In 2018 i2c celebrated its 10th birthday. From humble beginnings, working around a kitchen table (yes, really), i2c has grown to be one of the UK’s largest providers of tennis coaching and training. Everyone knows that hindsight is a beautiful thing! So we asked i2c Director Richard Marklow to share the highs, lows, secrets and mistakes from 10 years in the tennis industry.
Interview with Richard Marklow
Tennis(24/7): I think we should start by asking you to tell us what is the best business decision that you made with respect to building i2c?
Richard: When we first started with i2c, we had great aspirations of doing all different sorts of sports and we the talked about racket sports and we talked about getting involved in football and in the first year we did a little bit of that. We went off into different avenues and I think very quickly we realized that actually, the successful business was going to be concentrated on what we knew which was tennis. From those very early days of thinking we could go into other sports, we’ve concentrated on tennis, and for 9 of the 10 years, that’s been our focus.
I think the other thing that we’ve done really well over the years is that we’ve always tried to make sure that we’ve got the necessary resources before we’ve expanded the business. Sometimes I see people go into business and they’re scratching around for stuff and scratching around for resources. Early on we [Mark Tennant, fellow Director of i2c] made a commitment to make sure that we resourced the next project before we started it and that’s worked well for us over the 10 years.
Tennis(24/7): Now for an uncomfortable question! What was the worst decision that you ever made?
Richard: Right; it’s quite interesting to talk about worst decisions! In hindsight, there are many things we could have done differently!
When we first started i2c and we looked at opportunities [venues to partner with] – we looked at facilities from the perspective of the strength of facility itself; maybe courts and generally a fantastic facility. What we didn’t tend to actually do is look at the infrastructure and the people at the facility.
So, very early, we made some bad decisions. We partnered with venues which had great facilities, but we were not confident that the people at the facilities could work with us and share our goals and joint aims. In the latter years, we’ve worked really hard to interview the people in the facility as much as looking at the facility itself.
Tennis(24/7): So, it sounds like you have identified people and relationships perhaps as being very important. Is that correct?
Richard: Yes. It’s such a small world, the tennis world.
When you have been in the tennis business for as long as Mark [Tennant, fellow Director of i2c] and I have been, you realise that it’s all about people – getting the right partnerships and working with the right people. That’s when great things happen. When you actually put the people together. It’s not the facility, it’s definitely the people.
Tennis(24/7): Is there one key thing that you wish you had worked out earlier?
Richard: When you start a business, you go from being a tennis coach to maybe aspiring to grow and to get a bit bigger.
I think you underestimate the specialisations you need. Things like having specialist marketing support, having specialist website support… having people that understand finance really well. I think that’s a mistake we made early on and because of that, we made some bad decisions. We didn’t work out early enough that we needed to put some good quality people in to support areas that we don’t know a lot about.
I would definitely say finance is a big one of those specialisations that we underestimated. As tennis coaches we felt that we could market quite well, we could train coaches quite well, we could sell tennis, but what we didn’t understand was all of the operational things that sit behind a successful business.
Tennis(24/7): Do you think that the business environment has become more complicated for i2c over the 10 years? Or are the complications due to the growing size of i2c?
I think when you set something up, you set it up very simply. What then happens is that over time you tend to complicate it!
So, there have been some moments in i2c’s journey when we’ve just had to say, “We need to look at this again. We need to simplify and strip it back and actually have a bit of a sense check”. We’ve done that three or four times over the 10 years. We’ve had to have a good hard re-look at how we do things.
Tennis(24/7): What have you seen change the most in the tennis industry over the last 10 years?
Richard: I will say we’ve had some really good years in tennis. We’ve had the golden years of Andy Murray.
I think the power of Andy as a role model in those 10 years has been absolutely critical and we have seen real peaks when Andy won Wimbledon or the team had a great result winning the Davis Cup. That’s driven real peaks of interest in the sport and over the 10 years, that’s been a big plus for us as a business.
The other thing is that there’s been a real acceptance that coaching companies, like i2c, can be a way forward for clubs, organisations and coaches to work in tennis. I think that’s been a really big change over the 10 years. Coaching companies have been accepted as a way for facilities to share resources rather than having one coach at the club or the traditional one-person head coach type of situation.
Tennis(24/7): Just to be really clear on that, when you say that 10 years ago the industry looked very different in that regard – what did that mean at a club level? If you went to a club, what would be the difference then as compared to now?
Richard: Well, quite a few clubs had maybe three or four hours a week for a coach and they really couldn’t get a coach. However, if you actually put four or five of those facilities together you can actually start to grow that organically and have one or two people working across a series of clubs, it makes sense that then a club can provide a full-time opportunity partnering with other clubs in the local area and that’s been a big difference in the last 10 years.
Tennis(24/7): It sounds like you’re saying that it’s [coaching companies] enabled tennis to be a more reliable career path rather than a hobby on the side. Is that right? Has i2c changed the face of the industry for its coaches too?
Richard: Yes, definitely. It’s given coaches a chance to build a bit bigger as well. Running two, three, four, five clubs and having people working for them, it’s definitely a way that coaches can make a career for themselves.
The professionalism of the industry is critical. We need to be professional as coaches, we need to be doing a great job, and there needs to be enough money in it for people.
It frustrates me a lot when coaches don’t put their rates up on an annual basis. Sometimes I’ve seen coaches who might not put their rate up for five to six years. When coaches don’t put their price up on an annual basis we don’t keep up with the trends; for instance, we fall behind the personal training industry and we fall behind the golf pros and that’s just not the real world really.
Tennis(24/7): Has there anything that you would say has been a disappointing change that you’ve seen in the industry? Any disappointing trends?
Richard: I think that we have qualified lots of coaches. Unfortunately, though I think there are still lots of facilities that can’t get coaches. That’s been disappointing. When we advertise for coaches, it’s not easy to get people. There are lots of jobs on job databases, but there haven’t been many people coming into the industry looking at it as a full-time industry. People seem to be quite happy with what they’ve got and when you advertise for new positions, there doesn’t seem to be that many people out there wanting the jobs.
Tennis(24/7): What do you think has happened to overall participation in tennis in the UK? Do you think it’s grown or shrunk?
Richard: I can only speak from an i2c point of view – and that is that we’ve really grown participation. We’re now up to nearly 40 clubs in 6 areas and we’ve got around 50 coaches working for us. We really feel like we’ve really done a good job in growing participation.
I think from a national trend since i2c started, participation has moved up and down quite a lot. I think that’s really down to the media and national successes; role models like Andy and our Davis Cup win. That’s definitely seen spikes of participation growth. I think participation might be slightly down, very slightly down year-on-year from last year. However, I think it’s holding relatively well but with a slight decrease, I think from a national level. We’re not seeing that in our i2c businesses but that’s what I’m feeling from a national perspective.
Tennis(24/7): What advantage is it for customers that i2c have multiple venues?
Richard: I think it’s really important that there’s an offering across the country that has got good quality foundation and back up. We use the same lesson plan across all facilities. We use the same payment method across all facilities. We have the same coach standards across all facilities. If someone goes to an i2c venue, well they know that they’re getting the same quality at each venue. So, any customer across the country can go to an i2c venue and they’ll know what they’re going to get.
Tennis(24/7): How has competition changed in i2c’s markets in the last 10 years?
Richard: Ten years ago, i2c was one of three or four coach education providers. There are now many, many providers offering level one and two courses – fewer offering threes and fours but definitely more in the market than when we started. The coach education market has really been difficult over the last few years because it is much more competitive. In our work with clubs and club programmes, we’ve grown organically within the areas we are in – and we’re really happy that we’ve retained clubs. That doesn’t feel as competitive as the coach education market.
Tennis(24/7): Are there any partnerships that i2c has formed during those 10 years that you think have been really valuable and pivotal?
Richard: Yes, definitely.
We’ve been with Wilson (Wilson Sporting Goods) for many years as a sponsor to us. They have supported us massively for 10 years. They’ve done a great job and their support grows as the business grows.
I think it’s also fair to say that the facilities that we’ve retained over that period of time have been fantastic. They’ve worked with us and when we wanted to try new things, they’ve done that with us. We’ve had great support from indoor centres such as Peterborough, Shrewsbury, the University of Warwick and also Leicester council.
The LTA too – they have massively supported us as a coach education centre to develop a workforce.
There has been lots of really good relationships and support we’ve had over those years.
Tennis(24/7): How valuable have the LTAs engagement programmes been for i2c?
Richard: Absolutely critical. The LTA is a powerful governing body; its relatively wealthy compared to other tennis bodies around the world. They are ever changing really and their participation models and things they put in to help growth and participation have been absolutely critical. We like the quality of LTA programmes and we’ve embraced them. I think it’s very difficult to write or produce the quality of resources that they’ve come up with.
Programmes like Cardio Tennis and Tennis Express have also been really good. Tennis for Kids has been the best initiative. Tennis For Kids formed on the back of the of the Davis Cup success. These programmes are absolutely fantastic for the number of players they bring through the doors.
For coach education the level ones, twos, threes and fours have stayed pretty constant. That has really helped.
Tennis(24/7): So, it’s now full steam ahead towards the next 10 years?
I’d like to stress how grateful we’ve been for the key professional partnerships and people who’ve supported us along the way to our 10 year anniversary. I said earlier on that people are the key – that’s really true. Our success comes down to people. I think that will be true in our future too.
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