When you’re a two-time Olympian, what do you do when suffering through the darkness of an injury? You start your own company. At least that’s what Nick Symmonds did in 2014 with the help of his coach, profits from a previous business investment, and a little entrepreneurial know-how.
As a biochemistry major at Willamette University, a small liberal arts college tucked into the heart of Oregon’s capital city, Nick won seven NCAA Division III titles in track. After graduation, he decided to table his career plans and train with the Oregon Track Club (OTC) in Eugene while pursuing an Olympic medal in the 800-meter. This led him to qualify for the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team competing in the summer Olympics in Beijing, and the 2012 summer Olympics in London.
With a demanding training schedule, it’s no surprise Nick went in search of mental stimulation to balance out downtime between workouts. “If I’ve challenged myself physically and challenged myself mentally through entrepreneurship, it’s a pretty darn good day,” said Nick. This inspired him to join forces with his coach Sam Lapray, and create the product which is now known as Run Gum.
To hear Nick talk about his experiences while competing on a stomach full of heavy, sugar-filled energy drinks is a feeling every runner can probably relate to. The distraction and distress of a gut filled with too much of anything can derail an important race or run, which is why Nick went in search of a better vehicle to deliver caffeine. He calls Run Gum, “an energy drink infused into a piece of chewing gum.”
Run Gum is a light-weight, zero-calorie piece of gum that is portable and can be easily chewed minutes prior to a race or workout. Because chewing a piece of gum while running is uncomfortable for most athletes, Run Gum was designed to deliver a caffeine uptake through sublingual absorption, which is basically sticking something under your tongue so it is absorbed by your blood vessels instead of your digestive tract. This is a much faster means of getting caffeine into your bloodstream. Because of his experience competing as an Olympian, Nick was able to create a product modeled for everyone from elite runners to anyone in need of a quick caffeine boost, “I built this product for me,” he said. Early on, challenges to create the caffeinated gum included fine-tuning the flavor to mask caffeine’s bitter taste. Eventually, the small, hard-shelled gum pieces were perfected for production.
During the first two years, Run Gum maintained a start-up culture where everyone did everything including fulfilling orders, sales and marketing. Throughout this time, Nick says he learned a lesson in patience. And when Sam suggested they hire Nathan Woods as COO to run the company, Nick entrusted Sam with the decision. His advice comes with perspective, “Trust yourself to hire the right person. Trust them and empower them to get the job done,” Nick says.
With Run Gum in its third year of operation, Nick is the CEO and can tell the story behind the business while marketing the brand. Sam runs the finance side as CFO, and Nathan runs the day-to-day business operations as COO. As a team, they are spread out on the west coast, but connect face-to-face for daily meetings using video conferencing. As CEO, an important question that Nick makes sure he asks his employees is, “What do you need to be successful?” Whether it’s new software or a one-on-one meeting, Nick tries to empower his employees with the capabilities to be the best at what they do. That said, he’s also a proponent of alleviating burnout with the occasional outdoor adventure. Whether running or fishing, Nick makes sure to spend some down time getting fresh air to regenerate when things get stressful.
It’s a good thing, because Nick is not one to back down from fighting for the rights of athletes. After winning the 800-meter in the 2015 U.S. World Championships, Symmonds who is sponsored by Brooks, refused to sign a code of conduct requiring him to wear another brand of clothing for Team USA at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing. His request to have the language of the agreement altered to protect his right to wear Brooks apparel resulted in him being left off the roster without a chance to defend his 2013 silver medal at the World Championships.
In 2016, Run Gum also filed an antitrust lawsuit against USA Track & Field (USATF) and the U.S. Olympic Committee to allow Run Gum’s logo on competition apparel at the Olympic trials taking place in Eugene, Oregon that year. The lawsuit was dismissed, but both the USATF and U.S. Olympic Committee settled to let athletes have non-shoe logos on their jerseys at the trials.
Nick’s efforts to take on the USATF solo have helped him develop a reputation for being outspoken and controversial, but no one can argue that he’s not doing his best to change an out-dated, ancient system. It’s a task only a few athletes have attempted to take on due to the red tape surrounding an uphill battle. But expecting anything less from Nick Symmonds would be unheard of.
Which is why it shouldn’t be surprising that Run Gum expects to triple their sales this year, as they continue to expand distribution of their three flavors: fruit, mint and cinnamon, as well as a variety pack. They are also planning on relocating their main headquarters to Eugene, bringing Run Gum back to Track Town USA – the place where it all began. Visit rungum.com to find out more.