Owning Your Own Business
Written By Joseph Bernal
I am excited that there are people who are interested in owning their own business.
The attendance here tells a story of it’s own. There are not many coaches in the room. Anyway, I
am excited there are some people who are ready to explore the pros and cons of owning your
own business. Coaches have a difficult transition from coach to business person. When you imagine a
self employed coach, you think of a coach who starts when he feels like it, stops when he wants to, and
at the same time makes money.
In my twenty seven years of owning my business, it is safe to say
that the fantasy is far more attractive then the reality. I would like to talk about some of the pros of owning your own business. This talk is not
on how to run your business but whether you would want to attempt owning your own business. So
lets begin the pro side.
The first pro is the opportunity to try your own ideas, your visions and goals. You are
the president of the company and you inherit the responsibility of organizing, managing, hiring, firing
and even coaching when you get a chance. You have the responsibility for your team’s philosophy.
You make the major decisions without consulting a parents organization which is an asset when time is
of the essence. Sometimes with parent groups they can not act quickly enough on a decision and
the moment is gone. You determine the budget for your business and you determine your own
financial rewards. You are responsible to direct the budget in the way you think best suits the needs of
the team. This control is extremely valuable and can help you keep the team or business going in
the proper direction.
The second pro is control in owning your own business, the third is freedom. There is
a difference between control and freedom. Freedom is the ability to choose what you feel is
important regarding every aspect of the business. You have freedom in budget, membership, dues, staffing,
staff salary (including your own) and team travel. So, you have a great deal of freedom when you
own your own business. I call my team a business because as coaches we think of team as training, meetings
with swimmers about goals and practice. The freedom of picking your staff is important. Many times
when you come to teams that are parent owned, you inherit staff. When you own your business, you
pick your staff. You also have the freedom to pick the parents you want in volunteer positions. When
you pick parents, you also delegate responsibility, but not authority. I think this is very important.
Parents in a volunteer position have responsibility to the club and to you. Parents should not have the
authority to change the program. The other freedom you have is the people you want to service. In other words, you can
coach who you want, you do not have to keep swimmers you feel will be detrimental to the program.
You do not have to sit down with a board or a committee to review your actions. You make the
judgment because it affects your business.
When things affect your business you need to take action, you
cannot wait to sit down with a parent committee. You also have the freedom to deal with dealers and sponsors. Those in the exhibit hall such
as Speedo, Nike and TYR are in business too. When you work with them, you do so as a
business person and not as a beggar looking for a suit on the deck for a swimmer who made nationals
late. With the dealers you can sit down and offer them a business contract. So keep in mind that you are
in a position to sit down with dealers and sponsors and offer them a contract in return for your business. An example of this is, my team warm up. We get a Boat House warm up which normally
for $180 for $75, and it is a top rate warm-up. We also work with a local dealer and we
guarantee that all of our team business will go through him. In return, the dealer gives us a percentage (15%
or 20%) of everything we purchase, which goes back to me or the team. When you run a meet,
the dealers may work out a deal with you. Many of these things are not easy to do in a parent
Another freedom is the location of your team. With your own business you can be at
any location that you want. An example is when I started the Gator Swim Club in 1969 in New
York, after working there for eight years I moved to Boston. I moved the Gators Swim Club to Boston.
In fact for two years I kept the New York Gators and the Boston Gators going at the same time.
The beauty of owning your own business is that you can open in another area if you decide to. It is just
a matter of renting another pool.
The fourth pro is flexibility. As the owner, you have the ability to change the direction of
your business at any time. You can change budget items, change allocation of money and move money to
a particular need. This flexibility is important to the success of the program. When you work
with committees or for someone, you have to go through a variety of meetings and processes to
evaluate things. You often lose the moment. You can change staff positions according to team needs. Many teams allocate staff
permanently to a particular group or groups. When you make the decisions, you can cover another pool
or a particular meet with a staff member without asking to make a change. You organize training
sessions according to team needs. Programs can be set up where seniors train at a set time and juniors
at another time and age groupers still another time. You can also make schedule changes without asking. You have the power of decision making to accomplish your team goals. Teams that go to
the same meet year after year because that is what parents want, are not always doing what is best for
the team. I can decide where the team is going. We can go to Canada or Orlando. I do not answer to
my parents as to why we are making the decision to travel. I do try to educate my parents as to why I
am making this decision. Another area of freedom is your ability to adjust your compensation, your salary according
to the success of your business.
The fifth pro is pride. When my business is out there, it reflects my ideas. When you work
for an organization you have to compromise with others. When it is your team, you take pride in
doing what you feel is the correct thing to be doing. You take pride in the service rendered. Many
people work for organizations and after a while they lose pride. When you own your business, you put
an enormous amount of pride in it. Pride in the philosophy and the professionalism of yourself and staff. I take a great deal of pride in my staff. My staff does not work for me, they work with me.
My staff is treated like professionals. In fact we are having the coaches in the satellite programs share
in the development of the business. The coach is making the business successful.
The sixth pro is no compromises. By that I mean, you have pride that you do not have to
kiss up to anyone. Pride is a great ingredient of owning your own business The seventh and last pro is the recognition and status that you gain as a business man in
your community. In fact parents look at you differently, they see you as a professional or as a business
man in the community. The community sees you as a valuable person who can create and generate
business for the community. Your status in the community is not just as a coach, it is also as a
business person in the community. These are the seven major areas that are the great positives of owing your own club. I
was asked not to be prejudiced one way or the other, but I cannot help it if after 27 years, there are
some very positive aspects to owning your own team.
Q. How do you convince parents to join a coach owned team?
A. You will need to convince parents that athletes will benefit from your ownership. Parents
are ready to accept this if it will help their children and help to make their swimming more successful.
Q. How can you sell an organized club the benefits of a coach owned team?
A. You have to be able to demonstrate to them that you can take the headaches of running
an organization, and as a professional, be able to direct things toward success for the children.
Q. How did you go about setting up your own team?
A. When I decided to coach I did not want to deal with parents. I inherited that from where
I grew up and swam. I swam for the Badger Swim Team with John Collins’ father. He never wanted
to deal with parents. He ran a very small exclusive club and parents had nothing to say about it. At first
I thought parents should be involved. After my first job working for a team in Larchmont, NY,
I quickly learned why Jack Collins did not want to have parents involved. Then I decided to run the program as I thought best fit my needs. I started coaching
at Fordham University through a good friend Wellington Mara who owns the New York Giants. When
I was at Badger Swim Club I used to coach his kids, and when he heard that I was moving out
to California to coach, he invited me to coach at Fordham University.
At that time it was an
interesting thought, so I took that on and asked if I could do a club at the same time. I structured the club
the way I wanted it. I told the parents it was my business. I ran it, and if they wanted to be part of it,
they were welcome to it, but they had to abdicate certain things. That is how it started. It became
One of the things that I did was work very hard on informing and educating the parent
on what we were doing. This is a very important part of running a successful business with swim team parents.
You must keep them as informed as you possibly can. So at that point not only did Fordham University
do quite well, the Gator swim club did well also. We had a lot of nationally ranked swimmers. We had
an Olympic swimmer, Bobby Hackett. This brought a lot of attention to our program. At that point
I became the coach at Harvard. At that time, it was also agreed, that I would be able to run a club
as part of my contract. The rest was history. The Gators moved to Cambridge and became successful. In fact in many instances, it was too successful. Sometimes when the club becomes
successful, and as a business man you become very successful, there are concerns that perhaps you are
making too much money and administrators decided to scrutinize that. It was best to move my business
at that time. We decided to part ways with Harvard University and we moved the business all around
the perimeter of Harvard.
We now enjoy a very successful enterprise. In fact we are now in New
Hampshire, we have one satellite there and we are moving to the western part of the state. We probably
will have five by the end of next year.
Q. What programs do you run?
A. Our program runs the full gamut. We are implementing a Masters Program, we have a
Learn-To-Swim Program we also now have a Developmental Program, a program that is designed for
the swimmers who do not want to be committed to the discipline and structure of an elite program
like the Gators. In areas where we take over programs, we keep the name of the program as a
Developmental Program and we use that to keep some of the kids in swimming without a heavy
commitment. If they want to go skiing for a week they go skiing and come back, but they still have to pay
their dues. This helps the total business and keeps kids in swimming.
Often these swimmers keep an eye on the elite program, and eventually some of the kids
say, “How do I get over there?” Under the full umbrella of the business we are able to incorporate
a program that supports an elite program and may also bring talent to the elite program. We also
run clinics and camps and the Learn-To-Swim program has now become basically the Golden cow of
our business. I just do not have enough people to service all the Learn-To-Swim business out there.
I know that there are people who have their own business and eventually they go into
Learn-To-Swim because it is so lucrative.
Q. Why do you think some coaches should not run their own business?
A. Some coaches may not want to take on the responsibilities. Another negative is
financial security. I think that is why many coaches stay with parent run clubs or institutions. Dependence
on the weekly pay check. When you have your own team, you have to be willing to invest your
own money and resources into the business. There are a great number of coaches who are
concerned about using their own money for a team. I think if you consider your team a business you will have
an easier time investing your own money. Owners have to be comfortable with not getting a regular pay check. If you are not
comfortable with this, your own team may not be a good idea for you.
Remember, we are talking about
the negatives. The plus is, if you are successful, you can adjust your own compensation. You can
reward yourself when things are going well. Another negative is self reliance. You cannot run to a parent board and say HELP! You
are the owner, no one is there to help and no one is going to be there to tell you how to deal with
the challenges. Q. How many hours do you work? A. I work 12-16 hours a day. When you are your own boss you can drive yourself very hard.
You have the tendency to do this, because you see the benefits of this kind of work. If you are dreaming
of enormous financial rewards, you are not going to get them by owning a team. You should own a
team out of personal pride, satisfaction and a need to control your own destiny.
Q. How do you work with your parents?
A. I always call my parents by their formal or full name, it is more business like. It is
important that you have a respectful business relationship with your parents. Then if you feel comfortable,
you can change things and relax a bit.
Q. How do you pay your coaching staff? A. We are working on incentives. If you grow the team, you share in the profit. Your
salary increases. Because you brought up the income for that group. We want to keep good coaches, so
we motivate them to develop satellites and own part of the team.
Q. How do you keep the team together with so many different sites?
A. Everyone is required to train at the same facility on the weekend, and we encourage that
so the coaches all know the swimmers and the swimmers get to know the coaches and their other
teammates. Once a month we have a parents meeting in the same place. All the swimmers come
and everyone trains together from the elite to the age group swimmers. This helps foster the team
spirit. We put out a Gator Weekly, which is information for the week, and it goes out to every family.
If parents do not show up at required meetings, they get a friendly reminder. We have important
handouts at these parent’s meetings about meets. If a parent does not come to the meeting they do
not have the information. This is one way to get the parents to the meetings. You have to make
the meeting important and informative.
Q. How do you run a meeting for so many different groups all at the same time?
A. We have a main meeting, then we break into smaller groups. This is usually done
during Saturday morning training. Usually on the weekends the fathers show up.
Q. What about profit verses non-profit?
A. I would encourage coaches to start out as a non-profit and when the time is right switch to
a for-profit. A good accountant and a good attorney can help you with that. I was always trying
to keep everything as non-profit, but there came a time when I was advised to change.