The following article is based on an episode of Outside In, the customer centricity podcast.
In 2002, Jeff Platt and his dad had a “wild and crazy idea”: create a new professional team sport, played entirely on trampolines.
“We had this old, run-down warehouse in Las Vegas, which was our R&D center,” Jeff recalls. “We had some kids that would go to an indoor skate park [next door], and they’d see this massive trampoline court inside this warehouse. They looked at it and said, ‘We need to jump on that.’”
They decided to let the kids in – for a price. “We told them the only condition of them jumping was that they had to pay $8.” Fair terms, the kids agreed. By 2004, Sky Zone, the world’s first indoor trampoline park, was open for business.
More than a decade later, Jeff is the 32-year-old CEO responsible for growing Sky Zone’s business. The company posts annual revenues north of $300 million, and you’ll frequently find it on lists like “Top 500 Franchises” and “America’s Most Promising Companies” by Entrepreneur and Forbes magazines.
“We certainly didn’t invent a trampoline,” says Jeff, who joined me for the latest episode of my podcast, Outside In. “We just figured out a new way to use them by linking them together.”
That new twist on an old concept is today a rapidly expanding global franchise business. “What started out as a single location in Las Vegas over 13 years ago now is spread across the world,” Jeff says. From Pittston, Pennsylvania, to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, you can jump at one of Sky Zone’s more than 180 locations…and counting. “We’re building a new park every other 10 days or so,” he says, “and we’re expanding to two or three new countries every single year.” Countries like Pakistan, which will open three new Sky Zone locations over the next five years.
Sky Zone Saudi Arabia
It’s obvious in talking to Jeff that Sky Zone is where the pure, youthful fun of jumping transcends regional and cultural differences. “There’s this amazing sense of freedom that comes from literally being free from gravity,” he says of why people are lured to his parks. “And so, when you’re in the air suspended, you’re totally present in the moment.” In a world where we are constantly glued to our phones and distracted by emails and status updates, “that’s a feeling I think people are constantly seeking out,” says Jeff. “When you come into our park, we offer you a new way to play, a new way to have fun and be active and get exercise.”
That message is central to Sky Zone’s mission. “We really believe in the power of play,” Jeff says. “Play is a very powerful thing. People today, they understand the benefits of play, but they don’t make enough time for [it],” he says.
It’s not just kids – Sky Zone’s primary customers – who reap the cognitive and physical rewards of play. Adults benefit, too. “Today, people play in a very sedentary way – it’s on iPads, it’s video games – which is causing a rise in obesity,” Jeff says. “We have to bring play back. That’s our challenge.”
Introducing Sky Zone’s particular brand of play to new markets isn’t without its challenges. To help overcome them, Jeff’s team relies upon the local knowledge of franchise partners, many of whom own other businesses and are therefore entwined with the needs of local customers. “When you bring in the right franchise owners, you have phenomenal partners and people who are truly, at their core, invested in the business,” he says.
“The key is having a culture that allows for best practice sharing and makes your franchise owners feel safe and invested in wanting to implement change” continues Jeff. “Failing is okay. If we’re not failing we’re not being creative – we’re not being innovative, we’re not taking risks. And I think as a business you constantly need to be doing that.”
Jeff also says that co-creating directly with customers is critical. “The whole company actually started by listening to customers…They point our problems. They show us where our opportunities are. We recognize that if we don’t really get to know them – what’s motivating them, the role we fill in their lives, why they’re coming to us – it’s going to be difficult for us to break through.”
As a CEO who’s “new to the business world in the last decade,” Jeff gives ample credit to the highly skilled team he has surrounded himself with. “My challenge is to make sure that they feel safe enough to be able to make decisions, and that they feel empowered to own those decisions.” It’s a management style that’s wise beyond his 32 years.
“It’s important at any age to recognize what you don’t know,” Jeff advises, pointing out that, for many new entrepreneurs, “stubbornness can be their greatest strength, but it can also be their greatest weakness.”
At the end of our conversation, I ask Jeff if he has any advice for budding entrepreneurs. His response is simple. “Everybody is going to tell you that you can’t do it,” he says. “It’s scary and it’s tough and it’s challenging.”
“Trust your gut, and just go for it.”