“It is good to have a failure while you’re young because it teaches you so much. For one thing it makes you aware that such a thing can happen to anybody, and once you’ve lived though the worst, you’re never quite as vulnerable afterwards”
Maybe there is a touch of divine intervention that comes to us when either great things or horrible things happen to us. These things force you to examine what you have believed about yourself and those around you.
Today my wife and I own the team and the facility. We have a thriving SwimAmerica program, and we have just retired the last of the loans from building our pool in 1996. It is a twenty-five yard pool with three fifty-meter lanes, and a separate teaching pool. This past year we built an office on site that looks out over the pool.
My talk is about the challenges I encountered that compelled us to take the risks that created my current situation,
Out of college I started a team called the Cobb Stingrays. I remember that the Aquatic Director for the county pool told me that if I was worth anything I would have 40 kids at the pool on opening day (I remember thinking pooch’). In the next three years, we ran it as a County Park and Rec team, and the team grew to 300 members. In our fourth year the county requested that we leave the nest and become a separate non-profit organization. Little did I know what would happen. A board was formed, and I was continually reassured that nothing would change, it was just paperwork These well-meaning folks wrote themselves in as permanent board members, beyond the ballot or recall, and of course the coach did not have a seat or vote on the board. Over time a few elected positions were added, but they had to be approved by the permanent members.
The team grew and prospered. In 1992, we had 400 members on the team, and a waiting list of 200 plus. We had just qualified our first two swimmers for Senior Nationals, had top seeded individuals and relays at Juniors, and had knocked Dynamo out of second place at the State 14-U meet. We annually raised 25 to $30,000 in our Swim-A-Thon, and in three yearn of operation as a board run team, we had put over $100,000 in the bank.
Our newest board members were enthusiastic parents of fast 11-12 year olds who possibly felt that with the Olympics coming to Atlanta soon, that the time might be right to get a world class coach in there, and that the team was poised for greatness. Perhaps I might grow to be a world-class coach, but they didn’t have time. Two days after I was forced out, United States Swimming named my team number one in the nation for Management and Motivation of a Large club (“Could It Be You in 1992?”).
I decided to start my own club a month later my wife had a good job and we didn’t want to move. Friends and supporters at the time told me that this would turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to me, which seemed to be the sort of line you throw a drowning man. I drew up plans and hired a coach. We put a bubble over a neighborhood pool and I prepared for my first parents’ meeting. I was under the impression, and there are probably some of you out there that labor under this same idea, that parents will only accept your authority as Head Coach if there is some sort of power-sharing arrangement, like a board. It was all I had ever known in my time as a swimmer and coach. So I drafted an elaborate plan, trying to build in safeguards so I wouldn’t create another monster. Fifteen minutes before I was to meet with the parents’ group, I showed my draft to the ax-president of the Stingrays, who had come with my club. He looked up from the paper, and said ‘What are you doing? You have been given a gift, one allowing you to walk out of that cell, and now you are asking that they shut the door on you?” He continued, “These people are willing to hand over their kid to you every day, because they believe in you. They will pay a fee to you as a professional for what you will teach their children. That’s all there is to it”.
I made my pitch to the parents, many of whom were from my old team and were trying to decide what to do. I very nervously got to the end of my speech and said, “and there won’t be a board”, with kind of a hopeful wince. They burst into applause.
Since that day, I have immersed myself in learning about business, and how to apply other examples to what we do. Today I will share what I believe to be the essential points of successfully owning your own club, and also tell you of the setbacks and shortcomings that I have experienced.! am not an expert at business operation, especially as it applies to financial matters, but I believe that what we are doing with Chattahoochee Gold is pioneering a new direction for swim coaches.
In his book The Millionaire Next Door; Thomas Stanley profiles the average American millionaire. It is not someone who inherited his or her ‘money, or someone who won the lottery. Here is his profile of a millionaire:
-Is 57 years old, married with three children
– About two thirds are self-employed, which is why I am referring to this book. Self- employed people make up less than 20% of the workforce, but they account for two thirds of the millionaires.
– three out of four millionaires consider themselves to be entrepreneurs
– Most of these businesses are in the dull to normal fields; welding contractors, rice farmers, owners of mobile home parks, pest controllers, and paving contractors (no swim coaches yet).
– About half of the wives don’t work. Of those that do, the number one occupation is teacher.
– The average taxable income of these households is $131,000 annually.
– 97% are homeowners. Halt have stayed in their homes for 20 years or longer
-80% are first generation affluent – no inheritance,
-Only 17% attended a private elementary or high school.
– Two-thirds work between 45 to 55 hours weekly.
– They invest 20% of their taxable income each year.
– 20% of their wealth comes from stocks and mutual funds. 21% of the wealth is in their private business.
-91% of millionaires never received, as a gift, as much as one dollar of the ownership of the family business.
Clearly the path to wealth in this country is through owning a business.
A couple of ASCA clinics ago, I heard John Koontz, of Australia talk about his swim lesson business, He described his operation in North Sidney, and mentioned that at his primary pool, they had grossed 1.5 million dollars in the past year. I was floored by that number because I had thought that the $35,000 we had done the summer before was pretty good. Here was one of the millionaires next door, and he does some thing that I know about, that I could do too. Since then, I have been developing a business model by absorbing examples of other businesses around me, and trying to apply it to coaching.
Mr. Koontz had gone through the IL-Myth Academy consulting firm, and shortly thereafter I signed up for it too. I had read the book by the founder of the IL-myth Academy, and it was sub-titled “Why Small Businesses Fail”, which should be required reading for all of you entrepreneurs out there. One of the first issues I encountered in self-employment is a great deal of resistance from many people in the coaching community. A business model implies that there are standardized procedures; that what we do here can be replicated in another place. Just as a company can teach their least skilled workers how to always produce a perfect widget at any of 11,000 locations, a business model attempts to put on paper what the successful clubs do, and by this means provide a how-to manual that can allow new coaches to become more productive more quickly. It also allows a satellite team to be reproduced anywhere, and for the parts to be interchangeable. This is the key to being successful in this business, having a number of pools doing the same great stuff, every day.
However, there are coaches who feel like this is strictly an art form, and they sea themselves as independent consultants. The idea of a business model seems to threaten their sense of the unique relationship between athlete and coach. Here’s the problem that all of us will eventually get to, you can’t do it all yourself and you can’t let coaches that may come and go redefine your team which each new hire.
In my IL-myth reading I came across the story of a woman who had her own business
Story of Sarah and her pie business
If you are a good coach, you too will get to the point that you personally can’t do anymore, get up any earlier, work longer, coach more kids. Your success will bring you to this point, and here you will either evolve, quit, or simply resign yourself to suffering.
When you get to this wall, coaching will not be very much fun. Once I was hearing Karen Leonard speak at a clinic, and she was espousing the benefits of swim lessons. I remember thinking “Great, I work 70 hours a week, can barely pay my bills, have no time for myself and she’s saying that to be successful I have to take on another career!” At the time, I was thinking that this was career for suckers. Slowly, I started to think about how I could move from overworked swim coach to business manager.
Let’s use another field as an example. A dentist provides a service like we do. He also uses assistants and office workers to get everything done. At the end of his career, he can sell his practice, which consists of his tools, his customer list and his community goodwill and reputation. He sends out a letter saying I am retiring from the practice, and I have turned it over to Mr. Smith, who is a fine young man, your scheduled appointments will all remain the same, etc This hand-off might result in a loss of 10% of customers, but otherwise it goes seamlessly. What the retiring dentist has done is created a vehicle of wealth by which he can reap the rewards of his years of hard work. It is not about the building he rented or the property that the office sits on, it is about the reputation of his service.
On the other hand, those of you who work for a board-run team live in a topsy-turvy upside-down world. This is like a dentist practice in which the customers get together and tell the dentist what the prices will be, and what services will be offered. The prices are not based on what it costs to offer a top caliber practice, but on what the board and their friends are comfortable paying. The prices are not set to reflect your true value. Nor do they take into account profit sharing, retirement costs, disability insurance, or future expansion. At the end of the day, this customer goes into the cash register and divvies up the money as he or she sees fit, regardless of your effort. There is the explicit understanding that your love of teeth drilling should be enough, and that the modest pay is
There are lots of stories we have all heard where a coach gives the greatest part of his working life to a team, to a community, and then is turned out on the street with nothing. In corporate America, people do get let go, and companies throw out their management. But many of those people leave with their 401 (k) s, their vested retirement packages, their severance pay in many corporate jobs it is very difficult to fire someone. In coaching, you would be surprised at how many coaches don’t have contracts – head coaches of big teams. My old team told me this was because contracts were meaningless, not worth the paper they were drafted on. The truth is that by not having a contract, the board can fire you at any time, on any day, without paying you a nickel. The only reason a board doesn’t offer you a contract is because it will save them a boatload of money when they fire you on the spot. This unstated threat is their primary means of controlling you.
In my twenties, I was at the mercy of the business members of our board that could justify any decision by saying it was STANDARD BUSINESS PROCEDURES. The other good one was: IRS REQUIRES THIS They used this to justify not giving contracts, to not having the coach on the board, to paying themselves for services rendered, and so on. The truth of the matter is that the best businesses do whatever is in their best interest, is most efficient, and is legal. This is called innovation.
Reasons to Own Your Own Swim Team
Here are the reasons to become a business owner who happens to be a swim coach:
1) Control your professional destiny
2) It’s fun and invigorating
3) All great things in history have come from one person persevering with a great idea. Few great leaps in human progress have come from committees.
4) Work hard and give yourself a $20,000 raise this time next year
5) Establish more honest and direct communications with your customers. It has really cut down on mindless bleacher-bitching. If a parent is upset, the universal response is ‘have you talked to the coach yet? On a board team, they go around you to the board member that they gossip with, and then this board member will come to you and say, “Everyone thinks you need to do more breaststroke with the kids” in order to prevent you from knowing the source This is fundamentally unhealthy communication, and it will make a coach paranoid and unsure of himself. Parents will find that it is tar easier to go around you than to go to you.
6) Create wealth instead of just receive a paycheck. At the end of your career, have something that you can sell, lease, or pass on.
7) You can move much more quickly in response to competitors, or the market, or just a good idea. No more sitting around the board meeting discussing the same thing over and over.
- S) Pick who you want to have on your team. It is almost impossible to kick someone off your team with a board, no matter how much trouble or damage they cause. Likewise, you have to endlessly suffer with under performing staff, or bad morale, because this one coach may have a sponsor on the board.
9) Enjoy a tar better relationship with your staff. On a board team, it is every man for himself and your goal is to look better than the coach next to you, because you want to be more indispensable than the others. If the head coach gets the axe, don’t be standing to close to him or her. It is a real life game of survivor. The result of this is that coaches offer only limited support to one another— ‘I am not going to tell you any really good training tips because I need my kids to progress faster than yours’. On a board team, all coaches feel that they have a back channel to their favorite board member anyway because it gives them a firmer grasp on a slippery slope. When you own the team, you have a vital interest in the well-being and success of your staff. You want them to know everything you know, and to have the fastest, happiest kids in the state. If a parent attacks a coach, you aren’t running the political formula in your head of who that parent knows on the board, and how much political capital you will spend protecting this guy. There are drawbacks, and I will fully cover those shortly.
The only reason I can see to have a board is in order to get everything done, which you should know by now is way more than you alone can do. However, the dentist office doesn’t call up the customers and ask them to come volunteer to work at the front desk, or to clean the office at night. They don’t ask the customers to fund raise so that the dentist can buy a new drill. They don’t require you to sell advertising in the local paper for the dentist, or fine you if you don’t. How did we get to this crazy place? The way the world works is that you pay a professional a fee for a service. The customer wants to be treated right and receive good service. That’s all there is to it. Shakespeare said, “The first thing we should do is kill all the lawyers.” I would do the lawyers after the board members.
To get everything done you need a dedicated staff. In the beginning, this will be your coaches, because you won’t be able to afford anything else. This staff should understand that ‘work will set you free’. In other words, they are making a trade: working harder than the team across the street in order to be free of a board. As the team grows you can add more administrative staff. This tall, in addition to the coaching staff, we are fortunate to have a receptionist that does light office work and answers the phones, a swim lesson director who is also a jack of all trades around the pool, a pool tech (part time), an outside lawn service, a cleaning service, and an outside accountant In the early days, the coaches did everything, cleaning the bathrooms, vacuuming the pool, book keeping, answering the phones, running the pump room, painting the building, and so on. I was very blessed to have two great assistants in the early days of the business, Todd Chamelin and Ron Turner, who gave their all to get our team on solid footing. The low point of starting our team happened when we were setting up these rented construction trailers behind our bubble to use them as changing rooms and bathrooms. It was left to us to install the sewer holding tanks under the trailers, and as Murphy’s Law would have it there wasn’t enough clearance. So we had to dig out some dirt under the trailer and test-fit the tanks Every time we moved the tanks they would slosh around and muck would spill out of the top. Todd keep asking himself aloud, if this was a standard activity for swim coaches.
How to Free Yourself
How do you become this business owner if you currently work for a board? A growing number of coaches have simply gone to the board and asked that the team be turned over to them. If the team has struggled in recent years, sometimes the board will be grateful to do this. But suppose they say no. If there are people on the board that use their position as a natural power base in their own lives, and you can tell who these people are in about 30 seconds, they’ll say no, giving you all sorts of reasons why it is not possible, why it’s immoral, and why even the request is a threat to the community.
My coach friend in Augusta, Jeff Rout, started coaching about the same time I did, and he experienced some of the usual board outrages that we all do, including a few flew ones. He was repeatedly turned down for substantial raises by the treasurer because, she said, there just wasn’t enough money year after year. It turned out she was embezzling tens of thousands of dollars. After twelve years of this, Jeff went to the board and proposed that they make him CEO. No, no, no. He tried again the next year, always better preparing his argument, and including board friendly charts and statistics, How about letting me buy the team? No. How about a raise? No. Then they decreased his incentives and tried to cut his vacation time in halt implying that he had too good a deal. Jeff sums it up by saying that
the board wanted to remind him who was boss – “The Lord Giveth, and the Lord Taketh Away”.
At the end of the year cookout, Jeff passed out the usual awards and words of thanks. Then he announced that this would be his last day as the team’s coach, that he was starting his own team, and that he would welcome all interested parties, so he started Greater Augusta Swimming. The next day the board president offered him a 25% pay increase to stay. A month later he saw his old job, the one for which there were no more funds available, advertised at this dramatically increased rate.
Let’s talk about the downside to this:
1) There is risk involved. If your business fails you will lose all your money. If you have financed this thing through lots of loans, maybe a home equity loan, you could even lose your house
2) You will have sleepless nights worrying about payroll and other upcoming expenses.
3) Ultimately everything stops at your desk
4) You will have to change the way you see yourself. You are no longer a coach who does a little paperwork. You are a businessman or woman who gets to coach.
5) If you are successful in the first five years, and many businesses aren’t, then you will reach a period of critical mass, in which your success has ruined the rest of your life, like the lady with the Pie business.
6) The learning curve of business is steep, and the time you put into learning tax code, accounting methods, employee management, is time that your competitors might be putting into learning flew training ideas. In other words, you may feel that your growth as a coach suffers in proportion to your growth as a businessperson. In the long run your family will be happier in your growth as a businessperson
7) If there’s not enough money to go around, it’s your paycheck that is late.
Let’s say that you see the upside and the downside, and you think this is for you. Here’s my list of things to do right away to help ensure your odds for success:
1) Take a time management class right away Coaches are terrible at prioritizing their time and meeting deadlines. You will need superior management skills to survive. The Franklin Covey classes are great and we send our key staff members to it as soon as we hire them. It is vital that you realize that you can’t get everything done in a day, so you have to pick the most important things.
2) Get advice from a business mentor. Early on, I had an accountant tell me to beware those people looking for discounts on their fees (and I was surprised how many there are). He said “If you tell them no, they might be mad, but stay in business and everyone else is happy. If you tell them yes, then they are happy, the floodgates are opened, and you go out of business, and everyone else is mad”. So at first I wouldn’t give anyone a discount, though you might consider a trade-out for fees if they had a skill you really needed, like tax expert.
3) Check references like crazy. You will live and die with your staff. A good staff is like having guardian angels sent down from above to Sheppard through the dark valley of your start-up. But if you end up supporting a bad guy, one who is secret tearing your business apart, then you’ll be in trouble. We had a guy, who was an adequate coach, and he was secretly setting up his own team. He covered his tracks pretty well. Employees that get caught stealing or otherwise engaged in damaging acts always have it worked out in their head…they didn’t get paid enough, they weren’t properly recognized for their hard work, or they should have gotten a bigger raise. These rationalizations allow them to believe that you have done this to yourself. Checking references allows you to be tipped off against guys like this. I didn’t check this guy’s references because I thought I was slyly scooping him from one of our big competitors. Never again will I make that mistake. The evidence of half-truths and made-up stories were all over this guy, but I looked the other way. If a person can’t come up with three sterling references after living this life for twenty-five or thirty five years, then something is terribly wrong. The best references are the personal ones, not job related, where you went one person beyond the listed reference.
4) Don’t spend your money trying to look more successful. There is a real temptation to go out and buy those goodies that you lusted for at your other job, or to do those things that give the aura of success, like a nice office desk and chair. In Texas, they call this “Big Hat No Cattle”. Your expenses will be double what you projected and your revenues will be half what you thought. The ‘investment that you had to have will leave you wishing you had to money instead later.
- S) Get a payroll company right away. There are software programs that can tell you what to withhold, and it is not that hard to figure out. The problem is that when you pay someone on the fifth, the FICA and Medicare withholdings are not due to the government until the 15th of the following month. What happens is that you begin to think that your payroll expense is only what you’re paying out on payday, and that you will worry about the withholdings later. When later comes, you may or may not have the money. The penalty for missing the withholdings deadline of the 15th is often 100%; the government takes this very seriously. The penalties have single-handedly put small businesses, otherwise profitable, out of businesses. The payroll companies charge very little. The fee for our company is between $75 to $120 monthly. For the peace of mind, and complete freedom from paperwork and penalties, this is must. We use Paychex.
6) You are now a business owner, not a swim coach. People that have a set of skills or a craft are technicians. Coaches are technicians. People that run businesses are Managers. The best managers are those that know the skills of the technician, but understand that their role is to figure out how to best apply the resources of the business to achieve the business’s goals. The business will not run itself and all businesses do essentially the same three things, which we will discuss in a minute. Those three things cannot be left to chance, and will not happen by themselves. The coach that thinks owning his swim team is about getting to coach all he wants and doing a little a little paperwork is not going to succeed in his own business. That person is having a seizure of start-up fever, and when it passes he’ll be in trouble.
7) You must have a passion for this. My passion is that I am trailblazing a new way for coaches to get more out of their lives. The passion will sustain you will things go wrong or you have several bad days in a row.
8) Become the best boss that anyone has ever worked for. Take classes, read books, talk to business people about the qualities that make for a good boss. Assistant coaches want a lot of freedom, and some resent any feedback, but it’s your butt on the line, and it’s your job to give navigational checkpoints if the ship is off course. You can not afford to look the other way when you know the ship is off course, but I have been amazed at the length that some coaches will go to tell you that everything is just fine, just to get you off. their back. I imagine them saying, “whew, he’s gone, now, how do I put this fire out?” If it’s not being done right, and this does not mean your way, it means as measured against the desired results, then you have to step in. The trick is to clearly discuss it and offer encouragement. Good efforts with bad results are acceptable, poor effort or sloppy work leading to bad results is not acceptable. Stick with the people that are really trying, and get rid of those that aren’t.
9) Lay out your vision: This is your one big chance to take a blank sheet of paper and start from scratch.
Let’s say that you are ready to go for it. How do you begin the process?
1) Decide on the Greatest Name of all time. Most people don’t give this a second thought. In advertising, a copywriter will spend 90% of his time dreaming up the headline. A great name is unforgettable. Jeff Rout’s team has the team abbreviation GAS, and their motto is that you can’t pass GAS in the pool.
2) Apply with the IRS for a Federal Employers Identification Number. This will be needed for everything else that follows.
3) Go to the Secretary of State’s Office and do a name search to be sure that no one has your great idea for a name. Register your company with the Secretary of State’s Office.
4) Meet with an attorney to get your company set up. There are number of different set-ups, each with various pros and cons, and different tax liabilities, we’re a sub –S corporation, and have recently formed a 501 (c)(3) non-profit corporation too. These things cost some money, so budget for this,
5) Set up your corporate checking account. You will need business checks to make some transactions happen, like water rental. Be sure that you don’t co-mingle funds between your personal account and business, Your spouse may think of the commercial account as some sort of slush-fund or scheme to buy things for the house but not spend your personal money. If you’re audited, this would be a bad thing.
6) Find and secure your water time.
7) Do NOT go out and build your dream pool. We were in business for four years already when we built our pool, and it was a huge stress. The staff and skills that it takes to operate a pool is a whole other layer of responsibility that you won’t need when you are starting out. A new pool will probably lose money until you get all the other programming going there – like swim lessons and fitness swim. Who’s going to develop those? Your coaches already have their hands full. At the end of this talk I’ll show what we did to give you some ideas.
8) Understand that the first year will be very tough. There are people sitting on the sidelines waiting to see if you’re going to make it, and only time will tell. If you are going against your old team, a number of people will be loudly hoping that you fail. The main reason people fail in business is that they either don’t understand the business they’re in or they run out of capital.
9) Don’t give your company away. Coaches are not the best business people, and there’s the temptation to give too much too soon. Resist this, and run your compensation ideas by your wife or significant other to see if they scream “What!!!” Most companies don’t offer profit sharing, stock options, or 401(k) until an employee has been there awhile, so just a nice reasonable paycheck is sufficient at the beginning. Remember that in America, the rewards go to those who take the chances. It is encouraging that your staff is working hard, and they should be properly rewarded for their sweat equity, but only those coaches that have financial equity at stake, like you, only those people are truly exposed. If you have a financial partner who is footing the bill, and you are providing all the work, remember the Golden Rule of Business: He who has the Gold Makes the Rules. The financial partner has all the leverage, and the other partner gets screwed nine times out of ten. So be very stingy about giving up any portion of the business.
10) About Money: Early on, I remember throwing up my hands on several occasions and saying ‘that’s it, we’re out of business’. I couldn’t believe the natural gas bill for example or the employer’s portion of FICA and Medicare. You may feel like it’s a conspiracy to bankrupt you. Watch your money like a hawk, and do not let anybody else handle it. This is absolutely not something that you can delegate. If you are a spender, get someone who can be the brakes for you. For me, that’s my wife. We have worked out a good system in that we try to beg borrow and steal office equipment and furniture, and she makes sure that if I have to buy it, that’s it really necessary.
Go to the bank. They’ll want security, which can be land, cars, or financial assets. I found that my performance at my old team (top fund raising team in country, no debt, a non-profit with a huge surplus, a waiting list) didn’t count when I went to the bank because it wasn’t my company A bank will want three years of successful history in this field, and as much collateral as they deem necessary. Most banks won’t tell you ‘no’, they just make the terms unbearable. Bigger banks use a formula and are more likely to turn you down. My banker tells me that my loan was a tough call, but the economy was humming along then and I had a slew of parents that believed enough in the project to back the project personally. That made him believe in me.
They will probably not give you an unsecured loan, unless you can pull a Jedi mind trick on the guy. Once you have gotten a loan and have paid it back, then you be able to get an unsecured loan.
Go the parents. Most will want to help, but only a small number will be able to do much. The key thing is that it has to make financial sense, i.e. they will need to make interest on their money. We raised $50,000 from our parents in a month’s time, over the Christmas holiday, to make our pool happen.
Stretch the Payments: Don’t be late on previously agreed payments, just ask if you can get more time on the payments to come from friendly suppliers – those people that will get more business when your business grows. When we built our pool and our office, we asked for an extra 90 days to pay the back portion, and it made all the difference. This is the same as having more revenue on the front, you just trading time for money. If you tell a vendor, ‘gee I really like your product, but the other guy will let me pay over 90 days”, almost all the vendors will match it. Just be sure not to burn someone, because then you make it harder for the next start-up business. I approached a swimsuit supplier about joining with us financially, but he had been burned by a similar deal the year before when a Georgia club failed in their financial obligations, leaving him holding the bag.
Use Credit Cards: Be careful because this can be steep hole to climb out of. When we were building the pool, we wanted it to be open before the Atlanta Games, so that we might have an Olympic swim team come stay with us prior to the Olympic Village opening up. There was very little time, so I ended up using my credit card to open lines of credit at several hardware stores so that the crew could get what they needed without having to track me down. My card soared over the limit, and with all the penalties and fines that were attached to being over the limit; this account was closed on me. The amount was almost $10,000, and every single item charged to it was legit, but it has taken us five years to pay it down. That was a very expensive source of money. You’ll see that 90% of small businesses use credit cards for funding.
Now That You’re Set Up…
All businesses do three things
1) They search for potential customers
2) They convert potential customers to members
3) They deliver on their promises to their members
A lot of coaches think that only number three is important, and they posture with self-important talk about how ‘if you’re doing the job, the swimmers will come’, or how it is really the role of swim lessons to bring potential swimmers in the door. The truth is that successful businesses do all three. The first item, searching for potential customers, is about profiling who your customer is and where they live. This includes what they read, watch, where they eat, and other such demographics. This can inexpensively be measured by doing an informal survey of people that represent your average swim family. Call up ten families and quiz them on the demographics that are important to your business. Make sure that you are asking the decision maker in the family. Be open to surprises, not just confirming what keen insight you must have.
Once you know where these profiles live, where they shop, eat, and have fun, find a way to get in front of them. It takes the average person seeing an ad seven times, for the message to stick. That’s a lot of advertising! The more specific you are, the more specifically you can target your money. The series of books by Joseph Levinson called Guerrilla Marketing is really valuable because he explains the why some businesses prosper, even though they have little money available for advertising. Guerrilla Marketing, says Levinson, “requires time, energy, and imagination- not necessarily money”
The second point is helping them become members. In Guerrilla Marketing Excellence, Levinson writes…
People buy clean shiny hair, not shampoo
They buy the promises you make, so make them with care
They buy your credibility
They buy solutions to their problems
They buy success, security, love, and acceptance
They buy your guarantee, reputation, and your good name
They buy other people’s opinions of your business
They buy hope
They buy consistency
They buy the stature of the media in which you market
They buy selection
They buy acceptance of others of your team
They buy certainty. No one reserved seats at Kitty Hawk
They buy convenience
The buy respect for their own ideas and personality
They buy your identity
They buy clarity, if they don’t understand they walk
They buy style, especially if it fits with their style
They buy success, your success that can be given to their child. They buy good taste
On this second point, ask yourself if you can sum up in one sentence what your vision of the team is all about. If you can, convey that to your staff. If you can’t, get to work on it. My old team has come up with a very good slogan, “Training for Life”, which is perfect for what we do.
Marketing is the sum of what you do to promote your business. It is not enough to be a good swim coach and a nice person. You have to be able to clearly define your prime benefit to your customer, along with your uniqueness.
What are your competitive advantages? Compared to soccer? Compared to other swim teams? Areas of competitive advantage are coach to swimmer ratio, retention rate, staff experience, water time and facility, price, number of swimmers in a lane, and so on.
To highlight why a potential customer should become a member of your team you should find the inherent drama within your service. Olympic TV ads that choke you up are a good example. A story that touches people and illustrates the goodness of your service will convince people to trust you with their child.
Deliver on Your Promises.
Look around you for companies that do a good job when you buy from them.
An early internet service provider that was bought out by Earthlink. The have a creed that all employees are expected to take to heart, and that belief system made it a pleasure to call up Tech support and deal with their people. Here’s their Creed, I hope to develop something like this for Chattahoochee Gold (read Charles Brewer’s Mantra)
My wife bought a car from Saturn three years ago, and that was some experience, a super fun thing to do. Their cars are okay, nothing remarkable, but the way they treat their customers is outstanding.
On the third point, delivering on the promises, you might think that the secret is about training or technique, but it so much more. Where coaches and coach-run teams go wrong is often on the dry end of point three, all the support items that have to get done, and by whom. It is important that the owner put a position chart (organizational chart) together, and gets everybody on there. The positions should be labeled by job title, not by person (people come and go but the team remains). List on there who reports to whom. Then on a separate sheet attach the list of duties to each position. Again avoid the temptation to create the position around a particular person. What you’re really doing over time with this process is creating a manual on how to run the business, the how-to book on everything you do. This book will take years to write, and takes input from everyone. Some companies have an entire position dedicated to just this pursuit. Without this manual, whenever someone leaves all the wisdom of that position is gone, and the next person starts from scratch, maybe getting a little guidance from here and there. On a board team, this is a given, because remember ‘we don’t want the new guy to show me up, and if he stumbles a bit early on, then I look just that much better’. This is the coach-owned teams secret weapon. We have strength that is greater than the sum of our parts.
It will really be a struggle early on, because you won’t have the money to have everything in place, to have all the positions filled. It has often felt like I was in shackles, and could only move an inch and a half a day, but knew that I had twelve miles to go, We would all have to do all the jobs, and make a little more money, but then there was never enough to make it the way we wanted. Walt Disney said that before they opened Disneyland, they had run out of money for landscaping, so he had his assistant go out and put Latin names in front of the weeds. Just keep plugging away at it, and keep inching towards the clear vision you’re making. People will be willing to overlook a good bit when you have shared your vision with them.
There will be people that will be inspired by you, and there will be people to hate what you’re doing. Let me give you an example… In our second year, after reviewing again and again the monthly expenses, it seemed that we could maybe save money on travel expenses, so we bought an old RV, painted it black and put our team logo on it. We drove this to meets and sometimes slept in it. My wife would come in the day before we left town for a meet, and ask the coaches for their grocery wish list, which was always the same. She would load up the cooler with steaks, potato salad, baked beans, pop-tarts, instant oatmeal, etc, and most of the time beer would appear in the cooler too. We were saving a boatload of money using that RV, which we called the mothership. But other teams hated it. This move allowed us to save about $9000 after paying for the RV, over a two and a half year time span. Shortly after we got the mothership we came to the pool, and every window on it had been smashed out (five windows in all). Someone really didn’t like that idea.
The first time a person joked about me making money at Chattahoochee Gold, it offended of me because my sense that coaching was a calling, that it took a person who wasn’t interested in money to be a coach, in effect an oath of poverty. Let’s be clear – ft is time that coaches stopped being their own worse enemy when it comes to money. We give ourselves away – plain and simple. We undervalue ourselves, because we have been reminded by boards over and over that we can be replaced tomorrow.
You can do well by doing good.
You are dealing with the most important thing in a parent’s life. My father asked me if I felt vulnerable with the economy turning down since he assumed I was in recreation. I told him that we have never had a child drop for economic reasons. If a parent loses his/her job, they may ask us float them a little time on the payment, but parents will fight to do everything they can to prevent a financial hardship from affecting their children. So we’re not in recreation but rather childhood development, which in certain fields is one of the most lucrative areas of all.
Our office assistant recently drove her first born to college, and she was struggling with it. Because of her I spotted an article in the newspaper about bringing your first child to college. The writer recalled that on his way home he passed the playground near their house, the same one that his son, as a little boy, had begged his father to take him to. What, the writer wondered, had been so important that he had said no all those many times. The truth is nothing. My job is to remind parents of this fundamental truth – that these are the good ol’ days. There is nothing more important than the time and money that they will spend on their child.
In her book about Financial Freedom, Investment writer Suzy Orman tells about something that she noticed as a portfolio manager at Merrill Lynch. Some investors had the Kiss Of Death, and some were charmed The Kiss of Death investors would put their money into a stock, and it would begin to go down. No matter how she tried to steer their account. She began to analyze these accounts in depth to see what separated these folks from the lucky ones. What she found was astounding, and speaks volumes about our outlook on what we think we deserve in this life. The charmed investors had one significant difference. They gave. Their percent of donations to charities and the needy was at a much higher proportion then the doomed investors She believes that those who practiced goodwill and generosity were open to receiving all they were meant to have. In other words, what goes around comes around. The doomed investor held on to their money so tightly that their fists were clinched closed. The author says this is like holding your hand under a faucet, but instead of water coming out, money comes out. With a closed fist, you can try to drink from this faucet all day, but you’ll remain thirsty with an open hand, your thirst will be quenched.
Coaches are some of the most generous people I know. It is completely noble to commit one’s life to showing children how great they can be. Coaches give the best years of their lives to this pursuit. But many are not open to receiving all that they are meant to have. The generosity you show to the community in your blood, sweat, and tears can come back to you, if you are open to it, and believe that you are worth it. That’s what it really comes down to… most of us don’t think that your work should earn you $100,000 a year because we’re just swim coaches. I say that you are one of the most valuable members in the community.
A board will not want to pay a swim coach more than they personally make. Going into business for yourself is the key. Many of you may feel that you like your board, and they would never do anything to harm your career. Remember that the turnover rate in year round swimming is 50%. In a couple of years, you could have essentially an entirely different parents group than you have today. There’s also the observation that parents change once they are on the board and hold your future in their hands. Many coaches have encountered a coup attempt, and often it takes place at the 7 or 8 year mark, and if it subsides, they can hang on a little longer, but this is an exhausting, unsatisfying, and ultimately humiliating existence. If you work for a board, and you are not an Olympic caliber coach yet, sooner or later your job will be at risk.
Here’s another simple truth: Your business is worthless if it is built around you. No one is going to want to buy your business if it is dependent on you. In real life terms that means it has to have independent structures that can operate without you. I am not talking about coaches on the deck. I mean procedures that happen whether you are there are not, position descriptions so that people can be trained and up to speed quickly, This is a revolutionary way of looking at coaching, because it is the flip-flop of the position you’re in with a board-run team. There the idea is to make yourself indispensable. When you own a business, the point is, among other things, to build equity, and then translate that into liquidity. Someone looking to buy a business wants to see Systems in place, and operational manuals telling them how to run the business. There are no operational manuals, that I know of that tell you how to run a sub-s corporation swim team.
Just remember that you are running a business When I called up Hy-Tek last week, I referred to Chattahoochee Gold as our business’, and the Hy-Tek guy stopped me and said ‘Are you a business or a swim team?” It’s a small comment but it tells you a lot about what you’re up against as we seek to professionalize our sport. This is the future, and for some it will seem overwhelming. When I started Chattahoochee Gold, I didn’t know whether I could pull it off, but my hurt and anger over how I had been treated, and how I had nothing to show for all my hard work, fueled my drive to succeed. I hope that you will find a way to join me in re-creating the position of swim coach.