Witmer’s Wisdom: Building New Things

Melissa shares her experiences taking big risks, on her own terms.

Melissa Witmer coaching youth ultimate at YULA in 2014. Photo: Kevin Leclaire — UltiPhotos.com

The Beginnings

In 2010, I hopped in my car and left on a 12 hour road trip to High Tide to talk to college teams about doing some throwing clinics. That road trip is what I consider to be the beginning of my business, Ulty Results.

The idea to provide throwing clinics was the first (highly unsuccessful) iteration of my business model. In fact, though I’ve run hundreds of practices all over the world, to this day, I don’t think I’ve ever run a throwing clinic.

But that’s how it goes with building anything bold and new. I was prepared for lots of failures. Yet still, I always failed in ways I never even considered. I’ve also succeeded in ways I would not have dreamed possible.

Now I travel the world visiting ultimate communities just for fun. I get paid fairly for the value that I provide to players all over the world through our online programs. Sometimes I get paid for coaching projects and in-person clinics. And in places without the financial resources, I am able to choose to coach for free.

My business and my life is like nothing I envisioned back in 2010. At the start, my hope was to simply eke out a living doing clinics every weekend. It would be hard but worth it. Instead, I have reached far, far more people than I could have possibly imagined. Rather than eking out a living, I’m working with purpose and being supported in return by the community I care about.

The best advice I could possibly give to anyone thinking of starting their own business:

Step 1: Get started.
Step 2: Keep going.

The Why – Running Away

What fueled me to start my business was not a noble pursuit, but rather a hatred for the life I was living at the time.

For several years, I had been teaching chemistry at a community college. I enjoyed the work at first. Working with non-traditional students gave me the opportunity to show older women in the middle of career transitions that, yes, they were good at math and science. It was a decent paying part-time job.

I don’t know why it eventually became not enough. Maybe it just became too repetitive. One thing I loved about the job was the amount of time we had off during breaks, when I could go traveling. If the thing you love most about your job are your days off, that’s a bad sign.

I wanted to do something larger and bolder with my life. Too bad I had no idea what that would possibly be. It started as just a yearning for something with no definition, a desire for something new.

I remember sitting in class one summer, grading one class’s exams while my second class was taking theirs. “I will not be grading papers here this time next year,” said a voice in my head so clearly that I knew it was true, though I still didn’t know what it meant.

It turned out it meant a false start at a place that I thought would be my dream job, one that proved to be a bit toxic. It meant escaping by traveling to Colombia, going on a road trip, and doing a European tour (still trying to make paid frisbee clinics a viable thing!). Then finally coming to terms with the fact that I was not making as much money as I wanted to pretend I was making. And finally I crashed back at my parents’ house over the age of 35. Ouch.

Starting a business feels a lot like banging your head against the wall until the wall breaks. And just hoping you don’t break first.

The Why – Running Forward

Shortly after starting my business, I was in the car with my friend, John Brandt, on the way to a summer league game. I was coaching a high school team at the time – another low paying, but still paying, gig keeping me afloat.

I was lamenting that one of the things that drew me to ultimate was that there were no coaches to impress. When I started playing, I felt empowered by the fact that we called our own subs. We went on to the field when we wanted, rested when needed. It was a place where I could do something from a place of pure intrinsic motivation. That made it so different from school and organized sports. Yet here I was, now being a coach.

I lamented the fact that frisbee was changing. I loved the skirt-wearing men and women who encouraged me, were excited by my athleticism, and taught me to play. I had conflicted feelings about the professionalization of ultimate, which meant I also had conflicted feelings about my own role and my own business.

“Well, where do you want to be while it happens? Do you want a seat at the table or not?” asked John. He has a way of giving me the hard truths at the right times. Yes, ultimate was going to be changing whether I was involved or not. My choice wasn’t about allowing or not allowing change; it was about being involved or not being involved in the evolution of the sport I love.

I decided I would have a seat at the table.

Building a Table

One day, after my business had grown to fully support me financially, I was in one of the ultimate hubs of the US.

I was having a conversation with an acquaintance about my business. At one point he turned to me and said bluntly, “No one in the AUDL knows who you are.”

By “no one,” he meant the owners of teams. I’ve helped a ton of athletes make teams in the AUDL, and they knew who I was. But he was correct. Most owners of semi-pro ultimate men’s teams probably still don’t know who I am.

I was angry. Not because he was correct but because he could not imagine a world in which their recognition was unimportant to me. The truth for me, which was further solidified in this moment, was that I did not give a crap about what the owners thought, nor whether they knew me or not.

What if I cared more about what the women and girls in Cambodia learning to play ultimate thought? What if they were more important to me? I decided that they were. I said nothing. I could see I was in a parallel universe to the person I was talking with. He could not imagine a world in which this small group of owners – mostly men with money – could just…not matter.

Perhaps I didn’t want a seat at that table after all. Perhaps I just wanted to build my own table and invite different people to it.

More Tables

The greatest joy my business has brought to me is not in the financial success, and clearly not the Instagram followers, but the relationships and experiences I’ve been honored to be a part of in various parts of the world.

Last week at our UAP Coaches Conference, over 900 coaches registered for the event from 46 different countries: Germany, USA, Canada, Turkey, Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Uganda, Kenya, Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina, France, Spain, Switzerland, Belgium, Brazil, Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Malaysia, The Philippines, Singapore, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Poland, Austria, India, Latvia, Kuwait, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, The Netherlands, Estonia, Ukraine, UK, Ireland, Hungary, Russia, Dominican Republic, Czech Republic, Vietnam, Slovenia, and probably a few I’m forgetting.

Every time I entered a breakout room it was like a mini-reunion with folks I’ve either met in person or just exchanged a lot of emails with.

These are the people who have the greatest influence in the future of our sport. I say this not as wishful thinking but of how I know things actually are. These are the people — too many to name — who are coaching ultimate all over the world. Many of them are also heavily involved in their local or national ultimate organizations. Their names come up again and again when talking about the growth of ultimate and influence on ultimate within their regions.

Though many of them don’t get much press, these are the folks who matter most to me and to the future of our sport. I am deeply honored that so many influential folks choose to join me for the conference every year. It feels exactly like the table I want to be at.

I also recognize the need for more folks to build tables of their own. More types of people need to have a say in the guest list.

Of course, much of this is already happening. Around the world, I see more types of people starting ultimate-related businesses. Ultimate organizations in developing regions have ambitious goals for growth and coaching education. I see you, am inspired by you, and support you!

I hope this small part of my story encourages the dreaming of big dreams. If you don’t like things as they are, I hope you will change them. If you don’t see a seat at the table for yourself in ultimate (or in disc golf), I hope you will participate in building a new one.

It will be hard. It will probably feel like banging your head against a wall at times. But once the wall breaks, what we will find on the other side will be worth it.

  1. Melissa Witmer

    Melissa Witmer is the founder of the Ultimate Athlete Project. She has been a part of the ultimate community since 1996, and is an author, content creator, and coach. Something of a citizen of the world, Melissa lives and works abroad and has instructed and connected ultimate players and coaches from all over the world.

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