BAM! goes the dodgeball, hitting Sky Zone’s CEO Jeff Platt hard in the chest as he poses for a photographer. Platt flinches but keeps smiling, and pretty soon J.J., the attacker and one of Platt’s employees, changes tactics. Ping! goes the Nerf bullet. Ping, ping, ping, until finally, mercifully, J.J. puts down his weapon and gets back to work.
Yet Platt keeps his game face on all along. He has worked for three years to create a culture at his downtown L.A.-based franchise where staff members can have fun, and he’s got the foosball table, the Ping-Pong table, the big-screen TV and the fully stocked kitchen to prove it. Would you like coffee or water, visitors are asked. Espresso or Americano? Still or sparkling?
Dogs big and little run on the concrete floor. Shoeless, Platt pads around in his bright orange Sky Zone socks, the same kind they hand out to jumpers at his soon-to-be 100 indoor trampoline parks around the country. Inspiring words in huge capital letters shout AWESOME or HEALTHY on colorful columns throughout the office.
Behind the fun and games are some serious growth numbers. Sky Zone ranks second on the Franchise Times Fast and Serious list, which identifies brands growing quickly and also, according to our proprietary formula, sustainably over the last three years.
Platt, now 30, became CEO of his father’s company in 2006, and it took five long years to find his rhythm. In 2010 they had just a half-dozen locations. In 2011, there were 19. In 2012, there were 28. Last year ended with 97 operating locations, and Sky Zone’s 100th will open in March or April this year. Revenue should hit $260 million this year, up from $168 million last year and $88 million the year before.
“It’s very crazy,” Platt says, and he relates a story about his uncle, an early investor, who’s both surprised and delighted by the franchise’s emerging success. “My uncle said, ‘I never envisioned I would get the money back. I was just helping my brother.’” Platt attributes the growth to his team, which he has diligently rebuilt mostly from scratch after his approach in his first few years as CEO fell flat.
|“When I was young, I felt like I had to control everything,” says Sky Zone CEO Jeff Platt. “That slowed down the growth.”|
“When I was young—well, I’m still young, but younger—I felt like I had to control everything, which led to me micro-managing and that slowed others down, that slowed down the growth of the company,” Platt says. “In those early days of running a business, you haven’t learned yet how to lead. There was a level of arrogance that shouldn’t be there, and you learn why it doesn’t work.”
Rather than dictating hours or duties, today he requires all staff members to agree on their objectives with their manager. “How they get it done, I don’t care. If they want to get it done at 3 a.m. and play Ping-Pong all day, that’s fine.”
He also hires more carefully, requiring each prospective employee to meet with many current staffers, who are charged with assessing the cultural fit. “You don’t want them to just fit in the culture, you want them to add to the culture,” he says.
He agrees the open workspaces, without any offices, and the general chaos aren’t for everyone, but those who fit, thrive. “Our CFO is the only guy who wears a tie,” Platt says, referring to Steve Yeffa, the lone gray-haired employee in sight.
“We had to massage him” to let him know it wasn’t necessary. “Now he just wears a tie to piss us off.”
(Not necessarily so, says the CFO later, and points out his tie is in the Sky Zone colors, orange and blue.)
The effort is paying off in the form of those rising numbers. “It takes a qualified team to execute,” Platt says. “It’s getting that team to mesh well and work for each other. That takes a little bit of time.”
His father, Rick Platt, originally started Sky Zone as a sport in 2004 in Las Vegas, envisioning teams pelting each other with dodgeballs while jumping on trampolines. He raised $2 million from family and friends, but the sport didn’t take off, and pretty soon there were just a couple months to go before the money would be gone.
But all the skateboarders in the neighborhood kept knocking on the door. “We had an R&D center for the teams to train, and every day the kids would say we want to jump,” Jeff recalls. “One day he said, you can jump but it’s 8 dollars, and a few months from there and it was cash-flowing.”
Platt was in college at the time, bored in his junior year, and wanted to open a second Sky Zone in St. Louis. So he again tapped family and friends. “We opened our second location and it was more successful than the first, and I got to see what it was like to be a franchisee.” Today, he says it’s typical for franchises to become cash-flow-positive in just 90 days.
By 2008 they started franchising, with Platt going back one more time to ask for $200,000, and his hard lessons as a CEO—and a son—truly began. His mother died of cancer near the end of 2009.
“She saw the business struggle. She saw it get to three operating locations. She never got to see what it became,” Platt says, but figures she’s there in spirit.
“I guess she’s seeing it now.”
Platt credits his father, who had owned a scrap-metal business, for “having the guts” to invent the sport in the first place, and his board of directors, including two outside directors, for keeping the company on track.
One board member in particular, Dick Rothkopf, has served as his mentor. “When people say what should you do as an entrepreneur, I say get a mentor,” Platt says. “He’s a master of simplification. You have to say what’s the easiest way to accomplish this. Don’t overcomplicate things.”
He sums up Sky Zone’s appeal simply, too. “It’s a good business. It’s a fun business. People like jumping,” Platt says, and a half-hour later he proves it, jumping up and down on a mini-trampoline for the camera, every once in a while dodging those Nerf bullets.
The photo shoot over, Platt takes his revenge, chasing down J.J. and hurling a dodgeball—BAM!—but it hits just shy of his target’s right ear.
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