Race Promotion 101
Where Do You Start?
In my experience, what most race promoters crave — and what I focus on here at Reckoneer — is the following:
Building racing businesses take advantage of systems thinking with the ultimate goal to make each race predictable, repeatable, and profitable without requiring your real-time presence.
In other words, we don’t trade time for money.
Instead, we race promoters invest our time upfront creating valuable races and experiences.
We work hard now to continually reap the benefits later.
Be a Race Promoter, not a race director
All race promoters are race directors, but not all race directors are race promoters.
Why is that?
Because as the race promoter, you are the founder of your racing company, the overall creative strategist of each race, and responsible for the leadership and future direction of your business.
And what is YOUR business?
Why, it’s promoting races, of course!
That’s races plural because if you want to build a racing company that makes money, selling only one race will not be enough.
In simple terms, the race promoter is the boss, while the race director is a role that manages the race promoter’s plan.
Essentially, the race director is an employee — a subordinate role — to the race promoter.
Can a race promoter be a race director? Certainly!
In many smaller racing companies, the race promoter and the race director is the same person. And that’s ok… if you want to own your job.
What? Own my job? What does that mean?
Let me explain. Wait, there is no time. Let me sum up.
In many small racing companies or racing companies that are just getting started, there are few key people available.
Everyone wished they could hire more help. But if you are just starting out, cash flow is a tough issue to overcome.
So aside from part-timers, your entire company most likely consists of just you, and free help from friends, family, and the occasional volunteer.
Without a big staff, most of the roles in your company will be filled by the founder — you, the race promoter.
And the positions you do not fill will probably get neglected until you get around to them, making for a lot of slack for one person to pick up.
This means you are now two people: the owner, and the only employee.
You pay your own salary (if you get one), and you let yourself know if you’re doing a good job or not.
You plan, promote, and direct every aspect of your race.
You’re the only one out there trying to convince park managers to let you race their parks, and the only one selling your race to anyone who will listen.
Your boss makes you go to the park before the sun comes up, and will not let you leaving until every bit of race has been picked up.
You might be the best employee in your racing company, but your boss never gives you a break, never lets up, and never tell you you’re doing a good job.
You have a crazy person for a boss, and it’s you.
Congratulations! You now own your own job.
Still not clear? Ok… try this.
What if you just want to take the weekend off?
The same weekend of one of your races? You might say, “I’ll just plan around it”.
What happens when you get sick on race day? Can you call your boss for a fill in race director? You might say, “I’ll just work through it”.
Ok. Then maybe something more serious will do the trick.
What happens when you have a family emergency and need to be both directing your event AND at the hospital at the same time?
Mmmm… too serious?
Could your company survive an emergency like that? If your answer is, “No, it could not” — to any of the above — then you own your job.
You are the owner, the manager, and the talent. If any one of you takes a break, the company comes to a screeching halt.
Build a Racing Company, Not a Race Hobby
This may be tough to hear for most of you race directors out there.
Many of you love being the face of the company, and you might think that many of your customers only come to your races because of you.
When you’re first starting out, that’s ok. In the early days, you don’t have the money to hire someone to fill the race director role anyway.
Plus, you haven’t been directing races long enough to even know how you would want your hired race director to behave in the first place.
You need experience, written processes, and time to build a job description that defines what your future race director will and will not do.
But you can only do that by working in the job yourself.
However, once you have a strong understanding of how you want your race director to focus on managing and delivering your races, you need to begin defining and refining other jobs within your company too.
Are you running race day registration?
Write down what YOU would do for that.
Are you building a course? Write down what YOU do for that.
Are you drafting a proposal to go with your permit?
Write down how YOU do that too.
Write down every responsibility you think each position should have, and do it as if you yourself was in the role.
Each draft of these “position descriptions” will help you establish a “job description” for your company’s future employees.
You do want those, right?
So what does all of this talk of job descriptions, defined roles, and standards have to do with NOT owning your job?
Easy. If you are going to run a racing company, you are going to need to go to work IN your business.
Imagine your first employee sitting across from you. What do they need to know about the position you want them to fill in your racing company?
What do YOU want, expect, and require of them?
How will they know there are doing a good job?
How will you know they are doing what you want when you’re not looking?
By working IN that job, and DOING that job, you know exactly how you want that job to function.
Then all you do after that is write it down so a future employee will be able to judge their own efforts against your provided standard.
Of course, one of the most important positions in your racing company is the race director position itself.
For that position, you need to define all the elements of the work that YOU think a race director should do, and how they should do it.
You don’t want your future race director to do what THEY think should be done in that position.
You want them to do what YOU think they should do in that position.
The goal is to communicate how you want the work done, by explaining it as if you were doing it.
Once you have it written down, then and only then, can you think about hiring someone for that position.
You cannot build past race director until you decide that someone else could and should do the job.
If you think about it, you are essentially trying to work yourself out of the day-to-day tactical functions of your races, so that you can work on more important things, like actual race promotion (i.e. selling your races).
That’s what going to work IN your business means.
That’s what race promoters do.
But many race promoters cannot move past this phase.
They cannot see that the position of the race director is a job, while the position of race promoter is a mission; a mission to grow a successful racing company.
They stay race directors and never go beyond their comfort zone.
While there is nothing wrong with that, and there are many small racing companies that do fine by staying small, their attention will also be split between race director and race promoter.
They will have extreme difficulty focusing on the much broader and more expansive challenges within their companies.
And growth will be determined by how much energy the race director has in any given year.
One catastrophic event, emergency, or bad day could jeopardize their whole operation.
Because when you own your job, your company stops working with you do.
Meanwhile, there are some positive benefits to replacing yourself as the race director.
One of the most important benefits is your new capability to start going to work ON your business.
ON your business?
When you go to work IN your business, you define all the parts that make your company run.
But when you go to work ON your business, you will finally have choices.
Choices? Yes, choices!
Choices are what you don’t have as a race director.
Choices like deciding if you want to be there on race day or take the day off.
Or maybe the choice to go on vacation, or have two races going on the same day.
When you were the race director, you didn’t have these choices.
Either you did it, or it didn’t get done.
But with the proper delegation, you can grant yourself the freedom you so desperately sought out when you started building a race company in the first place.
Now you can decide what your company does and does not do, not just how it gets done.
You are now free to think about trends, new types of races, new territories, or experiment with another discipline.
You can begin to leverage your race promotion system, and finally be able to spend a significant amount of your time building your business and selling your races.
Let me say that again because I think it bears repeating.
The race promoter is responsible for selling the race.
So as the race promoter, and not the race director, you will finally be unencumbered to put all your efforts into selling your races.
By going through the effort to build a race director role that will implement YOUR methods, processes, systems, and controls, you will allow yourself something you have never been able to do before: enjoy running your company!
Learn What Not to Do
Why do race promoters fail?
I have met numerous race promoters who have failed to build a successful race promotion business.
Over and over again, I hear them talk to me about their struggles.
All too often, they found out that race promotion is not a job that magically creates the well-orchestrated event most racers enjoy on race day.
Instead, they find out that the real race promotion takes place months if not years before their racers line up on the starting line.
Most were unprepared for all the planning, preparation, and high-risk choices they never saw coming.
In the last minute panic to deal with all the boring business parts, they crushed their business under an avalanche of financial hardship.
The end result is often a quick flirtation with off-road racing that produced little to no financial reward.
All that creativity and drive snuffed out due to a lack of business skills.
However, the race promoters that have faded away from this industry have left you with a huge advantage.
They have identified the key reasons their businesses did not work.
Here are the top five reasons why most race promoters fail:
#1 – They Plan Everything Last Minute
Race promoters do not lack initiative.
In fact, they tend to be the kind of people that do not take “No” for an answer, and push forward when everyone else has quit.
However, they tend to come up with race ideas at the weirdest times.
While out for a run, or while riding in a particular park, you suddenly are inspired to come up with a cool event concept.
But when you come to your senses, you realize it’s May.
The current race calendar is full of other promoter’s events, and if you wanted to slip a race into a June date, you have less than 5-weeks to finance, plan, and promote it.
What are the chances of your success when you build a race this way? The number “zero” comes to mind.
It’s a kind of race promotion seizure where you think you can pull off the impossible in only a few shorts weeks.
Unfortunately, only a few of my last minute races ever worked that why I wanted them to.
With no runway for marketing efforts to get the word out, you never get the turnout you hoped for.
Do yourself a favor by giving your races more time to mature.
Most of your customers will plan their race calendar out 6-months in advance.
This makes last minute events poor investments if you need a large turnout to break even.
#2 – They Have No Respect for Risk
Mr. Murphy strikes you when you are the least prepared.
Usually at the worst possible moment, in the worst possible way.
New race promoters that ignore this truth, or think that it will not happen to them, go out of business faster than any other.
Each sport has its particular dangers but nobody is teaching new and established race promoters how to navigate these differences.
It is hard to stay in business when your event directly contributes to hurting one of your customers.
And it’s not easy to bounce back when everything goes wrong.
Many don’t bounce back. They just go out of business.
Don’t be unprepared for the risk that is “built in” to off-road racing.
That lack of preparation could cause your entire company to go under after only one race.
#3 – They Have No Path to Profit
Race promotion is a business and going broke most certainly takes out the most race promoters.
Sure, risk and reputation problems either directly or indirectly contributing to this result.
But running out of money or having nobody interested in coming to your races is a sure way to end your race promotion career.
You need to have a plan and a path to profit if you want to grow any business.
Race promotion is no different.
Seasonal events require that you make some extra money so that you can work and plan during the months where nothing is happening — unless you enjoy working for free.
If you do not grow, you stagnate.
Stagnation can be prolonged for a time — sometimes for years.
Any one-trick-pony race company that does not make more money than it takes in is called a special word in the business world: a hobby.
If you race company is a hobby, that’s ok. You just need to ADMIT that your organization is a hobby company, and not racing company.
Hobby companies do not grow, only companies that profit from their efforts grows.
That’s why there is a difference with a very important distinction.
No matter if you’re trying to build a for-profit or not-for-profit company, lack of revenue equals a lack of growth.
If your races do not make money, you days are numbered.
Learn What Works
When you decide to build your first race, you discover just how alone you are.
Unlike fixing a car, writing software, or getting tips on how to beat just about any video game, there is very little on proper race building.
Sure, there are a few blog posts out there that give you the highlights, but they are surprisingly dated.
You would have thought that there were other people out there interested in building races considering just how many different kinds of races are out there.
Guides? Not really.
Tips? Far and few between.
Lessons learned? They don’t seem to exist — that is unless you’re trying to build a marathon for 30,000 runners.
While getting advice from a national marathon race director can provide some highlights, it’s akin to learning how to build a software company by going to hear Bill Gates speak.
Sure he’s going to be insightful, and he may inspire you to follow in his footsteps.
Unfortunately, most of his speech is going to have too much big picture thinking to help you with starting a company tomorrow.
Same goes for the marathon directors.
Good advice that I just cannot use at this moment in my race building journey.
Maybe later, but right now, I need to know what I don’t know.
And I really need to know what is about to punch me right in the face if I don’t at least have some idea of what it is I don’t know.
During my first race, and during my second race, and my third, fourth, fifth (you get the idea) I learned the art of race building the hard way: trial and error.
Like Yoda said, “Do or do not. There is no try.”
So I did do.
And in doing, found out that there is a lot more to what Yoda is saying there.
Some of it is learning that when you “do” something, you figure out very quickly not to do it again. Hence the “do not” part.
You learn that “do not” only comes after the understanding that “do” didn’t work. And “try” is right out!
Probably because Yoda wants you to fully commit.
But that’s a lot more about Yoda then you probably wanted to hear about (must have let my geek flag fly on that one)!
The point is, sometimes, when there is no one to tell you what to “do” and “do not” do, you have to “try” a bunch of stuff and see what works with your own two eyes.
And that sucks!
So to make it suck less, I thought I would try to identify at least five things about building my first race that I wished I known before I started:
#5 – You will never have plenty of time
Procrastination will drown you.
The race production business is very time intensive.
Not in that it requires every waking moment of your time to be successful, but that there is a time requirement for every part of it that cannot be cheated.
Permits have to be turned in months in advance.
Park managers will always – and I mean always – tell you hell no when you show up with a permit two weeks before your race.
You can’t go back and unwind the clock to get that time back.
Planning for the race also comes with a time commitment.
There are venues to layout, courses to design, insurance to procure, equipment to set up, registrations to sell, sponsors to find, awards to buy, volunteers to convince; the list go on and on.
I found the time expectations needed for just writing down all the things I needed to do to be the hardest thing to get used to.
#4 – You must stay humble
There is a risk in this business – as in any business – that it may not work out if you.
Most race production companies that make this mistake usually go out of business in the first year.
Luckily for me, I was able to recover from my overconfidence in my belief that my first race would be a barn burner.
But it hurt both my ego and my pocket book. Now, you most certainly need confidence in yourself that you can produce a good race.
That confidence is essential in keeping you motivated enough to do the things that will push your race into existence.
But what will do you in is thinking that your first race should be a massive extravaganza with enough bandwidth to accommodate hundreds of riders.
Because it will most certainly let you down.
Start with the first principle of a profitable race by keeping everything small.
Small races are the best kind of races, to begin with.
Building small races allows you to learn the flow, experiment with some processes, and keep your costs down.
It will also give you a satisfying confidence boost, especially when you can say that you successfully directed your first race.
If you build small races on purpose, you protect yourself from over committing, without losing control of the event.
#3 – You must build repeatable systems
A big part of race building is figuring out how to do something right, and then how not to forget how you did it.
You only want to learn it once, then be able to repeat it without too much additional effort.
Or even better, teach someone else how to do it.
Here’s the problem with all that.
When I was building my first race, I couldn’t tell the difference between what I would use again, and what was only a one-off process.
So to keep track of what I need to know, I keep a race building journal.
By writing down each activity in my race building journey, I can remind myself how things went down. Each one of my entries details key elements that I would have forgotten over time.
My journal became the baseline for figuring out all the parts that worked, all the parts that didn’t work, and the parts that I still needed to work on.
However, the most important part of keeping a journal is process development. You cannot build a race building system for yourself if you cannot articulate each step of your process.
Your journal will be a huge life- and time-saver when it comes to recalling what came before what in each of your newly minted processes.
These recorded processes are essential in making faster decisions.
Instead of trying to guess what you need to do next, you can just look at your documented process and see what comes next.
Your goal should be to take what you have learned, write it down, and eventually group each series of steps into your own, personal guide to putting your race together.
#2 – You must always be selling
If you told me that 50-percent of race production was selling your race, I would have paid more attention to my marketing efforts.
The truth is that selling a race is no different than selling anything else.
If you have a good product, and a means to convince people the value of that product, people will buy it.
The same goes for races. If you build a good race and can find enough racers that want to race your race, you race will be successful.
Seems simple enough.
You definitely need to sell by convincing people of your value.
But you also need to sell people with your writing too.
I had no idea how much writing I would need to do in order to convince people.
If you can improve your writing – even a little – it will have a dramatic impact on how well you can convince others with your written word.
But of all the people you need to sell, your team needs to be sold on you, and your race, the most.
If you can’t sell your team on your vision or goals, you will never get anything done.
This is why keeping true to the “stay simple” principle of a profitable race greatly supports your efforts in convincing your team that your vision is achievable.
In a way, every part of your race requires some sort of sales.
And it is your job to know you need to get good at all of its forms sooner rather than later.
The selling never ends.
#1 – You are the only one who will care
Personal commitment comes down to just you.
If you don’t do the work, no one will.
Your vision and processes all come from you. And nobody else but you.
You set the standard for how your race will run, how your staff will behave, and how your racers will enjoy the event.
You are the key player in building the prototype for how your first race, and future races, will be created. Because if you do not get your prototype off the ground, your race will not happen.
So it goes without saying when it comes to your race, YOU will, or YOU won’t get it done.
No one else will put the passion and effort into your race like you will.
And if you give up, your race will die.
The Details Matter
You are your race.
Eventually, when your prototype has become stable, and you have enough repeatable processes in place that anyone can be taught to build your races, then (and only then), can you begin to replace yourself as the key player.
But in the beginning, you are the heart of your race.
Being the key player to your racing efforts comes with its perks.
Freedom, being your own boss, and Winters off (unless you’re into Winter sports) are good benefits.
But these perks will be short-lived if you don’t put the time in to make your prototype function.
If you do not do it first, it will not get done. And if it does not get done, you will fail.
So don’t fail!
Be the center of your race and the champion of your own efforts.
Don’t delegate away your responsibilities, or settle for standards you do not set.
If you want to be your own boss, you need to care about being the boss too.
Your goal is to design a system that eventually removes you from having to be in the process.
However, in order to do that, you need to go to work on race by caring how every part of it is designed, managed, and executed.
Care about the details now while you still have control and don’t ever give up!
And now you know.