Most people fail because they’re not willing to do whatever it takes and they quit too soon! Oh, how I wish I knew this one before I started because it would’ve completely eliminated the fear of starting. I had no blueprint for success and believed that to win in business it was some magical formula or that you needed to have connections, lots of money, or education. That couldn’t be more wrong! After being around hundreds of entrepreneurs (and doing it myself) it is crystal clear to me that success hinges on doing whatever it takes for however long it takes. You will succeed because you will outlast everyone else. Most people give up too soon. A great example of this is my aspiration of stating a new business in a crowded field. That doesn’t intimidate me anymore because I know there are lots of complacent competition ripe for the picking and/or people ready to quit any moment, giving me an opportunity in the marketplace. Simple put, a motto of “I will outlast you” is the winning mindset you need to be successful.
As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Frank Fiume II. Frank is a pioneer in the youth sports industry and the founder of i9 Sports — one of the nation’s leading franchise of youth leagues and camps. Since 2003, i9 has generated more than 300 million dollars in sales, with 2 million participants in 900 communities across 30 states nationwide. A native of Queens and graduate of St. John’s University in New York, Fiume now resides in the Tampa Bay area with his wife of 25 years and their two children. His new book, Running with My Head Down: An Entrepreneur’s Story of Passion, Perseverance, and Purpose, is available now.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
As a kid of divorced parents growing up in Queens and Long Island, NY in the 1970’s, my life revolved around the game of baseball. Not just playing Little League, watching it on TV and listening to games on the radio, but also tearing up my backyard to create a Wiffle Ball field and organize leagues for all the kids in the neighborhood while playing baseball themes board games day and night. I ate, drank, slept, breathe baseball twelve months a year.
What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah-ha” moment with us?
Upon graduating with a business degree, I took a job as a medical device sales representative and hated it! Despite the six figure income only a few years out of college, I was unfulfilled, but my dad would always say I had “golden handcuffs” (a term he’d use for not making a change because I made too much money). That drove me crazy! Then, one day while playing/managing an adult men’s softball team with my college buddies, it dawned on me…the leagues we paid to play softball were generating substantial revenue but weren’t professional, let alone organized. Maybe I should start a men’s softball league myself using the business skills I’d learned in a corporate environment for nearly ten years dating back to when I worked at a mortgage bank during high school. Out-marketing and out-hustling my complacent competitors, the league took off. Within six years we were the largest league on Long Island with nearly 1,000 teams.
There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
First, be a student of your industry. Learn everything you can from not just the people that are doing it well, but also from those that are making critical mistakes (like my unprofessional, disorganized competitors), then find your niche. As Tony Robbins says “Success leaves clues”. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Find out what’s working, what’s not and be absolutely relentless in your pursuit to being successful. I’m not a big fan of drawing up extravagant business plans, but you need to have a clear vision of what you want to accomplish. For me, it was “to be the best league, not the biggest”. Of course, by focusing on being the best…becoming the biggest was the result.
What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?
If you don’t wholeheartedly believe in your cause, I say don’t do it! Business is not easy. You’ve got to be hungry, be willing to give 100%, and have passion to be successful. As the founder of a national franchise brand that’s been around for hundreds of entrepreneurs (and wannabes) I know what separates success from failure, and it’s the mindset of the business owner. If you’re reluctant going in, how do you think you’ll survive when problems arise? However, if your like me and believe you’ve been put on this earth to pursue your dreams, willing to do whatever it takes consistently for no matter how long and NOT settle for the safe, “Plan B” unfulfilling career, then you need to go for it!
It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?
When you do something you love that’s bigger than you and doesn’t just contribute to your life, but the life of others, your purpose is showing up and I can’t think of anything more fulfilling than that. In my case I love sports, and my business i9 Sports might seem at face value like its all about flag football, soccer, basketball, baseball, etc. but it’s not. I’m in the business of sports to help kids succeed in life. You see, sports is just the vehicle I use to accomplish my goals of growing and contributing to the lives of others.
What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?
What I love most is the freedom to create something bigger than me; to innovate, and inspire others whether it be financial freedom for our franchise owners or creating lifelong memories for parents as they see their son or daughter score their first touchdown or goal. There’s simply no better feeling than knowing I helped facilitate this in some way.
The downside to running a business is the fallacy that you’ll have more time. That’s ridiculous. Your business is like a newborn baby and goes through all of the stages we experience as humans. That means you need to survive the toddler and teenage years which can (and will) be extremely challenging. However, if you love what you do, just like you love your child, you give it what it needs and it’s always worth it in the end from my experience.
Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I quickly learned that operating a league business and being a franchiser of sports leagues required two completely different skill sets. As a franchiser, aspiring entrepreneurs are investing in my business, require comprehensive training, dedicated on-going support, and a voice in the growth of the brand. That’s a stark difference from just starting a sports league, running the day-to-day on autopilot, and not needing buy-in from anyone. Franchising is much more collaborative for the betterment of the brand.
Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?
Absolutely! In start-up businesses, we often focus on how long we’ve been struggling, and we forget to acknowledge just how far we’ve come — and how close we are to a breakthrough. At one point back in the 90’s I thought maybe everyone was right about my ridiculous aspirations to succeed in amateur sports . . . I should just be like everyone else and work my medical sales job to the best of my ability so at one point I proposed my idea of selling my softball league through a business broker. His response: “What are you really selling? Anything tangible? All you’ve really got is a big mailing list Maybe you could get 100,000 dollars for it — at best”. Half of me felt incredibly guilty that I had even made that call to sell my baby, and the other half felt completely helpless at the broker’s deflating response — as if all the work I’d done had been for nothing. Deep down, I knew selling was not the right answer. I had hit bottom emotionally, and I knew that I had to take massive action to pull myself out. Instead of selling, I did the exact opposite. I decided to quit my medical sales job, and give 100% of my time to my sports leagues. I had no safety net. The business more than doubled the next year earning me more money than I’d ever earned in my lucrative, yet unfulfilling medical sales career. In fact, just three years later I sold that business for over 2 million dollars to fund my aspirations to franchise i9 Sports. Lesson learned. Follow your dreams!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
After a year in business, my wife and I relocated to the Tampa Bay area from Long Island, though we would return to New York a few times per year to host registration meetings for our softball teams to pay the nearly 1,000 dollars team fee for the upcoming season. At the time we only accepted cash, and by the end of the night we’d have tens of thousands of dollars stuffed in large yellow clasped envelopes. Nervous about carrying that kind of cash through the airport on our return home, we’d go to the post office and convert the piles of cash into money orders, hence accidentally laundering money! It was completely innocent (of course we paid taxes on it), but we didn’t know better. The great lesson from all this is that we needed to start treating our softball league like a real business and begin accepting credit cards (which none of our competitors did at the time) to eliminate the risk of carrying cash. The best part, once we accepted credit cards the next season, our revenue more than doubled since more teams joined our league due to the payment convenience factor.
Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?
From the time I ordered his Personal Power tapes from an infomercial back in 1991, Tony Robbins has been my greatest inspiration in life. Since going to my first Tony event in 1999, the trajectory of my life changed radically from the time I was a frustrated, unfulfilled, 20-something-year-old into having a life far beyond what I thought was possible for myself and my family. The tools I continue to learn from him in business have been woven into the fabric of my organization which currently generates over 50 million dollars annually. I am not just a better business owner because of Tony Robbins, but more importantly I’ve grown exponentially, discovering my purpose of being fulfilled with the understanding that life is about growing and contributing to the lives of others.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
When I founded i9 Sports in 2003, my vision was fairly simple. I wanted to raise the bar of the amateur sports industry and create the largest franchised sports league nationwide. I had no idea of the impact I’d be making along the way over the last 16 years. From helping hundreds of aspiring entrepreneurs and employees achieve financial freedom through franchise ownership and career opportunities, to creating thousands of jobs nationwide thanks to our franchisees local efforts, to providing a positive office culture for employees to feel excited about their workplace, to offering a lifetime of memories for families by watching their kids play organized sports for the first time, or impacting over two million kids by helping them succeed in life through sports, the impact of my vision has exceeded my wildest dreams and I’m so grateful that my success has made the world a better place in a small way.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Success is a zig-zag. What do you mean it’s not a line going straight up? At first, I thought you work hard, and success happens. Nope, it sure doesn’t work that way. There are highs and lows in anything you aspire to do with all of the lessons learned during those lows. Most often the next stage of growth is right on the other side of the crisis you’re facing today. My pattern for success has been crisis-breakthrough-crisis-breakthrough, and so on, like a set of stairs. Looking back I wouldn’t have it any other way because those crisis’ is what prevents and eliminates lazy competition. It’s a blessing in disguise. Embrace the challenges today because a breakthrough is waiting for you tomorrow.
- Hire for your weakness and hire A” players only. When starting out we often hire only what we think we can afford. However, unless you hit the employee lottery (finding the most amazing person on the cheap), by hiring “C” players, you get “C” results, poor returns on your investment. In other words, it ends up costing you more money by hiring sub-par employees than doing it right the first time and hiring “A” help. When I started out, I was so worried about making payroll I hired a bunch of nice, but a very challenged skill set staff. It didn’t take long before my motto “If I want it done right, I’ve got to do it myself” was how I lived by. Extremely stressful! Worse yet, at one point my company had accumulated losses of 850 K Dollars due to expenses related to poor staffing choices. It wasn’t until I fired nearly everyone and began hiring “A Players” to my weakness that we turned the corner. Having strong leaders that brought value to my organization led us to a complete turnaround. If you’re on a limited budget, hire less staff (or outsource whenever possible), but don’t ever sacrifice quality for quantity!
- Most people fail because they’re not willing to do whatever it takes and they quit too soon! Oh, how I wish I knew this one before I started because it would’ve completely eliminated the fear of starting. I had no blueprint for success and believed that to win in business it was some magical formula or that you needed to have connections, lots of money, or education. That couldn’t be more wrong! After being around hundreds of entrepreneurs (and doing it myself) it is crystal clear to me that success hinges on doing whatever it takes for however long it takes. You will succeed because you will outlast everyone else. Most people give up too soon. A great example of this is my aspiration of stating a new business in a crowded field. That doesn’t intimidate me anymore because I know there are lots of complacent competition ripe for the picking and/or people ready to quit any moment, giving me an opportunity in the marketplace. Simple put, a motto of “I will outlast you” is the winning mindset you need to be successful.
- Make lots of mistakes! One of the primary attributes to my success was my willingness to make mistakes, learn from them quickly and move on! Far too many business owners operate out of fear. Fear to make a decision. Fear to change course after making a mistake. And worse, repeating the same mistakes over and over. All are the death knell for companies big and small. When you operate without fear of failure, and willing to go for it, you see what’s working and what’s not working, remaining flexible and changing your approach when needed. That’s when the magic happens! It’s what separates mediocre from outstanding, passionate organizations. Maybe it was my naivety, but from the beginning of both companies I founded, I was determined to do whatever I thought was best no matter how challenging or radical it seemed at the time. As the LinkedIn founder once said, “An entrepreneur is one who jumps off the cliff and builds the plane on the way down.” Perfectly said.
- Start right now! Regardless of the economic conditions when you’re reading this, I wish someone would’ve told me do not procrastinate or make up excuses why you can’t start your business today because you don’t know what the economy will look like tomorrow. In other words, I’m so grateful that I started in 2003 because had I waited, I might not have accumulated enough critical mass of franchises and annual royalties to survive (and thrive) through the Great Recession. Even better though, by starting when I did, by the time the recession did hit, it staved off new competition for years, catapulting my company to 900+ locations across 30 states nationwide. Of course knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t think twice about buying a quality existing business during an economic downturn. Some of the best opportunities to buy a business are when people are desperate to unload them during hard times. You have no idea what tomorrow holds. When you’re ready to commit to your endeavor, and willing to take consistent massive action, it’s go time!
What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
If there was one movement I’d like to bring into focus to impact the most amount of people it would be to “pursue your passion” in life. Far too many people give up on their dreams because they think it’s unrealistic or too risky. These same people fear majoring in a degree they are truly excited about or don’t pursue a certification because of doubt, fear, and naysayers in their life. Instead they settle for an uninspiring major or job because it’s “safe” or will be a “good job”. I don’t believe we been put on this earth for a “safe, good job”. I believe we’re here to pursue our dreams, love what we do, and impact as many lives as possible. That’s only going to happen if you have passion for what you do. All too often, people have hidden dreams they fear to pursue and instead settle for “Plan B”, the safe backup plan that their friends and family encourage “is the practical way to go”. I want to change all that. The primary reason why I wrote Running With My Head Down is to inspire people through my story to pursue their passion and discover their purpose in life. I’m excited to build on that through speaking with thousands students and wannabe entrepreneurs worldwide.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Live your life with no regrets.” It’s a quote my wife and I have lived by since the beginning of our marriage. For nearly 25 years we’ve operated by that motto as a way of saying we don’t want to ever look back in life and say “would’ve, could’ve, should’ve.” Those words are not in our vocabulary. If we think we should do something, we go for it. We lived by this mantra when it was time to take the leap to leave New York and move to Florida with no job, when quitting my six-figure medical sales job to pursue my amateur sports business full time, when hiring a turnaround consultant as our franchised business was in big financial trouble early on, as well as ultimately sell the majority interest in the company just a few years ago when I decided it was time for me to move on despite the double digit annual growth and continued success of the business.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.