Jason Frazier of Skyhawks Sports: “Fully understand the market and the competition”

Fully understand the market and the competition. Do one thing extremely well or find different revenue streams to evolve as a company. Be really tight on your financials from day one. Understand your P&L through and through. Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups […]

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Fully understand the market and the competition. Do one thing extremely well or find different revenue streams to evolve as a company. Be really tight on your financials from day one. Understand your P&L through and through.

Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.

Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?

In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Jason Frazier.

Jason Frazier began his career with Ernst & Young only to make a 180 degree shift to pursue his two biggest passions, athletics and working with kids, and joining Skyhawks Sports. Since starting his position as a manager, Jason has risen through the ranks, holding almost every role in the company, before his present position of President and COO. Under Jason’s leadership, Skyhawks Sports has achieved record numbers in enrollment and in corporate and franchise growth, being recently ranked as the top youth sports franchise in the world.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

My first job after graduating from Ohio State was with Ernst & Young and I was traveling pretty much every week. My girlfriend at the time — now wife — was working with a consulting company and also traveling during the week. We quickly realized this wasn’t sustainable. We were in San Francisco at the peak of Silicon Valley and we were miserable. We decided one of us had to change careers, or we were going to split up.

That’s when I started to think about my future and what I wanted to be doing with my time. I realized I needed to do something that I was passionate about, something I would get a charge out of. Ernst & Young was a lot of work and kept me busy, but it lacked the fulfillment I craved.

Finding my first management position at Skyhawks Sports was just luck. It was 180 degrees in the opposite direction from my education and everything I had ever done, and I thought, “I’m overqualified for this, but let’s take a flier on it.” And I got the job. My role expanded quickly and within the first couple of years I managed the entire Bay Area. That was 19 years ago.

I’ve worked almost every role in the company since and I’m more charged up and excited about what we do today than I’ve ever been. I am so fortunate I made that decision. It was fortuitous, but it was also lucky. I would have never thought when I was in college that I would be working for a sports camp company.

And it’s been incredible. Five years ago, when I was shifting into the role of president at Skyhawks, it was clear that a lot of our competitors were being run by people who had the sports coaching background and were passionate about athletics but didn’t always have a business background. That’s not to say that these guys don’t run a good business, but business wasn’t the focus of their business.

At Skyhawks, we kind of turned that on its head. From the top down and through our processes and business models, we wanted to be airtight when it came to the business logic and philosophy behind it.

From financials to sales to marketing, we began looking at everything like we were a tech startup. Even though our product is on the court or on the field, everything is grounded in technology — from how parents are finding our programs to how our coaches are accessing our curriculum manuals and to how our participants, even the youngest ones, are watching sports clips on YouTube. We wanted to have a foundation in technology and we wanted to be rooted in strong business practices.

But we also didn’t want to lose sight about what our actual mission is: “teaching life skills through sports.” That’s a daily reminder for me. Even though we’re grounded in strong business principles, none of it works without that kind of philosophy and foundation. It’s that fine balance that I think is the biggest differentiator for Skyhawks.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

I’d really say it was a combination of both those factors I previously mentioned. Number one, being put in that position where my wife and I had to decide on a new career path. Number two, finding Skyhawks and finding the right opportunity to join a company I could be passionate about and provide that business and operational expertise to help position it ahead of competitors.

Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?

I have a really strong friendship group, and that even includes the group of people I was working with early on in my career. These were people who brought an attitude that no matter what you do, you can take these business principles and build something out of them.

I always kind of had that entrepreneurial spirit and wanted to have ownership and equity in whatever I was doing. My entire friend group was not only supportive of that, but they pushed for it. I knew at Ernst & Young that the passion wasn’t there. And my friends, and especially my wife, pushed me to pursue my passion and to feel confident in that choice.

One of the things that I’m very passionate about is working with a team and building them up and putting them in a position to succeed. It’s always been a struggle in our industry. Because it’s a small industry, it’s a hard industry to get into, and it’s a hard industry to make money in. A lot of the people that try to get into this, especially the mom-and-pops, don’t make it. That’s especially true compared to other industries. For me, making sure that I have a team that’s excited to work together and build and grow is essential in keeping the company firm and evolving.

Another big thing for me is diversity on many different levels. At its core, it’s acknowledging and giving room for gender, for race, for sexual background, for differences in educational background, and differences in perspectives.

But it’s also having different personalities. We do this thing with every new hire where we do an entire mindset exercise where get an idea of how people are going to work through decisions. It’s just not black and white.

It’s important to get an understanding of what the business needs: what are those pockets that we’re missing right now? We’ve got a great set of creative-minded people on our team, and we’ve got a great set of relational people, and we’ve got a great set of analysts. But, where are those holes, where are those pockets? Because, if we don’t find those, then the team is going to fail. I’m going be over here on one side of the spectrum, and what I really need is really strong people on the other side to balance me out. That’s extremely important. But passion, to your point, has to be at the root of everything we do. You don’t have to have just one really strong ability. We don’t need our people to be a really strong coach or to be an educator, but they do need to get behind the idea of creating a positive impact and get excited about the company’s mission. So that is the core of everybody we have working for us. Besides that, we’re all across the board with skillsets, personality, motivation, and where people are coming from.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I really think it’s our commitment to finding better ways of doing business. That’s a range of elements from our diversity and inclusion efforts to the multiple revenue streams and even that effort to run a scholarship. Those aspects of our business are part of the larger mission to run a good business that provides real value to its participants, its communities, and its employees.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

The cool thing now is that when people hear about what we do as a company, it doesn’t matter if they’re passionate about kids, or even if they care about youth sports, everyone is able to get behind the mission and the goals. It comes back to the simple element of one kid at a program and changing their life. It’s all across the board, it’s the shy kid, it’s the bullied kid, it’s the all-star kid that going to go on and play in high school and college. It’s the kid that’s going to find a passion for that sport for the first time. It’s the kid that, because of the life skills that we teach, something’s going to happen during that week that they might understand now what inclusion means and practice that at school.

These are the things that get us excited: that positive influence and the feedback we get from parents.

A challenge for us moving forward as we grow is what are some things that we can do to give back? We’re working hard to get our non-profit status this year so we can start applying for grants that will help us give more back to the communities we engage with. What we’re doing in most of our corporate programs, is that we’re offering no-price or low-price programs in inner-city communities. We’re working with a group out of Oregon called Every Kid Sports — they get funding from major corporations, and they invest all of that money into programming for low-income families. We’re their major partner for sports in the Pacific Northwest. So these kids are experiencing programs that they normally wouldn’t. I think for me, that’s one of the biggest issues in all of youth sports and education: kids that just aren’t finding these opportunities. We’ve always felt that we are an inclusive company. We were founded on the idea of every kid getting a chance to be in one of our programs, and I’m excited about that challenge, and I take it very seriously.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  • Compassion

This is the one I have had to work on the most. When I started off, I had a short fuse. I was very demanding to work for, and my growth around this is something that I’m probably the proudest of. Practicing compassion has led me to pay much better attention to my team. Each person on the team acts and reacts uniquely. Take this past year — some companies thrived, some went in the tank, and some had a hybrid. It was being able to be kind of empathetic, but also showing compassion to everyone that works for me. I’m hoping that if there’s one thing that people say about me, it’s that I treated them well and fairly and was compassionate about what they were going through.

  • Letting People Fail Safely

I think, with a lot of leaders, you probably find the desire to do everything his or her own way and not being satisfied with the work other people are doing. I’ve been witness to some great successes, and every time it’s because people strove to their greatest ability because they understood that it was OK for them to fail. They felt secure in trying because leadership acknowledged that not everything will work every time. The biggest learning experiences in my business career were when I failed miserably, so working to give employees the safety to do that without threatening their job is essential.

  • Don’t get Outworked

This is one of the biggest ones by far. I’m in the position I’m in now because of hard work. I won’t let anyone outwork me. That’s what I teach all my people all day long. You don’t have to know everything. You don’t have to have all the answers. You don’t have to be the most creative person. But, if you’re getting outworked, you’re going to fail. If we’re all working harder than our competitors are, then no one can stop us.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

This would probably have to be something like “if the money’s there, it’s worth doing.” The corporate world, and so much of the business world, is so totally consumed by the bottom line that it often obscures any other value. Being concerned with finances and frugal spending is not a bad thing at all, but to let it be all-consuming can lead to some terrible structures and foundations in a company.

I’ve come to learn just how important a strong environment is. Business is more than just a financial investment. It’s a people investment. When businesses make it a value to create an environment of safety, of inclusion, of opportunity, of fun, of worthwhile work that employees get excited about.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

I transitioned out of a behemoth company where every resource was available to a small, privately-owned company where everyone wore multiple hats. I think that that was the biggest adjustment. It was a shock to the system to go from massive teams supporting you and committed to a single role to a place where now I had to do several, if not sometimes all, of the roles.

It became a crash course in business. I learned more in my first year, trying to be my own entrepreneur and running my own segment of the business than I did in college or in my five years at Ernst & Young. That was probably the biggest eye-opener for me.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?

I think that you either have that work ethic or you don’t. That’s a hard thing, especially later in your career, to try to find. I find that you’re either built with it or you learn it at a young age. And then, and I know this sounds weird, but I like working. I enjoy it. I especially enjoy it because I enjoy what I get to do. I was thinking about it on my way to work this morning. It’s 6:30 a.m. here where I am on the West Coast, and I had a 6:00am call with my executive team on the East Coast. I was driving into work and I thought, “Gosh, I must really love this, to do this.”

It’s as simple as that. I really like working. I like working hard. I like producing. I like seeing labors and the fruits of that labor. If it wasn’t for that it would be much easier to have an hourly job somewhere. Or have a blowoff job where you punch out at 5 o’clock.

It’s just never been like that for me. I love challenges. I’ve had big failures in my career and I’ve loved being in a position to learn from them. That’s why I don’t want to get complacent. Things are going very well right now, and that’s why I constantly challenge my staff to not let us get complacent. Let’s not be overly contented right now. Let’s continue to evolve and be creative and do things differently so that we’re staying ahead of the curve.

The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?

I think this gets at the overall experiences I’ve had and the kind of environment we want to cultivate. This is a company and a mission we’re passionate about, so it’s incredibly rewarding when we have successes, both big and small. But at the same time, that desire to avoid complacency allows us to view those successes within the context of knowing our mission is ongoing and there’s another goal out there.

Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?

That’s a tough question. If you’re with the right VC, then that’s the way to go. If they’re supportive, letting you be autonomous, and they’re willing to invest and let you be a part of that process, I think that that’s fantastic. I just think that’s hard to find.

On the other hand, if you have the support team in place, if you have within your team access to capital, the company and wealth growth may not happen as quickly, but you will have more equity at the end of the day.

It’s not a black and white answer, but if you don’t have the right capital and you find the right VC, I think absolutely that’s the right way to go. Because you’re eliminating some of that risk, and you’re getting to that growth point quicker. It’s also very rare for people to have access to that capital where they can do it on their own and be able to take on that risk. If you do, then go for it. You own it.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Fully understand the market and the competition.
  2. How do you differentiate yourself? Think about your service, your delivery, and your tech.
  3. Do one thing extremely well or find different revenue streams to evolve as a company.
  4. Build and establish a strong team. Find people who challenge you. Find people who have the drive you do.
  5. Be really tight on your financials from day one. Understand your P&L through and through.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

When business owners or CEOs don’t have a clearly defined vision it results in a death sentence for a company. You can have the greatest product in the world, but if you don’t have a vision and a methodology for how you’re going to roll out that brand, you’re going to fail. I think it’s key to have a very clearly defined vision and to live by it, and make that thread all throughout your company.

Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?

The long hours are the long hours. Those aren’t going away. It makes it especially tough if you’ve got a family — a spouse, young children. The first thing is you need to set expectations with your family. “This is the way it is, and these are our goals that we have together.” It’s easy to work anywhere, at any time right now. For me, when I had young kids, I had time with them in the evenings. And then they went to bed, and then I’m working again, typically with laptops open with my wife on the couch. So I think that setting proper expectations with them is important.

I also think exercise is absolutely paramount. Without it, you’re going to fail. For me, I wake up at 5:00 every morning and I have an hour where it’s just exercise before I even start my work. I’m listening to a podcast and I’m getting out of my head.

I think diet is crucial. One of the things I do with my wife is intermittent fasting. Every week, we have 36 hours where we only drink water. We do this from Sunday evening to Tuesday morning, and it sets the ground for my entire week. It flushes out toxins, it gets me in a focused space, and it does wonders for me physically throughout the week. And then, once a month, we’ll do a three-day fast. And this is the big one where just completely clears out everything. And then, during that time, there’s a lot of meditation involved, meaning you’re going nuts because you’re not eating and you’re just antsy on all fronts. But it gives you that experience where you can say, “this is discipline and you can handle it.” And that discipline translates over to work.

So, I highly recommend that for young people just starting out the business. Because those hours are the hours; they’re going to be there. But you have to take care of your body. Taking care of the emotional part and the discipline part, that was a game-changer for me for the past couple of years.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂

It would definitely be focused on education and making sure that every child, at a young age, had access to the best. That has a lot of different funding factors to it, and it’s easy to do in affluent areas being the pieces are already in place. The problem is in areas that don’t have the infrastructure in place, that don’t have the schooling, that don’t have the resources. So I would pour in the resources and make these schools cathedrals. I would make every single resource available. Inner-city, affluent areas, in both type of situations, in the entire world.

And then, I would also make it so every child that wanted, could grow up through that system and attend college for free. I think if we could figure that out, our economy, our workforce, the innovation and the creativity, I think we would see changes overnight.

We are blessed that some very prominent 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, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Michelle Obama. I’ve thought about this a lot as she has actually helped our business grow. During President Obama’s tenure, she did more to further education than anyone in the last 20 years. But to get some of these ideas to the next phase, somebody with that influence would need to be in place. I think just on the business side — personally, I think there would be some other choices. She could help and understand our business and help drive us to the next level.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I regularly contribute thoughts and articles in publications like yours, as well as Forbes and others. We also have our Skyhawks blog on our company’s website.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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