Teamwork

When talking to Frankie Andreu (former protour cyclist and current director of Kenda/5 Hr Energy) at the Joe Martin Stage Race back in April, he gave our team one of the biggest compliments we have ever received.  It amounted to, “Your guys really ride well together as a team, from stopping to give up a wheel to a team leader or dropping back with someone when they need to pee, they are very selfless and I noticed it all week.  They don’t learn that stuff by themselves, so good job to you.”  While I would love to take all the credit for their actions, in reality, I only play a part in what makes the team great.

“I was on the verge of tears watching a bloodied Emerson finish a very difficult crit in the rain with the help of his teammates to move into 4th overall at the Joe Martin Stage Race.  The result was his (and the team’s) best result ever at the time.”

“I was on the verge of tears watching a bloodied Emerson finish a very difficult crit in the rain with the help of his teammates to move into 4th overall at the Joe Martin Stage Race. The result was his (and the team’s) best result ever at the time.”

In any team environment, people demonstrate teamwork because they have to (i.e. they are paid to do so) or they feel a true obligation to do so (i.e. they want to).  While in many professional situations I have witnessed the former, the latter is obviously much more powerful.  It comes from a positive culture within the organization and truly liking your teammates.  In sport, I have found that often times the smaller, ‘scrappier’ teams are better at this.  Being in a less comfortable situation (i.e. having less to lose), and having a common goal of growing the program to something bigger is a great way to bring people together.  In the business world, most start-ups I have been exposed to share a similar culture.

Our team is definitely a ‘start-up’ in the U.S. peloton.  With no paid staff at the races, our riders are expected to wash their own bikes and clothing, maintain their equipment, and sometimes even wash the team car!  (I still can’t seem to get them to do the dishes, but we are working on that…)  While it can create some grumbling and longer days, in general they do a great job of rising to the occasion and supporting each other as needed to get it all done.   A great example is after the big crash at the Gila, the riders who weren’t impacted spent the extra time to clean and repair the bikes for the guys nursing their wounds so they would be ready for the next day.   When recruiting last fall, I made sure to set a clear expectation of what was expected of the guys, and selected the roster for their demonstrated ability as strong teammates over individual ability.  This means the guys do a great job of holding each other (and me) accountable during the tougher times when it is easy to lose focus.  We also celebrate the good times as well, and I am always proud when I see the whole team show up to cheer on a rider’s podium appearance (this rare at the pro level).

In addition to performing the 22 other jobs I don’t delegate to the riders, I also work hard to paint a bigger picture of where the program can go and why it is all worth it (a finish line if you will).  We all know how important firm goals are on the sporting side of things and the business side isn’t any different.  Plus, ‘suffering’ is always easier if you know when it will end!  By making sure that we all share a common finish line we keep everyone pulling in that direction.

In the last few weeks the team has won both the CO State Road Race Championships as well as the U.S. Elite National Road Race Championships.  In both cases, we won only because our riders were willing to sell out for each other.  Colby Pearce once told me, “Bike racing is a team sport where an individual wins.”  On our team we all win and celebrate those victories.

#teamworkwinsraces

No Bad Vibes

 

Whether positive or negative, moods are contagious.  Our team has had a bit of a roller coaster ride this season, starting with a strong build of progressively better results through April, a devastating crash impacting the majority of the team in May, and then another breakthrough result this week at the Northstar Grandprix in MN.  Through all this, I have found that my personal energy level feeds directly off that of the riders more that I would have thought.  When they are motivated and getting results, I happily work 16 hour days with unlimited ambition to drive the program further.  When they are going through the motions to ‘just get through the race’ I just as quickly feel like taking all my toys away and going home.  This obviously works in both directions and can lead to viscous cycles – both the positive and negative.

As the leader of the team, I have to be very careful with how my mood is outwardly portrayed.  Otherwise I may “leave a wake” and shake the riders’ confidence or motivation.  Being a typical human, I freely admit that I am not always the best at this!   To mitigate this as much as possible, I rely on an outside of network of mentors and friends not directly involved with the team.  This allows me to vent frustrations and get an objective opinion without bringing the rest of the team into it.  In my opinion, anyone who still says, “It’s lonely at the top” isn’t trying hard enough at this.  (I should take a moment here to acknowledge my wife, Faith, who has been my #1 confidant for the last 9 years!)

I also spend time working with the more senior riders on the team at this.  Whether they like it or not, the younger riders look up to them and cue off their response to difficult situations.  If it is raining and the team leader for the day is super down and unmotivated we may lose the race before it even begins!  Conversely, if that same rider is self-motivated and confident, the rest of the team will quickly rally around them.  Likewise, our road captains, Chris and Fabio, can make my job a whole lot easier or harder.  If they vocally disagree or question decisions I make, it will at best cause confusion and at worst undermine the other riders’ commitment to execute on a plan.  To avoid this, I make an effort to meet with them in private before key events or stages to ensure we are on the same page before discussing the tactics in detail with the entire team.  This gives us a chance to work out any disagreements behind closed doors and present a unified front to the whole team.

Good communication is a common theme through all of this.  By openly talking through issues, we’ve been able to address the root cause of the bad days for both riders and staff alike.  The good news is that success makes this all seem easy and we have had more than our fair share of it this season!

Good Vibes! (Photo courtesy of Kat Winn)

Good Vibes! (Photo courtesy of Kat Winn)

I25Kia.com Cruiser Bike Project

In order to celebrate the grand opening of their new dealership in Longmont, CO, the good folks of I25Kia.com decided to have some custom cruiser bikes made up, and asked me for some help.

After talking over their budget and time constraints, we agreed that the best route would be to buy off-the-shelf bikes and then make up custom graphics for them.  I started by reaching out to Felt Bicycles (who also happen to be a sponsor of my Horizon Organic/Einstein Bros cycling team), and we settled on their Burner 29″ model, because it has nice subtle graphics which make for easy customization and also happens to be really cool!

The first step was to layout a basic concept that we could take to the graphic designer.  Something like this:

Graphics Layout Initial Concept

Graphics Layout Initial Concept

After that, we spent some time measuring the ‘pilot’ bike and getting the graphics sized perfectly so they would layout on the frames with no overlap or gaps.  The final graphic proof looked liked this:

Final graphics proof (courtesy of Victory Circle Graphix)

Final graphics proof (courtesy of Victory Circle Graphix)

The final step was to simply build up all the bikes, clean them up, and apply the graphics.  I have to admit it was fun to build something so simple after working on carbon race bikes with delicate torque values all season!  The hardest part was probably loading six ~40 lb cruiser bikes on the car!

The team car getting loaded up for delivery!

The team car getting loaded up for delivery!

 

The finished product!
The finished product!

 

There were lots of ‘test drives’ going on at the dealership as I was unloading them and everyone seemed quite happy with the final result.  It was fun to do a project outside of the competition side of sports marketing, and I am already looking forward to the next one!  Also, big thanks to Merilan and Marybeth from I25Kia.com, Doug at Felt Bicycles and Brandon at Victory Circle Graphix for all your help in making it happen!

The Myth of Free Stuff

A friend of mine made a comment the other day to the effect of, “Man you are so good at getting free stuff!”  Unfortunately, I think he is missing how a proper sponsorship relationship actually works.

While there are “charity” examples out there, the majority of cash or equipment sponsors are making an investment in you and expect a real return on that investment.  Our team does have a good track record of attracting and retaining sponsorship, but I would say this mostly because we don’t look at any of it as “free”.  Let me give a typical example:

A smaller cycling product company might have $2M in revenue and a $40,000 marketing budget.  To outfit our team with their product (clothing, wheels, components, etc.) will cost them something like $10,000 in cost.  That is a quarter of their budget and likely their single biggest marketing expense for the year!  In a public company, you are rarely allowed to get away with targeting anything less than a 15% return on capital.  If I follow that rule and keep it simple, that essentially means you need a quick path to showing a $11,500 benefit to them.  This can be in direct benefits like additional sales, or less easily quantifiable things like marketing exposure hits.

In an earlier post I mentioned that winning bike races usually isn’t really all that important to your sponsor.  While being the winning team typically gets you more exposure (additional interviews, photos, fans, etc.) that is an indirect way of going about things from a marketing perspective.  While our team is quite adept at winning bike races we work very hard to offer more direct benefits to our sponsor partners.  This is in the form of things like clinics, group rides, school visits, content generation, social media campaigns, etc.  Our riders and staff spend at least as much time on these activities as they do training and racing.  I strive to run the team like a marketing company that happens to use bicycle racing as its chosen media for communication.  By prioritizing resources accordingly we are able to offer a much greater benefit than someone who just happens to be fast on a bike.

This week alone we have a race in San Dimas, CA from Friday-Sunday.  On Monday we visit Felt Bicycles HQ in Irvine to meet their staff and discuss our equipment.  Then on Tuesday we have a school visit in Beaumont, CA to talk about bicycle safety and promote our next race before starting the Redlands Classic on Wednesday.  While that means there is no ‘down time’ for either the riders or myself, it also means we are able to maximize our California trip and give the best service to our partners we can – many of whom will gain far more exposure from our visits than any race results we will achieve along the way.

Next time you are writing a sponsorship proposal or asking someone to support your racing, think about what you are actually offering them (and how to communicate it) in return.  If you are willing to work for it and can quantify a real return you might be surprised how much ‘free stuff’ you can actually get!

Don't be that guy.

Don’t be that guy.

The Power of a “Good Job”

So I recently shared a text exchange to my wife.  It was between me and some of my riders, celebrating the fact our team received a last minute invite to one of the bigger Pro races on the national racing calendar.  We were both surprised by the high we got by reading all the virtual high-fives.

I have attended plenty of management training in my career and have always been encouraged to make an effort to find and celebrate the ‘victories’ in business.  However, the culture in most of corporate America makes this come across as forced in my experience.  We keep our emotion in check at the risk of not being ‘professional’ and are told to push for more instead of accepting the status quo.  The result being that I have had exceptionally talented peers confide that they didn’t know if their boss was satisfied with their work.

One of things that makes sport beautiful to me is that success is far more black and white, and the feedback is instantaneous.  In business, if I report a 25% EBITDA to my board for a quarter, they will almost invariably tell me to target 30% next time.  If I win a race, then I am the best that day – period.  (I have yet to have a team manager tell me I could do better than first place, but perhaps that is because I haven’t met a team manager with an MBA yet.)  On a well-run sports team, that instantaneous feedback makes for a much more open culture of communication.

On Horizon Organic/Einstein Bros, we meet before each race to discuss tactics and the plan for the day.  We then meet again that evening to go over what went well, and where we could do better.  Hugs and high-fives are given when we win, and constructive criticism is given when mistakes are made.  That isn’t limited to the riders, as I have made it clear it needs to extend to management as well.  If I do something well (like pull a bunch of strings to get us in a big race) then they all make an effort to tell me I did well.  If I were to run out of water bottles in the team car, then I am sure I would get feedback to not let that happen again!

At the level we compete at, everyone is super talented and well-prepared.  Mental confidence often makes the difference between winning and losing, and part of my job is to give my riders that confidence to ride at the front and make the race.  The fact they give it back to me, makes it all the more fun and our team that much stronger.  Whether you are managing a sports team, a small business, or a public company, we could all strive to do better with this.

And to the riders and staff of Horizon Organic/Einstein Bros, “Great job guys!”

We could all use an extra high-five!

We could all use an extra high-five!

Navigating our way up the Good Old Boys Network

I remember watching an interview with Chris Horner where he said something to the effect of, “It doesn’t get any more good old boys’ network than the pro peloton.”  In even my own racing experience I have to agree.  It is a lot easier to make the winning break or ride at the front of the field when everyone around you knows and respects you.  Smart riders will only yield position to those they know or trust won’t ‘lose the wheel’ – much to the frustration of every young, unheralded racer at some point in their career.

In business we call this being an ‘industry insider’.  I am spending this week at one of the bigger conferences in the Photonics  Industry and I have been at it long enough now that I can’t walk 20 feet without seeing someone I know and enjoying the chance to stop and catch up with them.  That is in stark contrast to my first conference 13 years ago when I had to work pretty hard just to get anyone to give me the time of day!  There was no instant gratification to this process.  I earned the status I now enjoy through many years of working with my peers.

However, as I work to grow our cycling program at Horizon Organic/Einstein Bros I often think about how I might expedite this process.  On the sporting side, I feel the best way to accomplish this is to combine some experienced and well respected riders to help our developing riders ‘navigate’ the intricacies of the peloton.  Our more senior riders like Chris Winn, Fabio Calabria, and Emerson Oronte have already proven themselves in the pro peloton and are well respected.  Having them representing the team instantly elevates the perceived level of the program and our place in the ‘pecking order’ of the peloton.   Note that hiring experience isn’t enough in itself, as there are plenty of riders that bring a poor (or at least different) reputation with them either through their previous actions or attitude.  We had the opportunity this year to bring on many ‘bigger names’ to the team, but the riders I selected reinforced the culture and perception I want people to have of our program.  (And yes guys, I asked around!)

You have your earn your right to ride at the front!  Photo courtesy of mkpimagery.com.

You have your earn your right to ride at the front! Photo courtesy of mkpimagery.com.

For my part, I have also been working hard to increase the professional reputation and status of our program within the cycling industry and sponsor network.  I have found this is best done by leveraging my existing network as aggressively as possible.  Passion is pretty infectious, and more people than I would have ever expected have volunteered to help after I explained to them the mission and direction of our program.  I have also actively sought out mentors for myself and the program.  In addition to being able to leverage their experience, a good mentor or advisor can often serve as a reference when reaching out to a new connection.  Two great examples on our team are Daimeon Shanks who probably introduced me to 100 people at Interbike last fall (as well as conquering the internal cable routing demands of all our team’s Felt DA1 TT bikes), and Colby Pearce whose reputation brought legitimacy to our program when we first started the team four years ago as well as helping me make many of our great sponsor and rider connections.

I look forward to making some bigger fish take notice and seeing our team earn its place at the front of the U.S. pro peloton this season!

Thoughts on Recruiting

Anyone that has spent any time with me this fall knows that I am more than excited for the 2014 Horizon Organic/Einstein Bros Bagels team.  The process of assembling our team roster has common principles to assembling any team, and it has been helpful for me to step back and define, or admit, what really makes our team strong.

Before we started recruiting we needed to define what (who) we were looking for, and that starts with defining our team culture.  It is more about building the right team than finding the “right person.”  We used to joke on GS CIAO that a rider had to be at least funny and preferably fast to be on the team. (Everyone is both now.)  That is really just a glib way of saying the riders needed to fit in and be fun to be around.  Bike racing is really, really hard; and in the U.S. anyway, most of us are doing this for little to no money so my theory is we better be having as much fun as possible while doing it.  Every new rider I talked to this year was interviewed much more extensively for attitude and culture fit than their actual race results or power numbers.

Once you have defined your culture and who you are looking for, you have to go find them!  Most good HR people will tell you that the truly best candidates aren’t the ones sending you their resumes; they are the ones that are happily employed and aren’t actively looking.  The best way to find these top candidates is to utilize your network to the fullest.  For instance, every single rider we looked at seriously this fall had a connection to the team through their coach, or another rider already on the team.  In most cases, we reached out to them first.  Not a single rider that sent their resume in ‘cold’ made even the first cut.  (That doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions to this, but you get the idea.)  While being fast helps, it really does come down to who you know – for both teams and riders.  Riders that are looking to step up to a bigger team, you can make yourself easier to find as well:   Introduce yourself to a team director to get on their radar, ask to join up on team ride, brand yourself on social media, or perhaps look for a guest ride spot as a way to test the waters without the full commitment.

One area that I think is glossed over far too often in other programs is planning for longevity and keeping the team you have assembled together.  In cycling, most teams are run and funded with fairly short term (<1 year) goals in mind and the most talented and ambitious riders are consistently looking to move up to a bigger, more well-funded team.  If you have a good group of riders assembled and a supportive team atmosphere, it will be easier to keep them around than find equivalent replacements.  Remember “Make new friends, but keep the old ones!?”

With our program there are a couple things I feel we do well here.  The first is that we only work with sponsors that align with the long term vision of the team and are in it for the long term.  Getting a big check isn’t really helping anyone if the program dies the following year, so choose your partners carefully!  We have had some great long term partners from the inception of the program such as Horizon Organic Dairy and Panache Cyclewear, and they are a big reason we have been able to continue to grow year after year.  We are just as excited about Einstein Bros Bagels and Felt Bicycles who as new partners in 2014 have shown great engagement and vision for how they can work with the team.

I also feel very strongly as a team director to always under promise and over deliver.  Professional cycling is rampant with stories of teams folding at the last minute after signing their riders or running out of money half way through the season.  Being honest and upfront will always pay big dividends in the long term – both for your own reputation and the health of the team.

I was riding with a well-known local pro the other day when he confided in me that he probably would have been better off riding for our program next season – both in terms of his development and the positive culture on our team.  That type of feedback keeps me more motivated than ever to continue to grow and build the program ‘our way’!

The team and some new recruits meeting with a supporter.

The team and some new recruits meeting with a supporter.

Horizon Organic/Einstein Bros Team Announcement

Horizon Organic/Einstein Bros Bolsters Roster, to Focus More on National Racing Calendar Events in 2014

Boulder, Colorado November 22nd, 2013 –  GS CIAO cycling is happy to announce it hasHorizon-Einstein Bros 2014 Team Kit renewed its partnership with Horizon Organic Dairy and added new partner Einstein Bros Bagels to form the Horizon Organic/Einstein Bros Cycling Team for the 2014 season.

Based out of Boulder, Colorado, the team maintains its strong roster of up‐andcoming riders bolstered by some great new additions including Fabio Calabria of Team Novo Nordisk and Emerson Oronte of Team Jelly Belly p/b Kenda. With over 20 victories and 35 podium appearances last season, the team will have a greater focus on NRC stage races in 2014 in addition to major events in the Rocky Mountain region.

“I’m extremely excited for 2014,” says team director Nick Traggis. “This year our goal is to establish a winning reputation at the NRC level, and continue the steady progression of this program into 2015 and beyond. We absolutely have the riders and support to do it.”

In addition to the title sponsors, the program is supported by Pizzeria Locale, Scarpetta Wines, and Ehrlich Kia. Technical apparel is provided by Panache Cyclewear, SIDI shoes, and Smith Optics. Race nutrition will be supplied by Skratch Labs and Powerbar while Felt Bicycles, Powertap, Fizik, and Speedplay will be providing equipment. Other supporters include Pearce Coaching, The Service Course, National Sustainable Sales, and the Just Go Harder Foundation.

2014 Horizon Organic/Einstein Bros Roster:

Brad Bingham: (Returning)

Fabio Calabria: (From Team Novo Nordisk)

Mac Cassin: (From Gateway Harley Davidson)

Jake Duerhing: (Returning)

Clayton Feldman: (From Carmichael Training Systems)

Jackson Long: (Returning)

Emerson Oronte: (From Jelly Belly Cycling)

Kit Recca: (Returning)

Chris Winn: (Returning)

Josh Yeaton: (Returning)

Staff:

Nick Traggis: Director

Colby Pearce: Performance Director

Daimo Shanks: Technical Advisor/Chief Mechanic

Dr. Jason Galea: Sports Psychologist

Tom Roba: Physical Therapist/Trainer

To learn more about the team, visit their website at: horizonpanachecycling.com/ , or follow via twitter at @horizonpanache or Facebook.

What is your Product?

So I just got back from two days of meeting with haggard marketing executives at Interbike, trying to distinguish our program from the other 40 teams asking them for free stuff this week.   Most of these discussions followed a fairly similar script.  I would start by describing the team to her/him:  how many races we have won, our staff and rider’s pedigree, and all the usual stuff most teams like to tell sponsors.  The more experienced amongst them would sometimes stop me early in this spiel and ask a simple question that always amounted to:  “How is your team winning races going to help me sell more of my product?”  I’d like to think I was prepared enough to address this to their satisfaction, but it is a good question and I started thinking about it some more on the flight home last night.

Winning bikes races only matters to bike racers and fans of bike racers.  From a purely corporate standpoint, sponsoring a high level cycling team is simply investing in another marketing tool for your company.  I have worked with lots of sponsors through various teams I have been a part of (both in and out of industry) and feel there are only two reasons they sponsor a cycling team:

  1. Brand exposure
  2. They are a fan of sport
Team was excited to be featured in the Powertap booth at Eurobike!

The team was excited to be featured in the Powertap booth at Eurobike!

You may come up with plenty of more specific examples but they all really fall into those two buckets – from the local Master’s club all the way to the ProTour.  Since #2 exclusively is really just charity, let’s talk a bit more about #1.

Most bike racers and team directors will tell you that their job is to win bike races.  Podium appearances are their product.  In my opinion, that rarely fulfills the sponsor’s goal of brand exposure and ultimately selling more of their product.  Yes, winners get more press and media coverage, but is that enough?  For a title sponsor with a prominent brand perhaps, but what about secondary sponsors whose name/logo isn’t as prevalent?  Can you name the sponsors of team Garmin-Sharp off the top of your head other than Garmin and Sharp?  (There are 29 listed on their website currently.)

Teams need to not just think of themselves as machines for winning races, but also brand advocates.  The rider that wins the race and immediately goes home to recover will never offer the same value as one who sticks around to cheer on other racers and talk about how awesome the new powermeter he is testing is.

One of the more popular local bike shops, Boulder Cyclesport (BCS) , calls their sponsored riders their ‘Ambassador Team’.  Are they all fast?  Yes, but not necessarily the fastest.  What they are the best at is being advocates for the shop and the products that is sells.  They lead clinics, are well followed in social media, and are always seen helping newer racers out at local events.   I would venture that BCS can happily point to the number of additional bikes they have sold because of their team.

Some happy fans of Horizon Organic at the Cascade Classic

Some happy fans with Horizon Organic samples at the Cascade Classic

One of my own personal examples would be staying up one night talking to our host family at the NVGP about bike racing, training, and nutrition.  (They asked to go through our grocery bags to see what we ate!)  I followed that up by handing them a bunch of coupons for Horizon Organic products when we left.  I may have gotten an unremarkable 100th place overall in the race that week, but they are still buying Horizon to this day!

Will we keep developing younger riders and trying to win every race we enter?  You bet, it is in our nature.  But at the same time, I will continue working hard to find other ways our team can offer value to our sponsor partners and generally give back to the sport we love.  That is our product.