Shawn Smith
I talk a lot about technology with a focus on the buisness outcome intersection. Love riding my bike. Not part of the status quo team.

Interview: First Off The Bike – Part 1

Who the hell is Shawn Smith? He works for a large Aussie telecommunications company. He doesnít have a background in triathlon. On the weekend you might find him racing†criterium†at the Footscray Cycling Club in Melbourneís West.

So, why on earth is FOTB talking to Shawn Smith? Good question!

What you may not know is that Shawn currently manages two of Australiaís top Australian male triathletes Tim Van Berkel and Aaron Royle. In this two-part interview FOTB gives you the inside scoop on sports management as we hear Shawnís unique perspective on what makes a good manager, dealing with sponsors, how to maximise social media impact and why itís always good to think twice before you tweet.

FOTB: Welcome Shawn! Thanks for spending some time with us.
Shawn: My pleasure!

FOTB: Managing triathletes isnít your full-time gig, so what do you do in Ďreal lifeí to pay the bills and how does that balance with managing Aaron and Tim?
Shawn: I have a full-time job working in the telecommunications/IT/technology space. It has its own challenges and obviously, that can complicate things a little when it comes to also managing athletes. For instance, it makes it hard to talk to Berks and Aaron during the day. As far as balancing things goes, for me, the number one thing is that whatever pays the bills, whatever is my full-time gig that should take precedenceÖ and it always does.

FOTB: So, do the boys get enough of your attention?
Shawn: Of course! Itís about utilising my time very appropriately when required. Which is why, when Iím approached by other people to consider taking on other athletes to manage, I politely say íNo!í. For Tim and Aaron, this is their income that I am influencing and if Iím not 100% on board with it, they will suffer. And I couldnít live with myself if that was the case.

FOTB: What qualifies you to be a sports manager?
Shawn: Absolutely nothing! I donít have a degree in sports management, I didnít sit around with a bunch of athlete management teams or be involved in them. I guess Iím taking a very different approach to management. Probably the biggest difference is that Iím able to take the financial motivator out of the equation for me itís not about the money. My approach is that itís more of a relationship with Aaron thatís still embryonic, but with Berks thatís been over a very, very long course of time.

And when I say I have no qualification to manage, thatís not quite true. I think I bring something valuable to the table more of a business-structured head around things. A key part of management is removing the complexities or removing the heartache that these guys go through when negotiating their own contracts.

As a manager Iím blessed I mean Tim and Aaron are very, very good at what they do. Iíve got the sub-2 hour guy, best in the country, top 10 in the world. Iíve got the best 8-hour racer, best in the country and top 10 in the world. Theyíre really good at getting the best out of their bodies and their minds. They know how to prepare themselves. So when it comes to the sponsorship negotiation stuff this becomes a secondary or tertiary thing for them. And they only go through the cycle once a year or every second year with sponsors. So for them itís a real challenge they have to gear up and work out how to do this and get involved with the sponsor again. Itís quite taxing on them, especially when itís normally at the end of their calendar year, which is their downtime and theyíre trying to plan for other things. Thatís where a good manager comes in.

FOTB: You can be the Ďbad guyí who does the tough negotiating?
Shawn: Like any manager I sit Ďin-betweení and yes, Iím able to be the Ďbad guyí who pushes quite hard to get a result for the athlete, whereas the athletes would certainly feel uncomfortable trying to sit there and negotiate their own contracts. I think for Tim and Aaron it gives them confidence because I bring some level-headedness around the contractual stuff the legal complications they could possibly have. Thereís also what I call the Ďposturingí of the deal at some point in time you need to get to a level playing field and I do this day in and day out in my full-time job. So, if thereís a deal to be had, Iím confident that weíll get an outcome thatís palatable for both sides. Iím quite accustomed to having tough conversations with people too. Whether Iím talking to a start-up or a business that turns over several million dollars, itís not just sitting around drinking tea and eating scones. Iím not afraid to take the hard-ass approach when required. I prefer not to play hardball, but sometimes you have to.

FOTB: You said youíre not in it for the money, so what do you get out of it?
Shawn: Iím heavily invested in this because I have an emotional connection to the two guys. Iím sure many other athlete managers have the same thing theyíre kind of like your two kids! But, I have to say, if you had a stable of 20-30 athletes and there were 5 or 6 people running the business, I donít think you could have an emotional investment in all of them. And therefore, in my opinion, I donít think you could ever get the right result.

FOTB: Thatís a big call! I can hear managers out there sharpening their knives! Isnít the danger that you get too emotionally involved? Doesnít that make you less professional and objective?
Shawn: If you take the emotional connection out of the equation, the real danger is it just becomes a by-product or a transaction. I guess I find it hard to see how with a big group of athletes, they wouldnít simply become Ďassetsí there for the managerís well-being, their own material gain. Donít get me wrong, I know the services that managers bring to the table looking after those areas that the athlete just doesnít understand or have the time or the expertise to deal with. I want to be clear that this is just my opinion, based on my own experience and what Iíve seen in the sport Iím not saying having a stable of athletes is the wrong thing to do.

But, when it comes to something like contract negotiation, I think that personal connection is important. It gives the athletes more comfort when they know that youíre not just batting for yourself itís not all about money for you.

FOTB: How do sponsors respond to dealing with you?
Shawn: Taking money out of the equation changes the relationship with the sponsors too. Iíve always been super-transparent with all the sponsors about what motivates me and I think that reduces some of the challenges that they face.

For example, sponsors have said that many managers donít allow the athlete to talk directly to the sponsor. That bamboozles me! Why do that? Ultimately weíre talking about a Ďproductí that the sponsors are purchasing or an Ďassetí that theyíre paying for I hate talking about it like this but thatís what the athletes end up looking like on a Profit and Loss Statement itís a Marketing budget line and thereís probably a sub-line in there for Athlete Sponsorship. So the sponsors have to manage that accordingly.

From a management point of view, I need to turn a line of figures into a real person. The representatives managing the sponsorships have got to be able to Ďtouch and feelí and see where their money is going and so I want to make sure that both my guys have long-standing relationships with their sponsors they know their sponsors and the sponsors know them at a personal level. That way Berks and Aaron are not just a line on a balance sheet- theyíre flesh and blood people who are integral parts of the sponsorsí teams. Rather than cut them out of that relationship with the sponsor, I want to draw my athletes into it.

FOTB: Let me play Devilís Advocate for a momentÖ youíve got the Ďluxuryí of not having to have your management work pay your bills, so that changes the whole dynamicÖ
Shawn: I get it and letís be honest people have to survive financially, butÖ I think the hardest part would be the contract negotiation and the posturing of those contracts. Itís difficult to find that even position where both entities agree.

FOTB: Does the personal connection allow you to go in harder in a negotiation?
Shawn: Absolutely! And on top of that, walking away from deals that arenít in the best interest of the athlete is actually easier because Iím not thinking about whatís in it for me. Itís important to realise that itís not just about dollars itís about making sure thereís always a value proposition around the deal. Both Tim and Aaron have some contracts which donít have a dollar value attached, but they believe, and I also believe, that they get some really good exposure and some great product that they like. It would be nice if there were dollars attached, but ultimately the value part is the most important is this deal providing value for both sides? And the athletes definitely need to be comfortable with what theyíre promoting so it should never just about the money. Thereís got to be some integrity there.

FOTB: Speaking of value on both sides, how do you quantify what the sponsor gets out of the deal- how do they work out what the bottom-line is? I mean itís a pretty nebulous thing isnít it?
Shawn: I know we talked about the Profit and Loss statement, but I actually donít think that most sponsors have an ROI attached to any of this. I do think that sponsors would see sponsorship as a return because they become front of mind, thereís an affiliation to the brand photos on the podium, crossing the line on a bike, in marketing terms they call it mental availability. The sponsors are buying the rights to be there with the athlete in the consumersí minds, if and when it occurs. They donít buy it to know that that individual will always be on the podium, because that is just an impossibility in this sport. Thereís not a winner and loser every week thereís just first, second, third and then everybody else.

If you asked me, do I know to the dollar what each athlete is worth?Ö probably not, but I definitely have a view of what an apparel company is willing to pay. I know what kind of support a bike manufacturer will give. But I donít have an overview of the whole sport to be able to make comparisons with all the other athletes.

FOTB: As far as ROI goes, youíre working on your own project related to that?
Shawn: Itís not really about ROI but itís certainly about comparing athletes. In baseball and basketball they have a rating system for an athlete based on the wealth of statistics available. Triathlon doesnít have one. Iím trying to build one. Iím doing this for my own purpose because I want to know how my athletes perform against two major metrics performance as an athlete, and thereís a whole bunch of metrics that sit under that and also from a social media perspective. Mash those together and we generate a number. I would then want to rate Tim and Aaron against others.

The idea originally came about because a marketing executive believed he knew more about my athlete than I did. It annoyed me because it wasnít true, but I had to go back to him with hard evidence to refute what he said because it was inaccurate. And then I argued that he was actually worth more than what we were currently askingÖ and hereís why. You canít argue these things on the basis that youíre a nice guy or your athlete is a nice guy you actually have to be able to put some rationale behind it. And funnily enoughÖ weíre back at the negotiating table having a discussion with the sponsor!

FOTB: When it comes to the business/management side of things, what advice would you give to other athletes?
Shawn: The first thing is that you need to run your own brand as if it is a business. If youíre not, youíre selling yourself short.
Secondly, if you have contracts that are stipulating product onlyÖ youíre also selling yourself short and putting pressure on the guys who are in the mid-tier level or just starting, because theyíre going to be pushed down to product-only too. I know this sounds like Iím contradicting myself, but in the context of Berks and Aaronís sponsorships, product only is a very small part.

The harsh reality is, if youíre not confident in pushing harderÖ bad luck! Grow some balls and just do it or get yourself a manager. Of courseÖ and I say this tongue in cheekÖ personally Iím happy if you stay on product-only because that allows me to make sure Berks and Aaron get paid! Seriously though, youíre not doing yourself or the sport any favours learn to push harder!

The third thing is related to the first when youíre running your brand as a business, really operate it like a business understand your profit and loss, see where you need to invest more time with sponsors, keep asking ďWhat more can I do?Ē and become an ambassador for your own brand, but also for your sponsor. Because sponsors donít want to have a one or two year contract and then say ďYouíre out of here.Ē

Ensure that you have a business plan that clearly sets out what you want to do. Sit down with your sponsors and talk it through. Sure, itís an athlete plan, but ultimately itís also a business plan. Think about where you see yourself in three years time. How are you going to get there? What events are you aiming for? What are you going to be doing? Ask what you can get involved in that helps your sponsors. Really structure it. The reality is that 99% of the athletes Iíve come across would never even dream of doing that. Just doing this will set you apart from the pack.

When it comes to sponsors, my view is youíve got to give something back. Itís not a one-way street where the athlete constantly has his or her hand out for money or product.

I think way back to 2008 when Berks won IM WA at Busselton I was doing photography at that stage and we chatted after the race. I said to Berks, ďYou should give this photo, fully framed, to your very important sponsors. If you want to sign it, sign it.Ē And he sent it, I think to Scody at the time. And itís still there in their office.

As I said to Berks, that stuff is really important. It cost him a couple of hundred bucks, but that money has gone a long way. Itís the little things that mean a lot to your sponsors itís not just about the money, theyíre often fans. So, do the basics. Stay in touch. Send out an email once a month about what youíve been doing. And get your head around social media!

FOTB: Thatís a good spot to finish for now. Thanks for your honesty and your insights, Shawn!

Stay tuned for Part II of our no-holds barred interview with Shawn Smith as he goes into the nitty gritty of building your brand, maximising your impact on social media and planning for the year ahead.