While some run about on soggy Sunday league pitches and others burn their knees playing five-a-side on artificial turf, Trans World Soccer has developed an offering that brings the glamour back into football.
The business, based in Edinburgh but with an increasingly global footprint (as we’ll find out later), is the brainchild of university friends Scott Macfarlane and Andrew Cook and began life in 2011 as a project run alongside the duo’s full-time jobs.
When Macfarlane left Edinburgh University with a degree in sports management under his belt, he first cut his teeth at a sponsorship and PR marketing agency in Glasgow. His work exposed him to brands such as Tennent’s and Magners, as well as the London 2012 Olympics, and provided the thirst to set up a small enterprise of his own.
With Cook, who was a PE teacher at the time, they ran the venture alongside day jobs and grew it to a position where revenues of £190,000 were being posted. The watermark moment came when the two joined the Entrepreneurial Spark programme and were convinced by advisors there that now was the time to hand in their notices and give it a proper go.
Entrepreneurial Spark is a free business accelerator which lasts between six and 18 months, providing early-stage companies with a collaborative office environment suitable for building teams. Ventures incubated there receive free IT and the help of business mentors to improve business plans and products.
“I really enjoyed the work I was doing, but my desire was always to work as hard as I could at both and then get to the point where I could leave,” Macfarlane explained.
The first iteration of Trans World Soccer combined two elements: summer camps in California and tours in the UK. The two entrepreneurs pivoted the offering within weeks of joining Entrepreneurial Spark after it was determined the camp offering was making no money at all. In fact, it was detracting from the tours – which were gaining traction.
In his role as a PE teacher, Cook had spent hundreds of frustrating hours jumping though the endless, but required, hoops associated with organising trips. Doing risk assessment, calling parents and sourcing venues, Cook’s feelings were that there must be a better way of approaching the task.
“We thought that with my background and his knowledge of what the customer wants, if we brought that together to produce an appealing package it would have some traction,” Macfarlane went on to say.
He described it as “Disney Land for football fanatics”, fusing the four key elements of: touring stadiums; training with elite coaches; playing local oppositions; and seeing your heroes in action. Then it’s all about having the complete media experience, with “press” chasing you around. Throw in luxury travel on team buses, and Macfarlane and Cook figured they had a proposition that many would be interested in.
With predictions putting revenue this year at around the £1m mark, Trans World Soccer has secured custom from a number of different countries – but that wasn’t always the plan.
Deciding initially to keep it in the UK by selling first to schools in Scotland and then England, the Middle East was the first overseas destination to come knocking. “We detected the Middle East as a market and sold into the region with groups coming to the UK – there were lots of repeat customers. Now we’ve had bookings from places like Russia and Malaysia.”
In terms of numbers, Trans World Soccer ran 85 tours last year, with 3,500-odd kids coming from 46 different nationalities. This coming year, Macfarlane is forecasting 150 tours, facilitated by the opening of new destinations in Spain, Dubai and the US. That should see 5,000 given the “Disney Land” experience.
Asked what helped them get into the position they are now, Macfarlane pointed to Entrepreneurial Spark as a particular source of support. The close relationship it has helped forge with Royal Bank of Scotland has been “key” in its growth and scaling phase, he added.
“Royal Bank of Scotland were very helpful when we wanted to set up in Dubai, so my business partner could emigrate out there – providing the funding for that,” he said.
“Entrepreneurial Spark are great at instilling collaborative environments. We were quite often facing similar problems to others, and by being next to them you can get a solution much quicker than on your own.”
As far as sales and marketing goes, Macfarlane is a big believer in the value and scope of word of mouth – with a little “hard work” thrown in as well. The film crew that goes with every tour produces a kind of online experience video, and helps to answer “a thousand questions” potential customers may have about the offering.
“If a teacher who has run a trip with a Scottish school then takes a job in Malaysia, they’ll often take the trip idea with them,” he added. “So it’s been like that, lots of organic referrals.”
Working with children as closely as the business does means it has sometimes been a struggle for Macfarlane and Cook to build a team that is competent and trustworthy. “We three directors can’t be everywhere at once,” he explained. “Touch wood we have the right people, but it’s often a challenge to find them.
“The second thing is, with us not taking any investment and growing organically through reinvesting all profits, we’ve had to be selective with sales, marketing and advertising – being shrewd about what we’re spending money on.”
Bringing it all back to what kind of advice he has for those hoping to reach that illusive £1m turnover mark, Macfarlane simply explained that if you’re going to fail, fail fast and fail cheap.
“Don’t spend lots of money on something and don’t hang around. Validate the proposition, then test the market without spending too much money and without spending a year to do it.
“If you genuinely believe in the business and proportion, go for it and drop everything.”
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