Most people would think playing football at the college level is the epitome of athletic success, but Fred Willis knew he belonged somewhere else.
Willis, a former University of Wisconsin football player, hung up his jersey in 2012 after realizing that playing football was not his true calling. Now 23, Willis is the CEO of his own web development and financial investing company, Hacknvest.
Hacknvest, which was launched in June, is a company that creates software for other businesses in exchange for a percentage of their revenue, Willis said. Hacknvest then takes those funds to invest in Hacknvest itself or the stock market.
But the path to starting his own company wasn’t always clear.
Willis attended a private high school in Brookfield, Wisconsin, where he didn’t start playing sports until his junior year. By his senior year, Division I colleges and universities across the country were recruiting him to play football.
Though the sports world was something completely new for Willis, he understood that the opportunity was huge. He decided he wanted to continue a sports career as a Wisconsin Badger football player.
“I had been doing this just for fun as something I did after class, so when I got there I realized this was more of job,” Willis said.
But Willis began questioning his football career after sustaining multiple injuries, all while his teammates were dealing with concussions.
Willis remembers a personal turning point when one of his coaches gave a pep talk in the locker room before the season opener against Nebraska.
“He was basically saying everybody in the room had been waiting their entire life for this moment, and I was just thinking about how I wanted to go home and get some food and relax,” Willis said.
In that moment, Willis said he saw how much more seriously everyone else in the room reacted to the coach’s words.
After that Willis decided to quit and give up his spot to someone who would appreciate the opportunity more than he did.
“It was really easy for me to walk away as opposed to someone who had devoted their life to football [for] the past fifteen years,” Willis said.
After quitting, Willis returned to the math, science and computer programming skills he learned at a summer camp when he was in middle school. The technical knowledge he gained when he was younger provided him with a passion to teach himself even more about technology and computer programming — a platform from which he built Hacknvest a year ago.
Willis knew he wanted to be his own boss from a young age. He said he loves making his own schedule and having reign over his business ventures.
“I’ve never really liked the idea of working for or being under the authority of anyone,” Willis said. “So I knew that whatever I ended up doing had to be my own business.”
Willis spent time in what he calls his “free vaulting,” where he dug into everything he found interesting at one point in time. This ranged from small interests to big interests, Willis said.
Willis researched each field of interest to get a grasp on their professional and personal lifestyle. Eventually, Willis came across programming and investing. These two loves of his sparked the idea for his startup company, Hacknvest.
“Hack comes first because we sell our software first,” Willis said, “And ‘nvest’ because you need money to make money.”
Willis not only creates software for other companies, but also for anyone on his team who comes up with an inventive idea. Willis said Hacknvest differs from many software companies in that it does not specialize in one product but many, depending on the client.
“Ultimately, I would love to be able to invest in other people’s ideas, travel and see other inventions around the world,” Willis said. “My kind of dream is to help people out and travel.”
Willis and his team are always looking for new ideas. Anyone with a cool idea for web development or anyone looking to form a partnership can fill out a form on Hacknvest’s website to become involved.