Anson Flake, CEO and co-founder, HydroWorx, discusses his business and what it takes to be an entrepreneur at a conference on entrepreneurship.
Anson Flake, CEO and co-founder, HydroWorx, discusses his life as an entrepreneur at a conference on entrepreneurship.

YORK – Anson Flake’s passion to help heal people is quite evident.

Just as obvious is his passion for entrepreneurship and the success of fellow entrepreneurs.

Flake, CEO and co-founder of HydroWorx, shared his company’s journey from start-up to successful business and the lessons he has learned along the way at the 2013 Central PA Entrepreneurship Conference, which was sponsored by the Central Pennsylvania Business Journal (CPBJ). Both HydroWorx and CPBJ are Team Pennsylvania Foundation investors.

Flake, whose Middletown-based company produces underwater treadmills for physical therapy patients, told the audience of would-be entrepreneurs, business owners and college students gathered at York College of Pennsylvania that entrepreneurship is the medicine that the United States needs.

“I am very excited to be here today to speak about a subject that I have a great deal of passion about – entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship,” Flake told the crowd of about 200. “There is nothing our country needs more than entrepreneurs.”

Flake, who has been an entrepreneur for 23 years, having launched a business in college then a bartending business and eventually HydroWorx, said one lesson he has learned is that he still has a lot to learn.

“Certain truths have emerged, and one truth is to be clear on your purpose,” Flake said. “Why are you doing what you’re doing? Our purpose as it was demonstrated in the video is to use water to heal…athletes and patients.”

At the beginning of his keynote address, a five-minute overview of HydroWorx was shown to the audience.

In that video, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was shown rehabilitating a torn ACL on an underwater treadmill manufactured by HydroWorx. Many experts predicted Peterson would miss most of the 2012 season, but his miraculous recovery was punctuated by a career best year that fell just nine yards short of beating the all-time National Football League record.

“What does the video really mean?” Flake said. “It means that HydroWorx is in the business of helping people reach their destiny – whether that is helping Adrian Peterson reach his destiny of rushing for 2,097 yards last year or Anna, the little girl in the video, to walk again. At HydroWorx, it is our purpose to help people fulfill their dreams – and that gives us passion.”

Flake said entrepreneurs must have grit and be willing to grind it out if they hope to be successful in business.

“I came across a Forbes magazine article asking, ‘what is the single biggest factor that venture capitalist look for in start-ups?’ And the answer was grit. And they defined grit in a research project at the University of Pennsylvania as a passion and perseverance for long-term goals. You’ve got to stick it out; you have to stay with it.”

Another  secret to entrepreneurial success is building a strong team of employees. Flake said he has numerous employees with 10 to 15 years of experience at a company that has only been around for two decades.

“I am proud of those employees who have been there and have been committed to helping us achieve our collective dream,” Flake said.

Flake noted his company engages employees  by participating in the annual Best Places to Work in Pennsylvania program. This initiative includes an anonymous survey to gauge employee satisfaction with their employer. (Team PA is a founding partner and co-sponsor of the program, which is now in its 14th year.)

“We’ve made the list every year we have participated over the past eight years and I have to say I’ve learned something new every year from the employee survey,” Flake said.

Flake said Dr. Paul Hetrick, another company co-founder, eventually launched HydroWorx because he was an entrepreneur looking for a way to help patients heal faster.  He came upon his life-changing discovery in the most unlikely of ways. He saw a horse trainer rehabilitating a horse on an underwater treadmill.

Having cut the trainer a check for $50,000, Hetrick and the trainer set out to build a prototype.  In what can be described as a real-life lesson in perseverance, the early days were not all that easy, according to Flake. The entrepreneurs worked on five iterations of the treadmill before they would finally get it right.

“These guys really didn’t know what they were doing because they were not engineers, but they did have a great deal of passion,” Flake said. “Dr. Hetrick worked at his practice during the day and then traveled to New Jersey where they worked on building the prototype in a barn.”

Flake, a runner who suffers with chronic knee pain, said he became interested in the idea of an underwater treadmill while he was undergoing rehabilitation with Dr. Hetrick in the mid-1990s.

From 1999-2001, Flake said the co-owners worked on building prototypes, getting patents and Food and Drug Administration approval and building its market/brand while simultaneously burning through cash and resources. It is a time he describes as HydroWorx’s “dark days.”

“I had my paycheck held numerous times, we had no venture capital and we were on what I call the ‘family, friends and fools (funding) program’,” Flake said. “Half of the employees quit during that time because they were fearful it was going to go under. Another valuable lesson I learned through this process is that you have to control your fears.”

Better days, however, lie ahead. The company started realizing 26.2 percent annual growth, and today HydroWorx products treat 23,000 patients and athletes daily around the world.