We’re back with Mark Tennant and Richard Marklow for the fourth and final instalment in the The Story of inspire2coach. To conclude the story, Mark and Richard provide a wrap up of the important lessons the have learned along the way.
- Big is not always beautiful – i2c has become one of the biggest tennis companies in the UK and with that there are some challenges, particularly around resources.
- Not all business is good business – you have to be prepared to walk away if it doesn’t fit your vision or your strategy
- Businesses need good systems – invest in online systems to help you be more efficient and more responsive
- It’s important to have a mix of skill sets in the business – gaps may need to be filled in with consultants. If you do need consultants, be really sure that you don’t waste money; you need to know exactly what you’re bringing them into the business to do.
- Every person in the organisation needs to know their own strengths and weaknesses. Just like working with a player, Rich is believes you need to make your strengths stronger and your weaknesses good enough.
- Delegation can be the number one benefit or the number one negative if you don’t get it right.
- Inspect don’t expect.
- The finance person is the most important person in the business! You need to know about cash flow, what is owed to you and what you owe to others, and what’s in the bank.
- Prioritise spending your time on things that give enough margin or profit. How much money the business is making is more important than how much it is taking. There’s a saying, “Turnover is vanity, profit is sanity and cash is reality”.
- After many years you can lose sight of the things about the industry that you love, and the reasons why you started in the first place. So you have to still do the things in the business that you really love. Find a balance between doing some of the work that you love, but which isn’t necessarily so profitable, and the things that need to be done which keep the business healthy and successful
- Running a business is hard work but you’ve got to keep it fun whenever possible
- If you enjoy what you do, you’ll be better at it, and customers will see the passion and sense of fun in your bsuiness
Read a transcript instead
Mark: Welcome to Episode 4, the final episode in this short series about the story of inspire2coach. So far, Rich and I have talked about how the business started. We’ve talked about how the business grew and how it’s evolved into the business we now have in 2020. We just thought it’d be useful as a final fourth episode that we summarize with some of the key lessons that we’ve learned along the way so that you can take away some of those lessons and perhaps implement them into your own programs and into your own coaching business. We’ve categorized the lessons into four different categories. We’ve got strategy, finance, people, and personal.
The first one that we referred to, I think in Episode 3, was that big is not always beautiful. From a tennis point of view, certainly in the UK, I think we’d categorize ourselves as quite a big tennis operator now in the UK, but being big comes with challenges, doesn’t it? Do you want to just give some examples of the headaches and the challenges as you grow and as you get bigger?
Rich: When you’re a tennis coach in the UK, I do honestly think that tennis doesn’t really give lots of opportunities in every level to move your career forward. As a coach of a club that’s going really well, you might then want a second club and a third club or fourth club, and then what you actually do is you tend to lose, if you’re not careful, the personal contact, so you may do a great job in one club. I think you’ve got to be really careful about how you grow. For me it’s like have you got enough resource there to actually resource the next club? For me, admin support is relatively cheap, so I would always put in a good quality administrator. I would always make sure that I’ve got coaches and facilities. I’ll try and get a facility and a coach at the same time. Actually, even maybe go coach before facilities, so what you’re doing is you’re growing into your business. I think the problem is sometimes when people get bigger they haven’t got the resource to actually handle it and it just becomes a whole pile of headaches.
The second thing I’d say is that you have to make sure that what you do is you could replicate it in different venues. What you can’t have is different things going on at different places because you’re not able to rely on McDonald’s approach, isn’t it? You have one McDonald’s, the 2nd one is the same, the 5th one is the same, the 12th one is the same. Same with tennis clubs. You should be replicating good practice from where you started from.
Mark: I think that’s important. I was talking to a coach just the other week actually. He was talking about how he was getting really busy and how he was having to do all the things that he hated doing. I know this guy quite well and he’s a good coach but he’s not a good administrator. He was talking about how as he was getting busier and bigger with taking on more clubs that he was having to do more and more admin. I said to him, “Look, why are you doing the things that you and I both know that you’re not good at? Why are you putting yourself in a position to do that when actually you should be driving your business?” That goes back to the point you’ve just made. It’s taking on people to help you as you grow, isn’t it?
Rich: 100% yes. Make sure that you’ve got good reliable people because what you don’t want is to take on a great coach who’s great on the court but you’re never sure if he’s going to turn up or if he’s going to phone in sick. Having somebody that’s really reliable I would say is more important than having some superstar coach who can give great lessons, but you’re never sure they’re actually going to pitch. Your reputation will be lost quickly.
Mark: Absolutely. I think it’s possible to grow too quickly, isn’t it? How do you balance out taking on lots of new business because you want to make more money and you want to grow your business, but at the same time actually keeping control of that and having the people to run it?
Rich: This is where planning comes in. I think you need to say, “This year I want to have one club extra,” then in the second year, you might take another club on. What the danger is unless you really, really want to commit to a lot of financial resource into it, is grow slowly and grow organically. Unless you’ve got the resource to take on lots of clubs and add a lot of resources, I just think you should grow organically but actually have a plan. Rather than a scattergun approach, “I’m going to have six clubs this year and three next and one the year after,” just have a nice steady plan that you grow into.
Mark: That’s a good summary. Let’s just move on to the governing body. We’re fortunate in the UK to have the Lawn Tennis Association which has a lot of money and a lot of resources and is able to offer a lot of support to clubs and to coaches and businesses. That’s important, isn’t it? We’ve worked very closely with the LTA at all levels. Would you agree that that’s important?
Rich: Yes. From our business, we’re obviously an LTA Coach Education Center. We’ve worked for the LTA most of our lives. I think that they’re a very good powerful governing body that gives so much resources to coaches. I always liked the story of when you say you’ve gone abroad to some smaller nations, and the Davis Cup captain is the same guy that’s doing facilities and it sure is like a really weird situation. In this country, we’re really lucky to have the LTA and I think it’s not sensible to go against the LTA. I doubt you should do everything they ask you to do unnecessarily if it’s your own business, but you should pick and choose the good things. If I’m honest, most of the stuff they’re doing is good quality.
Mark: There are quite a few coaches, and we’d probably include ourselves as well at times, who are sometimes a bit critical of the Federation or the governing body, and I think you have to pick and choose how and when you work with them a little bit. I think there’s some give and take. Sometimes we have to do things for the governing body and sometimes we want them to do things for us. I get that a lot when I travel abroad especially. I hear a lot of coaches are very critical of the governing body. I would just urge people to try and work as closely as possible with them because we all need a bit of help and support, and sometimes just having a close partner or close ally at the Federation can be really important when you need a bit of help. There’s some good advice there.
Rich: It’s fair to say British tennis has changed a lot over the years, and every time it does change you need to change with it. I need to jump onto the next thing that’s happening to try and stay current because the danger is sometimes if you don’t stay current you can certainly get behind the curve.
Mark: Yes, absolutely. The next thing in our strategy section is the fact that not all business is good business, but it’s important to have a clear vision and not to be scared to walk away. It’s fair to say we’ve walked away from a few clubs in our time, haven’t we? I think you mentioned in Episode 3 that we had a few clubs where we found the relationship difficult. Just give us a summary of not all business being good business.
Rich: In the early days of inspire2coach, I used to hate the thought of us losing a club or us walking away because I almost felt like maybe we were weak or we hadn’t done a very good job. We stayed in clubs for one, two, three years too long actually, in some cases, and I think that you just got to be very, very sure that everybody is winning from the relationship. The club’s got to win, the coach has got to win, the company’s got to win. As long as everyone’s on the same page, which can be difficult with changing committees, but you do need to be constantly managing the relationships with the facilities and decision-makers and making sure you’re on the same team. Don’t hang around if it’s going wrong, you’ve got to get out of there.
Mark: I remember back in Episode 1, you and I when we were talking about how we set the business up and we talked about how you have to work at the relationship. That was about the relationship between you and I running the business, but it’s also about working on the relationship you have with your coaches. I guess it’s also about working hard on the relationship you have with the committees in the clubs that you’re working in, isn’t it?
Rich: Yes. There’s some challenges because sometimes the committees are really good and sometimes they’re not so good, and you have to work with them. If you’re seen to be giving information and knowledge back and working with the committees, that’s why we say with all our clubs that the coaches and the area managers should be going to the committee meetings and working with the committees and not staying separate. I think it’s very, very easy to stay remotely from the committee and the decision-makers. That’s dangerous.
Mark: Sure. We also in Episode 2 and Episode 3 talked about the importance of having different skillsets and strengths and weaknesses in the business, and that that was a good reason for taking on consultants. We talked about making sure that we’re very clear about why we’re taking on a consultant and what they can actually do for us because otherwise it can be a waste of money. Just tell us a little bit more about strengths and weaknesses in the business management.
Rich: It’s really important that every person in your organization knows what their strengths are. It’s also really, really important to know what their weaknesses are. I’m a great believer in that you should make your strengths stronger and make your weaknesses good enough because I have never seen anybody or hardly ever seen anybody who’s taken a weakness and made it into a strength. I would say that you need to work hard on your strengths and make them stronger, and then make sure that you’re professional and you do a good enough job with your weaknesses. That’s the first bit of advice. The second bit of advice on consultancy is to be really sure you don’t waste money and you know exactly what you’re bringing them into the business for.
Mark: Spot on. The next one is about systems, and obviously we’re in a world now where everything is online and everything is automated. It’s fair to say that we’ve had to learn fast, haven’t we, and we’ve had to invest and update constantly whether it’s the website, whether it’s through online banking, whether it’s direct debits. Really important, isn’t it, that we have good systems and that we have people who know how to run those systems?
Rich: Yes. When you go through a business or cycle, I think the first thing you do is you set the business up, second thing you do is you grab loads of business, and then the next stage is you need to have very good processes in place. The person that you might have to go and grab the business is very different to a person that could put in a process because they have very different skill sets. For me, if you’re not a process-driven person, then you need to get somebody in your business that can put in good processes and good systems because as you get bigger you’re going to massively need those.
Mark: If you’re not careful it can drain a lot of time and a lot of money by being inefficient with the systems that you have counted either because people are doing things on paper when they could be done on computer or because you’ve got systems but nobody’s using them to the maximum. It can be a real drain on resources if you don’t use them properly, can’t it?
Rich: Yes, and I think that as time has gone on with the business, it’s an awful lot easier now to build a website yourself. It’s an awful lot easier now to do your books online and to do your QuickBooks and Excel. There’s so much stuff out there that you could use. Xero, all these operating systems you could use. I think that you need to find the ones that you like out of those because they’re all actually pretty good, it’s the look and feel of them. Definitely, have a look around before you jump into a system or a process that you think you might like. Do a bit of research on that because there’s lots more things now. Even marketing has got easy, hasn’t it?
Mark: Yes, it has. The interesting thing with this is that we’re actually a tennis business and we’re talking about tennis. We could actually be talking about running a coffee shop or we could be talking about running a printing company or a taxi service or whatever, because what we’re talking about here is not tennis, is it? It’s about business. I think where a lot of coaches struggle is that they were tennis coaches but they’ve struggled to migrate to being a business owner. We have the phrase about working on the business or in the business. Fair to say, isn’t it, when you’re a tennis coach at heart, it’s quite hard to let go of what you love in order to pay attention to the stuff that you need to run the business?
Rich: Yes. The danger is you get sucked into delivering, and then when you’re delivering you’re not focused on the strategy, but if you focus too much on the strategy then there’s not enough money coming in the till because you haven’t paid other people. We’ve had a really interesting journey with that, haven’t we? Some ups and downs on that. Sometimes we’ve been working on the business too much, sometimes in the business too much. It’s about trying to get that balance, isn’t it?
Mark: Yes. I think we’ve both struggled at times with that. We’ve gone through phases where we’re doing so much tutoring and so much involvement in the clubs from your point of view, for example, that actually we’ve lacked the ability to step back and look at the bigger picture of where the business is going. At times we haven’t been close enough to the finances or to our marketing and sales and things like that. It’s important to find a balance, isn’t it, between doing the coaching or the tutoring that you love, but also having an eye on the bigger picture of where the business is going and how the business is doing, isn’t it? Otherwise, it can soon run away from me.
Rich: Yes. One of the very core skills of running a business is being happy to delegate to people, which is actually quite hard sometimes to let your business go and someone to run off in a direction and have a go at something. That can be quite hard. I think also you’ve got to be careful if you delegate to the wrong person who’s not ready to be delegated to, and I’ve seen that before. I’ve seen people give roles to people and they haven’t been trained or they haven’t worked on through the process. Delegation can be the number one benefit and the number one negative if you don’t get it right.
Mark: Absolutely. Hopefully, there’s some great ideas that people can take away there on business strategy. I just want to move on to business finance now and to look at a few things there. Rich, as a business owner and director you’re important, or you think you are, and I think I’m important as a business owner and director, but actually, who’s the most important person in the business?
Rich: Definitely in our business, it’s been the finance person because I feel that both you and myself we’re both wanting to go off and do other things and drive the business forward. For us, we’ve massively needed somebody to give us good reports, good systems, good procedures, know what’s in the bank, know what cash flow is, helps with the budgets. That person has been absolutely critical. When you actually look at Xero, we look at some different ways we do our finances, it’s really hard for someone who hasn’t got a background in accounting to make head or tail of that. I think that it’s critical to have a person who is very good with finance and can do systems as well and at the push of a button can give you information monthly, quarterly, yearly. That does actually save money and time if you’ve got a good process in place.
Mark: Absolutely. We both know loads of coaches who get stressed out about doing their annual tax returns and things like that. As the business gets bigger, when you get into things like VAT, cash flow, debtors and creditors, and all those sorts of things, if we’re talking about taking on other people to help you to run and grow your business, then the accountant or the finance person’s got to be surely at the top of that list, isn’t it, to help you grow your business and take it to the next stage? I think you’d agree with this, but perhaps one of the things that we’ve struggled with as a business to really understand and I think we’re slowly getting better at it, is that we’ve spent a lot of time doing a lot of things where we haven’t had enough focus on margins and profit. Would you agree with that?
Mark: Just talk about the importance of profit. I think it’s pretty obvious, but it’s not about how much money the business is taking, it’s how much money the business is making that’s important. Just talk quickly about the importance of profit.
Rich: You’ve got to understand your business really carefully and understand what goes into your cash flow and your profit. That famous saying “cash is king,” we’ve heard a lot of our accountants say that. Just having money in the bank and being in a good shape and not having to pay out lots each month has been pretty critical. I think that a lot of businesses try and get more, more money in the till, but what they don’t do is spend enough time on the expenses that are going to come out against that money in the till. For us, we’ve grown our turnover year-on-year but we haven’t always been close enough to the margin to come out with the right profit number. That famous saying “big is not always beautiful,” I think that’s definitely right when we talk about turnover against profit.
First, profit has got to be the number one, and the margin on every area of the business. What I mean by that is how much money are you making out of each tennis class? How much money are you making each month? How much profit are you making each year? What is the margin? I think as long as you understand the margin, you’ve then got a fighting chance to make good money. If you’re not on the margin and don’t understand that then that’s a big problem. The other thing I’d say is there’s so many different things that actually go into making the business work, whether that’s your own personal time, whether it’s marketing, whether it’s equipment. Whatever it is, you’ve got to put absolutely everything into the turnover number, even in tax. You’ve got to make sure you understand every single part of your business to be really sure you are making the right margin.
Mark: Absolutely. Since we’re on nice little phrases, some people might be familiar with the phrase that “turnover is vanity and profit is sanity and cash is reality.” In the end, how much cash you’ve got in the business and how much cash you’ve got at the end of it for yourself running the business is the thing that’s going to determine if your business is actually worthwhile and successful, isn’t it?
Mark: Then finally in Episode 2 and Episode 3, we talked about the move from handling cash to electronic payments and direct debits. That’s a key takeaway as well, isn’t it, from these episodes that we’ve done?
Rich: Yes. I remember back when we first started, there was coaches who’ve got cash in the bottom of their bags and there was people owing me a pound here or a five-pound there. It was just terrible. [chuckles] I think to have the money paid online is just a much better way to go now. If you only want checks, you only want cash, you don’t have to keep going to the bank. When you’ve got more coaches working for you– I do trust all of our coaches. However, having cash around a business when you’ve got a volume of coaches does give people opportunities, doesn’t it?. That’s a terrible thing to say, but it just gives people opportunities when you’ve got cash around.
Mark: Absolutely. Just moving on to the next section around people. We’ve stressed all the way through the three episodes so far, how important it is that we have the right people and we believe that we’ve got a great team of people and that they are what makes our business successful. We’ve talked about how you need different characters and different personalities in your business and that opposites attract. We’ve talked about recruiting carefully and making sure that we’ve got good people because you can train a skillset but you can’t train character so much. We’ve talked about looking after people and making sure that we incentivize them and that we get people to contribute to the business that they are a part of. One thing we haven’t talked about, another nice little phrase, is something that I hear you say occasionally about “inspect, don’t expect.” Do you just want to tell the audience a little bit about that phrase?
Rich: Yes. It actually came from those old days in the commercial sector when the manager would say, “Just because you tell someone to do something, then does it mean to say they’re actually going to go and do it?” What you have to always do is you have to always inspect what people do, and then over a period of time trust is build up and I think maybe you know a little bit more on who you can leave with a bit more leeway. I would say that phrase “inspect don’t expect” is a really good one. Especially when you’re starting a business off and you’re starting with a new team, just make sure they are doing what you think they should be doing by looking at what they’re probably doing.
Mark: I can’t help at this stage just to bring up a really funny example of that. We won’t name names, but just talk about the coach with the fish and chips in the park, because that is a really good example of inspecting what’s actually going on in your business.
Rich: I was coming home from Birmingham and I thought I’d just drop in to one of the venues and see what was happening. I came across the road and I saw the coach on court. Really good, on court with his people, people standing next to him. Then as I got closer, it was the coach then the ball basket and then the people. I went in and said, “Hi, how are you doing?” I still hadn’t seen the ball basket at that point. As I went around the corner, the ball basket had fish and chips on the top of the ball basket on the corner. Obviously, I lost the plot a little bit, not in front of the customer, but it definitely is a story, and I don’t think that coach will ever forget that situation and will ever forget the telling-off that he had.
Mark: To be fair, I don’t think we’ve allowed him to forget, but that’s a really good example of inspecting what actually happens in your business. If you don’t keep checking, there could be all sorts of things that you’re not aware of going on, couldn’t there?
Rich: Yes, and that coach now has turned out to be a really good coach and he’s running his own club. I definitely think some early lessons are probably quite good.
Mark: Absolutely. Finally, let’s just go back to the personal thing because it was you and I that started this business and it’s you and I running the business. Just on a personal level, I think it’s important that we go back to why we actually started this business in the first place. Basically, because we’ve been in tennis all our lives and we love tennis, that’s quite a challenge, isn’t it, to keep that love going? Any thoughts on that?
Rich: Once you get bigger and you become more of a business, if you’re not careful you become remote from tennis because you’re actually running a business. There’s been times when both of us felt we’ve been on the business too much and we’ve got lots of the encore part of it. I think for both of us, when I watch you tutor and when you watch me tutor, that’s probably one of the times we’re at our best because that’s what we passionately love and it’s where we started, when we coach and we love coaching. I think you have to still do within the business stuff that you do really love and not get sucked into all of that. From that phrase, there are lots of things you could get sucked into.
Mark: Yes, but sometimes the stuff that we love to do is the stuff we want to do, but it’s not always the important stuff. Then sometimes there’s other stuff which is really important that we don’t necessarily want to do, whether it’s writing some emails, whether it’s the budgets, whether it’s some of the finances, invoicing. They might be the things we hate to do but they’re actually the things that need to be done. It’s finding a balance, isn’t it, between doing what you love and what needs to be done at the same time.
Rich: Yes. The drive of the business I think has made us work on the business a lot, and then the thing we have to readdress is actually working on the core and doing the job we love. That’s what I feel, that we’ve got to keep watching that we keep going back to what we love.
Mark: Yes. Finally, if we think about how a typical week is split up, a lot of it will be hopefully when a person is asleep, but actually we probably spend more time in work than anything else apart from sleeping, so it’s pretty important that the business is fun as well, isn’t it? We have to, maybe as a summary, keep reminding people that whatever it is we do, that running a business is going to be hard work. There’s going to be ups and downs, there’s going to be problems, there’s going to be challenges, but you have to keep an eye on why you started in the first place and you have to make sure that what you do is fun, and that there’s a large element of fun in what we do from a day-to-day basis. Knowing you as I do Rich, you need fun in your day-to-day work. It’s really important isn’t it, that we really keep enjoying what we do because otherwise, you start to question why you’re doing it, don’t you?
Rich: Yes, I think some of our best times have been when we’ve got the team together and we can have a nice outing for Christmas, or we can go out with different people for meals or on different things and we can do it as incentives, have some nice time with people. People will appreciate that and they appreciate that side of the business. That’s why we always have a really good Christmas party. We also try and do little things throughout the year just to keep people engaged. I definitely think that if you enjoy what you do you’re actually better at what you do. I believe that.
Mark: Absolutely. That’s a good note to finish on. Hopefully, these four episodes have given you a bit of an insight into different aspects of running a business. We’ve tried to be really honest all the way through and not just talk about the good stuff, but also about the challenges and the problems we’ve had. We would urge our audience maybe to take away some of the tips and think about how they could be implemented in your own business going forward.
We wish all of you all the very best running your tennis business and thank you for listening. If you have any questions and you want to come back to us, you can contact us through Tennis(24/7) or through inspire2coach and we’d be happy to help and advise or share any more ideas on how you can run your tennis business. Thank you for listening.
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