Munchkin Sports Co-Founder, Joe, Talks to ClassForKids Ahead of Summer Camp Launch

Read of our latest interview with Joe from Munchkin Sports to find out how the club is launching their summer camps and planning for a successful future. 

In our latest interview, our CEO Nikki caught up with Joe from Munchkin Sports - multi-sport activity club based in Beckenham. Over the past few months, Munchkins have faced challenges they'd never seen before. Joe talks to us about the positives of having this time to plan for the club's future beyond COVID.

Have a read of our latest interview for inspiration to kickstart your comeback.

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If you could tell us a little bit about yourself and Munchkins, that would be great.

“You'll probably want to know more about Munchkins than me, so I'll start about Munchkins... I'm a rugby coach by trade - I coached at a local rugby club and then a school for probably about 10 years. And no one was really looking after the real little ones, the toddlers - so 2, 3, 4, 5, that sort of age. And we identified that those children have to do sport as well, but no one was really doing anything for them (in our area anyway).

And I've always believed that getting the kids trained at a real young age is better than trying to teach them once they reach older teenage years, or just a little bit lower…

That was 8 years ago. So we started what I provisionally thought was going to be called 'Rugby Munchkins'. And then my clever clogs wife said to me: “but what happens if some asks “why don't you do football munchkins? Or why don't you do multi-sport munchkins?””. So munchkin sports was born.”

Do you think that's why [Munchkin Sports] is so successful? Your wife’s idea of changing the name?

“Absolutely - she takes all credit for it! But that was actually her nickname because she's only 5ft… I always called her 'munchkin'. And we couldn't think of a name for the company, and she said: “well how about Munchkins?”. I was like, do you know what? You are spot on there… We're in 20 odd different schools doing 50 odd after schools clubs - well, we were before all this! We do 8 different weekend locations for real toddlers, and we go into schools and deliver PE lessons. Obviously the big thing that's taking off is the holiday camps. So, yeah it's 8 years old and about 50 members of staff.”

You were one of our first clients - that must have been 2/3 years into your journey...

“... we were looking at having something built, but it was going along too slow. And then I remember it - [ClassForKids] were relatively new as well, weren't you? And we said "look, let's just help each other" and that was the good thing about it. Every time we needed new implementations done, it all got done…”

… I remember the days - with early clients - I think it was the first day you'd launched or you'd put the invites out. I remember the phone call - you were just jumping around with your wife when you were taking those first bookings and payments online.

“Well before then, it all had to be done completely manually. We were spending hours and hours and hours literally putting parents details into spreadsheets - it was ridiculous! How we managed to get it off the ground manually is beyond me.”

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We bring on clients all the time and many of them still come from what you described there. Do you feel now - especially after what we've just gone through and so many industries are now having to move to online systems - the days of the paper registration forms and taking cash are gone now? I know you've been in there for a while, but do you feel that's probably now going?

“I think so, yeah… It has moved on, and I think what's exciting though is there's so much more can be done as well. I don't think there's ever going to be an end product because times change and then everyone has to evolve as we've seen. People are going to fall by the wayside, and that's a natural thing. So you've got to be innovative and strong as well. I've never had to be as strong as I've had to be now. You know that old saying about sometimes being in business is a rollercoaster? Well at the moment, it's been the big dipper in one direction.”

Talking about this situation that we find ourselves in [lockdown], no one would have predicted how bad our industry would have been hit (like many industries)... How have you pivoted? How have you changed since lockdown happened? How did you pivot after that and start thinking ahead?

“It's a hard one Nik because we're a sports coaching company. So if talk in sporting terms… when you play a game of football or rugby, you can see a defensive line in front of you and then you see where the space is, and that's where you attack. You attack the space. But this thing’s invisible, so for months you've been trying to find the space, and trying to find the gaps and all you've been doing is running into brick walls.

… you're relying on everything in your power to survive. And you breakdown because you're like, this is too hard. And I know everyone will say everybody is in the same boat, but I don't think everyone is in the same boat. We've all been in the same storm but other people are in different boats. Good friends of mine have actually made more money during this lockdown than they would have done because the industries that they work for have just been booming. So everyone is in different boats.

What I will say to you is that when we started munchkins, it was actually in a recession. A few people said, "Joe, it's not going to work". And you don't say that to me because if you say that to me, I'll say "right, come on, let's go!". And it did work! And I went off the assumption that everybody's going to need sports coaching for their children, no matter how much money they've got or haven't got - they need it. And in 8 years, this is the only thing that's stopped our company going in the right direction.

So what have I done differently or what have I changed? I haven't Nik. I've just had to keep fighting and be on the phone to the clients. So holiday camp wise, we've basically ripped up the game's manual that we'd normally use, and completely written the thing start to finish (all with social distancing)...

Katie who runs the office, she was on the phone to all the schools that we deal with and you've got to know what policies they've put in place. And she's basically drawing up a new policy for us - from start to finish - which is now from a positive point of view getting approved by all the schools. Two in the last couple have days said "yep, we've read through your policy, we're good to go. We're happy for you to run the camp.”

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… Summer camps now are probably on everyone's mind if you're an organiser and used to running summer camps about whether you can actually run them this year at all. I know that's a hot topic right now amongst activity organisers. so how did you go around it... How did you step through that process Joe - of going right do I speak to the parents first, or do I speak to the schools first, or what do I say to them? How do you get the confidence to just go ahead?

“The first thing we had to do was actually sit down as a team and work out if this product that we've got can run under those circumstances. You've almost got to put yourself in the situation of the school, and look at the person who is going to look at your policy, and look at your manual. You didn't want them finding gaps in it and saying "no, you're not doing that". So we went through everything with a fine tooth-comb...

But like I say, we sat now (well, over Zoom), and looked at everything and designed it all to know that are the children going to be safe? Yes. And it's a question of if you know that your product has been designed so it's safe, then you can go and look at clients in the eye and say "look, what we're proposing is going to be safe". As long as you're confident you know you've got it correct, then when the parents ring up asking for questions, you've got the answers.

So on our website, we made the decision that we were going to be 100% transparent - everything we've got went on the website. Katie and Susie drew up a sheet of questions that parents would potentially ask, and then we put the answers next to it and referred to the policies. Then as I say, we sent it off to the schools and said "look, this is it. Have a read and see what you think". Now parents are allowed to provisionally book because it’s turbulent times, so if things change, then they haven't lost.”

I think you changed the setting to let them book so that they don't need to pay. But I'm presuming now that with the easing of restrictions that a lot of people are feeling more confident now and paying for the classes as well? Are you seeing a difference now?

“... I think we're getting a lot of parents book up because they're saying "...how can we possibly go back to work if there's no childcare?" So yeah, the response that we're getting from parents is fantastic. It's just literally the last week and a half where we're now seeing more confidence from the schools to say "yeah okay, let's go". One school, in particular, has one of the heat detectors as you go into the school so that it takes the children’s temperature. And they've said to us "look, Joe, it's there for you guys to use", so I've said, "absolutely, I'll use that!". So it's just another element of confidence, isn't it?”

Excellent. Are there any other measures that you've taken? I think that reaching out to the parents and being transparent - great. Venues - that was a tough one and I think you've done an incredible job to get some of the schools on board. Any other measures that you've gone down now that you feel that's also been another step in the right direction and I'm glad we did that to get kickstarted again?

“Yeah... a big part of us is that the staff have to be retrained. So we're taking on quite a few new members of staff this summer which is great, and they're going to have a big training day to go through all the new manual and policies, but we're also doing that with all of the existing staff as well because they've got to be safe and they've got to be confident that it's right. So yeah, I mean look, forget that it's a business. I've got to young children myself and they were starting to go out of their brain. These kids need to go to school.

...Gavin Williamson [Government Education Secretary] did say that there was talk that they wanted to get all the children back to school, and if they couldn't, what they wanted to do was to keep schools open - and they were going to get retired teachers or ask current teachers to come in and provide extra Maths, English, Art and Sport lessons in the school. And we thought if they want to do that, why can't we run our camps?

That's what really made me press the green button on all of this. They want to do this, it’s just that schools have got to get a bit more confident... we were thinking about actually offering Maths and English as part of the summer camp as well so we would have been able to tick all four of those boxes.

I still think we're going to go for it at certain camps, but I think the Government have taken a little bit of u-turn and they've now offered this tutoring process over the next twelve months. Kids don't want to do Maths and English at holiday camps, but that's what we were looking at doing.”

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There's so much confusion now [from government announcements between countries in the UK]. It's almost like we're going through a completely different virus or disease in a way that's coming out now with the different guidelines. How do you read through the lines because they're not saying "here are the guidelines for the kid’s activity industry", so how do you read through the lines and make sense of it all?

“… I think you've got to be a leader with it. At the end of the day, these guys... everyone in the world..., it's brand new for everybody. And I know [the governments] giving us instructions and stuff, but at the end of the day, the people who know children the best are children’s companies and schools. They have come out and said "schools are now allowed to do how they see fit", and that's why some schools are having year 5 student back, some are having year 2 students back.

At the end of the day, they wanted all the children back because they said that it was safe. The reason why couldn't get them back was that there wasn't enough classrooms. And that is it - there's not enough space. So I take the viewpoint and go well if we can design a product that is completely safe, that's within the parameters of what they're saying, then we should be good to go.

Then it's just about being completely and utterly transparent with everyone: so that's schools; teachers; the children; and staff and then we move forward… Otherwise, you don't survive and the economy doesn't get going.”

That's a great point. So let's go past COVID now, what's in the future for Munchkins? What were your ambitions before COVID came, and then as we go past it, what are you going to try and achieve? What's next on the agenda?

“It's a funny thing, it's always been a runaway train, Munchkins. I've always been like one of these cartoon characters, and the train is going in one direction and Joe's holding on with two hands flying in the air at the back [laughs]. It's literally been like that for the last 8 years.

What it has thrown up is that I have got to be a bit more strategic with what we want. A big upsetting thing for me - and I mean this genuinely - is that you've got 50 odd members of staff and I'm responsible for them... no one saw this coming, and could we have been better if we have been in a financial situation with more reserves? Maybe.

That's hard to answer because you're talking about 100% of your income gone. I've never worked so hard in my life. I tried applying for as many grants as we could, and have not received one penny. Not one penny. Every grant out there, we slipped through the net. And you're just like (without feeling sorry for yourself) "you know what, you've set something up for children, and you can't even get a little bit of help"... I can't see anything being a bigger hammer blow than this again (unless it comes back 10 fold).

So in answer to your question, it's just about expanding what we've got. We're still very local. We have attempted to go to other places, but that hasn't really materialised because we just weren't set up correctly. But it's just about expansion and finding quality coaches really which is what I’m looking for.”

That's a challenge, isn't it? Even when I was a tennis coach, it was a challenge finding good coaches. I still hear my friends who are coaching saying the same thing. It's not easy growing that team and getting the right talents there, is it?

“I mean something positive that's come out of this is that we have been designing our own internal qualifications system. I mean due to the nature of what we do, and the age groups that we teach, it's not an old coaches industry… it's the young ones. They're the ones that can have a rapport with the children the best, so you know, have they got all the sports coaching qualifications in the world? No, half the time they haven't. So we've designed this programme where they can come up with us and get up to the level that we need…”

Key Takeaways

Preparation is crucial: Throughout the interview, it's clear that careful planning has helped the club on the road to its comeback. From carefully re-doing their games manual, to speaking with parents and schools, thinking strategically has helped Munchkins return.

Positive Mindset: Joe has a great can-do attitude. It's important to make sure your customers feel safe to return to physical spaces. The main thing you provide is a great service to customers, so consider how adapting your business model may benefit you in the long term.

We hope you've enjoyed reading our interview with Joe and that you can take something away from it to positively shape your clubs future. For more information on alternative lessons choices, head over to our resources page.

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