successful.
Somewhere along the line I started to think about whether I reach that goal or not, most people around me don’t care. They care that I showed up and gave my full effort and heart. So, I realized I’m going to just keep going for it whether or not I achieved whatever success bar is out there.
That’s the most important thing learning about failure. I already know failure is baked into every single thing I’m doing so if I’m not failing, then maybe I’m not setting a high enough goal.
You're a very accomplished endurance athlete. What have athletics taught you about entrepreneurship and vice versa?
I’ve done 20 marathons, five ultra marathons, one ironman and have achieved two Fastest Known Times (FKT). One of those FKTs was a 28 mile on the northern part of the Pacific Crest Trail. I went unsupported/solo and carried a pack because I had to camp out overnight to come back. It was unnerving and I had to trust my GPS but it ended up being one of my top three experiences while running.
I also did Rim to Rim to Rim (in the Grand Canyon). I went with three other guys and we all decided that if someone gets injured, we’d leave them behind because we didn’t want to ruin it for the rest of us. Well guess who got injured? Me. I rolled an ankle early on but I was able to shake it off and kept running. Later though, about half way in the run, I rolled the same ankle again and it flattened me. It was 10:30pm and I could see my friends' headlamps disappearing into the darkness. I couldn’t even get up. There was no one around us and I knew I’d have to run through the middle of the Grand Canyon in the dark. There's no one to call for help so I got up and started walking it off. Eventually I shook it off and I ended up catching up with them.
I’ve always had a lot of grit and the ability to push through pretty much anything. The endurance training itself has taught me discipline that wasn’t necessarily as solid before. Being able to have massive amounts of discipline, commitment, and structure is something that is so important for entrepreneurial success. Startups are inherently chaotic, and you can’t just be running wild. You have to be grounded, disciplined and be able to grind through certain things.
The other thing I’ve learned is that best athletes in the world still have coaches. They’re at the top of their game but they still pull in people to help them grow and get better. They don’t just have training plan/physical coaches but mindfulness coaches. I looked at what I needed help the most and I thought, wow, if my mindset was stronger, I’d be better as an athlete and better as an entrepreneur. If I was able to be more calm in more situations and when you’re in the calm state, you’re able to think more clearly and make better decisions.
How has the power of community contributed to your learning journey as an entrepreneur and/or athlete?
Community is super critical. Being able to find people who are at a similar stage as you in both the business startup world and in running endeavors is absolutely critical to stay motivated and share those experiences. I feel super supported in my community, knowing that I have these trusted people in my circle that, when something’s really rough, I can tap into that.
It's really important to have that support that feels non-judgmental and caring and step into that for others. Most of the time, we’re stepping into things we haven’t done before and/or I’m pushing myself harder than I’ve pushed myself before.
What are you focusing your learning on these days?
I’m asking myself “why” I’m doing things right nw. Just because I can, doesn’t mean I should. The things I’m injecting in my life now, I’m asking why I’m putting my time and energy toward that.
I want to be in a place of alignment right now in every aspect of my life. I don’t want to run away from the tough stuff or the stuff I didn’t originally put attention toward. I’m focused on letting go of the things that, just because I could do it, doesn’t mean I’m going to put my energy toward it any longer.
It’s hard. I feel gravity pulling me into things that are comfortable all the time. But the uncomfortable stuff makes me cringe but that’s the feeling that I need to put more time and energy toward it.
One of Peter's businesses is ThinkSpace, a coworking and event place for entrepreneurs to work, share and innovate together.