What does a business and sports have in common? Teams, of course. In this episode, Kristi Herold gives insight into developing a team culture within an office environment. Kristi is the Founder of Sport and Social Club, the largest sporting social club in North America. Since starting the business, they have welcomed more than 1.2 million participants and over 100,000 teams. Kristi starts off by relaying how she started out trying to learn about business while already running a few small businesses and eventually moving to start her own sports club in Toronto. She shares how she started out using phone calls to promote her business and encourages her team members to do the same, as well as sending out personalized thank you notes, to this day. Don’t miss this episode as Kristi reveals her vision for the future of the club and invites participants to join in.
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Teaming Up For Company Success With Kristi Herold
Our guest is the Founder of Sport & Social Club, the largest sport and social club in North America. Since starting the business, they have welcomed more than 1.2 million participants over 100,000 teams. She’s built an epic culture with their team and she’s been an inspiration to me. I am pumped to welcome the one and only Kristi Herold to the show. Kristi, welcome.
Thanks, Jesse. I’m happy to be here.
My goal is always to try to be a hype person for someone when they go around. I think everyone needs entrance music and a hype person. I’m fired up to have you and I would love to be a hype person for you because I feel like you bring that to everyone that you interact with. From our times together, you bring energy.
That’s awesome. Thanks for saying that.
I’d love to get to know your starting story. I’ve done some research. We have a little similar story to sports and then we’ve built a business around it. How did you get started and build such an amazing business?
I grew up as a competitive athlete. I was an Alpine ski racer and I competed at a high level internationally. I’ve spent more time on ski hills than I did in school growing up. I quit ski racing at the end of high school. I had been injured and I decided it’s time to get to university. I went to university for four years. I grew up in a small city about four hours north of Toronto. I went to Queens University in Kingston, about 2 hours east of Toronto. After that, I decided to move to the big city and see what I was going to do with myself. I’d grown up in a home where my father was an entrepreneur and my grandfather was an entrepreneur.
We were raised where the dinner table conversation was all about running your businesses. As a kid, I’d run my own lawn cutting business. I ran a painting franchise in university. I ran a custom clothing business in university. I always knew I wanted to work for myself. I admired my dad. He was always home for dinner times. He was always there at breakfast. We went on great family vacations. We had a nice lifestyle. He was always able to leave work and come to my volleyball or flag football game or whatever. I was like, “That’s the lifestyle I want.” I want to be able to be around for my kids but also have this great lifestyle. We lived in a lovely house, grew up on a lake, and had nice vacations as a family.
I aspire to be like him. I also aspire to be like my mom. She was a classic homemaker, the total stereotypical you’d come home and cookies had been baked. She was knitting a sweater for somebody. There’s always a good home-cooked meal. She was always able to help out at my field trips as a kid. I wanted to be that mom as well. I knew I had to run my own business in order to have that flexibility. I took a business degree at university. I had a great time at university but I didn’t learn from my business degree. I did poorly if you look at my marks. That’s because I was running two real businesses during university.
When I moved to Toronto, I’m moving to this big city and I don’t know a lot of people. I thought it would be cool to try and meet some people. Maybe I should sign up for a sports league. I looked into women’s soccer and I wasn’t a great soccer player. I played a little bit as a kid. All I could find were competitive women’s soccer leagues. I thought I couldn’t compete at that level. I’d heard about some sport and social clubs in the US at that time. I’d heard about one in San Francisco, the Golden Gate Sports & Social Club. I learned more about it and thought maybe that’s something I could try in Toronto.
That was 1996. I left my job. I’d been working full-time for College Pro Painters where I’d been a franchise manager for three summers and I’d been a general manager for a year. I left my job there and started the Sport & Social Club. This is in the days before the internet was becoming a thing. I didn’t have an email address when I started the organization. I remember getting an email address about four months into starting. I spent all my time going through my address book and calling everybody in my address book saying, “This is my idea. Do you like the idea? If you like the idea, do you know anyone else who might like the idea? Can you fax me your address book?” My friends were faxing me their address books and I would go through and call all those people. I had strangers faxing me their address books because they loved what I was planning to try and build. I started from that.[bctt tweet=”You do not respond to angry emails by email. People misinterpret texts so quickly.” username=””]
Were you calling people and then mailing things to them?
I’d spent four months on the phone calling people, telling them the idea, and also finding permits to play leagues to be able to get a spot for people to play and putting the plans in place. About a week before I was meant to begin, I had thirteen teams signed up to play across five different sports. It was basketball, volleyball, ultimate frisbee, flag football, and soccer. I had thirteen teams signed up at $350 apiece for revenue. If you do the math, that’s one season, four seasons a year. I wasn’t going to survive. That was just revenue, forget the costs.
I fell on the floor and cried. I remember this clearly. I cried for about 2 hours thinking, “What have I done? Why did I quit my job to start this? What a stupid idea this was.” After crying for 2 hours, I thought crying is not changing the situation. I got up off the floor. I got back on the phone and I called people and said, “You said you were interested. It’s time. You have to sign up now because the league is starting. I need you to sign up.” In those five days before the league was about to begin, I went from 13 teams to 52 teams for my first season. We were able to make a go of it.
To answer your earlier question, I started with phone calls to get their addresses if they were interested. I then created a newsletter and mailed the newsletter out. I had 800 newsletters to mail, but I could only afford stamps for 400. My boyfriend at the time later became my husband and business partner, he’s still my business partner, but he’s my ex-husband and still a good friend. At the time, he was a semi-pro cyclist. He agreed to drop off the other 400 newsletters that I couldn’t afford stamps for by bicycle. That’s the early days. People would mail or fax me their registration form with a check. That’s how it was done in the early days.
I love this because it’s the grassroots marketing that you don’t see done much anymore. I remember I saw an article that came out in my first year as GM of a team in Gastonia, North Carolina. I was 23 years old. The article said, “My goal was to talk to every single business owner in the entire community. I’m going to do it in November and December.” That was my goal. I was going to find a way to get in touch with them to tell them what we were doing. Fast forward many years later, what are some of those grassroots things that you are still doing? Those phone calls, reaching out, and newsletters are missing these days. We’re not having that actual personal connection now that we’ve gone social. How have you started your company? I want to get into design and culture, but how have you built that design yourself still into the culture now?
It’s been a bit challenging. I find that some of the younger team who work with me didn’t grow up picking up the phone, to try and encourage them to pick up the phone can be challenging. They want to send an email. That’s what they know. That’s their comfort. It’s been hard. Many of my team who’ve been with me for a long time will tell you it’s a bit of a joke when I’m like, “Pick up the phone.” Especially when you get an email from a customer who’s not happy, I am adamant. You do not respond to angry emails by email. People misinterpret texts quickly. It’s easy to be misunderstood and maybe you’re misunderstanding them. I want them showing some empathy.
Our customer service team is good at addressing irate customers or any real big problem issues. They’ll do their best to pick up the phone, talk to someone, be empathetic, hear the concerns and then try and help find a better way for them through listening and meeting the needs that way. Those early days around ‘97, Rolston started working with me one year into me starting the club. He said, “We need a website.” I was like, “A website? What’s that going to do for us? That’s not generating revenue. If you want to build a website, you got to do that in your spare time.” Thank goodness Rolston worked his butt off all day, then at night, he’d stay up creating a website for us. Now our entire business is run off of the website. We have our proprietary platform. All the registration, scheduling, standings, and all of our backend administration were managed everything through our website. Thank goodness he had the wherewithal to think about that.
You have to evolve. I think you’re right on the personal connection. I’ve noticed a huge change. After everyone buys a ticket or merchandise from us, we do a thank you call. Our people that do it are 22 to 23 years old. A few years ago, we probably had a 50% answer rate. Now it’s maybe 10% but we leave voicemails and when they get people, it’s excitement like, “We just wanted to thank you.” It’s part of our culture. Everyone in our staff makes that thank you call because we have to get that idea of personal connection, not just behind a computer. Kristi, I want to get into your office. I could see you putting an old fax machine in your office and saying, “This is where it started.” Have you got any faxes?
We do have a fax machine. To your point on the thank you, I was raised in a culture of handwritten thank you notes. That’s how our family was raised. Every Christmas, my brothers and I got a package of thank you notes in our stockings. We were expected to write thank you notes to our grandparents, aunts and uncles for our Christmas presents. We write thank you notes for birthday presents. My kids will tell you they get thank you notes in their stockings and it’s non-negotiable. They must write thank you notes for their gifts and they’ve gotten quite good at it.
A couple of years ago, we were coming home from our full-time team offsite retreat. We were on a big bus, probably 40 or 45 of us. I was in my head thinking to myself, “Imagine if everyone on this bus wrote a thank you note once a week? That would be 2,000 thank you notes a year that could be written to our members, suppliers, caretakers at schools, sponsors, and anybody.” We started the Guru of Gratitude program. We have these thank you notes that said, “Keep playing,” on them. It is a blank note on the back. We have a list that’s a shared document that if at any time anyone can write a thank you note, if they don’t know who to write one too, there’s a list of ideas like a new whole list of all the new captains or any new individuals who’ve joined or long-term captains who’ve been playing with us for years. There are many people we can always be saying thank you to.
We take a moment to write these handwritten thank you notes because people aren’t used to getting handwritten notes anymore. When you get mail these days, it’s junk mail or a bill and no one writes handwritten thank you notes. I wanted to make a little bit of an impact that way. There have been some beautiful side effects and I wasn’t expecting this. Now, people take a picture of their handwritten thank you note and they post it on social media and say, “Sports & Social Club, I got your thank you note.” I was like, “That worked out well.” That’s not why we’re doing it, but I also have taught my team, when you give gratitude, it makes you feel better as well. It makes you feel good. It’s like on Christmas morning, would you rather give a gift or open a gift? I get more excited about watching the people I’m giving gifts to. Giving a thank you note to someone is a great feeling for yourself. Being able to share gratitude is powerful.
I love how you interjected that with your team. You’re speaking my language. I started doing this thank you experiment in 2016. Every day I get custom 1,000 yellow thank you notes and every morning, that’s the first thing I do in my day. You have to have a lens of who am I thanking the night before, so when I wake up, “Who am I thanking?” Our team has interjected that. Our vice president does one fan a day, whether it’s a video or some way to thank one fan a day. Few companies put the focus on that because they think, “We got to keep selling.” No, share gratitude. I love that. It goes into your whole design. Back in 1996 to ‘97, you were starting without any idea of what you were doing as most of us start. You’re intentionally working on this playful, fun, and vibrant culture that you’ve built. I saw a video of the office and was blown away. I’d love to go into maybe the story of how you started building the culture and some of the things in the office from the love wall and the jerseys. There are many things I’d love to talk about, but maybe take us through how that evolved.
In the early days, our first office was in our two-bedroom apartment that Rolston and I shared. One room was an office and we had this little alcove in our bedroom that was the other office. Our storage was off of the kitchen. We had floor hockey nets behind a curtain and floor hockey sticks stored behind this curtain in the kitchen. We then bought our first home in probably ‘98 or ‘99. That became our office. I remember we were running two businesses out of that house. It was a small semi-detached three-bedroom house. Two of the bedrooms were offices and we built offices in our basement for our employees. We worked there for a number of years. We then went to a small office space above a cigar store. We used to stomp our feet on the floor because they’d start smoking cigars and they’d forget to turn on the fans and we get the cigar coming through. We were there for probably five years and we outgrew that.
We moved to this industrial space and we were there for about twelve years. It was this 15-foot high ceiling with these 7-foot high windows up at the top. It was this old industrial warehouse space. It was great and it had a good office vibe. We built a kitchen in because I had started the culture in the early days. We used to make lunch for each other when there are only a couple of us. It was like, “I’ll make lunch all this week and then you make lunch all next week.” We started doing that until we got to about ten people. You would make lunch for a whole week for ten people and then you’d have nine weeks where you didn’t think about it. You’d be working at your desk and at 12:30 you’d hear, “Lunch is ready,” and everyone would get up. It’s like a family getting up and going to the dinner table. We would all eat lunch together.
It was important to me that we had a kitchen in that old office space. In our new office space where we’ve been for a few years, we have a great kitchen set up as well. We don’t make lunch for each other anymore because there are almost close to 50 of us now it seems. We still take lunchtime together. We encourage people not to eat lunch at your desk. The culture is going out for lunch if you want or buy lunch or warm up your leftovers from dinner in the micros, but sit and eat as a team and get to know your teammates. It’s the bonding that happens from that. It’s the number one thing my team will tell you is their favorite thing about our culture is that we all tend to eat lunch together and they become friends. It’s pretty awesome.
How many people do you have from that original team? I used to make lunch for everybody. How many people are still part?
From the lunch-making days, there are probably about 6 or 7 who would remember those days.
That’s powerful. That original thing from the day’s big lunch together built this community that “We’re together in this.” It sounds like in this new place that you went to, designing that all over became a huge element of who you are and what you stand for.
That was part of my vision. I did a vision for the end of 2019. That vision is completed. I’ve launched our vision for 2022. Part of that vision was to have a collaborative and fun working space. I knew we needed to move because we were outgrowing our space that we had been in for twelve years. I put a lot of time and energy into the design and the functionality of the space and to get the right vibe. I wanted it to have a sporty feel. I had done several builds. I’ve built a number of homes over the years and done some renovations. I’d worked with a designer I liked. We’ve probably done 6 or 7 projects together over the years. She worked with me very closely on creating the office space.
The bright red wall in some of the offices, when she suggested that, I was like, “Really? I wouldn’t have thought that.” I went with it and I’m happy. My whole office isn’t red. There’s one wall in my office that’s red. There are a few offices that have this red wall. There are three of the meeting rooms that her suggestion was to put green astroturf down. We would paint the lines in the room. In our board room, the big room, it’s called the end zone. There’s a big football field painted on the floor. In the meeting room called the dugout, there’s a baseball diamond painted on the floor. In a smaller meeting room, it’s called the pitch and there’s a soccer field painted on the line. It gives a great vibe of fun.[bctt tweet=”When you give gratitude, it makes you feel better as well.” username=””]
On the flooring in the main office area is this wood flooring that we put down. It’s like red lines to make it look like a basketball court. There’s a floor hockey circle. It gives a fun sporty vibe. It speaks to what we do evidently. As you saw in the video, we spent a lot of time thinking through other details. The veterans’ jersey has been something we’ve done as part of our culture for years to celebrate people when they’ve been with our team for a year. We officially draft them to the team and we give them their jersey. Their jersey has this Sport & Social Club logo on the front and it’s a big hockey jersey. On the back is their number and the number is the year that they started. My number is 96. My business partner, Rolston, is 97. Our other business partner, Rob, is 99. We’re the only ‘90s and then everyone else starts in the 2000s.
How about the jersey presentation? I’d love to know how does that happen on the year anniversary? I think it’s such a cool touch, the jersey presentation and then do they wear them? I saw them. They were on their chairs. How has that evolved?
In our old office, because we had such high ceilings, we had all the jerseys hanging in the rafters. In our new office, our ceilings were high enough to do that. The idea became it’s either your jersey hangs outside of your office if you have a close office or if you’re in the main area, we put them on the back of your chair. We use them quite regularly. We had a high-five welcome whenever we welcome new teammates to our team. We’ve had about seven new interns start. We’ve had a couple of high-five welcome ceremony. When they come in, our whole team gathers and all the vets put their jerseys on. If you’re not a vet, if you’re a first-year teammate, you have your red Sports & Social Club hoodie.
We’re all in red and we make this tunnel. People walk in and everyone gets a big high-five as they walk in. The jerseys get worn a lot for those types of things. They typically sit on the back of their chair and so when you walk in, you can quickly see who the veterans are and who the rookies are. If you don’t have a jersey on your chair, you’re a rookie. It’s not a super time-consuming ceremony or anything when we do it. We do a huddle once a week, Thursday, at 1:15. That’s when at the end of the huddle, if there is any one year anniversary, we would present the jersey presentation. I have to do one, which I’m excited about.
What about the part-time staff? We were talking about the challenges that a lot of the times we have with the part-time staff getting into this culture. I want to go back to the main stuff, but how about the part-time staff? Do you have rewards and different things that they get to be a part of? Is there a certain shirt that they get? I love this like you get your starter jacket or you go from your black belt. That is an awesome ceremonial celebration.
Our part-time staff is a part-time team. I always refer to them as our team because again, the sporting analogy. We call our full-time team, the pro team and our part-time team is semipro. Our part-time team is the biggest opportunity we have right now to make an impact on our customer experience. For the last few years, we’ve been focused on getting ready to scale and grow. In the next few years, our big opportunity is working with our part-time team to get them clear on our purpose and our vision and be able to be engaged with our members because some are doing well and some maybe aren’t, and that’s okay. It’s not their fault. It’s that we haven’t taken the time to encourage that.
I was reading Howard Schultz’s book, Onward. I don’t know if you’ve read that. It’s a great book. It inspired me. I read it a few months ago. If you see my vision for 2022, you’ll see a big part of the focus is going to be on how we engage with our part-time teammates so that they better engage as our league investors because they’re the ones who are member see every night. It’s not me. Our members don’t know who I am. That’s part of the problem. Our part-time team doesn’t know who I am. It’s okay and I see it as an exciting opportunity to make our business even better.
I was talking with Michel Falcon and he gave me the idea. He was like, “You should be doing a once a week, quick 1 or 2-minute CEO video to the part-time team.” I was like, “That’s brilliant. That’s great.” We’re going to start to implement something along those lines. It’s a little, “This week try and remember to focus on this, etc.” or, “To give you guys a quick update. These are the exciting things that are happening.” We want them to be bought into the fact that we’re trying to get a million people playing and they play the biggest part in that. We did our first ever Sport & Social group combine. Instead of just a full-time team offsite, we invited about 60 or 70 of our part-time employees there as well. Not for the full day. They came for the evening.
We had all these fun games and stuff and I did a big presentation. I did about a 0.5-hour presentation to everybody and shared the vision video. I had probably ten part-time teammates come up to me afterward and introduce themselves. They tell me how inspired they were and that they cried. I wanted them to hear the stories of our members. I shared a few of our different member stories, about my friend Colin McDougal who met and married Martha and now has three teenagers because they met playing volleyball against each other. They went back to the bar together with their teams and fell in love. There’s the story of our member Mary who lives in Michigan, who got our logo tattooed on her body. She has MS but she still plays in our leagues. She said the reason she got the logo tattooed is that these leagues have changed her life. On days where her MS is flared up, she has to be in a wheelchair or using a cane. She can still go to the games and cheer on her friends and have a social interaction even if she can’t play. It’s been this life-changing experience for her.
I told them the story of the email I got a few years ago from a young woman who shared that she had come to Toronto. She didn’t know anyone, was lonely, and feeling depressed. Thankfully, she found out about our leagues and ended up joining our leagues through a coworker. She said at the end of her email, “Your leagues have saved my life.” These are the stories that I want our part-time team to hear because the touchpoints they have are incredibly powerful and they maybe don’t even realize it. That’s what I see as the biggest opportunity to do a better job of engaging with our part-time team. We did recognize any part-time team who’d been with us for five-plus years. We did give them a special sweater that has their name embroidered on the sleeve the year they started. It’s like a part-time jersey. We wouldn’t do that probably for one year because, for many people, it’s a seasonal opportunity. For those that do see the long-term opportunity with us, we want them to feel like they’re on the team.
We’re making some of the adjustments too. We’re onboarding and we’re bringing them into our stadium club. We’re showing the banana story video of the stories from our fans. We’re sure it’s part of the onboarding. We recorded Emily and me talking about how it all started. It finished with a challenge about creating these fans first moments or these stories. Their challenge for the summer is to create one story that someone will never forget. We’re building that into our video culture, where we can’t be there but at least you can share those with them.
I’m going to make a note of that. The idea of challenging if you can get one story a season, it would be amazing. If every part-time teammate could get one story, that would be amazing.
I learned a lot of that from Darren Ross, the CEO of Magic Castle Hotel. He said, “Incentivize stories over sales.” He would give away a cruise trip for the most amazing story every year. He started having these incentives. Stories are what make a company. It’s what makes a brand. Everyone can make sales, everyone has core values, but you have stories that back up those core values. Sharing those few stories right there, I can tell why your team gets emotional because it’s amazing. It’s also sharing your personal story. I wanted people to know the hustle you went through in 1996 to ‘97 to make this company exist, so they even have a job and are making an impact on people.
That’s exactly what the presentation was as well. I did share a lot of the stuff I shared with you. It’s those funny stories of grinding it out. In my presentation, there was a picture of a fax machine, which most of the people in the audience don’t even know what a fax machine looks like. I did share the whole hustle aspect and the fact that the job the part-time teammates are doing now, I did that job for 3 or 4 years. Five nights a week, I was out there doing it by myself. I’m setting up the volleyball nets and talking to the members. I’m making sure they were coming back to the bar for a drink, having fun and how we could make things better for them.
I want to go into the, “Can you imagine,” wall. That’s something we’ve known about. I’ve talked to Brian, Cameron, and all of them, but we haven’t pulled the trigger yet and I don’t know why. I want to tell because I feel like getting the buy-in from everyone. Can you explain the, “Can you imagine,” wall and how you’ve got buy-in from everyone? How is it a part of your office that you’ve designed?
It was totally inspired by Brian Scudamore and my brother Cameron Herold from when they were building the early days of 1-800-GOT-JUNK? I copied that idea. It’s a wall in our office that’s open for anyone to put up a dream for something they’d love to see happen at the Sport & Social Club. The idea is anyone can do it as long as you’re prepared to put your name beside it. Hopefully, it will inspire people to feel engaged and inspired to make positive changes here. Not everyone has something up there. It’s totally optional. We’re not uptight about it. That’s like this dream wall where if you want to make it happen, make it happen. You’ve put your name there, go make it happen. No one’s hounding you to follow-up. That’s not the day-to-day thing.
How did it start? How did you introduce it? I want to know from the starting point because it’s such a great concept to have people dreaming about what can come. I’ve heard what Brian had said about being on Ellen and Oprah and all these things. How did yours start? How did you introduce it and what happened?
We had it at our old office. We’ve had it for a long time. First of all, it looks cool. It’s a fun vibe for the office. I told the team about what this other great business was doing and that I felt like it could be inspirational and people loved the idea. What’s fun about it is when someone does accomplish one of the, “Can you imagine,” goals, we have these done stickers printed so there’s a bit of a celebration around, “Let’s get your done sticker put up.” You get this big done sticker and it looks fun. You’ve accomplished a dream towards making the Sports & Social Club a better place and a better organization. It’s totally free for all opportunities. We do check in with it about once every four months. When we do season finals, we do an update and then I also say, “As a reminder, it’s there for anyone. If you want to put something up there, run it past me and let’s get it up.”
What are some examples that have been inspirational that happened and that you had celebrations over? What were some that stand out?
One that’s been there for a long time, my daughter when she was eight, wanted to put one up. She wants to have a Sport & Social Club pub.[bctt tweet=”Having a vision and having values are the most important things.” username=””]
As an eight-year-old, she suggested that?
Yeah, she’s like, “You need to have a pub.” I was like, “That’s a good idea. You can put it up, but you have to make it happen.” She’s seventeen now, she still has some time. I would love to see that one happen. Some of the ones, I remember putting up two that were pretty big. One was to be operating in the US, to have a US partnership or acquisition and we accomplished that. Those were big deals for us because we’ve been in Canada for many years. To have a footprint in the US with an amazing partner in Michigan who I love working with. He’s such a fabulous guy. He has a, “Can you imagine,” wall in his office too down in Michigan, which is exciting.
Another one that was amazing, we’ve always had a charity partner and we’ve always donated money to our charity partner. It’s one thing to donate a certain amount of money to something. It feels good, but I feel like we have these hundreds of thousands of people playing sports. I always wanted to see, couldn’t we engage our members to do more than donate money? Maybe we could get them giving back their time as well and making a bigger impact on our society. One of mine was to create our charitable foundation and we launched that. That’s been on the wall for a few years and we’ve finally launched it. It’s called Keep Playing Kids and effectively 1% of our revenues will fund Keep Playing Kids. We’ve hired a manager who she will get kids. In all the cities where we’re operating adult leagues, we will find children who are underserved, who can’t afford to play sports and they will have free sports programming provided to them. Probably we’ll start with soccer, basketball, and ultimate frisbee. Those will likely be the sports we start with.
We’ll ideally get our members who are playing in our adult leagues to volunteer as coaches, to coach one day a week these younger kids who couldn’t afford programming otherwise. If they volunteer, we’ll give them a free season of playing adult leagues. Hopefully, it’s going to be real win-win, get members giving back of their time, get kids playing for free because there’s an obesity epidemic. Kids are dropping out of sports and there are children who can’t afford to play. We don’t want that to be a reason. Every kid should be able to have the opportunity to play some sports. Keep Playing Kids has happened all because I put it on the, “Can you imagine,” wall years ago. It’s been staring me in the face for ages and now I can put the done sticker up.
That’s such a powerful book, Write It Down, Make It Happen. I don’t know if you have that book, but that’s what’s happening. I hear a bunch of things and I want to get some things, but you’ve got me thinking here. You keep saying, “Keep playing.” The play seems such a big part. I think every organization’s like, “We want to have fun. We want to make it fun in our office. We want to make it fun in our culture.” You keep saying playing. I’ve heard you say some play days before and some different things. Tell me about how play and fun are interjected into your office.
In the early days, people thought all we did was play beach volleyball in our office. We do work, but we do have a lot of fun things going on in the office. We have the ping-pong table that gets used a lot. We have an old-style video game console that gets used. My team works hard to make sure that other people’s play is happening and is a great experience. We do have something that we call Go Play Days. I believe that everybody on our team will do better and be more productive if they have the right amount of time for relaxation and to shut down. We can all burn out a little bit and it’s important to get vacation time.
Our team, in your first year, you get four weeks’ vacation. The law in Canada is for two weeks. We give four weeks in your first year and then five weeks after that. In addition to that, we have Go Play Days. From the May long weekend until the September, Labor Day long weekend, that whole summer period, every Friday afternoon you can take a Go Play Day. All you need to do is book in advance with your team leader that you plan to take a Go Play Day. That means that Friday at lunchtime, you’re going to head out because cottage country in Toronto area is a good 1.5 to 2 hours from Toronto. If you can beat the traffic and get up there a little early on Friday or you want to have whatever, you want to get somewhere on the weekend to enjoy a summer weekend. The weather up here is cold for much of the year that we want our team to get to enjoy those beautiful times of the year in the outdoors.
We want them to play and have fun outside. They book it a week in advance and all that we expected of them is that during the week, make up that time. Come in at 8:00, Monday to Thursday to make up for the fact that you’re leaving early Friday or stay an hour later. It’s a trust and honor system. We also always make sure that not everyone can be out of the office. We need to have the phones and emails getting answered. Every team, there’s the ops team, the customer service team, the dev team, the finance team, and the marketing team. Everyone has to have their bases covered. Everybody manages it amongst themselves. I have never had an issue with having to get involved with Go Play Days. Everyone respects it, takes advantage of them, uses them, but make sure that their teamwork is getting done.
It’s obvious that you’re putting your people first and you’re living it. You’ve designed your office that way. You said it with the Go Play Days, recognition, I love the jerseys. Is there any other recognition things that you’ve done, you’ve learned from, and have been good programs that any company could implement that’s worked well?
You talked about core values. Core values are where it all starts. Having a vision and having values are the most important things. Having values and sticking them up on the wall isn’t enough. We have our core values written on the wall in two places. One in the board room, they’re listed out and they’re also written all around the home court area where the bulk of our team sits and works. I got a core value award. If you can picture, it’s a 12-inch trophy. It’s a big brass apple core. It’s like a half-eaten apple, to stand for core values. On the base of the trophy, the six core values are written on the base and once a month, we do the core value award.
At the end of the huddle, at the end of every month, we award the core value winner for that prior month. The way the award is given. There’s a quick survey that our office manager sends out and you nominate one person. You give them the value that you’re nominating them for and why. The person who gets the most nominations wins the trophy and then the trophy sits on their desk for the month. That’s been popular and fun. People love getting a little bit of recognition for work that they’re doing that’s amazing. Also, people want to give. People want to shout out to their teammates and that feels good to do that. That was well-received and I didn’t want it to be once a month. We also have on our Slack channel what’s called our shout out channel. There are probably 2 to 4 shoutouts a day that happen. It’s like, “I want to shout out Mike because he got this great feedback, etc.” Everybody shouts out at everybody for great stuff happening all the time. It’s a positive way to shine a light of positivity.
We started many years ago with the best email chain ever. It was only positive shout outs and we put it into our basecamp. It’s fun and I love that. We’ve got to get into rapid-fire games. There’s so much I could go with this, but we’re going to go into a game now because that’s what we’re all about here in the playful nature here. The game is truth and dare. Which one would you like first?
I’m nervous. Let’s go with the dare.
This is a game that we do at our ballpark. It is called sing in the blank. We have 2,000 fans versus 2,000 fans. We play a song when the song finishes, you have to finish that song lyric. I’ve had some crazy people try to attempt to sing. I trust you here to nail this one. It fits with the theme of games that you’re playing. I think you’ll know it. Are you mentally prepared?
I’m going to do my best.
Here we go. When it stops, finish the song lyrics.
We are the champions, my friend.
You nailed it. If you didn’t get that one, I would have challenged this whole sporting thing that you’re doing right there. That was perfect. You’ve won the dare. You’ve won the game so far. Are you ready for the truth? What is the one thing that you’ve tried with all these cultural ideas that you had great hopes for but didn’t work out as well? It’s something that you tried in your office and maybe hasn’t gone as well as you hoped?
I’d probably say the Guru of Gratitude. We had a goal to get 2,000 notes sent and we fell short of it. I look at it as an easy thing to do. I’ve realized it’s intimidating for some people. I sat down with one of my teammates and I was like, “I’m curious why you haven’t written any thank you notes. It’s easy.” He said, “I’m not a good writer and I don’t know what to write.” I said, “I need you to watch me write a thank you note and time this.” He timed me. It took 45 seconds and I wrote four sentences. He went, “That is easy.” I’m like, “You could do ten of these in ten minutes and be done a fifth of the quota for the year.” There isn’t an official quota for it, but we’d love it if everyone did one a week. He was like, “Wow.” He sat down and did a whole bunch, which was great. I don’t think everyone is buying into that the way I would love. It could be super powerful and hearing you and some of your team are doing one a day, I love that. That’s one I would love to see. We could step up our games there. It’s an opportunity that we can do better.
What I’ve seen is some of our team set the alarm at 3:00 and then they’ll do a video at 3:00. They have something that sets an alarm that can do with their members. It’s helped them, which is cool. The next game is to flip the script. You are now the host of Business Done Differently. You can ask me one question.[bctt tweet=”To stand out and make a difference, you have to take initiative, make yourself shine, and ask a lot of questions.” username=””]
What’s the number one tip you would provide to me to help me get my part-time team more engaged with our members on a weekly basis, to make a positive impact on our members’ experience.
We’re going through the same thing now. That’s been a challenge for us. Our Fans First Director has taken that on as her big challenge. One thing we’re doing is we’re intentional in the beginning. Our whole how we bring them in, we’re spending time to show them the show. We’re going to have them experience what it is like to get the service because you don’t know how to deliver it. We’ve done this before. We brought them into our ballpark and they thought they were going to get training but instead, we fed them food and we put on a show for them. That was their whole experience. We wanted them to know what a Fans First experience was like. For you, I don’t know if that’s like, “You’re going to be a part.” Your full-time staff is the one that puts on the event. They get to play, some way for them to get to experience what it looks like and then we’re going to do pep rallies before every game.
Instead of a huddle, we’re doing a pep rally. We did this and we put it in front of our fans as we’re opening the gates. As our fans are getting ready to open the gates, we’re highlighting our people. They’re getting recognized in front of our fans, which builds that recognition circle. Our fans will come to us like, “So and so is great for me. She was amazing.” If there are ways to recognize in front of your actual teams or athletes, then they will come back and do more recognition. It’s that dual cycle. It’s the beginning for us, then now as we go on through how can we continue that recognition to the end of the summer? I love what you called the combine that you have. By the way, your language is amazing and that would be a whole other conversation, a whole talk with you about interjecting your own language. The combine, is that where you bring everyone together and talk about stories? Is that before or after?
The combine is once a year. We came up with that name because it’s the first time we’ve ever done it. The combine being that sports terminology, but it’s also a combine because we did work during the day as well as play. We had some games and it was a combine because it was a combination of our full-time and our part-time. The name combine worked well. That was the first-ever combined. In the past, we’ve done a full-time team offsite, but this was bringing our part-time team in, which was powerful. We want to do a lot more of that. That will be a once a year event.
Our season finals are something that we do three times a year because of our spring and summer, we call that one season. It’s three four-month seasons. We have the winter, four months. Our spring and summer, four months. Our fall, four months. At the end of every four-month period, we do a look back on what did we accomplish and look ahead to what we’re planning for the next four months. That’s called season finals. It’s typically a 1-hour meeting. It’s an all-hands meeting. Anyone who’s not in Toronto calls in for a video meeting. That’s the season finals.
The intentionality, that’s the difference. We’re going to keep going rapid-fire. If you want better answers in business, you got to ask better questions. What are some of the best questions you’re asking now?
We implemented an NPS tool, which has been powerful. As opposed to just doing a survey once a season, we’re now getting our NPS scores daily. We keep daily track of our NPS, which has been super powerful. We can see the NPS score in different markets. We can see how Sudbury is doing relative to Toronto, relative to Hamilton, relative to Michigan. That’s been incredibly powerful. Further, we are starting to try and get more stories. We’re asking our members, “Why do you play? Tell us why you play.” People play for different reasons. It’s because they want to meet that special someone. It’s because they want to stay connected to their university roommates. It’s because they don’t want to give up soccer that they played their whole life. They want to keep playing soccer. Whatever the reason, there are tons of them and it’s fun to share those stories. I love hearing why members play.
This is a tough one. It’s debatable, team or family? Because you talked at the beginning about the family coming together having lunches.
In the business? This is a no-brainer for me. It’s the team because in a family, you get unconditional love. I’m clear about this, although our lunch is like having a family dinner. If you’re on a team here, you still have to perform to stay on this team. You don’t get unconditional love, but there’s a lot of support on our team and there’s a lot of coaching.
What’s one thing that you’ve done to stand out in business or in life?
One thing I’ve done, I’m a never-give-up kind of girl. I’m determined.
You got someone young joining your team. Maybe they’re right out of school and this is something you would tell them to be able to stand out and make a difference. What would you tell them?
I tell everyone, take the initiative, make yourself shine, and do all these little things like a whole bunch of thank you notes. Make yourself stand out and ask a lot of questions and bring us your ideas. I want the idea-people who aren’t afraid to try and implement things.
I know you’re a lifelong learner. You’ve read numerous books, you’re constantly learning, but what’s some of the best advice that you’ve received?
It’s probably measures what you manage. You can’t manage what you can’t measure. As we’ve wanted to scale the company in the last few years, we’re working on focusing on the important things to measure. I don’t think we haven’t quite figured that out yet, but we’re getting a lot better.
You’re going into NPS and all these other metrics. That’s smart. Finally, Kristi, I’ve loved all of this, but I want to know how do you want to be remembered?
I would love to be remembered as someone who loves to laugh and a community builder who likes to bring people together for fun. Outside of Sport & Social Club, I’ve started other communities like my musical theater community that’s now morphed into three musical theater trips. We’ve been doing musical theater together for 10, 11 years. We raised money for charity. I like bringing people together. I have a book club that I’ve organized. I like bringing people together to gather for social, fun, and human connection. It’s being a connector of people and being someone who loves to laugh.
I can tell why I am attracted to what you are doing because we have the same theme, the same language, bringing people together, and having fun. A lot of people can learn much from you, Kristi. Where can people learn more about what you do in sport, in social, but more about how you’re building this amazing culture and experience?
I don’t know because I’ve been focusing much on growing the organization. I haven’t necessarily focused on teaching it. I’m hoping that will maybe my third chapter when I’m done with Sport & Social group down the road. I’d love to do more mentoring and coaching or that thing down the road. I do want to say too, Jesse. I hope you know that the admiration is mutual. I was enthralled when I first met you and heard all the stories about how you’ve turned things around with The Savannah Bananas. I’ve told many of your amazing stories to many people. My dad is in Florida and I was like, “Dad, you’ve got to get to Savannah and get to the game.” He’s a huge baseball lover, so I’m hoping he’s going to get there and I want to get there myself. I’m hoping I’ll be able to get down and check out your stuff in action because I’m impressed with the way you’re running your organization.
I appreciate it. Thanks for being with us. I know this is going to be a valuable episode for many people. Thanks a lot, Kristi.
Thanks, Jesse. Take care.
- Sport & Social Club
- Keep Playing Kids
- Write It Down, Make It Happen
- The Savannah Bananas
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