As she explains below, when Debbie was four years old, she watched her younger sister crawl into a pool. Debbie jumped in and pulled her sister out and was inspired by the experience to devote her life to training others how to swim.
Her interview answers provide a good lesson – when there is a larger and more significant purpose behind the business, it is much easier to grow it. In Debbie’s case, she’s on a mission to prevent accidental drowning deaths motivated by almost losing her sister to drowning, and that is so much more powerful than simply trying to increase your bottom line.
As you can imagine, it has been personally very satisfying working with Debbie as a client, given how wonderful her work is.
Debbie’s business also focuses in particular on training adults with lifelong fear of the water (aquaphobia), which is a good lesson for other businesses in finding a niche, even within the already-narrow world of swim school instruction.
With Debbie’s Swim School going through its major expansion right now, with new locations and staff being added over the next few months, I thought it would be instructive to check in with her to see what lessons she has to share.
How Debbie Koenig Quadrupled Her Swim School Business
John Corcoran (JC): Tell us about the work you currently do and your target customer/audience.
Debbie Koenig, Founder of Debbie’s Swim School (DK): Debbie’s Swim School was founded in 1992 and we teach all levels of swimmers around the San Francisco Bay Area. We specialize in everything from basic stroke mechanics to advanced life-saving techniques.
We have students ranging in age from 6 months to 95 years old. It’s never too late to learn to swim.
Our target customers are Aquaphobic adults and young children. Our mission is to raise awareness to prevent drowning through community outreach programs and swim lessons.
JC: How did you get into your current line of work? Was there something that inspired you when you were younger to seek it out?
DK: When I was four years old I watched my baby sister crawl into a pool. To this day I remember jumping in and pulling her out. Her eyes were opened wide and she threw up all over me, gasping for air. I knew from that time forward I wanted to teach people how to swim.
I can’t imagine what my life would be like if I would have watched her drown. Unfortunately 10 children in the US die every day due to drowning. This unfortunate tragedy is completely preventable.
JC: What are some of the coolest “perks” you’ve gotten out of your line of work and/or your business?
DK: Watching clients go from having paralyzing aquaphobia to enjoying such activities as snorkeling, swimming in the hotel pool for the first time, and participating in a triathlons!
Surprising their significant other or family by showing off their new swimming skill! I receive post cards thanking me from around the world stating “It’s the first time I was able to use the hotel pool on vacation, Thank you!”
People literally jump for joy when they learn how to swim, and nothing is better than knowing you helped them to achieve that. I smile knowing that my business makes a difference, and it literally saves lives. If we help to prevent even one drowning all of our work is worthwhile.
This past year we made the front page in the Benicia Herald for our Water Safety Day and Drowning Prevention efforts, I was interviewed on CBS for the Pool Safely Campaign, we have given aquatic safety presentations in several community centers and schools in Solano and Benicia Counties, we have participated in the 4th of July Parade & Veterans Parade.
Our staff has quadrupled, and so have our locations!
JC: What famous or not-so-famous role models or icons have you looked up to, particularly for inspiration as you have built your business/career?
DK: Mario Vittonne is a Maritime safety expert and Chief Warrant Officer for the Coast Guard. Pete Dequincy is amazing at training and teaching rescue techniques to staff. William Longfellow, the creator of the American Red Cross Aquatics program. Also the author Stephen Covey for inspirational insights, and motivation and Michael Gerber for his business organizational strategies.
JC: If you could go back in time, what advice do you wish you could give your younger self about entrepreneurship and starting and building a new business?
DK: Use every resource out there! Ask questions and do your research. Delegate and invest in quality products, which represent your business. Contact your industry associations and be open to new ideas and suggestions.
JC: What one thing has been the biggest factor in why you have been successful?
DK: Having a strong sense of determination, fulfillment, and enjoyment. Every day I wake up and ask myself “What can I do today to help the Swim School become more successful?” I don’t take “No” for an answer I figure out what I need to change in order hear “Yes.”
JC: What are the biggest challenges you face in your business today?
DK: Risk. Everyone needs to be properly trained and on target. In my business if you are not, someone could die.
Finding qualified and goal-driven teachers who are responsible can be challenging. I look for genuine caring and motivated staff. These are qualities that cannot be taught; they must be within the staff member. So far I have been very blessed with my Aquatic Team. As we continue to grow I know finding such talented and motivated staff will be one of my greatest challenges.
It’s difficult not to become overwhelmed at times. With a business expansion there are so many intricate parts. It is necessary to delegate, prioritize, and strategize.
JC: What advice do you have for solopreneurs or small business owners who are seeking to grow their business larger?
DK: Hire quality staff, systematize, strategize, and use your small business resources. Accept that you will make mistakes and know that it’s a part of learning and a part of growth.
Network and learn the importance of it. Know your target audience and seek them out. But most of all, keep a good relationship with each customer and do something different that another business doesn’t offer, and excel at it!
JC: How do you see your market changing in the years ahead? What challenges keep you up at night? What opportunities do you see on the horizon?
JC: I see a tremendous amount of opportunities on the horizon, and that’s also what keeps me up at night. I ask myself how do I achieve my full business growth potential? What needs to get done, and by who? How do I develop and implement all of these systems?
These questions as well as answers and new innovative ideas never stop in my mind. That’s also one of the best things about owning your own business. You can put your ideas and imagination to work. I love watching my business grow and expand. It is an amazing and satisfying feeling to know I created this all with one simple idea and that it makes a positive difference in people’s lives.
JC: Thanks to Debbie for giving such an insightful interview. You can learn more about Debbie’s Swim School or connect with her at Debbie’s Swim School.