How Youth Athletes United Franchisor John Erlandson Found Success

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Melissa Castoro

As a successful executive, John Erlandson had everything he needed. But after risking it all, he found what he wanted – in franchising.

Nearly four years ago, John Erlandson realized something important was missing as he reflected on a successful career spanning nearly two decades. 

After spending 15 years working to develop businesses for other entrepreneurs, including growing an iconic brand management company from $100M to $8B in less than seven years, Erlandson had almost everything he needed in life – except a passion for his job.

“I was with an incredible company. For the last eight years, we grew it from basically nothing to the second largest licensor in the world behind Disney. And it was an amazing business. We were buying celebrity estates and fashion brands and sports brands. As much as I loved the business model – and we made a ton of money – I just didn’t feel like I was doing what I was passionate about in the world,” Erlandson recalls.

After speaking with his partner, Adam Geisler, about the prospect of entering the youth sports industry through a company Geisler was investing in called Soccer Stars, Erlandson saw an opportunity to transform his passion for fitness into a meaningful career while making a difference in the lives of kids.

“I started thinking about it – I have an exercise physiology degree. I love getting out of bed every day wearing a sweatshirt and just feeling good about what I’m doing for the world,” Erlandson says.

That’s when another opportunity presented itself in the form of an opportunity to acquire a company called Amazing Athletes.

“It had been around for 20 years and was a rock-solid brand. The owner had really just come up with an unbelievable product – and the product was, we go into preschools and we give kids an intense, fun, 30-minute gameplay experience where they’ll pick up some of the fundamentals of nutrition, some of the fundamentals of sports, some of the fundamentals of life skills. We ask, ‘How can you be a good teammate to your mom this week?’ Those types of things. So when I looked at what she had built, and it happened to be for sale, I was like, ‘Wow, this is unbelievable,’” Erlandson says.

As Erlandson and Geisler compared the two business opportunities, they noticed a pattern – and an opportunity for something bigger.

“The more we started comparing the businesses, we were like, ‘Wow, you know what this industry really needs is a lot of resources, because there’s a lot of really great small business owners and franchise businesses out there, but technology is expensive. High-level marketing content is expensive,’” Erlandson says.

To solve that problem, Erlandson and Geisler decided to try something different: franchising. Rather than purchasing individual youth sports companies and keeping them separate, the partners would combine them under one roof while providing resources like technology, marketing, social media and more to empower each brand to thrive with their support.

Risking it all

Despite his past success in the business world, making the leap from C-suite executive to startup franchisor wasn’t an easy choice for Erlandson, who had to weigh the risks of failure against the potential benefits of franchising for his family.

“For me, that was the first time in my life I’d ever really saved up a decent amount of money because I had stock options and everything else. So to risk it was a big decision. I’ve got three kids, I’ve got a wife. You know, we had to talk through it a lot,” Erlandson recalls. Ultimately, Erlandson chose to bet on his ability to lead a new company to success. 

That leap of faith was worth it. Last year, Erlandson and Geisler combined Soccer Stars and Amazing Athletes with JumpBunch and TGA Premier Sports, all youth fitness brands, under one parent company, Youth Athletes United, to deliver team-oriented fitness education to kids around the country while providing next-level support for franchisees to build their businesses. 

Boasting 178 locally-operated franchised and licensed units with 950 coaches and 100 employees, the company teaches an estimated 200,000 kids each year and generates around $47 million annually across its system of combined brands.

“I took all the money I made and put it back into this. If you want to check the box of how truly passionate you are, step up and take the savings that took you 25 years to make and put your money where your passion is. Then you’ll truly know if that gets you out of bed every morning,” Erlandson says.

Selling opportunities for success

Part of the success Youth Athletes United has enjoyed since its inception, along with the success of the brands it houses, rests on the ability to recruit and sell opportunities to qualified franchisees that are passionate about the work they’re doing with the company.

“Most of my time is (spent) helping a small business owner figure out how to scale, figure out how to solve problems, how to just go to the next level in their career in their life. So for me, I feel unbelievably blessed to wake up every day and do that. And that’s what we’re building at Youth Athletes United.”

Regardless of a franchisee’s past industry, Erlandson says a key component of ensuring the success of his franchisees is determining their level of passion for the industry – a critical quality he looks for when selecting franchisees to partner with.

“The number one thing I want is for (franchisees) to succeed. …” Erlandson says. “If you don’t wake up every day feeling great about kids and feeling great about making them better, I don’t want you as my partner – and you don’t want to be my partner.”

Another component of selecting good partners, according to Erlandson, is making sure prospective franchisees know what they’re getting into – and that the benefits of franchising aren’t unique to any one brand or industry. Because of that, Erlandson says transparency is important when it comes to developing a franchise sales process based on trust.

“I want to tell you everything so you go in with eyes wide open. So when we do hit a rough patch – if we do hit a rough patch, because usually we don’t – but if we do, it’s like, ‘Look, we talked about this. There’s nothing new. Let’s get you through it. …” Erlandson says. “Best in class franchisors are not afraid to tell you anything before you come in, and that’s how we approach it. It’s worked really well.”

Beyond making sure franchisees are aware of the advantages and responsibilities that come with running a franchised business, Erlandson says making sure prospective franchisees understand the future benefits is a highlight of selling franchises.

“One of the biggest things (franchisees) are doing for them and their families is creating wealth – they’re building an asset that someday they will be able to sell for a lot more than they put in. … It’s like a lightbulb has just been turned on. They realize they’ve changed the whole destiny of their family’s lifestyle,” Erlandson says.

Staying flexible

In addition to providing franchisees with the support and mentorship they need to succeed as business owners, Erlandson says one of the lessons he’s learned as a franchisor is that having the ability to listen and adapt is critical for building a successful network.

“One of the things that we always joke about is, in franchising, you don’t have to be a genius – you just have to be open to listen. We find a lot of systems suffer because the owners are so set in their mindset that they create the vision, and it’s only their vision. Our view is, tell me what you need and I’ll go get it done,” Erlandson says.

To stay attuned to the needs of Youth Athletes United’s franchisees, Erlandson says the company has broken down the different types of small business owners into three “buckets” that include hands-on owners who coach sports classes themselves (and have a higher profit margin as a result), owners that prefer to manage units local to their residence and avoid branching into other markets, and owners managing multiple units across markets in a “stacked” way that allows for scalable growth.

Another component of the support Youth Athletes United offers its franchisees is a network of experts that can offer advice and assistance with any challenges that arise during daily franchise operations.

“We hire 600 coaches at corporate. So if you’re trying to hire 10 and you’re telling me, ‘I can’t find 10 coaches,’ we’ll call my coaching expert, talk to him, get some advice,” Erlandson says, adding that he has an expert for almost every aspect of the business.

Those strategies help the corporate team at Youth Athletes United prepare to meet each franchisee’s individual needs as they operate – something Erlandson says has required flexibility to develop.

“I’d love to say like we had a clear vision for this on day one. We had what we thought was a crystal clear vision, but we learned a ton by listening,” Erlandson says.

(Re)defining success

Despite the success of the youth sports brands housed under Youth Athletes United’s roof, Erlandson says the company’s focus isn’t on dominating every area of the industry.

Although the company is looking for ways to extend pathways to older children to maintain relationships with their students as they grow (the majority of Youth Athletes United’s current revenue stems from the work it does with children ages three to seven), Erlandson says there are no plans to add competitive sports to its offerings. 

Instead, he hopes to stay true to the brand’s values of promoting a healthy, active lifestyle to youth through a team-oriented, noncompetitive approach.

“The top of the funnel, it’s a different world up there and that’s not really what we set out to do. It’s not what I’m passionate about, and it’s not what my partners are passionate about. …” Erlandson says. “If a kid comes to our class and just feels better about playing in the backyard with his friends, like maybe they’ll pick up the bat and actually try, that is a win in our book all day long. We’ve done exactly what we set out to do.”

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