Glenn Yankow: “I wish someone told me to watch your back”

The first thing I wish someone would have told me is that no matter how much preparation is made, something unexpected will happen and all you can do is learn from it. Our very first event, which was outdoors, we were sold out, trucks were loaded, and friends from all over the country flew in. […]

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The first thing I wish someone would have told me is that no matter how much preparation is made, something unexpected will happen and all you can do is learn from it. Our very first event, which was outdoors, we were sold out, trucks were loaded, and friends from all over the country flew in. Two days before the event, the weather went from being nice to a torrential downpour, so much so, we had to cancel our very first event.

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 Glenn Yankow. Glenn is the Founder and Managing Director of VBLI, LLC., a leading volleyball organization based out of New York that hosts over 150+ indoor and grass tournaments annually for its 1800+ active members. When he is not directing a volleyball tournament, Glenn enjoys DIY home renovations, going to the movies and spending time with his wife Gina, daughter Sophia and dogs, Frankie and Newman. You can email Glenn at [email protected].

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. My dad owned a small local pet store and my mom, a trained European floral designer, owned her own florist. My parents made sure that my sisters and I had everything we needed. Their support without judgement and unconditional love are key to many of my ambitions and successes in life. At the age of 12, I started shoveling snow and during the summer, I helped in the pet store and at the florist making deliveries. At 15, I started working at a small local amusement park; this is where I learned the value of marketing and customer service. The amusement park was an amazing experience. Most people are unaware of the effort and thought it took to make a customer’s experience flawless, but I learned a lot from Bobby, my boss at the park who was a true mentor and friend.

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?

I started playing volleyball after college. I would play in local leagues, pick-up games and even traveled hundreds of miles several times a month to play in tournaments, up and down the east coast. On one Sunday night, while driving home from a tournament, I realized that what I was doing was not sustainable. I started to play with the idea that running my own tournament, after all, would be simpler and I could play more, right?

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?

During the initial conversations and working sessions, it became clear who wanted my idea to fail and who was supportive. When soliciting other’s opinions and ideas, it was evident to me that there was more than one demand in the market. For example, there is a demand for leagues, another demand for tournaments and an additional demand for juniors clinics, leagues and tournaments (for players 17 years old and younger). This caused me to narrow our focus and tend to one corner of the market.

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?

Resist the overwhelming urge to run, while keeping your inner circle tight. That feeling once you have an idea can snowball into making impulsive decisions. Excitement can and will cloud your judgement, which will ultimately influence your bottom line.

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?

Disenchantment is a real problem. I have to defer to something my dad said: “always make sure to take some time to fully appreciate what you have created.” Such a simple moment of clarity is all it takes to put everything into perspective. It also helps that we have an enthusiastic community of players, some of whom have played in our tournaments every year since VBLI’s inception, that inspire us to commit and recommit to our mission of providing a fun, exciting, safe and competitive atmosphere.

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?

While I have met some of the most amazing, creative innovative, driven individuals — the aforementioned players, my employees, venue staff — I’ve also encountered people where working with them was…counterproductive at best, or tumultuous at worst. When I come across a negative situation, I remind myself not to react in an immediate fashion. Instead, I reflect on what one would do from different viewpoints, from the customer to an outside observer. I feel this allows for laser focus on an actionable solution.

Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be? I have a small, dedicated staff to help run the tournaments, but when it comes to the day-to-day operations, I have held many roles since the beginning. I always thought that, at some point, I would move to a back-end role and scale up the organization, to the point where my physical presence is not necessary at the actual tournaments. This is my ultimate goal and one I have struggled to achieve which many times, although I have come close. However, the nature of this business continues to force me to juggle personal and professional priorities.

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?

All the time! I believe this is part of the unspoken part of the business cycle. All too often, this feeling stems from a lack of funds, the competition being disruptive and/or misreading market demand. The pressure is self-imposed, especially when considering how easy it would be to work for someone else. When these thoughts begin to creep into my daily decision-making, I take the time to identify the root cause and consider the various “what if” scenarios. This practice pulls me back into focus and generally drives positive change.

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?

Amongst many things, we create our own artworkand print our logo on promotional garments. This function continues to be key to our efficiencies and cost savings. One run of event shirts had a new tag line that should have read “Pain Is Temporary.” However, it ended up reading as “Pain Is Tempourary”. We caught the typo after a few dozen shirts were printed.

Not knowing what to do with these shirts, I put them away with the intention of discarding them. But during one of our larger outdoor events, the shirts somehow were in our possession. I did not want to give them out; however, it started to rain and several players were soaked. I thought, “why not give these away since it would solve two problems and we would look like geniuses?” Players loved the shirts, as this was a perfectly-timed mistake. To mitigate future errors, all artwork is reviewed by numerous people. On that occasion, the situation turned out better than we could have expected.

Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?
I try to stay grounded and do not consider myself a great leader. I like to consider myself as someone passing it forward. My parents and mentors gave me opportunities and took a risk on me. Growing up, I was always told that, when possible, I should pass it forward. Every time I asked why, it was a consistent version of — because it was the right thing to do. The numerous random acts of kindness and leadership, coupled with compassion and self-preservation, I believe, is the reason for many of my successes.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I believe I have created a community inclusive of athletes of all skills and backgrounds whom share a collective passion. To add, we have raised over 500,000 dollars for high school and collegiate athletic programs and several charities. We’re happy to do our part and are glad that we have the means to do so.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. The first thing I wish someone would have told me is that no matter how much preparation is made, something unexpected will happen and all you can do is learn from it. Our very first event, which was outdoors, we were sold out, trucks were loaded, and friends from all over the country flew in. Two days before the event, the weather went from being nice to a torrential downpour, so much so, we had to cancel our very first event.
  2. I wish someone told me to purchase supplies in smaller quantities that are more expensive per unit, rather than tying up funds to save a few percent. In our first year, I purchased 200 volleyballs and saved 2 dollar per unit, but tied up thousands over two years.
  3. I wish someone would have told me to trust your instincts, most if not, the majority of time, I know what needs to be done and how. However, I tend to hold back before pulling the trigger because I hope the result will be different, despite what logic would indicate. From time to time, events do not fill and I have to cancel them. I have learned to wait until the last minute because there are always teams registering in the final hour, so I have always struggled with the fine line between getting teams to register for dates and pulling dates from the schedule.
  4. I wish someone told me to watch your back. Over the years, newly minted organizations have formed causing us to pull back or even rethink our strategic direction. The patterns are now predictable to a point, so much so that we can prevent them from becoming a disruption.
  5. Finally, I wish someone told me to always think that “blue skies” are ahead, even when dark days the dark. More than a few times, I had to rethink what was not working. These working sessions never resulted in substantial, tangible results until I was able to say, “what if we had unlimited funds and demand?” Only then did problems morph into solutions.

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.

I would love to get more involved with high schools and colleges in the Tri-State area. I always wanted the players, coaches and clubs to see our organization as an effective outlet and a safe haven for their players to continue developing their skill sets, bond with their teammates and pursue volleyball with fervor.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Heavy is the head that wears the crown.” As VBLI grew, it became apparent that we were becoming a target. To avoid painting a bulls-eye on our backs, I make every effort to ensure that any services that we offer our members are proven and effectively bulletproof.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Kevin Plank, the founder of Under Armour. Simply put, he saw a problem and turned it to an unprecedented business success. It wasn’t done by sitting around, waiting for others. It was a success because he was able to push through the clutter and maintain focus on his goals.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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