Short On Funds,
But Big On Balls
How Banana Tennis Became A Viable Business
OBSESSIONS | BY JONATHAN LEONG | 2ND JULY 2019
A viable career in sports is often seen as the path for a select few. For every Joseph Schooling, Feng Tianwei or Angela Lee there are thousands of sporting enthusiasts who quietly fade into full-time office combatants and eventual weekend warriors.
We’re a nation of largely sedentary creatures where sporting activities are an afterthought or snarky reminder during adult life: of just how far our bodily abilities have faded over time. For Joel Siow and Nicholas Lee however, they found the balls to make their sporting hobbies into a full time business.
Q: How did each of you get into Tennis as a sport?
Joel: I started in secondary school after my school decided to shut down my then CCA Table Tennis. After joining the Tennis CCA, I realised there wasn’t really much training due to a focus on training those who were already proficient so as to gun for medals. Essentially I played with the wall for quite a-bit. I got to play more during my Polytechnic days though, after joining the team there.
Q. What are some of the misconceptions Singaporeans typically have about Tennis?
Joel & Nicholas: That Tennis requires lots of strength, although some strength is indeed needed – you can actually learn better without using much strength so that you can focus on developing your technique.
People also feel running across a large court is tiring, however Tennis has a lower level of intensity. Some also imagine Tennis to be expensive, but that’s simply untrue when compared to other sports or coaching sessions.
Q. What’s the origin story of Banana Tennis? What made you team up to start this business?
Joel: About 8years ago I decided to start a tennis business, but slowly realised that I was actually just being a full-time freelancer and not exactly crafting a sustainable business as it all began and ended with me.
In 2016, Nicholas who was more of a rock climber at the time, proposed to join me and thus we began to grow the business together. We called it Banana Tennis as we wanted it to represent fun, energy and to have more of a light hearted vibe. Plus, the quirky name made it easy to remember.
Nicholas focused on growing the business while I spent time running the training operations so that we could refine our processes and grow the team.
We became good partners as we were already attending many business seminars and self-improvement courses prior to building Banana Tennis. Thus we were both aligned with the right mind-set from the start, which gave us an edge and synergy while working together.
As cliché as it sounds, your mind-set is extremely crucial. The both of us began from a common ground and it was effortless to work together.
Q. Prior to Banana Tennis did you guys have any business experience?
Joel: I began as a freelancer under the moniker “Pwock Tennis”.
Nicholas: I had a partnership running a Rock Climbing gym and we ran pre-school sports programs for a few preschools. We then did Banana Tennis. We’ve since branched out into another business, which is a bespoke photography company that uses the same systems and processes.
Q. What were some of the sacrifices that you guys had to go through, to make the business work?
Joel: I won’t really call them sacrifices per say, however I’ve spent over $50k to improve myself via seminars on various topics. I’ve always wanted to learn more and these experiences provided a shortcut for me to tune my mindset from a FOMO (fear of missing out) and “Get-Rich-Quick” mentality to evolving to become the best student in terms of business skills and confidence.
Running the business was a rather steep learning curve. We did many iterations, tested different approaches, finessed on branding, the hiring process, accounting and building a system for sales processes, marketing etc. It took around 3 years before we finally had a viable system in place…so that was quite the journey.
In the beginning there wasn’t much money at all, the normal societal pressures came with it as well. Like we had girlfriends and peers who earned more…and were always constantly under the gun of ‘positive advice’ such as ‘get a normal job’ etc…from many well-meaning sources such as our parents.
Q. Starting a sustainable business is extremely hard, what were some of the lessons you learnt along the way and how did you guys push through?
Joel: We didn’t come from money, and we had both started our careers as freelance coaches in our respective sports. Our expertise was in providing services, which suited our mentality at the time to keep running costs as low as possible. Our goal was to ensure the survival of the company no matter what.
However low cost doesn’t mean no cost, we were just obsessed with testing and tweaking things to ensure results could be tracked and we viewed money as an accelerator towards furthering things that were working well.
Having no money at the start proved to be a Godsend, it forced us to be relentlessly creative and really figure out what actually worked within our business.
We didn’t draw a regular salary until some time into our voyage, as we wanted to ensure that the company had enough funds to keep all running costs at bay. We truly depended on our freelance jobs to keep us afloat.
Q. There’s no fixed schedule when it comes to running a sports business, how do you guys keep things locked down and stay sane?
Joel & Nicholas: For any business, particularly at the beginning it’ll be an insane ride. We saw each other more than our girlfriends and just kept working non-stop. We had the faith the keep negative thoughts away as we envisioned building a system that would enable us to both train and hire more people to grow Banana Tennis.
We learnt very quickly to be laser efficient when it came to meetings and our respective reasons “why” for building the business always helped us to navigate back whenever we felt lost.
Q. With the advent of fitness apps and workout video courses available online, how can coaches and trainers stay ahead and differentiate themselves in the market?
Joel & Nicholas: Our approach is rather different as we focus mostly on SEO and branding the company. For individual personality driven trainers, usually ads paired with social apps is the norm.
For individual trainers there is an app called ROVO, and you can use it to hold social sessions to add value to participants and get more customers that way.
Many people have a warped understanding of how the intrinsic value exchange system in the world works. They always feel that they must get paid to make their time worthwhile before actually putting in the work. In today’s world hourly rates and salaries are never a given.
Q. Do you see any common trait in those who come to Banana Tennis Academy for your activities?
Joel: Unlike other tennis academies, our academy has a lot of young adult beginners coming. But that’s because of our marketing angle (SEO) and that we have branded our firm to make it look fun and not intimidating - like what tennis may seem to most people, and the misconception of it being expensive and difficult to master.
Q. How has the business grown over the years and how have you guys managed to keep things fresh, both for yourselves and returning attendees?
Joel & Nicholas: Business at Banana Tennis has become steady and almost runs on autopilot with a monthly review process. We keep things alive by ensuring the coaches feel happy and always involved. We always see how we can value add to them in areas outside of tennis. We believe that if our coaches are happy, our students will be happy too.
Interviewing and assessing new coaches pertaining to their skills, aptitude and positioning as well as ensuring they understand how we run things and our company culture in general.
Once in awhile we also conduct mini competitions, that our students can participate in as well.
Q. What are some of the life lessons you’ve learnt along the way while building Banana Tennis Academy?
Joel: You can make your passion into your livelihood with the appropriate skills, and patience. How to ‘eat-shit’ i.e. putting your head down, focusing on the work and getting through being poor before things take off.
Q. What are your goals for the future?
Joel: We want to continue to build the culture in Banana Tennis so that everyone feels like family. Even though our business is largely centred primarily around tennis lessons, we’re also seeking to grow it to eventually have an ecosystem where we can add value and cross-pollinate our students and clients of other businesses we run.