In our latest installment of the Small Business Community’s spotlight feature, we meet Doug Dickison, founder and chairman of Destination Athlete, a company that offers products and services to youth and high school athletes. In a recent interview, Doug speaks about when he came up with the idea for his company, how his former career at Johnson & Johnson (J&J) helped lay the groundwork, and why he feels Destination Athlete is helping to reshape the youth sports market.
In 2006, Doug Dickison was living with his wife and family in Hunterdon County, in western New Jersey. He was well established in a 20-year career as a senior executive with Johnson & Johnson, charged with creating a new commercial business platform for the pharmaceutical and consumer products giant.
At night, however, he was deeply involved in coaching youth sports in his town. At the time, his son was playing football and his daughter was on her school’s field hockey team. As Dickison went about attending to all the things a coach is responsible for—ordering team uniforms and equipment, working with the players, and managing the logistics of game schedules—he became increasingly frustrated. “I really enjoyed coaching and connecting with the community, but I knew there had to a better way of doing things,” he says.
That’s when the idea for Destination Athlete came into focus. From Dickison’s vantage point as a coach there were three major problems with youth sports. For starters, he says the market was huge (more than 60 million boys and girls play sports), but wildly fragmented. “You had to deal with anywhere from three to seven different vendors just to get the uniforms, equipment, and trophies you needed,” he says. “It was tremendously time-consuming.” Customer service was nearly non-existent, and perhaps worst of all in Dickison’s eyes, there was more of a focus on the sport rather than the athlete playing it.
As he began to sketch out his ideas for improvement, Dickison realized he had the opportunity to radically change the youth sports market. “It was an industry ripe for disruptive innovation,” he says. He spent the next two years putting together a business plan, researching the various vendors in the space, and looking for models of exemplary customer service (retailer Nordstrom ranked high with him.) Rather than resign completely from J&J, Dickison requested a part-time schedule in 2007 in order to save enough money for the launch. “It was one of those things when you start having a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch,” he says.
On July 14, 2008, Destination Athlete began as the one-source solution for the youth sports market. To get the word out, Dickison began visiting with high school athletic directors, commissioners of recreation leagues, and anyone else in Hunterdon County tasked with running a youth sport or high school team. By ordering from Destination Athlete, he told them, they would have access to over 200 vendors of team apparel, uniforms, equipment, and more, from one site. The goods would be shipped directly to the person in charge of the team on time and in the right quantities. “The business went viral very fast,” Dickison says. “We did minimal advertising. It was really word of mouth and doing more business with each customer.”
One of the lessons that Dickson says he took from his time at J&J was how to manage—and plan for—growth. In the case of Destination Athlete, he believed the company could work on a national level, but felt that building an army of sales reps was not the most effective or efficient way to grow. Instead, he chose franchising. “There were a lot of compelling studies that showed that a franchisee is 400% more effective than a company’s best employees for the simple fact that they have skin in the game,” he says. “Plus, I wanted people to be able to share in our success and there’s no better way to do that than to be an owner of something.”
Today, the company has 30 franchisees in eight states. Dickison designed the business so that it could be low cost (a Destination Athlete franchise starts at $20,000) and home-based. And like all franchises, it needed to be turnkey, with a robust vendor network, solid training, and responsive franchisee support. “We didn’t even advertise that we offered franchises until last year because we wanted to make sure all our systems were in place and ready to go,” he adds. His patience paid off. In January, Entrepreneur magazine named Destination Athlete to its list of the 500 best franchises under $50,000.
Since starting, the company has also added services that help teams with fundraising as well as Complete Athlete 360, a performance platform that focuses on nutrition and conditioning for individual athletes and teams, an area often overlooked in youth sports. With 10 full-time employees, Dickison says the company’s structure can support up to 50 franchises before it needs to hire additional talent.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Dickison’s experience as a small business owner is his belief in the business. When he launched Destination Athlete, the country was in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. “Plenty of people told me all the reasons why this business wasn’t going to succeed,” he says. He never let the naysayers get to him, and not just because he had a passion for the business. “Passion is good for about the first 90 days,” Dickison says. “After than you have to have a good business plan and a complete understanding of the economics of the market you’re going after. I spent two years planning this business before launching it. I certainly took the time to do my homework.”
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