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Weekly Thoughts: BTSB – Building Human Capital with Barrett Takesian of Portland Community Squash

Building Human Capital with Barrett Takesian of Portland Community Squash

Below are some excerpts from our conversation with Barrett Takesian, founder and executive director of Portland Community Squash, a nonprofit focused on community engagement and youth development in Portland, Maine.  Over the past 6 years, Barrett has pioneered a hybrid business model that blends a for-profit division into a nonprofit structure and in 2017 was recognized as the United States Olympic Committee Development Coach of the Year for his work in growing the sport of squash.

Barrett talks about what it’s like developing human capital as a precursor to financial capital, the entrepreneurial struggles of starting an untested business model from scratch, and his focus on sustaining PCS’ mission for the next 100 years.

You can listen to the full episode by clicking the audio image below, on our website, or on iTunes (more podcast players coming soon!).  Know someone who would be great on the Big Time Small Business podcast?  E-mail in at podcast@chenmarkcapital.com.

A challenge is also an opportunity

I remember sitting down with the president of the Squash and Education Alliance.  This is the spokesperson for all 24 Squash and Education programs across the country that have operated without a revenue component forever.  I remember pitching this idea, sitting on a bench at a tournament, and Tim turned to me and said, “It’s too hard to walk that line of a for profit and a nonprofit at the same time.”  And I can absolutely understand where he was coming from because it is difficult to have every constituency represented.

[There were] no regulation courts in Portland, but the opportunity was that there was no established infrastructure that was separating people that would play at a private club from students that might be in an urban squash program, from students that might play at their school.  That segregated infrastructure didn’t exist, so what I did is I learned the philanthropic heart of this sport, this Squash & Education model in Lawrence, Massachusetts.  I also went on what you could call a vision quest.  I visited 14 other Squash and Education programs around the country.  I learned everything I could about every private club in New England.  [I] also did a lot of research on high school and collegiate programs to see what people like about [all of] those programs.  We just [took] the best part from all of those to do a mix-use facility that would capture the positive energy from each one of those uses.  That’s where we started really seizing the opportunity of being able to create something new.

Raising (human) capital the Mark Cuban way

When you don’t have capital when you start a business or a nonprofit, you need to build the human capital, and you need to do it quickly.  When I was driving to Lawrence, Massachusetts, 90 miles, every day to learn how to effectively run a program, I was also taking a coffee every morning in Portland and I’d get a drink when I got home from work with someone in the community as well.  Bringing a person into the mission, for nonprofit work especially, gives you your momentum, your supporters, your volunteers, your spokespeople.  The first two years, we were all out cultivating meetings and getting to know new people.  And that just opened the floodgates.

Our first peer-to-peer fundraiser, we raised $65,000 and we grew our list from 100 people to 300 people and used that money to build some pilot programs at the YMCA.  After three years of grassroots building, we probably had $200,000 in the bank and about 3,000 people on our mailing list.  I made the leap to pursue this full time and I went quickly into a multimillion-dollar capital campaign.  [It’s] not something that I would recommend for nonprofits, but we had done such a great job at building the excitement around our story early that we were able to go out and execute based off basically our slide deck.

Just keep swimming

Right after leaving my job, a couple days before we broke ground on the project, our building fell through, and I had to call up all of our supporters and ask them if they wanted to stay on with us.  [We’d raised] probably about a half a million dollars [but] we quickly realized that to be a tenant might not be feasible, so we were gonna have to raise more money and look into owning our own facility.  It was a little bit daunting but to be honest, it just might be part of my personality, but my philosophy’s always been: just make the organization stronger every day.  So, I woke up the next day and I said, “What do I have to do today?”

I wasn’t stressed out, it wasn’t my optimism, it was actually something that the developer said to me that put my mindset at ease.  We needed that first vision to get to our first half million dollars.  Sure, we had a setback, but all of a sudden, we were in such a stronger position than if we were starting from scratch.  So, [we] used that first failure to leapfrog to the next goal. 

At this point, we’ve put about $2 million dollars into our new facility but we’re not paying rent now.  We’re in a much stronger financial position.  We’re able to serve more students and give away more scholarships.  It worked out the best way it possibly could’ve.

Don’t measure what you can’t act on

I was on TechSuite that gives away these SaaS systems to nonprofits and I was like, “Man, imagine this dashboard, we can see student attendance on the great pie chart, and I can see the social and emotional development, and the fitness development. I can overlap the demographics of our students with the academic performance and all this.”  I definitely drank the Kool-Aid.  I wanted to just dive in head first to data.  But at the end of the day, we’ve found the indicators that are actually important to us, and we only use data that we can act on.

We partnered with Harvard to role out a social and emotional development set of surveys called the Holistic Student Assessment.  We measure indicators for resilience, relationships, and school engagement.  And the reason we look at that data is because it gives us strengths and weaknesses of each participant.  And the reason that’s so important is we actually use that data to create mentor matches.

Same thing with attendance and behavior.  We track respect, effort, and positivity in our practices because when those things are going well, the entire practice operates well.  We want to reward that behavior, so we track it to know what’s going on and then students with great rep, which is our behavior indicator, and great attendance, they get first choice to which tournaments they travel to on the weekends, which community service trips, which college visits. We only track data that we can act on.

Drinking from the fire hose

All the sudden we were going from a couple kids at the YMCA to buses full of kids from all the local schools showing up.  We were building demand, [but] we didn’t have staff.  We had been all volunteers until then.  We just went.  We showed up; we delivered the program; we were implementing curriculum; we on-boarded 200 members in our first 4 months and we were doing it all by paper.  We didn’t have a staff meeting for eight months.

It was great. It’s what you dream about.  The big sheets of paper on the wall, a circle is an action item, and a check mark means it’s done, and an ‘X’ means you abandoned it.  Transportation was a poster, registration was a poster, mission statement was a poster, employee handbook and policies was a poster.  All of it, and it was everywhere.  I don’t want to scare people away but yeah, it was 100 hour weeks for a year, easy.

Sustainability is in the long-term

The current phase that we’re in now is all about sustainability.  I mean, that is all I think about now.  We finally feel like we’ve built something we’re really proud of.  So, how do we put in a formula that is evergreen?  [It’s] a big part of what I’m doing now.  Yeah, we had an employee handbook.  Everyone has an employee handbook, but I just read it the other day and it’s talking about getting permission from your foreman before you go up the ladder.  I don’t think that’s applicable to our business, so I am deep into employee handbook, student protection plan, facility policies, insurance coverages, board handbook, transportation plans, all of this stuff, because I’ve realized that a big part of sustainability is good policies.

If you want to protect what you’ve built, it’s extremely important and it has to come from every part of the organization.  So, the board is serious about it, I’m serious about it, and our staff is serious about it too.  We don’t grow our programs any faster than we know that we can support them on an annual basis because the last thing I want to do is be pulling programs away from kids.  We have an event called The Coastal Challenge, which is our biggest annual fundraiser and if our development team can’t grow The Coastal Challenge, we can’t grow our youth programs.  It’s as simple as that.  We commit to our student for 10 years and we need to think long-term in every initiative we role out.  Everything we do now–policies, software, partnerships with other organizations–is focused on that because we just have to think sustainably.

Focus on the present

We have incredible kids and a newfound diversity in our city that we haven’t messed up yet.  We have the ability to do things right, starting with the opportunities we give our kids.  I think if I was focused for four months in the big cities, I think I could raise a couple million dollars and put our organization in a really good longterm position, but I’m having too much fun working with the kids.  I’ve got six weeks of summer camps starting and we’ve got college squash players coming from all over the country to coach our kids and we have students and coaches coming from Egypt, which is the squash capital of the world to be here.  Our kids are on such a roll right now and just love being in the building that I think right now, that’s the most important place for me to be–to keep supporting those efforts.  And I think the money will come. 

Have a great week,

Your Chenmark Capital Team

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