Mark Tennant and Richard Marklow have built inspire2coach into one of the largest tennis companies in the UK, certifying just under 1000 coaches and assistants each year, and offering coaching and play opportunities to nearly 4000 players per week at 38 clubs. The company also offers world-class specialist training and consultancy to tennis federations and companies around the world. This is the story of inspire2coach, told by its 2 Directors.
i2c, Mark and Richard are leaders in British Tennis and they have a great story to tell in how to start and grow a tennis business in the UK. So here it is, this is the story of i2c and how it all started.
Back in 2007
From its formation in 2007, Directors Richard and Mark talk about how it all started, and share some of the lessons from the early years, including being careful about who you go into business with, working on the business and in the business, the importance of doing what you love and remembering why you started the business.in the first place.
Key take-aways from how it all started
Through i2c’s role in coach education both in the UK and internationally they don’t just train coaches on court. Support and advice in the business of coaching is less common than how to teach forehands and they want to share the honest truth, mistakes and successes and give good advice to coaches running their own business. These are some interesting points from their story:
- Mark and Richard didn’t know each other very well when they first discussed going into business but the time was right. They were both looking for something new. In the long run, having complementary personalities and skills has been important. They also talk about how it is important to work at the relationship
- They initially wanted to work across many sports but they realised quite quickly that they should stick to what they knew – which was tennis.
- People and relationships have been priceless. The company is built on good people, and looking after people in the business is critical
Read a transcript instead
Mark Tennant: I’m here with Richard Marklow the two of us as Directors of inspire2coach. We’re now in our 14th year of operation as a tennis company. We thought it’d be a good idea to have a bit of a nostalgic look back and to just look at the story of inspire2coach and to just reminisce and tell a few stories and share thoughts really on how it all started. Then looking at the middle sections, the early years and how we developed the business to a point where we are now in 2020. Rich, how do you remember the very start of it, how and why it all started, what are your recollections of that?
Richard Marklow: I think it all came about when the LTA was looking to give companies the chance to run Coach Education Level 1’s and Level 2’s. That was the start of it or really, was everybody in the UK were tutors, were trying to form companies and trying to get some collaborations going. That was all happening just pre to going up to Leeds for some tutor training. Think I’d phoned you and I said, Mark, “Fancy giving me a lift up to Leeds?” and you went, “Yes, no problem.” That was sort of the start wasn’t it, I think?
Mark: I think so, yes. We knew each other from before that, didn’t we? We’d done a bit of work together and obviously we’d bumped into each other at tutor training. I think it’s fair to say that we didn’t know each other well. Which is probably something quite interesting to come back to later on in terms of who you go into business with. Yes, I remember the drive up the M1 up to Leeds. We talked about our personal circumstances and where you and I both were in our careers. Do you want to just talk about where you were at that stage?
Richard: Yes. Well, I’d been working in the commercial sector for a big part of my life and I’d been involved in many different aspects in tennis. I think I got to a point where I was a bit fed up of being told what to do by other people, I fancied a go at doing something for myself. I always remember a meeting with the regional manager who knew nothing about tennis and was trying to tell me about tennis. I sitting there and I was going, “I need to get out of this. I need a new challenge.” For me, the opportunity came at a really good time for my career when I was looking to do something by myself and have a bit of a go at something.
Mark: Yes, I felt similar. I’d been working in local authority tennis and then I moved to work at the LTA at Queens Club and I had a really good time then. Then I moved to the ITF and I had a really really good then and really learnt a lot about world tennis and got a chance to travel quite a bit. In that time I’d obviously had quite a few bosses and shaped quite a few opinions and thoughts of my own. I was probably in a similar position where I wanted a new challenge and a chance to try something different. I’d always wanted to be in charge of something rather than always having a boss. I think, probably like you, that drive up to Leeds came at just the right time for both of us, I would think, didn’t it?
Richard: Yes, it was a bit of a period of unrest wasn’t it? Because the announcement was made and everyone was almost like a bit panicking, trying to join together and to get things going. I think that trip up to Leeds was actually a really interesting trip really because we ended up chatting about things and deciding that we’re probably on the same page and same sort of life stage. One thing that was certain, there was a respect between the two of us at that stage. Though we didn’t know each other that well. I think we respected the involvement we’d done in tennis. It started off with a respectful sort of like a relationship, which then, as we drove up further and further up the M1 we were joined together. I’m not sure if you remember, but there was a few other people that we were considering bringing into our business. We had a lot of discussions about that as well all the way up to Leeds.
Mark: Definitely. Do you think that respect was still there after that tackle, during the football match up in Leeds? Or did it waver then at that point?
Richard: I never forgot that. After all these years I was showing my silky skills on the wing and you came in like some thug and took me out. I’ve still got a problem now with my left shin based on that really big ferocious tackle. Not only would have have been black carded, you would have been banned from football I think if someone had seen that.
Mark: I’m still sliding. We should probably tell the audience that, at tutor training we had– it was really bad weather, wasn’t it? It was really muddy and wet and we had a tutor’s football match, didn’t we? Do you remember Liz Jones was in gold and she had a blinder and you and I were on opposite teams and yes, I thought it was a good tackle. You take the ball and if the player’s in the way then well, maybe you needed to be a bit faster, but you haven’t let me forget that tackle, that’s for sure.
Richard: You blamed it on tennis shoes on a wet pitch. I just named you being a thug from London really that’s like, “Right, right, right.”
Mark: Yes. I probably wouldn’t have stood VAR in this day and age, I wouldn’t think.
Richard: Definitely not.
Mark: What about the name inspire2coach? Because I remember in the car on the way there, on the way back, we talked about setting up a business, didn’t we? Then we got to talking about a name. What do you remember about the name and why we chose inspire2coach?
Richard: Well, I think it went a bit further really, didn’t it? On the way up we were deciding that we should go into business together. Then it was was sort of concreted when we were at tutor training and we spoke again in detail. Then, on the way back, we were then finding a name for our business. I think we had real aspirations of being into other sports and being involved with other types of businesses.
inspire2coach was the name that we settled on, so inspirational and inspire. Then number two, and then coach because we didn’t want to say “inspire tennis” or in tennis, the name. We were thinking of all sorts, weren’t we? Table tennis and football and badminton and all sorts of sport. We were going to try and get involved with Level 1’s and 2’s. That’s why we started off with the name inspire2coach without tennis in it. I think we regretted that for many years, didn’t we?
Mark: Yes. To the point where, and in a later audio, we’ll talk about rebranding and changing the name to I2C Tennis. Yes, I sensed that right at the beginning we wanted to keep our options open. We started really with an opportunity in coach ed, but I think even in those early days, we were mindful of the fact that things could change, which is why we took on some clubs, didn’t we? Almost like a backup or an insurance policy. I think to hedge our bets, we also were thinking that tennis might not be, well it might be too narrow, just to be in tennis and we’d think about doing some other sports.
Richard: I think we very quickly realized that you should stick to what you know though. I think we had a few looks at other things, didn’t we? I think we both felt, quite quickly, that we should stick to tennis and what we know well.
Mark: Yes. I think that’s where our reputation is. That’s where we’ve got a lot of friends and a lot of contacts and a lot of really good experiences. I like to think we’ve both got respect in the tennis world through tennis. It was the obvious thing to do after we thought about it was to stick to what we know and love as well and where we’ve had a lot of happy years. Yes, it kind of made sense.
What about how all started in terms of the setup? If I remember rightly, you had your business MR Tennis and I had my business at the same time and we’d set up inspire2coach as a Limited company and we were basically directors of the company and shareholders of the company. We also traded with our own businesses, didn’t we? We were working for our own businesses and then working on behalf of inspire2coach, weren’t we?
Richard: At the start, it was all very new to us wasn’t it? We were just trying to work out the best way to operate. I think very quickly we then closed down RM Tennis and MT Tennis and we then– under the inspire2coach banner. I think at the start we did feel it was a bit vulnerable. The whole thing was a bit new and we weren’t too sure where it was going to go. It was a fair bit of hedging our bets at the beginning.
Mark: Yes. Do you remember some of the very earliest work we had in those days? I made a note here that we’ve still got contracts and a lot of good work and friends in Finland and we’re still working in Egypt. I remember doing that stuff as part of my job at the ITF and that’s still going with inspire2coach now. Do you remember some of the other early work that we brought from our previous life into inspire2coach?
Richard: I’m Coventry born and bred and I had worked most of my working life in Coventry, I felt that at the beginning, the relationships with local clubs and the councils and different people within tennis within Conventry I think possibly helped us cement the office space in Coventry. I think that gave us a bit of a starting point. I felt that that probably gave us a bit of a lead into it and a few of the early contracts. Very quickly we got the University of Warwick contract, didn’t we?
Richard: That was very important to us to get us going.
Mark: I think actually, that’s a perfect segue into the fact that it’s fair to say you and I are pretty different, aren’t we? We’re pretty different characters and people. You’ve just talked about relationships, that’s one of your biggest strengths, isn’t it? You’re a real people person. You’re a big believer in relationships, and you bought a lot of that with you to the business when we started.
Richard: Yes, I think the tennis world is a small world, isn’t it? I think that it’s a lot of interlinked contacts. I did feel that the personal contacts were the way we got going early days. You had a lot of contacts yourself with different counties and different people. I think, together, we pulled our contacts, and that was how we got ahead of the game
quickly by doing that. I think the other thing is a lot of companies were set up for them to tutor their own courses. We set our business up with a view to other people
tutoring the courses, upper-level 1’s and 2’s. That was a fundamental difference, I think between us and a lot of companies that were set up. A lot of the other companies had set up for them to tutor. We didn’t, did we?
Mark: No, that’s true. That’s true. I think that was a conscious decision, isn’t it? Probably, although at times we’ve struggled with it, when we talk at the end of this series of little audios about the lessons that we learnt, one of the things we’ll talk about is the difference between working on the business and in the business. We’ve always tried to stick to working on the business, but we’ve always found ourselves, for whatever reason, quite often financial reasons, slipping back to working in the business quite a bit. You’re right, it was always our goal to have other people doing a lot of the tutoring so that we could grow the whole business.
Richard: I always felt of myself as a tennis coach. When I started the business, I still felt myself as half of my job was a tennis coach. I think as the business has gone on, I think we’ve realized that we are tennis coaches, but we’ve had to learn a lot of business skills pretty quick, haven’t we? I now find myself really wanting to get back on board and deliver and be and a big part of getting back teaching again. I do think that when we first started I considered myself as a tennis coach really. With the other side as the business as a secondary side. Very quickly, that changed.
Mark: Yes, definitely. Would you say, in summary really of this section, this conversation that one of the key things is who you go into business with and think very carefully and long and hard about who you go into business with? Then also never losing sight of why you’re going into business in the first place and never losing sight of what you love. Is that fair?
Richard: 100%. I don’t think that advice followed through to us though, did it? Because 100%, we did not think long and hard. Just maybe two and a half hours up the M1 really and that was it really. We’ve been lucky that we’ve managed to hook up with somebody with different skill sets, different personalities. I think actually that’s been a benefit. I think we’ve been quite lucky. I do think that people do tend to go into business with like-minded people and like personalities. I think we’ve proven actually that probably isn’t the way to go because you do need a balance, a balance of skill sets and personalities.
Mark: I agree with that. You’ve often said and we’ve talked quite a lot of times about the fact that if you put two creative people together, you need to complete a finisher. If you put two process-driven people together, then there’s a danger that there’s a lot of talking and a lot of spreadsheets, but not a lot gets done. While sometimes it can be frustrating, can’t it? I know that you’ve got frustrated with me and you still do and that’s fine. Occasionally, I’ll get frustrated with you and that’s fine, too. We actually do need to understand each other’s differences. I know that we talked about the fact that it’s a bit like being married, isn’t it? You’ve got to work at the relationship and work at working together, haven’t you?
Richard: Yes, I think the most important thing is professional integrity and trust. If you’ve got those, then you can laugh a lot about the differences. I think as long as you’ve got that integrity, professionalism, trust with the other person, then it’s okay if you disagree. I don’t actually think we’ve actually fallen out majorly in the time that we’ve– We’ve had quite a few interesting debates and discussions about a lot of subjects. I don’t ever feel that I’ve left work hating you on a given day.
Mark: Well, that’s good to know. I agree with you.
Richard: It’s not like being married at all, is it?
Mark: No. I think you’re right. I don’t think that it’s a real relationship and a strong relationship if you don’t occasionally have to have words and if you don’t occasionally fall out on things. I think the measure of the people is the ability to be able to take some honest words and some honest feedback or criticism at times, or sometimes take a bit of a harsh word in the ear and be able to take it on board, take it on the chin and move on. It shouldn’t affect the relationship and it certainly shouldn’t affect the business, should it?
Mark: It’s interesting. It seems like a long time ago now but at the intro, you said you felt it’d gone quite quickly which is an interesting statement really because it is 14 years ago now and a lot’s happened in that time. You genuinely feel it’s gone quickly, do you?
Richard: Yes because I think it’s been interesting. I’ve learnt a lot about myself and people. I’ve learnt a lot about the tennis industry. I’ve learnt a lot of new skills. I think the mistakes we’ve made have been as interesting as the success we’ve had when I look back. That’s why it’s been interesting and quick. I think it’s changed a lot. Every year it’s like we see we’ve got another interesting project or other things on the go. That’s why I think it’s gone quick because it hasn’t stayed still.
Mark: Yes. Would you, hand on heart, still say that you love what you do? I would. At times, I question that like we all do, but I think I would say that I do. I love it in a different way to when we started because it’s our jobs, it’s our mortgage, it’s our income, it’s our families. I do still love what I do. I never felt like I dread getting up for the next day and going to work. It’s still my passion. Would you say the same?
Richard: Yes, 100%. 100%, I don’t ever regret the decision to start inspire2coach, 100%. However, the last two years, last two, three years, we’ve had some pretty big challenges. It has challenged my love of it, but I still get excited about new things we’re doing. I still believe that it was right to start it and keep going.
Mark: Yes, I think that’s a good start for people who are listening to this to get a bit of background to how it all started. In the next audio in the sequence, we’re going to talk about the early years and how we grew the business from that journey up to Leeds and how we started to take on clubs and coaches and how we started to grow the coach Ed part of the business as well. Listen out for the next section in this audio series on the story of inspire2coach.
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