In the third instalment of the The Story of inspire2coach, Mark Tennant and Richard Marklow, co-founders of inspire2coach, let us in on some of the key strategies and principles they have used to grow the business to what it is today, and share some key advice which other businesses will find useful.
Key take-aways from developing the business to today
- People are the thing that makes your business. A lot of early decisions were made based on getting good people that we wanted to work with us. Mark and Richard are most proud of the fact that a lot of those people still work for and with the business.
- Not all business is good business. When you start off a business you try to grab business quickly, as much as you can, to try and build the volume of the business – to actually have a business. But doing that, we did make some mistakes with some of the clubs that we got involved with. Not all of the clubs were a good choice for the company. Now, with the experience gained over the years, a first discussion with a venue is as much i2c interviewing the club as much as the club is interviewing i2c. We’ve learned that it is better for i2c to walk away than to work with a club if there isn’t a good connection. Success has let i2c be more selective about who the business works with. Be prepared to walk away from bad business
- It’s critical as you scale up the business, to have good solid processes in place. As you grow, make sure you remain efficient
- As the business grows, you may have to step away from the day to day delivery. Having other good people who can take care of day to day delivery is vital. Training is important, so make sure you invest time and resource into training your team. i2c is in a privileged position to be a Coach Education Centre as well as a tennis provider.
- A group of coaches is not the same as a team. Regardless of the scale of your business, whether you’re doing something in a small area or bigger, it’s really important to bring those people together. It doesn’t mean they all have to coach in the same way, but you should ensure that there is a common philosophy and standardised approach that represents the business.
- Structuring programmes and payment systems to keep people in the business for longer than just a short course has been key. Avoid large numbers of short courses which give people multiple opportunities to opt out and are admin-heavy
Read a transcript instead
Mark: Welcome to episode three of the story of inspire2coach. I’m here again with a colleague, co-director, co-owner of inspire2coach Richard Marklow. In this third episode, we’re going to talk about how we developed the business to the point where we are now. Just to give you an overview, inspire2coach is the largest combined coach education and club tennis provider in the UK. We have well over 30 clubs, I think it’s 38 clubs, and thousands of children and adults playing tennis in our clubs every week.
We’re also providing a large number of level one, two, three, and four courses around the UK, as well as quite an international program of consultancy and different work that we do there. The business that we are now finding ourselves with is very different to the one that we started off with back in 2007. Rich, do you want to just talk about how we actually grew from the little business that we had with three or four clubs right at the beginning to one where we’ve got nearly 40 clubs now. Do you want to just give us a bit of an overview of how that happened?
Rich: I think we had different tactics. I think we knew people in the Coventry area and I think we managed to get some contracts through people that we knew in the Coventry area. I think we’re also looking out for clubs that were coming up and they interviewed for a few clubs. I think the fastest way for us to grow in the early days was to actually buy coaching programs and clubs off coaches, and then for them to come and work for us.
A lot of those people were actually friends. I think that was how we grew the fastest, was that it was going down that particular route.
Mark: Again, just going back to the very beginning of inspire2coach, I think the fact that we both felt that we were trusted and respected within the coaching in the tennis industry in the UK, probably was a good sort of headstart. You’ve talked already about buying businesses off coaches. Just to explain to listeners what that actually means and how that works.
Rich: Well, so I’m coaching one coach who’s actually wanted to come on the journey with inspire2coach, and it made sense for them to fold their clubs and coaching programs into the business. That’s what we did. We basically wanted. It was really in most cases we wanted the people. To get the people, they have tennis clubs and it made sense for them to bring the tennis clubs with them. That’s how we organically grew in the early days.
Mark: It’s that word people again, I think in the first two episodes and again in this episode as well, we keep coming back to the importance of working with good people. That’s been pivotal to our success and our growth, hasn’t it?
Rich: Yes, 100%. We knew a lot of people early days and on the back of that, we had a lot of quick wins to get people around us that we wanted to work with us. I think a lot of the people that I got into the business and the club side was people that were working for me and, or had worked for in the commercial sector, and people that I knew really well. I think the first maybe 10 people but people that I just literally picked up the phone and said, come and work with us right now on exciting journey, enjoying what we’re doing.
They were very keen to do that. That’s, I’m proud of that and then the business that we’ve managed to keep a lot of those people now and way in business.
Mark: They’re still working for us. With those good people came the clubs and that allowed us to be able to grow the business, there were a number of clubs that we worked with, didn’t we? Fair to say though that not every club that we took on was a success. Do you want to just give a few examples of why not every club is necessarily the right club to take on because some come with challenges don’t they?
Rich: When you start a business, I think you try and grab a business quickly and you grab as much as you can, and to try and build the volume of the business and trying to actually have a business. I think on the back of that, we did make some mistakes with some of the facilities that we got involved with. I think very, very quickly, we realized the committees were difficult. There were some hard challenges with some of those clubs and some difficult decisions to be made. The fact that we got them was only half the job. No, actually then working with them is the key thing.
Quite often I used to look at facilitating or I’d look to work with that facility, it’s got lots of courts, big clubhouse. It’s bound to have a really good program there. When you actually get in there and you see some of the issues that are at some of the venues, we really struggled. For me, now when I go into a club, it’s going to sound a bit weird but I interview the people in the club as much as I would want the facility. They’re interviewing me, but I’m also interviewing them because at the moment I’m very happy to walk away if the facility just in terms of if I don’t like the people or that there’s a connection that.
Mark: I think that’s really important. Like you said early on, we would try to take everything we could to grow the business. The way that I think it’s evolved is that now it’s tending to be us going to clubs more than it used to be us going to clubs at first, but now we’re finding that more clubs are coming to us, aren’t they? We’re not always taking on every club that comes to us. I think the whole, it’s switched. It’s turned on its head, hasn’t it? We’re now being much more selective about which clubs we take on and we work with because we want to make sure that there is a good quality and close relationship there with the committee and the membership.
Rich: One thing that hasn’t changed over the years to put around the business is that it hasn’t changed. It’s still a lot about word of mouth and people talking about the business and then contacting the business. It’s not such huge business tennis that people don’t know each other. I still feel there’s a lot of contacts that we know in tennis that helps us develop business even at this stage.
Mark: I think that’s right. Just going back to the coaches, we have a team of roundabout 50 coaches or so now, dotted around the UK in those clubs. They’re obviously integral to the success of the business and the quality of the delivery and in the programs that we’re running each week for those children and adults. Just give the audience a bit of an overview of some of the principles of how we work with a team of coaches and how we develop them, because it’s not always easy, is it?
Rich: No. I think the first thing is when as you scale up the business and go from maybe one club to two clubs or four clubs, eight clubs and you scale the business, it’s critical that there is good solid processes in place. It means that every facility we work with now works 90% on the same process and the same stuff. All our junior programs run the same or are programmed the same or counsel are the same.
That might be a few little anomalies for each club, but fundamentally the processes are critical. One of the big changes we made, as we went through the journey, was to change from term payments to debit payments, and presenting anything I could say would be the number one message. I would say, please get every payment by direct debit.
Mark: I think that’s starting to happen more in Tennis, isn’t it? That’s not that common still. I think it’s fair to say that when you handle cash, there’s a lot of problems. Cash goes missing, people don’t pay and you end up with debt. That somebody has to go to the bank to pay it all in. It’s very hard to budget and to project your cash flow, isn’t it? Would you say that that’s been a key factor in our success that we’ve moved to a direct debit for all our customers?
Rich: Yes. There’s lots of benefits for direct debit. First benefit is the cash is in our bank, coach’s bank rather than in the customer’s bank. It’s definitely good for cash flow. You know where you are from a cashflow point of view, it means you don’t have to keep marketing your program over and over again. If you’re running term six-week courses, different types of length of courses, it’s messy. You have to keep marketing it again and you have to work out what were the sessions, and you have to keep engaging the customers over and over again.
Whereas if you’ve got them on direct debit, you’ve just thought on entry point, how do they stay with you for as long as you get them in the business, I think three years is a minimum in the business. For me, why we’re in this country is an absolute nightmare with coaches, and unsure courses and different options to opt-out of your program. For me, it doesn’t make sense. Although I would say having some drop-in sessions on a few short courses in addition to your direct debit payment, I think is good. I would say 95% of our program is now done by direct debit.
Mark: For the more traditional model, perhaps of having a lot of pay in play and stuff like that, it’s very admin heavy and very uncertain, isn’t it from a financial point of view?
Rich: Yes, it’s risky, very risky.
Mark: I think we’re talking a lot about clubs and coaches here and that’s important because for most of the listeners, I guess that’s what you as a listener will be doing. It’s worth pointing out as well that we’re a significant coach education provider in the UK. From the point of view of how we deliver our training courses for coaches and what that means for the way that we work with our own coaches, Rich, how would you– How would you summarize the messages that we share with our coach education and the way that we train our own coaches?
Rich: I think the coach education aspect of our business has almost perhaps under some pressure and rightly so to deliver good quality training for our coaches. I feel that that is a USB port as a business when people come to work for us that we do work hard on training them. We get them in centrally to University of Warwick and this year is four times this year and then we actually go out to the clubs and watch the coaches deliver, do some training in their clubs. Watch them deliver lessons of the template, get some feedback.
I think when I look around, I don’t see any other company training and giving that much resource to the coaches. I think Tennis 24/7 is also a big part of what we believe in and coaches get access to that and can look into all of the information on there. I think that plus aligning ourselves with the content on the qualification course is also important. Alhough we have our own scheme of work which we train into the coaches, our philosophy is based around the country’s philosophy of the coaching qualification courses.
We don’t run a random way of running our coaching which doesn’t interlink then to what information they get on coaching courses. I think that’s really important as well, is the synergy between the two.
Mark: I agree. For people who are listening who possibly aren’t in a privileged position to be coach education providers and also running their own clubs and their coaching team like we are, I think it’s fair to say that anybody who is a head coach or a program manager or anybody who’s running a business and has other coaches working for them can do some simple training and should do some simple training. Also I just want to go back to a point you made a few minutes ago that when you take on more than one club, whether it’s two or three or 40 or close to 40 as we have, that to have a standard approach across all those clubs is really important.
That’s something to train into your coaches as well because training coaches is not just about good coaching on court it’s also how to be a good representative and ambassador of the business off the court and also to understand the systems and the way that the business runs. Maybe the website is a good example of that, we need to make sure that the coaches understand where the website information is and how to use the website and stuff like that. I think anybody who runs a business and has other coaches working for them should make sure that there’s training going on a regular basis, shouldn’t they?
Rich: As soon as you step away and you’re not the main deliverer on court and you’ve got other coaches representing your brand and your philosophy, it’s absolutely vital that everybody is of a good standard to deliver the lessons. I think that although, contrary to what we run as coaching qualification courses, I do believe that environment in the clubs does really help grow the coaches. I think being in good clubs with good coaches, I think is aspirational for coaches coming through for young, potential coaches, for leaders, for level ones, level two step to have a good head coach in the club and then have an area manager.
I think they can see good quality and that to me is as important as the qualification courses is the environment that’s set in the clubs that are having the kits, good equipment, all of that sort of thing.
Mark: It’s also making me think because I’m listening to what you’re saying from an international point of view because for some of our listeners they may not know that we do a lot of stuff overseas as well. Do you remember we had a three year contract in Qatar in the Middle East. When we went for the first time there was a team of about 20 coaches, they’re all from different countries and the one thing that stood out to you and I was how they were a group but they weren’t a team and they all had different ways of operating.
Whether you’re talking about something being done internationally or whether you’re doing it across a small network of clubs in your area in the UK it’s really important to bring those people together so that they, not necessarily that they coach in the same way but that they have a common philosophy and a standardized approach which represents the business.
Rich: That was a tough situation. I think that there might have been 20 coaches and maybe 10 different nationalities all coming from a different way of teaching. I think that was certainly a challenge getting them on all on the same bus when they’ve been doing it their way for so many years.
Mark: I think that’s something that we’ve carried forward. Just thinking for example, about the relationships that we have with some big clubs in Finland and in Estonia, for example, that’s become quite a big part of what we do overseas isn’t it? It’s to work with the management and the team of coaches to deliver player pathways and good products to make sure that although you might have a team, a group of people who are coaches, they’re not necessarily an effective team that are all following a common language and a current common sort of methodology.
I think that’s a big message from this episode that regardless of where you’re working or what the scale of your operation is, making sure that you’ve got a shared vision, a very clear method of working and making sure that everybody’s pulling in the same direction, isn’t it?
Rich: I think I know that you worked internationally for many years and I think in the last 12, 13 years inspire2coach, I’ve done a lot more of that. I’ve really enjoyed that. I’ve had lots of good experiences working abroad. When I first started I was a bit unsure about the whole tutoring abroad and living abroad. One thing I found out quite quickly is that in the UK we are in pretty good shape with our coach education and our programs and our knowledge of stuff.
That was the one thing I came to realize pretty quick, is actually we’ve got a lot to offer from the UK going out to different countries. I believe we’ve got a lot to offer and I’ve enjoyed that part of inspire2coach.
Mark: I would agree. Just in summary, Rich, just going back to our coaches and for that matter, any coaches who are part of a team, have you got any couple of quick tips or quick bits of advice for head coaches or program managers in terms of how to look after your team and coaches and some of the challenges of working with them?
Rich: Yes, I think a lot of our team are young so a lot of them are maybe between 18 and 30. In those years there’s many different stories that they can get from those coaches. I think for me it’s about being a really good role model. As a head coach if you’re a really good role model and you talk it and walk it every day on call, that’s going to help create the environment around you. I think definitely environment is critical having good standards and making sure that you deliver them from the top down is critical.
I think the other thing is that as when we lead a team, when we first start we almost quite often lack confidence so maybe we tell people how to do it and we may be shout a bit and we maybe push quite hard. I think for me what I’ve learned is maybe the opposite is trying to look for things that people do well and tell people what they do well. If every week you can tell them what they’ve done well I think then that starts to build some confidence. I’ve been telling people always have what they’ve got to do better and I think actually try and look for things that they do well.
That’s a good environment.
Mark: Working with coaches in many ways is exactly the same as coaching players, isn’t it? You want to pick out positives and build around strengths rather than always criticizing a player’s weaknesses. It’s the same with coaches, isn’t it?
Rich: One of the best things I’ve done with teams is actually to get the team to come up with their own personal minimum standards on court. Whether that is in a simple example of making sure you’re there 10 minutes before the session. Whether you’re making sure that you know all the children’s names in the group. I think the worst thing you can do as a leader of a team is to tell people those standards.
I think the best thing to do is have a have a nice way forward type meeting where you decide those standards as a team and you put them all down. There’s a lot more ownership of that and a lot more accountability if people feel they’ve contributed to that. That I think sets the scene. Another thing I think is really important to share the information with the teams of how, what the number’s like what the finance is like, maybe you have to be slightly selective about what information you give, but I definitely think you should share a lot of information with the team and what the goals are for the program. And what the opportunities are for people to one, develop their skills but also developing into different central promotions, different little jobs they can do in the future.
Mark: Just to summarize some of the key points you made there Rich, there’s some really good things that have come out of that. I think the first thing is to be selective about how you grow your business and if you’re looking, for example, at taking on more clubs, that not all new business is good business, so look at which clubs you can work with and whether they’re a right fit for your business. We talked all the way through these three episodes that we’ve done so far about working with good people and making sure that you create a positive environment in your team.
You just made a really good point about minimum standards and how it’s good to get your coaches to write and to contribute to their own minimum standards they’re going to operate by. I think it’s important that you as a business, that you have regular team training and that you have opportunities to share not just how to teach on court, but also information about how the business is running and how the business is operating because that then has to be transmitted through to customers. Then I think as well, an interesting point you made about avoiding cash and trying to move to electronic payments, and the problems that come with cash.
Also in the way that you structure your program to go for longer periods of time rather than going for lots of pay and play and lots of short term sessions where there tends to be a lot more administration and a lot more opportunities for people to drop out of the program. Hopefully there, I think there’s some really good examples and some really good ideas that the coaches can take away and implement into their own programs.
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