INNOVATORS VS COVID 19
STUDENTathleteWorld Founder Tim Ryerson Takes You Inside Owning an International Travel Business during an International Pandemic
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Tim Ryerson: We are well. The good news that came during this pandemic was the healthy birth of our third child. Like many people, the pandemic allowed for a little more time with the family, which was a great thing.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded STUDENTathleteWorld.
Tim Ryerson: As a college basketball coach from 2001-2009, I coached on four International tours with another travel company. On those tours, I saw first-hand how awesome of an experience it was to take kids from all over the country to represent the USA. In 2009, sort of by accident, I started STUDENTathleteWorld. I never expected it to turn into what it has become. We do International Sports Tours for youth, high school, and college athletes. We combine the thrill of International athletic competition with the many benefits of foreign travel. Our tours are designed to promote athletic development along with leadership development, personal growth, cultural appreciation, World perspective, patriotism, family bonding, and fun. Simply put, our goal is to create a once-in-a-lifetime experience that is nothing short of ‘the coolest thing you’ve ever done.’
How does STUDENTathleteWorld innovate?
Tim Ryerson: I’ve learned the only constant in business is change. Over the last 11 years, we’ve pivoted a few times. I started this business with no money and not much of a plan. It was just me hustling and driving my car 3,000 miles a month for the first couple of years. To grow, I needed to teach myself to sell, build websites, marketing, social media, design, etc. – simply because I could not afford to outsource anything. I wouldn’t say innovation in terms of inventing new ideas has been our secret to success. Rather, I would say constantly changing and adapting how we reach more people has been the key for us.
A perfect example is that during the lockdown, the free time allowed me to rebuild my websites and even launch a side business, PickleballWorldTours.com. Yes, that’s right – a guy who owns a small business doing International Sports travel that was decimated by the pandemic decided to start ANOTHER International travel company in the middle of the pandemic. I don’t know if that is smart. But I know that if it is eventually as successful as I think it is going to be, I will look back at that sentence and smile.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Tim Ryerson: 90% of our revenue in 2019 was from International travel. So, the coronavirus definitely has affected us :). But we are going to survive. While we won’t make any money for a while, I’ve been smart not to overinvest the profits from past years – so we can use that cushion to help us during this time. Luckily my business is not heavy on overhead like a restaurant or bar, or gym is. I feel so bad for those small businesses because unless you’ve owned one, you just don’t understand what it is like to take risks with your own money. But still, we will lose money as well as the momentum we had going into the pandemic. Our business was humming along just great in February of this year. However, I’m confident we can get back to where we were when the pandemic is finally over. Basically, I am coping by spending the last six months planning and preparing for when we can be profitable again.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Tim Ryerson: We had to make some really tough choices at the very beginning of the pandemic. Because of the timing, we had to postpone our tours well before we would have liked to. In hindsight, it didn’t matter as we would have anyway in time. But, those first few weeks were tough. The most difficult part was dealing with the uncertainty and anger towards our elected officials and media. The lesson I’ve learned from this pandemic is that I can only control what I can control. Whatever comes next in my professional career, I’ll be able to look back at this time and say, “well if we survived that, we can survive this next challenge.”
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and STUDENTathleteWorld in the future?
Tim Ryerson: Not well. The first months of the unconstitutional lockdown were rough for me and especially seeing the obvious hypocrisy of what was deemed essential and non-essential. Luckily the Emperor of our State allowed us, peasants, to attend gyms again recently, which has definitely helped me deal with stress.
As for the company’s future, I predict a “roaring 20’s scenario” when the country truly opens back up again. I hope people will try to make up for the lost time, adapt a YOLO mentality, and be excited to travel. I think this will help us in the long run. In the short term, our ability to make a living depends greatly on how the media covers travel. The media and many politicians have adopted this doomsday negativity about everything – rooting for bad events instead of energizing people to overcome them. Hopefully, either the media changes for the better or, more likely, more people wake up and stop paying attention to the traditional media. But we are going to travel and travel safely and get on with our lives, and I project the best days for STUDENTathleteWorld are still in the future!
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Tim Ryerson: My business is very niche. I have a couple of competitors, and I hope they survive COVID and prosper when it’s all over. I’ve never viewed my competitors as true competitors – business is never a zero-sum game to me. In the end, if you offer a great product or service at a fair price, you can make a good living in America. This is the most amazing part of our country and why people from all over the world want to be here. I’ll stay in the game by continuing to work and grow. In the end, it’s about the acquisition of skills. Even if my business eventually fails, the skills acquired are valuable to my livelihood.
Your final thoughts?
Tim Ryerson: One thing I think COVID is amplifying is the extreme differences between small businesses and those who work for the government, large corporations, or in industries the government deems too big to fail. Almost all of the voices you hear during the pandemic are those in the latter groups. I hope people ask themselves if they like having small businesses around and what actions they are taking to keep them around. I know the idea of ordering something on your phone and having a drone drop it off 20 minutes later sounds amazing, but at what cost? Do you want your local baker to be a nice old lady that lives next to you and is awesome at baking pies? Or do you want it to be “Pies by Amazon”. Do you want your local gym to be truly local, or do you want it to be a Nike owned gym like all the others in every other town in America? Our communities are better with small businesses. We all need to stand up to large government and globalization as much as we can.
If you are like me, you found it weird that Home Depot could be open all through the pandemic. If you are like me, you went there almost every day and bought some non-essential products for a non-essential home improvement project. While you were told it was unsafe for any locally owned small business to be open, it caused a ridiculous amount of stress to families and communities. I sincerely hope more people think about this and continue to support local businesses that keep profits in their community. Otherwise, America we will wake up to in 10, 20, 50 years will no longer include what made it so great in the first place, the prospect of upward mobility and American exceptionalism.
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