With a solid background working for other i9 Sports franchisees, Tayler Saunders takes the leap into franchise ownership herself
Tayler Saunders has had a very challenging start to her entrepreneurial career. Not long after she moved to East Nashville from Austin to start her own i9 Sports franchise, she faced two very unusual challenges: a devastating tornado that, among other things, damaged some of her first sports venues; and two weeks later, mandated shutdowns of non-essential businesses due to a global pandemic. As things have started to return to the new normal over the summer and fall, Saunders has been more excited than ever to get back to the playing field. “On the weekends when the kids are out there, just having a good time and smiling and excited, it’s great,” she says. Learn more about her journey in this i9 Sports franchise review.
What were you doing before you became a franchisee with i9 Sports?
I was a program director for Justin Cannon in Texas, who is also with i9 Sports, for about two years. He’s my business partner now.
Before that I was working with Texas State athletics and their development department and also coaching lacrosse and multi-sport for Justin in Austin. Before that I worked inside sales for a professional lacrosse program up in Denver, the Denver Outlaws, and I helped with marketing and their youth programs as well. And before that I was with Ken Trager in Denver, also with i9 Sports.
You’ve got a long history with i9 Sports.
Yes. Right out of college, I worked with Ken as his marketing coordinator. I was his first full-time employee. So yeah, that’s kind of where I started. I applied to be a site coordinator for him and when I interviewed, he was like, “Oh, you have plenty of other skills that we can use.” It worked out really well.
I’ve actually worked in every role in i9 Sports except for a parent-volunteer coach — I’ve stood in as a volunteer coach, but I’ve never been a parent coach. I’ve refereed most of the sports, coached most of the sports, been a program director and a site coordinator. Now I’m an owner.
At what point did you know that you wanted to become an i9 Sports franchisee yourself?
Well, actually right away when I worked with Ken. I thought it would be really cool to own one myself. At that point, though, I was still fresh out of college, still wanting to do the professional sports thing, and I was pretty adamant on that. So I was like, “In a few years maybe I’ll look into it.” Then when I started working with Justin, I thought, “Maybe this is something that’s going to stick around.”
I didn’t want to work with kids. My mom owns daycare centers and so I did it my whole life, and I have five siblings and I was like, “I’m not doing” it. Like, I’m not doing something with kids. Since then I’ve basically worked with kids every day.
What changed your mind?
I don’t think it was ever one specific thing. The kids are the best part, they really are. Honestly, I don’t think I would be able to do what I do if it weren’t for the kids. Just knowing the way it impacts them, it’s such a rewarding thing.
It’s just funny to me that I thought I would never work with kids again, and now they’re my favorite part about my job.
Have you had an aha moment where you said to yourself, “Yes, I absolutely made the right decision to invest in this franchise?”
I was very excited when we first started. Justin and I had talked about it, so we kind of knew going into our last convention in July. I was going to try and ask a lot of questions to kind of see if I felt like this was something I still wanted to do. Then we started looking at territories and I came out and visited East Nashville and felt like I was supposed to be here.
It was difficult in the beginning because I didn’t really know anybody. We had to find venues in our two cities — we’re in Hendersonville and Mt. Juliet. Then we developed a strong relationship with a private Christian school there, and they got hit with the tornado in March. Almost immediately after that, the pandemic hit. So it has been a little bit of a struggle.
But things are getting back to normal, and on the weekends when the kids are out there, just having a good time and smiling and excited, it’s great. Opening day is the best. These kids come out and they’re jumping around, excited, and you feed off of that for sure. That’s definitely what keeps you going when things sometimes get rough.
Tell me a little bit about your personal background in sports, growing up.
I did dance and cheer for most of my young childhood, from ages 2 to 13. My parents just weren’t huge sports people. There are five siblings and none of us really played any sports until we were older. I ended up joining volleyball when I was in high school. I just started and I loved it.
I did intramurals all through college and I still play. I’m actually in rec volleyball year-round right now. Yeah, it’s fun and definitely something I really enjoy doing.
What are some of the most valuable things i9 Sports headquarters has done to help you launch your business and get it ramped up?
Having business coaches to answer questions has been huge. I think I also have a unique situation because I do have such a dense history with all parts of the organization. I think the hardest part for me has been the business side of it and learning all of that stuff. I feel very blessed. I couldn’t imagine how much more stressful it would be to learn what the organization’s about and also how to run it all at the same time. That’s been the biggest thing for me, is having a business coach to reach out to when I have those questions.
Do you have a lot of interaction with other franchisees in the system?
I actually just went to my first convention last year, having worked with i9 Sports for over four years now, and met so many people there. Although I don’t communicate with all of them all the time, there are definitely some that I talk to a lot more.
It sounds like it’s a very supportive environment.
It is. There’s definitely a friendship group that you get from having a franchise and that is nice. Also, you can bounce ideas off of each other. Everyone is so willing to share their ideas and everything. We’re all out here trying. I think we all understand, too, that we all benefit when we all succeed.
What advice would you give to somebody who was considering buying an i9 Sports franchise? What would you want them to know?
I would say there’s going to be a lot of work and there are going to be days where it’s difficult, but if you can push through and get to game day, the joy that it brings to children is worth seeing. It’s worth doing everything else. I would say it takes a lot of work, but it’s very rewarding.
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