Drew Bledsoe, the top draft pick in the NFL, knew football doesn't last forever. How he transitioned to an entirely new occupation.
Career change is a key to life today and must be planned ahead. Today, we have a very special guest and an exemplary position in life to give you a perspective that’s very different and something that we’ve talked about in other episodes, but here we have a real life example. Today we have Drew Bledsoe. If there’s anybody on the planet who doesn’t know or remember, he was drafted number one in the NFL, and then became a starting quarterback, etc. Extremely successful. We know that.
I want to talk a little bit both about how he got there, what he went through, what he did, and then the new business he’s in, which is wine; how he did that, how he made the transition, because that’s what so many people have to do so many times in life. Almost nobody ends up in the same place, or the same job, or the same career that they started with.
Drew Bledsoe: Thanks for having me on. I’m really excited to visit with you, Thomas, and I welcome the opportunity.
Thomas: Thank you. Thank you for coming on. You’re such a good example . Could you tell us a little bit about what it takes to attain the level in sports that you did?
Drew: There are a lot of things at work, there. First, you’ve got to program your mind. If somebody saw me in the seventh or eighth grade, I was not the guy that anybody was going to pick out as the guy who was going to go on to be a professional athlete. I was tall and skinny, and not very fast. I had really big feet; I just didn’t move very well.
That didn’t change how I viewed myself in my mind. I really felt like I could be a great football player, and really programmed my mind so that I could never accept anything less than my very best effort, whether it came to training, practice, school – you name it. Because I had those high expectations and that view of myself as somebody that was going to be excellent, I wouldn’t accept less than my very best in anything that I did. That was really where it started.
Thomas: It’s interesting, because so often so many people think that somebody has just got this natural ability, natural talent, and that’s why they are where they are. I know in college, etc., when I went to graduate school at Berkeley, my impression was: “Oh, gosh. I’m going to meet these professors, and they’re just these superhuman people.” Then, low and behold, I get in there and I find out they’re there early, they’re there late, they’re working on weekends. These are Nobel Prize winners. It wasn’t just a gift. It was also a dedication, effort, and fortitude. I am hearing you saying something of the same thing. Is that true?
Drew: You’re 100% right. One of the advantages that I had, as I was growing up, my father and his good friend ran a football camp and I got a chance to be around very successful professional football players when I was growing up. I got a chance to see these guys and meet these guys, and I discovered that they’re not superheroes. They are regular guys that have athletic ability that obviously is outside the norm, but that’s not really what allowed them to be successful. What allowed them to be successful was the work they put in, and the continued work that they put in.
Fred Biletnikoff, who was one of the great wide receivers ever to play professional football, and still, the best receiver in college football every year receives the Biletnikoff Award. I got to meet and be around Fred Biletnikoff when I was growing up, and the guy, I think he was probably 5’10-5’11, probably 180 pounds, and by the time I met him, slightly balding. He was not the guy that you looked at and said: “Man, that guy is an NFL wide receiver.”
When I was around him, every time he was on the practice field just coaching kids up, he was always practicing running routes, and he was always practicing proper catching technique, he was always fine-tuning his craft. That really allowed him to succeed far, far beyond his athletic ability. That became very apparent to me that these guys, while they were superhuman on the football field, they didn’t get there just by somebody hitting them with a magic wand; they really, really worked at their craft in order to become successful.
Thomas: I’m hearing a lot of those stories more recently, too. Some of them refer back to Jerry Rice, the way he practiced, the way he did everything. Now, I’m hearing some of the rookies, etc., that are out this year, the way they practice, their dedication, etc.
I remember when I was not thinking that I was necessarily going to be that good at academic areas, what I figured is: “Gee, if I just work 20% harder than everybody else, I’ll surpass most of the population.” Of course that happens. When you combine with the effort, combined with the fact that, yes, they may be above the norm in talent, but you take a look at what they do and the effort that is put in, and so much can be made up and done by that.
Drew: Right. People ask me about the successes that I’ve had. One of the most important things that I’ve taken with me that’s carried me through football and on into business is that I’m perpetually looking to learn. I’ve been really blessed; I’ve been around a lot of successful people in my life. I have never gotten to the point, and I hope I never do get to the point where I feel like I should be the authority and that I can’t learn.
When I was coming up in football, I had a bunch of great influences that taught me along the way and continued to teach me all the way through until I was at the very end of my football career. Then moving from there into business, I’ve been so fortunate to surround myself with very successful people. I try my best to ask questions as much as I can, and then just sit back and listen, and try to steal an education. I’ve really been able to do that in a lot of areas.
Thomas: That’s a very good topic of mine that I like a lot because I’m always preaching that same fact. You can literally learn from everybody and everything, so you keep your eyes and ears open, but then you’re always striving to find other people that have experiences of things that are maybe outside your normal comfort zone (click here for episode 15 on the comfort zone) or outside your ability currently, and you can get so much out of it. We can all learn from one another.
Drew: Yeah, there’s no question. There’s the old adage that if you find yourself the smartest person in the room, then you better go find a different room.
Drew: I’ve had the great privilege of surrounding myself and put together a group of business guys down here in Bend, Oregon, where we live full-time. Very successful guys that I get a chance to meet with in a somewhat structured and highly confidential setting once a month. I have learned more from those guys in the last two years… I really feel like I’ve received an MBA just sitting in the room with these guys, because they’ve all done it. They’ve built and grown businesses; a lot of them, multiple times. I get to sit and listen with them, and bounce ideas off of them. They have really helped me to structure our business and really put it on a launching pad for continued success.
Thomas: Right, and that gets to another topic. Two others. First, I want to go back and hit that there is an episode I’ve done on what I refer to as, “The Five Friends,” (see Episode 20 for depth) because there’s that famous quote out that Jim Rohn is given credit for: “Your income is the average of your five friends.” It’s not just income; it’s your environment and everything else is that average. If you do want to excel, you don’t necessarily have to say, “Goodbye,” to your current friends, but you do have to make new ones that reach you higher and higher in education, experience, business, etc.
Drew: There’s no question. I have different groups of friends, all of whom I really truly enjoy spending time with. There are social friends that I always learn from, but then I made it a point to go out and search out another group of friends and associates who are highly successful. Getting to spend time with those guys has benefitted me in so many ways, both professionally and personally.
Thomas: Good to hear. Yes, I was very lucky to have met a whole bunch of different people. That certainly aided me a great deal.
Let’s move over. We’ve already touched a little bit on it. You then left football. I don’t really know what the decision was, but I know that in our own conversation that we had, you had grown up in the Walla Walla, Washington area, so you had this love of wineries and the actual growing of the wines; the grapes, and the actual handling of the whole process to make wine.
Drew: Wine was something that my wife and I became passionate about while I was playing. As I made that transition—I was one of the lucky few—I got to choose to retire from professional football; they didn’t kick me out. The reason that I did was I was ready to move on to a new phase into life, and move into the business world.
One thing that’s particularly unique about the wine industry is that a lot of people that move into particularly our sector of the wine business, which is a small high-end winery, a lot of them move into that just for the lifestyle. A lot of our competitors, the financial benefits of the business and building a good business around wine are not primary motivators. They just want the lifestyle, and they’ve made it. That was not how we chose to approach the business.
One of the things that’s been most important for me in doing this is to build a successful business surrounding something that I’m passionate about. With that in mind, we’ve at every step, have had our eyes on the horizon towards building not only a high-end product that we’re really proud of, but also building a business that we’re really proud of.
The one thing that I’ve found that may shock some people is that the parallels between being successful in football and being successful in business, there are almost too many to count. While people may look at wine and football as completely unrelated endeavors, it’s been my experience that the things that have allowed me to be successful in both realms carry over almost every day and overlap in almost every single way.
Thomas: It’s actually interesting, because that’s a point that I found out. I went and literally tested out stories that’s coming up in my book on different people in business, sports (including pro football players), students, and actually military personnel. Everybody was saying: “Gee, that’s just exactly the way we do it,” and they were very excited. It showed me that there is a lot of raw ingredients, in a sense, in success in a lot of different ways.
Drew: There truly are. Just a few of the high points that I’ve found. Number one is that when you play football, particularly when you play the position of quarterback, you’re only as good as the team that’s around you. Quarterbacks get all kinds of accolades and they get to be the faces of organizations, and there are a lot of very talented guys playing the game, but without a great team, there’s no quarterback that is going to be great. It just doesn’t work that way. That carries over so, so directly into business.
I’ve been really fortunate. We’ve got a small team, but they are all highly, highly competent in their particular areas. I have one of the greatest winemakers in the world who works for me. I have a great team managing the business and dealing with our customers on a day-to-day basis. I’m able to lead that team, give them direction, and then trust that they’re going to execute their part of the business. So far I’ve been fortunate; I’ve only had to fire one and another one chose to make a transition. So far I’ve been super fortunate in putting together a great team.
Thomas: I think it has something to do with taking the quarterback position in the winery that may help that, too. I’m glad to hear you and I probably would have not brought it up, but one of my pet peeves is listening to the people on Sunday morning or whatever, and they’ll very often rate the quarterbacks or say: “So-and-so is good because…” I remember when they were saying things about both Jim Kelly, but also John Elway for several years before he finally got his ring, they would say: “Oh, well, they don’t have a Super Bowl ring,” or: “How many Super Bowl rings do they have?”
There’s 21 other players on the team, and they’re never involved in the game when there’s the defense. It’s kind of silly to think of it. It really is a team and a team sport. Really, there’s so much breadth and depth to it. Getting into business, it’s the same thing. Basically, you’re building a team and that team has to click; they have to get along, they have to be supportive. That’s going to make the business successful.
It’s in your website. The website, www.Doubleback.com, taking a look at it, there is a lot of pride that I can see in the explanations, in the examples, and the things about the wine, the winery, the vintage notes, the viticulture. Everything there is explaining some things. It’s actually a good lesson for people that are familiar with wine, but maybe don’t know as much, to get a better feel for it. It also shows what you’re going after, as far as a culture and a quality. It’s basically a presentation of an image.
Drew: That really leads into maybe the next topic that carries over directly from football into business, and that is details. When you play football, the smallest detail; where the ball is handed off, where a guy’s hand is placed on a block, where a guy aligns, what equipment he’s using, does he have the right cleats – all of those things, these little, tiny details, particularly at the NFL level, the smallest detail can determine whether you win or lose.
In our wine business, wine is such a fickle and competitive business that you have to get every detail right if you want to be successful. The package has to be right. I guess it all starts with the wine first. If the wine is bad, then you got no chance. The package has to be right; the story has to be right; the interaction with your customers on a day-to-day basis has to be right; your viticulture; your practices in the vineyard in order to build a vineyard that’s not just going to produce for the short-term, but produce for many years to come, that has to be exactly right. Just every single last little detail has to be done correctly to succeed in a highly competitive business.
Just making good wine and putting it in a bottle does not get it done, any more than just having a good quarterback that can throw the ball really hard – that doesn’t get it done in football. In wine, just having a product in a bottle does not build success. You have to get every single detail right to be competitive in the business.
Thomas: Yeah. Actually, from wine—and this is just an interest of mine anyway—the detail of the things in wine, certainly the valley and the area that the vineyard is in, that is absolutely crucial. What do you do or how do you handle things, like, all of a sudden the weather? I mean, the weather is a fickle.
Drew: It’s one of the things they don’t tell you when you get into the business, is that when you’re growing your own grapes and then you want to go from the ground into the bottle and be a part of every step, you become a farmer. When you’re a farmer, Mother Nature rules all.
We’re very, very fortunate in Walla Walla where our winery is and where I grew up, we have a consistent climate. We’re far enough off the coast that, while Mother Nature can beat us up every once in a while, we really have a very consistent climate year over year. We have long, hot summer days; very little rainfall in the summer months. It cools off very nicely at night so that your grapes stay on the vines a long time.
Then you combine that with this really unique soil that we have that was deposited—what?—10,000, 12,000, 15,000 years ago during the last Ice Age, and we had the Missoula Floods that came down from Montana and British Columbia, and deposited just this deep, porous, very mineral-rich soil. You combine the climate with the soil that we have, and you really have a unique confluence of events that I think allows us to grow some of the very best wine grapes in the entire world.
Thomas: Right. Actually Washington has really excelled and has really grown a lot in the last 10-15 years in the wine industry.
Drew: It really has. It’s great to be a part of. As much as we’ve grown, we still have tremendous upside in our region when it comes to wine. The national consciousness still turns to Napa when they think about big, red wines. People that are really in the know that study wines understand that both the quality and especially the value that comes out of the state of Washington, relative to some other major wine regions, we’re really ahead of the ballgame really in both areas. But it still is not on the national consciousness, which is really something that makes me very bullish on the industry. I think we have huge, huge room to grow. I’m just really fired up about where that’s taking us.
Thomas: Yeah. That’s partly the reputation of the area and the industry. You also have the development of the wine itself, that is the blends, how much do you put in Cabernet, Syrah, Merlot, etc. into some blend, or how do you care for it over time; do you use Old French Oak, New, etc.? Then there’s wineries out there that are using stainless steel.
Drew: All of those decisions are hugely important. What we chose to do with our business, we chose to focus our intention almost entirely on making one wine and making that wine as great as we good. It’s a Cabernet base wine. We chose Cabernet most simply just because that’s the varietal that I like the best, but it also is the varietal that I think does the best in Washington in particular, the Walla Walla Valley.
We do blend some Merlot, Petit Verdot, and a little bit of Malbec into the blends in varying amounts over the years. It’s a very unscientific process to determine what goes into the wine. We just put together five or six different blends, taste through them, and figure out which one we think tastes the best. That’s really exactly what happens. It’s me and my wife, and Chris Figgins, my wine maker. We sit down and taste through the different blends. When we have selected one we think is the best, then we reveal to ourselves what that one is and that’s what goes into the bottle.
It can be quite an exciting time, but also, it can be somewhat painful simply because there are times, and there have been vintages over the years which when we come up with that final blend, we have to end up bulking off a lot of the wine. A lot of the wine that still is very good, that we’ve tried very hard, that’s been in New French Oak which is really expensive, and all of that just didn’t quite make the blend for whatever reason. We essentially have to just sell that wine off, and that can be financially painful.
Thomas: Right, right. You’ve made a good choice on the one that I tasted when I met you.
Drew: Thank you. I appreciate that.
Thomas: That was excellent, absolutely excellent. I really liked it. I happen to favor Cabernet in general as well, but that’s because I usually have a lot of it with my steak, etc. and it just goes very nice. That’s a very, very fine wine.
Drew: Thank you. Thank you. I appreciate that.
Thomas: Let me just get back over to some of the things or some of the suggestions you might make to somebody that’s out there trying to make a transition into a business that they may not even be sure yet what they like, but they realize that whatever they’re in is fading out and they have to find something else new to do.
Drew: There are a couple of things. Number one, you have to start with a plan. If you don’t know what avenue you want to pursue, then you have to come up with a plan to determine what avenue you want to pursue.
I started fairly early in my football career—I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to play football forever—and started looking at: what do I want the rest of my life to look like? And started planning and looking at different things. Wine was something that really jumped out at me. I spent enough time planning that that when it came time to make a decision, it wasn’t a retirement from football; it was a transition into a new life.
Once you have that avenue that you want to pursue identified, then you have to come up with an action plan for how you’re going to go about it. We put together an action plan way back when, over a decade ago now, and we’ve just sold our fifth vintage of Doubleback. It was well over a decade ago that we started to put together an action plan for how that was going to go. We’ve had to make almost continual adjustments to that plan going forward, but without the exercise of coming up with the plan as a framework, then you don’t have anything to adjust off of.
That process, again, goes back to football. We spend our whole lives planning when it comes to football. You spend the whole offseason planning, and you spend all of training camp, and you spend the week of the game just planning for what you’re going to do and how you’re going to attack a particular defense. Then once you get into that game, you discover that your best receive gets hurt or their defense is doing something different, and you have to adjust.
Without the process of planning, you don’t have anything to adjust off of. I always encourage people. Now, still in our winery, we spend most of our time planning. Then when it’s time to execute, we feel like we’ve gone through enough different scenarios that we can execute properly.
Thomas: Actually that’s something that unfortunately a lot of people aren’t preaching and understanding well today; the planning, the strategy. There’s a whole wealth of people out there just trying to tell people: “Just go take action. Just go ahead and take action, and learn while you’re making mistakes.” In that, then you’re going to get into panic mode and other things because things aren’t working out the way they were supposed to.
Anything from financial concerns and stress you might be having, to actually the stress of: are you going to succeed; as opposed to a well-defined scenario, because when you do have a good solid plan (I used to have to do a lot of these) if something deviates, you’ve already thought of things because you have a plan going out there. If something deviates from it, you’ve already thought of most of that. “Gee, if this doesn’t work out, what am I going to do?” That’s part of strategic planning. Good. Thank you very much.
Drew, how can people get ahold of you? Actually, they can go to the Doubleback website to be able to contact the winery and find out more about the wine.
Drew: Yes, that’s the easiest is just to go to www.Doubleback.com. There’s information right there on the site. If people have interest in purchasing some wine, you sign up on our list and we immediately send you information on the three wines that we have out now. As I said earlier, we started off with the idea and the goal of just making one wine, making that as great as we possibly could.
Now that that wine has grown to the level that we’re comfortable with, we’ve launched two other wines. We have a Syrah called Stolen Horse, which has its own story, and then we have now what’s called our Bledsoe Family Wine. The Family Wine, that’s what we were tasting the day you saw me, which this hopefully will be a pleasant surprise to you. What the Family Wine is is that’s the wine that didn’t make the cut to make it into Doubleback.
We got so tired of selling that wine for nothing, even though it was very good wine, that we bottled that and came up with a unique package for that. We send that out mostly to our lists now that we did a test marketing project with Whole Foods, and that’s why it was in Seattle and how we met. That wine is designed to be an outlet for this other wine that we spend so much time, money, and effort on, yet doesn’t quite make the cut. We have those two wines now, in addition to our Doubleback Cabernet.
Thomas: It’s also something that is very strongly urged is really find and strive towards perfection. That was an example of it. Literally going and getting one wine until you were really very happy and satisfied with the excellence that it got to.
That is what people need to understand, how to strive. Whatever your career is, whatever it is – it’s always striving to be number one, in essence. You may not be number one; you may only make it to three, four, or five, but if you shoot for the top 10, you’re never going to make number one.
Drew: Yeah. That was a message that my dad preached as a football coach and a teacher all those years. If you aim for the stars and you miss, you’re still pretty high. But if you aim for the ground and you hit it, you’re still on the ground.
I don’t know if we’ll ever be the best wine in the entire world, but we’re going to be the best wine that we can be, and we’re going to continue to take steps in every possible way to ensure that we’re as good as we can be every single year.
Thomas: Thank you, also, for the wine which is excellent, as I said. I’d urge people to go to www.Doubleback.com. On my website, under the blog, there will be links there to get to Doubleback. From there, you can read that information and understand a little bit more about it. It is excellent, for anybody interested in wine. His story of career change and how he planned ahead is exemplary.
For that, Drew, I’d like to thank you very much for being a very nice guest, and appreciate your time.
Drew: Thanks, Thomas. Thanks for having me on. I hope to see you again down the road.
Thomas: Oh, yes, absolutely.
Afterwards: I urge you to take a look at his website, mentioned earlier, http://DoubleBack.com Whether you are interested in wine or not, this is a good site to view. First, if you like wine, you can gain a greater understanding what went into the winery and the making of wine. You will see and understand some of the choices made. Even if you are not interested in wine, you need to see how the love of the wine and the process of the owners comes through via great clear pictures and explanations. This is a lesson in whetting the appetite of the consumer. This clarity of consumer taste is the same feeling expressed in top commercials for everything from cars to Victoria's Secret. It is no wonder that I was so pleased with the wine, which by the way went great with an excellent Beef Wellington. (send a note and I'll forward the recipe). Most important, take heed of the forward thinking concepts in career change.