Adam: What is something about you that would surprise people about the story behind Sky Zone’s success? What can leaders learn from Sky Zone’s entrepreneurial journey?
Jeff: The origin of Sky Zone is one of the best mistakes that could have happened. My father was attempting to create a brand-new professional sport that would be played on a series of trampolines linked together. Our Las Vegas test facility was located next to an indoor skate park that attracted hundreds of teenagers a day. Eventually the skaters got a peek inside the warehouse and began begging to be let in. With already empty courts, we bought a cash box, some wristbands, charged an entry fee and Sky Zone was born.
We’ve learned many lessons throughout Sky Zone’s 15-year-long journey, and we’d like to pass on these bits of advice to future leaders:
Listen to your customers. If it was not for listening to the neighborhood kids coming to the building, Sky Zone would have never taken off the way it did. In business, you must always listen to you customers, gather insights and act on those insights.
Risk is inherent with any new business. Just go for it. Sky Zone was initially an idea that had no established business model or basis for customers to understand; we had to learn and take risks. Don’t overanalyze. Trust your gut and go for it.
Adam: How did you get here? What experiences, failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?
Jeff: I have had a lot of failures throughout the last 10 years. I think the hardest part of failing is having the confidence to pick yourself back up and continue to make tough decisions. It is all part of your own personal growth. My biggest failure was a technology project that we never completed and cost us a significant amount of money. It was a tough management lesson that taught me the balance between giving your team enough rope to feel ownership and accountability over their work, but not too much such that you don’t keep a pulse on the work they are doing.
Also, being told “no” a lot was helpful to my growth. It teaches you to be resilient, learn how to approach things differently and have the confidence to “stay at it.” I was told no from banks, landlords, investors, franchise owners…the list goes on!
Adam: How did the collaboration with Undercover Boss come together?
Jeff: Undercover Boss was looking for a young CEO to fill their season finale. Luckily, I was young! Appearing on the show was an incredibly rewarding experience for me. I felt lucky and grateful to have the opportunity to give back to our team the way that we did. Being the CEO, you operate in a bubble a bit. It was so great to get into the field, meet the people on the front lines and hear what their lives are like. Had they known that I was the CEO, they never would have opened up the way they did.
Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?
Jeff: In my experience, leaders and aspiring leaders need to have a vision. Know why you’re doing what you’re doing. Another important leadership skill is to be able to communicate that vision, or other things, clearly and effectively to a broad range of people.
Be sure to give your people freedom and autonomy, while holding them accountable for results. Lastly, listen – to your team, your customers, your front-line employees. The best ideas we’ve had have rarely come from the people at the top.
Adam: What is your best advice to fellow leaders on how to deliver a great customer experience?
Jeff: At the top of the list is knowing what’s most important to your customers; for us, it’s having fun, followed by safety, and being greeted. Then, develop training and processes to consistently execute on those tenants.
Create an experience that can’t be replicated at home. Active entertainment is becoming more mainstream, but we still see screens as our biggest competitive threat. The experience we provide must be more exciting than Fortnite or YouTube and we prove to parents why our kind of play is better for kids than an iPad.
Ultimately, be easy to do business with. Kids love us, but in order to bring guests in, parents have to love us as well. That means making sure the parent experience is stress-free.
Adam: More broadly, what are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?
Jeff: Utilize and understand consumer insights and sales data to drive buy-in and make key business decisions.
Being liked comes second to getting results and demanding the best out of your people.
Give people stretch goals and the latitude they need to achieve them. Let them fail, build them back up, be a resource to them when needed. When you empower your employees, your business will succeed.
Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?
Jeff: Know you are never going to please everyone — and that is OK. As a CEO, you have a lot of audiences to please: Shareholders, Board, Team Members, Franchise Owners (in Sky Zone’s case) and our Guests (customers). You may make a decision that is in the best interest of the company’s financial statement, but more expensive for the customer or vice versa. You must prioritize which audience is the most important and use that as a filter to make decisions. For us, we’ve decided it’s our Guests that are the ultimate arbiters when making decisions.
Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?
Jeff: It took me a while to learn how to balance work and personal life. I was always on, even when I went to the gym, I was answering emails. A year ago, that changed when my son was born. Now playing with him is my hobby and my break from work.