- Chris DeJong is a lifelong swimmer, whose aspirations of Olympic competition were frustrated by just three tenths of a second.
- DeJong turned disappointment into opportunity when he started teaching swim lessons and discovered a path to create a sustainable business.
- Using the advice and investment from some wealthy clients, including a co-owner of the Chicago Cubs, he revised a business plan for a novel swim school concept.
- DeJong told Business Insider how two key elements that give his plan an edge: the ‘Amazon effect’ in commercial real estate and a clever new metric for growth.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Three tenths of a second.
That’s how much time separated swimmer Chris DeJong from his lifelong dream of competing in the Olympics.
After years of training alongside champions like Michael Phelps for a spot on the US national team’s trip to Beijing in 2008, DeJong instead found himself without a plan for what to do next.
“That was a pretty confusing time for me,” he told Business Insider. “I didn’t have a job at the time, so I just started teaching swim lessons as a way to make ends meet.”
While sitting in traffic one day, a life-changing idea flashed into his mind.
“Out of all that disappointment for my competitive swimming career came the will and the desire to do something crazy, like start a business,” DeJong said.
DeJong went on to launch the Big Blue Swim School, a fast-growing brand that currently has five company-owned locations and 79 franchises opening soon across 16 states.
Business Insider spoke with DeJong and reviewed Big Blue’s franchise disclosure document to learn how he’s building the business.
Start with passion for the customer experience
In the early years, DeJong worked all day every day personally teaching lessons wherever he could book available pool time.
The experience gave him tremendous insights into how to improve the experience of learning to swim — a valuable life skill that the Centers for Disease Control says lowers young children’s risk of drowning by 88%.
“Swim lessons have always been around,” DeJong said. “But when I thought back on my learn-to-swim experience at the local park district, that wasn’t a very good experience.”
From frigid water and awkward pool designs, to disinterested instructors and bad parking, DeJong saw a lot of room for improvement.
DeJong’s customer-centric approach won him the admiration of several of his clients, including a key figure in the Chicago business community.
“One of the first lessons I taught in Chicago was a little girl and her brother, and I saw their dad pick them up from some lessons, and I recognized him from a show I had watched on TV,” DeJong said.
The show was Undercover Boss, and the dad was Todd Ricketts, who had recently purchased the Chicago Cubs.
Break the economics of a concept into basic granular units
With the advice of Ricketts and other mentors, DeJong began drafting a business plan to attract the investors Big Blue would need in order to grow.
The key was finding a way to explain the business to someone who didn’t have an inherent interest in aquatic sports.
“Not many people understood how a swimming pool was to be programmed as a business, so we actually broke down revenue potential for each individual swimming lane,” DeJong said.
Given the practical constraints of a number of lanes in a pool and useful hours in a day, along with his prior sales data, DeJong was able to convey the business opportunity to skeptical investors and win their support.
“Our original investors were not ready to put money in until they were certain we had thought through every nook and cranny and possible scenario of the business,” he said. “They were great teachers in that regard, and they pushed hard to better understand the business.”
The model has also proven attractive to a different type of business partner: franchisees.
Since it opened up to franchising last year, Big Blue has sold 79 locations across the US, and DeJong says the margins of his established locations put the brand in the top 20% of profitable franchise opportunities.
“Our goal is to be in all the major metropolitan areas across the US, hopefully opening 400 locations and teaching a third of the kids in the US how to swim,” DeJong said. “Franchising allows us to do that on a much larger scale and much faster.”
Take advantage of critical market trends
The so-called “Amazon effect” has disrupted just about every industry on the planet, and that now extends to such an ancient human activity as swimming.
As it turns out, the ideal location for Big Blue’s method is not an outdoor, in-ground, Olympic-size pool. Nor is it an existing indoor facility at a health club or hotel, as other competing swim academy brands use.
It’s actually something far more plentiful: vacant retail space.
“I think that the best business ideas are the ones always hiding in plain sight,” DeJong said.
According to the company’s FDD, a standard location is in or near a shopping center with roughly 10,000 square-feet — a bit less than a typical Trader Joes or Aldi’s grocery store.
The total initial investment for a new Big Blue franchise, including real estate, is about $2.7 million, and after the first year, an average location brings in about $2 million in sales per year.
“It’s a foreign concept to most people at first to say we’re going to build a pool in a strip mall” DeJong says. “But when you think about it, it’s a very important part of any community. We’re much more likely to get kids learning how to swim if it’s easy for parents with their busy schedules can pull right up to the front door the way they used to pull up to a Pier One Imports.”