Faces of Boulder: Max Wessell
Max Wessell was born-and raised in Boulder, Colorado. An All-American and State Champion wrestler at Boulder High School, Max continued his wrestling career at Lehigh University. After an All-American wrestling and academic career at Lehigh, Max moved back to his hometown of Boulder. He talked his college roommate turned cofounder, Cody Ferraro, into coming with him where the two operate InXAthlete – a company birthed out of their off-campus house in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The two student-athletes saw a problem in the marketplace when they began their post-grad job hunt. Understanding that there’s an inherent disadvantage for student-athletes and their ability to devote time to the job search, and realizing that employers value the soft skills (teamwork, work ethic, discipline, time management, goal oriented, etc) student-athletes hone but can’t exactly show on résumés, Max and Cody build the solution. InXAthlete is by athletes for athletes, and employers. Their platform streamlines the connection between student-athletes and employers. Check out these recent Forbes articles (here and here) on Max, Cody, and the impact InXAthlete is already having.
On November 20, 2016, from an Internet Café in Byron Bay, Australia, I received an email with a job offer to ski instruct at Beaver Creek in Avon, Colorado. It was the first chance at Wifi in a day or two. It was the twenty-fourth day of a thirty-two day van trip along Australia’s East Coast. The November before, I sat in a college lecture hall. It was the tail end of my second to last semester at Lehigh University.
Somehow in the three years prior, I let slip the mandated Earth and Environmental Science credit. So I’d likely be the lone senior in a freshman-dominated elective. So I’d definitely sit by myself in the corner. But on the classes first day, I saw Max Wessell sitting in the back row. I didn’t know Max, but I knew Max. Everyone did.
Max carried this mystery about him. He a wrestler and I a lacrosse player, I’d see him at parties from time to time. Usually, he was just giving a ride home to a friend that asked. I’d see him at the off-campus go-to diner. I’d marvel at the size of his plate. I’d go to wrestling matches and remark to a friend about “the frickin agility of that big guy!” I’d look in the stands during a game and couldn’t miss him. And when I saw him in the back row of an Environmental Science class and had to take the chance to sit next to my lone fellow upperclassman.
I needed to take the class to graduate. Max didn’t. Max had already finished his credits. He was in the bonus. He selected his classes. And for reasons that become obvious in our interview below, Max selected this one out of fascination. While I wrote viciously to not miss a word on each Power Point, Max sat with his hands folded on the desk. When I complained I didn’t learn a thing that class, Max recited back what he found interesting. What he found interesting covered our ten-minute walk up the hill to the dining halls.
Max and I became friends that semester. It endured beyond graduation too. And from a van somewhere along Australia’s East Coast in early November of 2016, I decided I was ready to return home to the states, not to my hometown in Philadelphia, but somewhere in Colorado. I wanted to ski instruct for a winter. I messaged Max, the only person I knew from Colorado. I narrowed it down to Breckenridge or Vail, the two resorts I’d heard of, I told Max. His response in praise of Beaver Creek gave me guilt for mentioning Breckenridge and Vail. And he, now living in Boulder where he grew up, would be skiing at Beaver Creek any weekend that permitted. I clicked open another tab and submitted my application to Beaver Creek. And a month later, I moved into employee housing in Avon, Colorado.
Max was right about Beaver Creek, My one winter season became two. After the second, I was ready for a change. I moved to Boulder. I’d been to Boulder once before and I didn’t have a job lined up, but that Max lived there settled some nerves. Max is the reason I moved to Colorado then made it home. I wanted to interview Max for this column because he’s an impressive guy. I knew that, but I also knew I didn’t even know the half of it.
You were born-and-raised in Boulder then went to Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. I’m curious about that decision to go to Lehigh. I’m guessing most of your high school friends stayed in and around Colorado. Was there serious consideration for you to do the same or did it go the other way where you wanted to get out an experience something different?
Yea exactly, it was that. I was born at home in mountains, brought up through all my formative years in Boulder, went to Boulder high school. Throughout high school, I knew I wanted to leave. So the reason for choosing Lehigh University was partly the chance to wrestle at a top Division 1 program and the academic prestige, but there was also this big part of me wanting a totally different experience. Boulder’s home but Bethlehem offered this blue-collared, rugged, totally different experience than what I grew up knowing. What I didn’t expect, however, was how much I was going to miss Boulder and just the mountain West lifestyle. I missed the mountains. I really did. I don’t think you realize how grounding it is being surrounded by the mountains here. And actually, my first big college wrestling win Freshman year was at Boise State, in the mountains. I really do think there’s just something about the mountains and me that get along well.
So was there a home sickness ever, or was it more a realization that you would appreciate home in a way you might not otherwise been able to?
Maybe some home sickness at first but I think that was more about the life changing experience starting college is regardless of where. Then you get acclimated and grow to like where you are. But yeah, every time I did go home, I had this appreciation I didn’t before have. The six years I spent in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania gave me a perspective. Before college, the mountains were just there, I was born with them there, they’ve been all I’ve known my whole life. They weren’t particularly special to me until I left and gained that perspective by living somewhere else. I still think I’d take this place for granted if I didn’t get out and experience an extended period elsewhere.
Did you ever have a thought about transferring back to a Colorado School?
No. I loved Lehigh. The athletic community and support, the academic experience, the group of friends I formed – I loved every second of it. But I did take full advantage of any chance I did get to come back home. Wrestlers usually get a couple weeks off at the start of summer then it’s back to campus to train. But between my junior and senior years, I decided I was going to spend more time at home, training here, enjoying the mountains, being where I love to be and that senior season was my most successful. And I think – again, my first big win in Boise – I really do think I draw strength from the mountains, there’s just this clarity and perspective I get, this reminder of how small we really are that feels powerful to me when I’m surrounded by these massive, natural behemoths.
One thing I’ve wanted to ask you is about the WWE offer. I know at one point that was intense– agents, and contract negotiations, and as I understand it, that was yours if you wanted it. Can you talk about that and what role wanting to come back to Boulder played, if at all?
Yeah, so being a WWE talent was never on my radar, it certainly wasn’t a dream or something I aspired towards. But after Nationals my senior year, I received a call from a WWE scout, who saw me at the NCAA championships. He thought I could have success in the WWE with my physique and athletic background. They look for wrestlers who have competed at the highest level because a lot of the talent in the WWE weren’t actually wrestlers. So I got invited to this tryout, where they brought 30 or so men and women. There was former NFL players, NBA players, bodybuilders, all kinds of athletes, and they put us through this five-day physical basically. Then from there, they offer a couple contracts. I was one of those that received a contract offer. So I found an agent who represented other WWE talent and we went back and forth with the WWE for a while. But we couldn’t really come to terms. The contract said one thing and what they were telling me said another – I don’t remember specifically but I didn’t love the way they handled the negotiations. But again, this wasn’t a dream of mine so I think I, maybe more than others in that situation, really had to be sold on it. Especially because I had this company brewing that I was really passionate about and believed in. If I didn’t have that other option, maybe I would have accepted the WWE offer without much thought.
And the travel demands of WWE. Was there any part of it of you wanting to return home to Colorado?
Yeah, that played into it a little bit. I would have had to live in Orlando, Florida and then your on the road 180 days of the year at a minimum. What did appeal to me with the WWE is, there’s not really an outlet to compete and make a living in wrestling aside from the Olympics but even that is hard to make a living doing. So the WWE would have been a way to use the asset that I worked my whole life to build, which was basically my body. And the WWE is obviously scripted and all that but there is a physical demand that I liked about it. But Orlando and traveling so many days of the year, being away from home, which I had been looking, forward to, in the end, it wasn’t something I wanted to do.
Now the company you mentioned. Let’s go there. How’d that come about?
So that started before any of the WWE stuff. That was my junior year at Lehigh. My business partner, Cody Ferraro, was a senior. He was a lacrosse player and we were roommates at the time. He had a career ending injury that year. So he had this realization and urgency to start looking for a job, really probably six months sooner than had he not been injured I think. In his job search, Cody wanted a employer that would value the attributes and soft skills that he garnered being an NCAA athlete, like teamwork, discipline, time management, goal oriented, go down the list. The things that don’t show up on a resume, but at the same time, the traits employers want and value. He started searching the internet for jobs for student athletes and he noticed there was a demand in employers wanting to hire student athletes and student athletes who want to work somewhere that value those traits, but there was no direct link or connection between the two. He came to me with the idea, saying there’s a problem in the marketplace, there’s no streamline connection for student athletes. And my dad, who’s been in business a long time, would call me all the time asking if I knew an athlete with a certain degree that could fill this certain role. Coincidentally, two days before Cody came to me with the idea, my dad had called two days before asking if I knew any Lehigh wrestlers with a finance degree who want to work in Boulder. So it felt like some serendipity and we decided we’d pursue this thing and build a platform to connect employers with student athletes. We both put our savings together and had a couple of PhD students at Lehigh develop a barebones version to try and test and prove out the idea. But still, it was just this idea that lingered. Cody graduated and took a job, I was finishing school, we were working on it when we could, but we really went all in on it in the spring of 2017, shortly after I turned down the WWE offer. Cody and I started talking seriously about him moving to Colorado and committing to really pursuing it.
Was it clear from the start you wanted to set up shop in Boulder?
Definitely. For two reasons. Colorado was where our network was with me growing up here and my dad doing business here for a longtime. But also, Boulder’s become like a mini-Silicon Valley. There’s a ton of tech startups and a lot of resources and just a startup community we wanted to be a part of.
And your business partner, Cody, is a Long Island guy. Was he an easy sell on making that move?
Yeah, easy. The hardest thing was probably, for Cody, was selling his girlfriend on it because she was also from the East Coast, so I think I maybe expedited his asking her to marry him (laughs). It was time though anyways. And she loves Boulder. How could you not?