Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Brent Reinke, welcome to the Intrepid Entrepreneur Podcast.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: This is Kristin Carpenter and you’re listening to the Intrepid Entrepreneur podcast my opportunity to talk to entrepreneurs and leaders of entrepreneurial businesses within the outdoor, bike, snow sports, endurance and travel markets. On the Intrepid Entrepreneur you’ll hear the stories of our industries most visionary founders. You’ll learn what inspires us, what pivotal decisions brought us to launch beyond and how our passion for being outdoors shapes our companies and our legacies. Founders in the outdoor markets are the definition of passion driven and the Intrepid Entrepreneur podcast exists to share our stories.
You’re listening to the Intrepid Entrepreneur podcast episode number 63. Welcome everybody I’m so excited that you’re here and thank you so much for taking the time to be here with me today. I am really stooped to be able to share my guest with you today. Her topic I think will hit a nerve with so many business owners and brands within the out directive lifestyle markets. I can remember 14 ½ years ago when my founding client Metolius climbing – awesome company by the way – and I sat down to talk about what they needed from a public relations standpoint. That’s a long time ago and one of their biggest pain points was that damn athlete team. The athlete team took a lot of resources to manage obviously a lot of resources from an investment dollars standpoint for gear, etc. and my client did not understand the ROY on that. Honestly in one form or another that has plagued every single client I’ve worked with in the out directive lifestyle market.
Today you are going to have a front row seat of that job description being rewritten and recast to reflect today’s I think digital direct equation in terms of end consumer engagement and different key performance indicators such as audience growth and engagement, share a voice online, etc. You’re about to meet Sonya Looney who is an incredibly talented endurance mountain bike athlete. She competes on a global level and she is literally rewriting what it means to be a useful, resourceful team player – I guess is the best way to put it – ambassador for the brands that she represents. This is applicable to all of our markets so here we go. This is going to be a great interview with Sonya Looney. Thanks so much.
Sonya Looney welcome to the Intrepid Entrepreneur Podcast. I’m so stoked to have you here.
Sonya Looney: Hi, thanks for having me.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Well we are right at the beginning of the spring cycling season and dear audience I feel so fortunate to have Sonya here with us today. She is an ultra-endurance cyclist, a speaker and a writer and she is here to talk about the athlete as entrepreneur. I know so many people in my community are just clambering for information on this and I just can’t wait to hear what it’s been like for you in your journey going from where you went in terms of a full time job to being an athlete entrepreneur. Why don’t we go ahead and just cannonball into the deep end Sonya? You can tell us a little bit about where you came from, where you are now and then we’ll chat a little bit about where you’re going to be going next.
Sonya Looney: That sounds great. I guess I’ll just guess started and make a big splash in my cannonball. I started school and my goal was to become an electrical engineer so in undergraduate I was working on my engineering degree half way through discovered cycling. I’d never been a cyclist before and frankly didn’t even know the sport. I thought it was just a bunch of dorks who earned neon status and rode around which is ironically what I do now.
I have a funny picture on my athlete page and my Instagram of me and my newest cycling kit and some people really hate it and some people really love it so I actually think it’s funny when people hate it.
I was going to school and I decided to go to graduate school to get my Master’s degree in electrical engineering and it was really because I wanted to move to Boulder Colorado because I fell in love with cycling. I was new to it and I knew that what better place to be than to be a cyclist. I managed to get into the PhD program and get a fellowship there at Boulder and went to grad school. After grad school I was involved in cycling the team there and everything and that helped me further develop into cycling.
Then I started working for a startup company doing solar engineering. During this time while I was in grad school I realized I didn’t really like engineering but I liked the challenges that it offered in terms of intellectual challenge. And whenever I was working as an engineer for a startup company I realized I didn’t really like engineering still but I was more interested in the business and marketing and things that you learn as a startup than the engineering part of it. Meanwhile I’m a new pro-cyclist trying to build up my resume, build up my career but I hadn’t done a whole lot and I’d started a blog, wrote a blog about an ergon bag pack that I had used. Ergon had actually contacted me and offered me a job and a spot on their team which was completely a surprise to me. It was exactly the direction I wanted to go – marketing – so I thought “wow this is perfect”. They basically hired me because of my ability to be a good brand ambassador because of my intrinsic ability with marketing and I quit my job as an engineer and was thankful to do that.
I went to work for Ergon and I got to travel around the United States for five years, so bike shops meanwhile I started building my personal brand and building on a speaking series, racing when I could along with my travel and also building connections community all over the United States. That was a really amazing opportunity for me as a cyclist and as a business person to get out there and figure things out.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: I have a really quick question before you go. I think you were just going there. Give us a little bit of a timeline. Were you about to say that was two years ago or was it four years ago?
Sonya Looney: I was 24 when I finished my Master’s degree. I think I was 26 when I started working for Ergon or 25. When I was 30 I quit my job with ergon and I quit the team I was on and I decided that I wanted to go on my own because the travel I was really struggling to raise my career as a cyclist was really taking off during this time. I wasn’t really able to train very much because I was travelling a lot and it was taking away from my training and I also wasn’t growing anymore as someone in a marketing position and I was just doing the same thing every day which is totally fine but for me I need to be constantly changing and learning to stay engaged.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: That surprises me though because marketing continues to change so much and it’s interesting that you felt like you’re doing some of the same things over and over.
Sonya Looney: That’s true. I think because you have a certain amount of control in your role when you’re working for somebody versus when you’re working for yourself. I wanted to see what would happen if I quit my job and I quit my team and went off on my own. This was a very intimidating thing to do because if you have a job that’s flexible enough to allow you to train and race your bike consider yourself lucky and count your lucky stars. So to leave an awesome job like that and to go on my own was a big risk because I thought well if it doesn’t work out then what job am I going to get and what am I going to do? But I had to do it.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: I love this. I have to just quickly interject. Most of the people I interview are really proud looking back on the time when they left their full time position or maybe they got Master’s degree or professional degree and they were in that role and they’ve spent their whole life working toward that but then they realized they wanted something else they leave. You’ve done that twice. You’ve left for you dream position with the flexibility and actual pro-cycling opportunity combined with marketing then you left that again. So you’ve had two major pivots in your career leading me to believe that you’re born and bred in entrepreneur Sonya.
Sonya Looney: Yes thank you. And a good and bad thing another idea that I wanted to do too but a limited amount of time, one of them being starting my own brewery here in Colona B.C where I’m currently living. If anybody wants to start a brewery and wants to become a head brewer out here contact me because I might have some opportunities for you.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: That’s so cool. I’m sorry I took you off track. I totally read you and I think we should spend a little more time talking about just the gap jump when you left the team and you became an athlete entrepreneur but not tied to a team is that right? Were you still racing? Can you give is a little bit of an insight what that transition has been like?
Sonya Looney: I’m still doing this. My focus is ultra-endurance mountain bike racing. My goal is to travel the world and go to crazy places that you probably wouldn’t go to on your own and do point to point stage races so every day you ride a certain distance or you race a distance point to point. It’s an amazing way to see parts of the world that you wouldn’t see if you went as a tourist. It’s also an incredible way to build an international community because the types of people that go to stage races are either high end pro racers who are trying to make a career out of racing or you have the people that can afford to go do stage races and take the time off of work.
The people you meet at stage races are these extremely brilliant, vivacious, incredible people who a lot of them are business owners so it’s fun that you meet these people who are really successful people and you get to hear their story too. I’m digressing again but yes I wanted to do stage racing. I said okay well now I need to build partners that want to support an adventure lifestyle and not just racing and getting results but what brands want to align themselves and what brands are going to drive the most investment frankly from the products I’m using I’m promoting from the type of racing and lifestyle that I’m trying to promote and encourage other people to do.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Well right there just so you know having been in brand communications for I think almost 15 years and then writing about gear before that and interviewing athletes what you just said is really rare for an athlete and I want the audience to take note. That might be the special facet to Sonya Looney that we can emulate as we’re looking at athlete as entrepreneur. You’re literally thinking about “Here’s what my why is. Here’s my passion and I want to partner with brands that totally have exactly the same emphasis and reach.” It’s like a reach desire, the same audience you want to touch into together and that’s just so thoughtful compared to a lot of other athletes I think that are just trying to get sponsorship to go on trips. They are a lot more short sighted. They don’t think about the product cycle.
Sonya Looney: Yes you have to think, “How is this relevant to them?” not “How is it relevant to me?”
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Yes exactly and also that helps build you at the same time if you’re thoughtful about who your partners are.
Sonya Looney: Yes and it’s great because you learn. The biggest part of my day is education. So learning how to get better at what I do and also to look at what other people are doing not even necessarily professional cyclist but what are other people who are good at their job doing and pulling out the things that are effective there, learning how to get better at all the different social medias that I’m working with and how their algorithm is changing on a weekly basis. Also reading about the industry and what the industry’s doing and what all these individual brands are doing and learning their stories because you have to look at it from both sides of the coin. I think that working for Ergon at the brand side of things was helpful for me because I saw the other side and then I could come at it from the athlete’s side too.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Are you also looking for sponsorship partners outside of bike? Because as you said when you were first talking about your goal with partnerships you were talking about the lifestyle so I would think that you would be an appealing person for tech company and all kinds of different companies.
Sonya Looney: Yes exactly. People keep asking me what’s my goal and I’ve actually been having a hard time defining that now because I won the world championship last year and I’m on my own doing well as an athlete so I’ve achieved all the goals that I have set for myself which is awesome and now I’m like “What’s next?” Learning how brands outside the bike industry non-endemic partners operate and function and then partnering with them also improves my reach because then maybe I can get more people on bikes. We keep saying how we get more people riding more bikes? How do we get more women on bikes? You go to go outside the bike industry. You got to find them.
I’ve been working doing some public speaking and last year I spoke at five different conferences outside the bike industry and the result was that people were coming to me wanting to get on mountain bikes and go out and have adventures.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: That’s awesome.
Sonya Looney: You can reach just by being yourself and telling your story.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: I just think in today’s era of the connected consumer and the connected audiences that we’re doing that with, we’re having that dialogue with. We’ve never had the opportunity to actually laser focus in on a target profile if you will of a person find them on where are their social platforms and engage them in a two way conversation around your story. I want to back up a little bit because I think what you talked about around when you were going around the country I think probably spreading the love on Ergon probably as an athlete tech rep I imagine. Is that right?
Sonya Looney: Yes.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: It sounds like you’ve made yourself very accessible to the communities you visited and that has really tied into your love for what you do but also your audience growth. Is that right?
Sonya Looney: That’s right. You had said something that two ways to communication and I think that’s a key takeaway for our listening. It’s not just about putting cool content out there. It’s about responding to every single person if you can who’s engaging with you because if you’re just putting pictures out there you’re not really building a relationship with anybody you’re just putting cool pictures out there.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Yes exactly. How do you do that with all that you have going on? Do you just do it because it’s inherently who you are? I know that’s a big question I get from a lot of people in the community that I coach.
Sonya Looney: I think having an affinity being extraverted and enjoying definitely helps. I’ve tried to help other athletes and people in yoga and such trying to help them build their brand but its hard if you’re an introverted person because it’s not natural. It doesn’t come natural to you but for me it’s a time management thing really. I mean I probably get on my social media between five and ten times a day to see if anybody commented so I can respond and usually there are a lot of comments to respond to. It’s not a chore it’s something I enjoy and I also love seeing how people are reacting to what I’m putting out there so that I can do a better job analyzing what I’m doing.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Right that totally makes sense. It’s almost like you get feedback while you’re furthering your career so you know what direction to go in that will best serve your audience.
Sonya Looney: Yes for sure.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: I think that’s really cool. Let’s talk a little bit also about your public speaking platform because I think that – My guess is Sonya that what you experience on the group going around the country as a member of the Ergon team is going to just telex through speaking engagements. From what I understand when you start doing that, interaction and the audience growth goes a little bionic.
Sonya Looney: Yes. I found in my own speaking series called On Dirt be for work events and stuff but then I’d reach out to a bike shop that coincided with my sponsors and I’d do a speaking event where people could come and ask me questions and I could tell them stories. That’s morphed into more than that and people are contacting me to speak at tech conference or a leadership in business conference and I did a tech talk last year so it’s morphed into that. If you do the things that you love and believe in and you put everything into it that’s just the seed that gets planted and then it starts to grow in ways that you could have never imagined.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: True. I had no idea you did a TED talk. That is pretty righteous.
Sonya Looney: It was definitely an experience. It was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be, the preparation part anyway.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Can you talk about what that was like with us because I know there’s probably more than one person listening right now who has a secret desire to do a TED talk someday and you’ve actually done it? Can you share with us what that was like?
Sonya Looney: It’s hard because they want you to memorize your speech and I’m not somebody who’s the memorizing type. I like to speak what’s on my mind and generally it comes out pretty well. But for them that was almost a requirement. So being able to memorize the speech and practice it and also stay on top of the deadlines and have it come out still being authentic was the hardest thing for me.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: I bet.
Sonya Looney: So saying the same thing over and over but still sounding passionate about it can be a challenge especially if you’re a terrible actor like I am.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: I wouldn’t say you’re terrible. I doubt Brad Pitt would really crush it in a big mountain dour. It’s not what he does.
Sonya Looney: That’s true. I would like to see him try though, maybe I can teach him how to ride a mountain bike but he might crash on his pretty face.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Yes that would be a shame. He would need a full face helmet for sure.
Sonya Looney: Yes
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Well that’s really cool. I’d love to put the link to the TED talk in our podcast notes page just to get more eyeballs on that. That would be cool.
Sonya Looney: Yes that would be great. I talked about redefining success in your life through events that I did.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Oh that’s so cool. Tell us about how you got hooked on ultra-endurance cycling because I think for somebody who came into it the way you did like “Wow cycling’s a thing. I can be a pro at this.” And now to take it to the level you have which by the way I love because it’s about exploration, adventure and experience just as much as it is about crushing it or getting results. That’s really inspiring. But what is it that hooked you on that discipline if you will?
Sonya Looney: I started as a cross country racer and Boulder had a great community for that when I first arrived. But I got tired of the format of cross countries, going around in circles and only riding for an hour and a half and travelling to cool mountain towns and not getting to ride very much because you’re trying to race. So I started doing longer rides with a friend of mine and I just wanted to explore and ride my bike all day. So I thought well “I guess I’ll try the longer distance racing and I ended up being really good at it and I also got to achieve all the things that I wanted from cycling. It wasn’t just about going fast. It was about going fast but also seeing the world or just seeing an area.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: As a former mechanical engineer you’re probably pretty amazing I would imagine at the ‘I can fix a bike in the field’ component of this. Is that right?
Sonya Looney: I wouldn’t say that I’m amazing at it. I can get things done. I can get things working. You have to be proficient enough to get by. Normally I don’t have major mechanical issues. I have really awesome partners and don’t have those issues but yes you need to ‘How do I fix a flat tire if I authorized blow through all my tubes and have a whole flip in the side of my tire? How do I fix a broken chain? My shock isn’t working what should I do to maximize it until I can get to point b to get it fixed?’
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Well that’s good, again I’m thinking barrier to entry not that there’s a huge amount of people who feel like they could do an ultra-endurance race on a bike. My point is give it a try if it’s something that’s tapping you on the shoulder. You don’t have to be proficient in knowing how to fix a bike in the field top to bottom it sounds like.
Sonya Looney: No you just have to have a desire for adventure. I think anybody can do it and one person’s definition of ultra-adventure and ultra-mountain biking is different from others, maybe a 20 mile bike ride on your trails that you’ve never ridden is you adventure. It’s all relative.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: I just want to say one of the best parts about this conversation we’re having is that you are obviously so much more than what I think people in our markets have deemed or termed an athlete, a sponsored athlete or an ambassador. I know that you are at the forefront of a model that’s changing. Can you talk a little bit about what your experience has been going through the old model, transitioning to the new model and the value that you bring to your audience and to your partner’s sponsors in this new model?
Sonya Looney: Awesome question. The reason I wanted to be an individual athlete is so I could work with a brand and promote products that I really like. The old business model which still exists but brands are moving away from this is I go fast. I win. I get sponsored. I get paid money. I didn’t understand that business model because I was wondering how that’s actually going to sell product and that is the bottom line of sponsorship is they want to get either more brand awareness out there. They want to get their brand image out there and they want to sell products and drive their bottom line.
I thought well “I need to figure out how I’m actually showing value to these sponsors. So when I write proposals I don’t write “Oh I won this race. I won that race.” That’s a separate tab or a separate page if they ask me for it. I almost never put my results in there. I put what my reach is. I put the things that I do to promote their brand and how it’s unique and the type of traction it gets. I think that’s more important than results and initially some brands don’t understand the value there and that’s fine. The challenge is a lot of brands have been scarred by athletes not delivering what they said that they would deliver. So their initial impression when an athlete says, “Hey you should sponsor me.” They’re like “uh someone who just wants stuff and is actually not going to do anything for me”. So as athletes if we can prove that we can show up, deliver, provide value and help make their brand a better brand in general by providing product feedback and driving traffic to them then it’s going to change the way that brand look at athletes. But you don’t even have to be a pro athlete. I think brands should look at not racers just people who are influencers in their community because that also is going to drive value for them.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: For sure, and I love this you know what else obviously working on the inside of the brand, working with someone like you. I don’t think you work with any of our brands but if we had that opportunity. What I also see that you offer is inclusiveness. I could feel like I have permission to join a brand even if it’s a little core brand that I feel like might be out of my league if I saw somebody like you affiliated with it and your spirit of adventure and your background frankly is different and I like that – it make me feel like I could actually become part of that brand’s tribe.
Sonya Looney: Yes. Some of the early adopters of the way that I do things that has empowered me to be who I am like Shane Cooper with defeat.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: I love him.
Sonya Looney: I met him in a parking lot at five o’clock in the morning in North Carolina and he gave me his card and said, “Hey we should talk”. He actually understood everything that I was doing and he empowered me to make all these steps that I’ve made and he’s been supporting me for the last few years. It’s cool to see how they make their products too because Shane’s an entrepreneur as well and to see how their business runs and how they’ve grown and the struggles they’ve been through even has been inspiring to me. And aligning with brand where you can see their story and see what they’ve done you can actually learn a lot.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: He was a guest on this podcast I’ll send you the link to his show, incredible story. He has so much integrity in the way that he has grown that brand and gone through everything like you said with such resiliency. I love that you guys are working together. That’s a powerhouse team right there.
Sonya Looney: Yes you guys should check out my duets too those are a riot over there.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Maybe we can get a screen shot for the podcast page. I have one last question as we wrap up here. I literally could just talk shop with you all day. You’re so full of awesome energy. What would you say if you had the opportunity – What would you say to your 25 year old self? Just for the sake of the audience Sonya’s older than 25 but not by much. She and I in a pre-interview discussed that was a pivotal age. So looking back from where you are now, what would you advice your 25 year old self on?
Sonya Looney: I would say be open to any opportunity because you don’t know what’s going to be coming your way and keep working on the things that you believe in and don’t give up on those things. If you keep pointing that ship in the right direction it is going to come together in ways that you couldn’t have imagined. I had a five year plan and that plan is definitely better than I ever thought it was going to be so as long as you stay flexible and you believe in yourself and you also surround yourself with positive people who believe in you then great things are going to happen.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: That is an excellent piece of parting advice. Where can my audience follow you and learn more about you Sonya?
Sonya Looney: I love to connect with you guys. Go to my website sonyalooney.com and in the upper left hand corner I’m on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, everything pretty much so I’d love to connect with you guys and hear your stories too.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Awesome and it’s Sonya S-O-N-Y-A and then L-O-O-N-E-Y.com.
Sonya Looney: That’s just right, like the Looney Tunes.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Awesome. Well I loved having you on the show today and I can’t wait to watch how your season unfolds and also just to see the impact that you have on the communities that you’re going to be racing in and also just touching in with through your social medias. Thank you so much for this inspiring interview.
Sonya Looney: Thanks a lot, really appreciate it.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: All right we’ll catch you on the other side of that finish line.
Sonya Looney: Okay.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Sonya Looney has done an awful lot for her young age hasn’t she? Having started down the path of a more corporate traditional career and basically running and gunning to become a sponsored mountain biker in her mid-twenties and really doing the most that she could with that and then understanding at the time she turned 30 that the equation actually was changing in terms of what she could bring to her sponsors. I don’t know about you but I’ve learned an incredible amount from her today. Also check out sonyalooney.com s-o-n-y-a-l-o-o-n-e-y.com to look at her sponsors and to understand the value she delivers to them.
She has a very interesting approach. And while other athletes and ambassadors may embrace some of what Sonya does, nobody’s as loud and proud and intentional about it as she is. I think that right there is such a great value that she brings to the brands that she represents. It’s consultative and strategic and I think that they very much appreciate it. Thank you so much Sonya for joining us today and I cannot wait to have her back on the show because she is obviously just a ball of positive energy and I love being around it.
Check out her site again soytalooney.com. She is very active on Instagram on Snapchat and a number of different social platforms and literally you get a front row seat of what it’s like to be competing all over the world in endurance mountain bike races and enduros so check it out.
I also want to remind everybody that if you’re interested in joining the first ever community and private membership opportunity for entrepreneurs in the active outdoor lifestyle markets please email me for an application at email@example.com. I’m really excited about this brand new opportunity that I’m going to be offering my personal mentorship, a lot of awesome business training and a very awesome forum. Can’t wait to see you in there and again send your application request to firstname.lastname@example.org and until next time, go big.