Friday, October 18, 2013

Celebrating Milestones is Critically Important. Here's Why:

I've been on Cloud 9 this week. The feeling started on Sunday when we threw a golf and tennis party in Los Angeles to celebrate TGA's 10-year birthday. In the time since, I've had one of the most productive work weeks I can remember. It reminded me how important it is to celebrate milestones - not only to recognize and motivate staff, increase morale, generate PR and so forth - but also to rejuvenate ourselves, the entrepreneurs and owners.

I generally have a hard time celebrating work-related things. It's one of my weaknesses as a manager. The reasons are partly my INTP personality and partly that my job is to think (and worry) about things 2-5 steps down the road so others don't have to.

But having around 150 TGA students, parents, partners and friends come out to celebrate our 10 year birthday on a warm Southern California afternoon when there were hundreds of other things to do reminded me how important these moments are. Yes, from a dollars and cents perspective, we hopefully gained and retained some customers. But we also charged nothing and covered all expenses, so who knows. The important thing is that we created a sense of community, a sense of family.

We had a student and his dad from one of our first six school programs in 2003 come out to celebrate with us. The kid who was half my size when I coached him through years worth of enrichment programs and camps was suddenly taller than me. Crazy. We didn't recruit him to the party, he just showed up to say thanks. He told us that TGA was his launching point for playing golf at one of the premier high schools in LA and how he's hoping to get a golf scholarship to an Ivy League school when he starts applying to college next year. That's priceless.

It's maybe ironic to mention the word "entrepreneur" and "10 year birthday" in the same sentence but it is very real for me and all of us at TGA. In my experience, entrepreneurship is much more a marathon than a race. Making it 10 years at TGA means nothing if we're not 10x what we are today at our 20 year birthday. And that's the beauty/frustration of it all - company-building takes time. A lot of time. We still feel and operate like entrepreneurs every day at TGA, 10 years in. And a lot of other entrepreneurs I know experience the same thing. So if you're thinking of venturing down this road, be prepared for the long haul.

I know that many readers of this blog are either already associated with TGA or are interested in becoming so, and I want to thank you for your valuable contributions to the way I've been feeling this week. I'd like to extend a special thank you to LeeAnn O'Donnell, TGA's Marketing Manager, and Nate Wright, TGA's National Program Director, for throwing an awesome birthday party last weekend. It invigorated the local TGA community and put me in a state of euphoria that has motivated me to have one of my best weeks on the job.

That is why celebrating milestones is so important for me, and you, the entrepreneurs.

I want to leave you with my favorite picture from our birthday party, and if you'd like to see others, I invite you to visit our TGA Premier Junior Golf and TGA Premier Youth Tennis Facebook pages.

Thanks again and Keep Swinging!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Entrepreneurial Lessons from a Book on Toddlers

I've been reading up on toddler discipline (my little one recently entered the stage of reckless abandon and “no daddy!”) and am finding numerous theories/lessons that seem to apply as much to business as parenting.

One particular story resonated with me and I’ve found myself referencing it on several occasions this week within TGA’s walls.

The story is this – in an effort to study the impact of boundaries, a behaviorist removed the fence surrounding a preschool yard to see how the kids would react.  Instead of running wild with their newfound freedom, the kids huddled near the center and seemed paralyzed.  Why?  “There is security in defined limits.”  No different than if you removed the sidewalls on a bridge – everyone would drive slowlyyy down the middle.

As an entrepreneur, there are few to no proverbial “fences” surrounding what you do.  You need to be that child that bravely, almost defiantly, steps out into the danger of the unknown.  The best entrepreneurs I know are the ones who embrace uncertainty and manage change the best. 

But then an interesting thing happens.  You have some success.  You start hiring employees.  You have a C-level title by very nature of being the founder (or part of the founding team).   And then you realize that the exact traits that got you to that point are in many ways contradictory to the skills you need to be a good leader of the team you’re building.

Basic HR responsibilities like a vacation policy, staff handbook, consistent review structure, etc. are more of a nuisance to you than anything.  It’s all about results, not processes.  And when you give someone an assignment, you expect them to figure out how to get it done (and done well) with little need for hand-holding or guidance.  Because that’s the environment you, the entrepreneur, excel in.

But most employees need clarity and structure with these things.  They want (rightfully) to understand the expectations, have clear objectives and know how and when they’ll be evaluated.  They need a leader, a manager.  But often their boss (you, the entrepreneur) can’t relate to these needs.  Especially if you’re a first-time entrepreneur.  So while you did a great job of getting the company from A to B, you now need to adapt your approach quite significantly to get the company from B to C.  Fred Wilson wrote an article called “Becoming A Boss” that is a must-read if this topic is interesting to you.

From my experience there are two main stages to entrepreneurship.  The first is taking an idea and turning it into an actual product with a viable business model – i.e. being the kid that steps away from the pack and heads into unchartered territory where there are no fences.  The second stage is taking your viable business model and turning it into a long-term sustainable company – i.e. getting the pack you just stepped away from to now follow you thanks in large part to the fences you’ve built along the way of your trailblazing journey.  

Being successful with one stage is difficult enough, much less both.  It takes a unique individual who not only has the aforementioned personality traits and skill set, but also possesses a high level of self-awareness, eagerness to learn and willingness to adapt.  Entrepreneurship is not for most, and the personal experience I'm speaking from comes mostly from failure which is not fun.  But if you think you've got what it takes and can handle the ride, the successes and highs can be the thrill of a lifetime.

Good luck and happy entrepreneuring...

Monday, August 5, 2013

Could Shorter Loops Help Golfers Play More Holes?

The Wall Street Journal ran an article this past weekend on a golf course in Michigan that is experimenting with 5, 7, 9 and 12 hole formats in addition to the normal 18.  It has generated a decent amount of discussion within golf circles already, including at the highest level within Southern California, and I wanted to add a few comments.

To read the article, please click here.

The reason why I think this concept has really opened eyes can perhaps be explained through my personal history with golf.

As a child, I was fortunate to have parents who were members of the local country club so I could play unlimited golf for no additional fee.  And because of the course layout at Moraga Country Club, there were natural loops of 4, 5, 8 and 10 holes.  I took advantage of this countless times when I simply wanted to enjoy the game and had limited time or sunlight to do so.  Some of my best memories with my dad, my friends and even being alone came during these times when dusk was setting in, the shadows were long, sprinklers had to be dodged and the many majesties of golf were in full force.

Now, as an adult in the metropolis of Los Angeles where club memberships start at $100k+, I, like so many others, rely on public facilities for my golf.  The problem is that these courses charge a minimum nine hole rate which is usually overpriced even for the nine holes, and often the pro shop / tee sheet is closed a few hours prior to dusk so there isn't an opportunity to jump on for a few holes at the end of the day.  Given my responsibilities as a parent and the increasing demand of 24/7 availability in the professional world, this golfing reality doesn't work for me.  I could go to a Par 3 course, but they are so populated that it's still a two hour experience to play the nine holes.  (Plus, I want to hit the big dog!)  As a result, I haven't played golf in 5+ months.  I wonder how much potential revenue the industry is losing from folks like me.  I want to play, but the game doesn't have a solution for someone in my shoes (yet), especially in an urban setting.

What Island Hills is trying to accomplish from my perspective is to provide the country club convenience at a public facility where you pay as you play.  Therefore, that free hour you may have to play golf is accommodated with a viable and cost-effective solution to enjoy golf for that hour.  Brilliant.

There are, of course, the issues of potential bottlenecks, the timing for alternative routings and so forth, which the course owner Bob Griffioen seems to recognize.  It's promising to hear him have clear perspective that his model is a test needing study and likely iteration in the coming months/years.

An important thing to note about Mr. Griffioen is that he comes from an engineering background, not a golf one, and he applies that perspective to how he operates his facility.  I can relate in the sense that I too am not a PGA Professional but rather come from more of a business background. I think the golf industry benefits when folks outside the inner circle take a crack at out-of-the-box solutions to some of golf's ailments.  I reiterate this belief daily when folks who aren't PGA Professionals inquire about TGA's franchise opportunity and worry whether they can be successful in the golf industry coming from a background other than golf.  The answer is absolutely yes.

Concepts like shorter loops, pay as you play models, free equipment and cheap lessons (similar to the Mini Prince at Princeville course I wrote about a few weeks ago) may not benefit the short term bottom line, but if they encourage new players to join the game then we all win financially and otherwise in the long run.

I applaud Mr. Griffioen for taking the risk to try this approach, I'm confident that the industry will be closely following (and aiding) his efforts, and I wish him all the best.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The "Mini Prince" has Big Ideas

I'm headed to Kaua'i in a couple months and I was looking into which of the several great golf courses on the island I want to play when I came across this little gem.  The Princeville Resort, which boasts two 18 hole courses - the Prince (#1 ranked public course in Hawaii) and the Makai (also highly rated but under renovation) - has a six hole pitch-and-putt called the "Mini Prince Par 3."

The Mini Prince includes six holes 48-91 yards in length so it's appropriately sized for people of all ages and skill levels.

It has cups that are 8" wide, almost double the standard 4 1/4" cup, making the game easier and increasing the potential for lower scores and higher enjoyment.

The greens fee includes use of a Titleist Vokey wedge so you don't need to worry about bringing your sticks.

Kids play free with a paid adult so families are encouraged to go out together, and the adult rate is $15 for unlimited play throughout the day.

This makes so much sense to me on so many levels that I wanted to pass it along.  Princeville is a prestigious resort that is predominately visited by families, so they did exactly what I wrote about last week by putting the consumer experience first and created a course experience unlike any other I've heard of.  All a resort guest needs to do is walk up to the pro shop and with very little effort, very little skill, and very little cost, have an enjoyable, easy, quick experience with golf in an environment that has set them up for success.  That's pretty cool and is the approach I believe we need to have across all levels of the industry.

Here are some pictures from their website and I am very much looking forward to checking out this course in September.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Presidio Hills Paradox

Last week the San Diego Union Tribune wrote an article about Presidio Hills Golf Course, a par 3 in the heart of Old Town, pleading for the city to help this dying relic.  And it provides a snapshot into the issue so many short courses are facing as their inexpensive greens fees do not generate enough revenue to cover rising water and maintenance costs.

As the article discusses, Presidio Hills and short courses across the U.S. have served as the spot where countless number of kids have gotten their first exposure to golf.  Places where families could go spend a few valuable hours together regardless of the skill level of each member.

But Presidio has an 80 year old irrigation system that would cost $100K+ to replace.  It's on historically-designated land so doing any work to it will be close to impossible.  And it has no money.

I applaud the author, Tod Leonard, for bringing awareness to this story and presenting a viable solution of putting the course under the county's Golf Enterprise Fund, which uses the excess revenue generated from Torrey Pines' high non-resident rates to finance several of the other golf municipalities throughout the county.  That's why you'll find one of the country's best public golf systems in San Diego.  But Presidio is not part of that fund, at least currently.

I bring this up because I have a vested interest in player development, not only because anyone in the golf industry should, but because my company TGA specifically uses facilities like Presidio to transition our students to after introducing them to golf at their schools.  Short courses are critically important components of golf's ecosystem as they provide the most approachable experience for beginners, children, families, women and seniors.  With participation declining 13% over the past few years, we need more approachable facilities, not less.  However, the National Golf Foundation reports that short courses are closing at a faster rate than their 18 hole counterparts, and Presidio shines a microscope on this problem.

But there is good news.  I am fortunate to sit on the Southern California Golf Association's Government Affairs Committee, the only such committee in the U.S., and this is where I learned about Presidio.  The reaction by industry members throughout Southern California and beyond who sit on the board with me was swift and major.  Suggestions included: a) creating a fund with all major industry organizations pitching in a healthy amount to save this course and others like it; b) locating recently replaced irrigation equipment and donating it to Presidio; c) integrating different types of programming (like TGA) into the facility; d) organizing a fundraiser, perhaps with Mickelson, to raise funds; and more.  These suggestions/offers were made by the folks with the money and authority to execute on them, and they were made immediately.

It was an uplifting email thread to read as it demonstrated that leaders from all facets of the industry place a high level of importance on facilities like Presidio, and I agree wholeheartedly.  The paradox is that these courses hold many of the keys to addressing golf's participation challenges, and yet they're disappearing at an alarming rate.

As the greenskeeper Bob Grady says, "it's like leasing a car without an engine."

That's the Presidio Hills Paradox.  And we need to work together as an industry to figure out a viable solution.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Customers Determine Great Ideas, Not You

One of my favorite business bloggers, Fred Wilson, recently introduced me and his readers to another blogger named Benedict Evans.  Evans recently wrote a thoughtful piece titled Glass, Home and Solipsism that starts with:

One of the things you're supposed to work out some time in your adolescence is that though you're the star of your own life, you're not the star of anyone else's.  Some companies never work this out.

The key paragraph is:

In other words, your customers' relationships with you are the only relationships you have as a business and you think a lot about them. But you're one of a thousand things your customer thinks about in a week, and one of dozens of businesses. And they probably have their own ideas about how they want to engage with you (though they wouldn't put it in those words) - assuming they think about you at all

One of the readers nicely summarizes the point in the Comments section when he says:

"...a business has to remember that it's never about the product itself. It's about what the product DOES for your customers."

In looking at the golf industry on a macro level, I think we could do a better job of this.  Many consumers find golf expensive, time-consuming, difficult and daunting, and our challenge as an industry is that these issues are complex, fundamental and unrelated.

From a player development standpoint, if we're to stand out against the dozens of other ways people can spend their time and money, we need to make golf as easy, palatable and inexpensive to try as possible.  We need to market programs to the non-playing population.  Bring golf to where they already are instead of asking them to come to us.  Provide equipment and everything else needed.  Socialize the experience.  Create a nurturing environment.  Set people up to experience immediate success with the game.  All these things, a driving range with no rental clubs predominately occupied by men/husbands with golf pros charging $75+/lesson is not.

So for all the innovators, entrepreneurs and industry members out there working to grow the game, let's prioritize our focus first and foremost on the experience our consumers want/need to have, and then apply our great ideas to the manifestation of that experience.  Seems simple and obvious, but it bears repetition and I appreciate Evans' frank comments about the reality of the one-sided relationship we often have with our customers.

Best wishes and happy entrepreneuring...

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Social Entrepreneurship - The Way We Think About Charity is Dead Wrong

Non-profits have been on my mind a lot lately.

TGA's new charitable arm, the TGA Sports Foundation, recently received a significant grant that we're using to hire a management team and build the organization, so we're in full-out startup mode right now.

I have also been going through an awesome program by the Annenberg Foundation called Alchemy Leadership Seminar, which I highly recommend for anyone in Southern California who is the ED or Board Chair of a non-profit.

One of the most influential and informative things I've come across is a TED Talk by Dan Pallotta, whose views have played a significant role in shaping my (and many others) view of the non-profit world.

Social entrepreneurship is becoming it's own category, to the degree that my alma mater, USC's Marshall School of Business, has developed a specific program around it.  In the golf industry, many junior programs are non-profits (for good reason) and I encourage anyone reading this who is associated with or thinking of starting a non-profit to spend 20 minutes watching this video.  The comments about compensation, marketing and overhead are contrarian to the way most people think of non-profits but make a lot of sense within the context of sustainability and entrepreneurship, which are keys to success for any organization regardless of IRS status.

My favorite line is this:

"You want to make $50 million selling violent video games to kids, go for it and we'll put you on the cover of Wired Magazine.  But if you want to make half a million dollars curing kids of malaria, you're considered a parasite yourself."

Hope you enjoy.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Entrepreneurship is a Marathon, Not a Sprint

Last week I shared with you my version of TGA’s 10 Year Story, and through the process of writing it and planning for our anniversary campaign, I’ve done a decent amount of reflection.

One of the topics I've been thinking about is the myth I hear frequently about entrepreneurship being sexy and quick, a la Instagram and Tumblr.  In my experiences, it's usually the exact opposite – complicated and long. 

One of the more timely articles to cross my eyes recently was Seth Levine’s blog “The Ten Year Entrepreneur” in which he does a better job of describing this than I could.   In it, he says: “Years 3-10 in a business are the real heart of entrepreneurship … figuring out how to scale an organization ... playing with product market fit that you thought you’d already figured out 10 times … trying um-teen different sales and marketing ideas … all while trying to make sure you don’t run out of money … this is the meat of company building.”

I couldn’t agree more.

I was on a conference call recently with some industry members trying to explain the lifecycle and timeframe of selling, starting and building a sustainable franchise.  My comment was this – “building a business takes time … in the first year, a TGA franchise is generally focused on learning the business; in year two, they usually start having some success; and in year three is generally when they blow it up.”

Some of the folks on the call seemed surprised (not an uncommon reaction) at the risk and length of time involved.  But in our world, success is never guaranteed and immediate income of a significant nature is rarely achieved.  That's not entrepreneurship.  If you want guarantees and large paychecks from the beginning, you're better off as an employee for an established company.  Entrepreneurship is about value creation and risk with upside.

Interestingly, the timeframe I articulated was for a franchise coming into a proven model where things like “product market fit” and “sales and marketing ideas” should be relatively established.  If you're starting a company from scratch, you're likely in for an even longer haul.  We definitely had some initial success in our first few years at TGA, but it took several to break-even and several more to “blow it up” (if that’s even happened yet – my opinion is that it hasn’t).

In retrospect, years 1-3 were much easier than years 4-10, especially since we started franchising in 2006.  Nowadays, the issues we deal with are bigger and carry larger ramifications.  Our responsibilities, especially to our staff, have increased along with the overhead.  It’s more time-consuming and challenging to modify policies and procedures now that they’re imbedded within a 70 franchise system.  Culture has been established, and trying to change the less glorious aspects of it can set off what feels like World War 3.

But we made it, thankfully, due to a healthy mixture of persistence, stubbornness, instinct, and most importantly, passion and belief.

The lesson is this – if you’re an aspiring entrepreneur, get ready for a long, tough marathon because entrepreneurship is all about building a business with long-term sustainability and rarely does that look anything like a sexy, quick sprint.

I’ll end with a quote from my favorite robot dinosaur Fake Grimlock who I definitely encourage you to follow on Twitter if you don’t already:


Happy entrepreneuring…

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

TGA's 10 Year Story

The following story was published this week in TGA's newsletter and on our website.  Hope you enjoy.

My name is Steve Tanner and I’ve been with TGA since the company was launched in 2003, hired first as an overnight camp counselor, then as a coach, then as the first full-time employee, and now as COO and one of two equity partners. 

To kick off our 10 year anniversary celebration, I wanted to tell the story of how TGA came to be what it is today through my eyes.  But the story of TGA goes back much further than 10 years, beginning in the early 90s like so many other entrepreneurial journeys with the simple notion of “I wish _____ existed because it would be awesome and I’d be all over it.”

This was the thought Joshua Jacobs had as a teenager growing up in Los Angeles.  Josh was a competitive and accomplished junior golfer – AJGA, college, the whole nine yards.  But he found junior golf to be so SERIOUS.  He went to a variety of overnight camps as a teenager and had a good experience but never did what he was truly passionate about – play golf.  If only there was an overnight golf camp that traveled to great courses but focused first and foremost on making friends and having fun.

After graduating from Emory University, Josh’s early career path took him to New York City where he worked for an AV company and lived in Hoboken, NJ.  It was from his apartment that he watched the atrocity of 9/11 unfold across the Hudson River.  Like all of us, the tragedy made him reflect on what was important.  More than anything, he missed his family back in Los Angeles so he packed his bags and moved home.  

In reflection, all of us involved with TGA hope that the daily impact our organization has on kids and communities across America has become one of the many stars that shines today in the darkness of that time in 2001.

Wondering what to do next with his career, Josh sat down with his family – which includes several generations of accomplished entrepreneurs – and was encouraged to follow his dreams.  With the support and mentorship from his grandfather Lee Warner and father Michael Jacobs, Josh thought back on his idea for an overnight golf camp and decided to take the plunge of trying to create as an adult that which he wished for as a kid. 

Teen Golf Adventures, LLC was incorporated, camps were scheduled for the summer of 2003, a few kids signed up, and the company was officially in business.  That first summer went well all things considered, but as it wore down Josh found himself thinking about how he was going to generate revenue over the next nine months until it was summer again.

The answer came in the form of the after school golf enrichment program that has been the catalyst for bringing TGA to a 10 year anniversary and introducing 225,000 kids to golf and tennis.  But, ironically, it was conceived almost by accident.  One evening in early fall, Josh found his elementary-aged sister reviewing her options for after school enrichment programs for the upcoming school year.  He asked, “is golf an option?” to which she responded, “nope” … and the light bulb turned on.  Golf at schools would solve so many of the problems that keep kids from trying the sport – transportation, information, cost … it just made so much sense.  Josh bought some clubs, put together a curriculum, got six schools in West Los Angeles to agree to offer a program, and off he went.

The program grew quickly, from 6 schools in the fall session of 2003 to 13 in the winter and 18 in the spring season.  Enrollment was great.  Demand grew.  Summer day camps came in 2004, along with a multi-level program and more and more schools.  But it wasn’t for almost two years that anyone understood the magnitude of what Josh had created.  That happened when people started calling the office to ask how they could start the program in their region of the country.

We started by licensing the curriculum and trademarks but quickly learned that we needed to provide business support as well, so we filed our first Uniform Franchise Disclosure Document in 2006 and became a franchisor.  Our market evolved from Los Angeles to the U.S. and now to the international community.  First-of-their-kind training programs, curriculums, student handbooks and software systems were developed.  Golf’s sister sport, tennis, became an opportunity and then a reality.  A 501c3 Not-for-Profit was birthed.  So much has happened in the past 10 years, it’s too long of a story to tell but also too much of a blur to really tell correctly.  But the vision has always remained the same – make golf and tennis accessible for all kids and provide a fun, positive experience that instills a passion for the sport within each student and then provides opportunities for them to pursue that passion.

And this is what gets us so excited about where we’re at and where we’re headed as an organization.  TGA is a family of entrepreneurs and we’re not great at reminiscing or sitting still, so we currently have our foot on the accelerator doing things like:
  • Building a management team for the TGA Sports Foundation after receiving a generous grant from a TGA vendor, with the goal being to exponentially increase financial aid and scholarships offered to under-resourced kids.
  • Preparing to open new international markets in 2013 while YTD new franchise openings in the U.S. have been double any previous year.
  • Securing and activating major industry partnerships that will change the way the company looks when we celebrate our 15 year anniversary.
  • Continuing to expand our HQ team, soon to be more than double what it was two years ago, with awesomely talented and passionate individuals like Nate Wright, LeeAnn O’Donnell, Bradley Fontaine and Patrick Yarrow giving everything they have to the organization every day.
We continue to push harder and further because we have a unified vision – the belief that we have successfully pioneered a critically important model that breaks tennis and golf’s traditional barriers, can reasonably be scaled to every school and child in America (and beyond), and is something that has proven to add significant value to our students, parents, schools and partner golf and tennis facilities, as well as the industries and communities we serve.

While ten years is a milestone, we are far from satisfied.  Still, less than 4% of kids in the U.S. play golf and tennis.  That is unacceptable.   And we are doing everything we can to break down the barriers and solve the problems quicker and better than ever before.  Ten years from now when we celebrate our 20 year anniversary, we fully expect to have 10x the impact we’ve had so far.  Please hold us accountable to this goal.

But today, we’re pausing for a moment to celebrate the journey that brought us here as it has been paved by thousands of amazing and dedicated individuals, most importantly our instructors and franchisees.  TGA has reached the point where it is above any individual or team – it is the brainchild and creation of everyone who has contributed in their own way, big or small, to making the organization what it is today – 70 franchises, 225,000 kids empowered, thousands of jobs created, 2,500 schools impacted, and much more.  For that, I speak for everyone at TGA HQ when I say THANK YOU!

I’d like to close by recapping the journey our three favorite letters, TGA, have taken over the past 10 years.  In many ways, their evolution tells the company story on their own:

2003: TGA = Teen Golf Adventures
An overnight golf camp for teenagers.

2004-2006: TGA = Total Golf Adventures
Shift to after school programs for kids primarily 5-10 years old.

2007-2011: TGA = TGA Premier Junior Golf
Making TGA nothing more than an acronym because “Total Golf Adventures” made us sound more like a travel company than a school-based junior golf organization.

2011: TGA = Tennis & Golf Adventures
Marking our expansion into tennis.

2012-Present: TGA = “Teach Grow Achieve”
Coming to a clear understanding of TGA’s identity as a youth enrichment organization that marries athletics with academics, and applying an appropriate meaning to “TGA” that we believe will last for decades worth of anniversaries.

Thank you for listening to my version of the TGA story and offering your continued support to our organization.  Cheers to a great past, a brighter future and always remembering to KEEP SWINGING!