Dive In: How 2 Competitive Athletes Made Swimming a Business Opportunity
BY Andrew Maclean
Ten years ago Casey Barrett and Lars Merseburg found New York City was ripe for a swim school. Now Imagine Swimming is one of the fastest-growing companies in America.
00:00 Casey Barrett: Imagine is 10 years old now. Lars and I are 37 and we're top swimmers and we're still learning how to swim. There are a few swim schools in the city. There always have been. But I don't think the number of schools kept pace with how many young families are now choosing to raise their families in New York. There isn't that suburban flight anymore where there used to be.
Casey Barrett, 1996 Olympian, and Lars Mersebreg, a former NCAA swimming champ, launched Imagine Swimming when they grew tired of their corporate office jobs.
00:29 Lars Merseberg: Casey had the idea in February of 2002 when I was living in Costa Rica for a couple months, and he said "Let's teach lessons in New York, just the two of us, start a school." so, it's bigger than just him and I.
00:41 Barrett: I think it's fair to say we both reacted poorly to bosses and cubicles. Anyway, it was a business idea and we did see an opening in the market, but a big part of it was, you know, "We wanted to do something that we felt good about, that was our passion, but also sell something with real value to the world and to the families we're trying to reach.
The two founders oversaw the swimming school for a year before they hired other competitive swimmers as instructors and staff.
01:08 Merseberg: A lot of the core group are ex-competitive swimmers. And I think that has to do with what you learn in the pool and what are life lessons that we're trying to pass on to the kids. They're gonna make you successful in a lot of areas in life. And definitely, the core elements to run a business, we've learned through our hard work as children and teenagers in the pool, and we try to just transfer that to the business world.
01:32 Barrett: If swimmers are anything, they're disciplined. Like, that's the core of your personality if you're a competitive swimmer. You understand what it takes to be disciplined and to achieve something. So, when you have a core group that are all former swimmers, there's an instant level of trust that their work ethic and the discipline is there.
01:49 Barrett: So, our teachers are, if you look at their resumes on our website, they're far more accomplished not just as swimmers, but like a lot of them have education degrees, a lot of them are artists, actors, musicians, really creative young people that are really passionate about swimming and teaching and they take their creativity into the pool. They found the joy of competing again just by teaching. It's easy to forget about how much you actually really like doing that simple pure act of swimming. And sometimes, it takes going back to like teaching pre-schoolers how to float on their back, and like, "Oh, this is actually, this is a great fun time."
Imagine Swimming is now No. 1,566 on the 2012 Inc. 5000 list, up from 1,579 last year.
The school grew to 80 employees from 20 in 2008, and increased revenue 180% to $4.2 million, primarily from swim lesson fees.
02:36 Barrett: I mean, you know, we have 3500 kids a week at Imagine right now. We have not scratched the surface at all as far as the New York City market goes. We haven't remotely tapped into the number of families that really could benefit and wanna swim with Imagine. So, why look to London or Hong Kong when our backyard still has quite a demand?
Last updated: Aug 28, 2012
ANDREW MACLEAN is the video editor at Inc.com. He previously worked at MediaStorm and did his graduate studies in video production at Syracuse University.
He can be contacted via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.