Welcome to Becoming the Boss, our series celebrating small business owners who have made the transition from solo-entrepreneur to employer. Check back periodically for new installments.
Lacrosse has been surging in popularity over the past decade, joining gymnastics as the only two team sports to see participation grow among children age 6 to 17 since 2015. However, there is an important obstacle standing in the way of the continued growth of the sport: High-quality lacrosse gear is so expensive that many families would struggle to afford it.
Where others might have seen a hurdle, 15-year-old lacrosse player and former “Shark Tank” contestant Rachel Zietz saw an opportunity to make the game more accessible.
“I’ve learned from many leaders that when you see a problem, you can translate it into an opportunity,” Zieitz said in a recent interview, sounding every bit the seasoned entrepreneur.
Gladiator Lacrosse, the sports equipment business Zietz started in 2012 at the age of 13, focuses on creating high-quality lacrosse equipment at affordable prices. Less than two years after its launch, the company hit $1 million dollars in sales. Free Enterprise recently caught up with Zietz to chat about how her passion for lacrosse and time spent at the Young Entrepreneurs Academy Program helped her become the successful young entrepreneur she is today.
Why did you decide to launch Gladiator Lacrosse?
When I came up with the idea, I was pursuing my interest in entrepreneurship by attending a program called the Young Entrepreneurs Academy (YEA). It was a 30-week program, and we met once a week after school. That’s where I learned the fundamentals of how to start and manage a business. While doing that program, I was also playing lacrosse and noticed that the gear I was using was not living up to the standards I would’ve liked.
So, I saw this problem, and I translated it into Gladiator Lacrosse. I created products that were high quality at an affordable price, so all lacrosse players could improve their game. At the end of the [YEA] program, we received grant money for funding, which I used to purchase my first container of goals and rebounders [lacrosse training tools]. That’s really what got me started.
Can you tell me a little more about the Young Entrepreneurs Academy and how it helped you launch your business?
The program accepts 20 to 25 students between seventh and 12th grade. I was in seventh grade when I did it, so I was at the younger end of the spectrum. We had a ton of visitors and mentors who helped us develop our business plans.
At the end of the program, every company gave a presentation to the investors who had contributed cash, which was later given to us as grants. After we got the money, we used it to follow our business plans. I’ve had to edit my plan since then because we’re doing so much more than I anticipated. It’s funny now to look at the goals I initially wrote for the company — I thought we’d hit $1 million dollars in sales by year 10, but we did that in our second year!
What were the major challenges along the way?
For us, it was demand. We weren’t able to anticipate it, and we still have trouble doing that. Lacrosse, as well as my company, has been growing so exponentially fast that when we purchased our first container load of equipment, we sold out of it within months. I wasn’t expecting that – I thought it would take us two to three years! Because it took so long for the products to be created, I had to order way in advance. I ordered a bunch for “Shark Tank,” but forgot that right after that comes lacrosse travel season. I also ordered a bunch for holiday season, not knowing that after the holiday season was when school lacrosse season starts.
Is it difficult to manage employees and deal with clients and suppliers at such a young age?
Most people think the big challenge is having adults take you seriously, but as long as you go into meetings confident and prepared, they respect you. And a lot of my employees think it’s cool to be working for a young entrepreneur.
What lessons have you learned from being a boss?
Time management and how crucial it is to use every minute to your advantage. Any spare time you have, try to get as much as you can get out of it.
Do you have any advice for other young, ambitious entrepreneurs?
Be passionate about whatever you do. For me, lacrosse is my passion. I love the sport. That’s really the key to starting a business this young. A lot of kids and teens only do things they like – and if they don’t like it, they don’t try anymore. If you start a business, you need to treat it like a living, breathing child that needs to be fed and taken care of constantly.