When JAM Brands co-founder Dan Kessler tried cheerleading for the first time at the University of Louisville after two years of playing collegiate soccer, his friends told him he was a natural at stunting. But he still had to learn the techniques from the ground up: a toss hands, then a toss hands extension, then a liberty, then a top hand. “[Stunting] was a new athletic skill that I had to conquer and try to perfect,” he says. “That addiction of getting better kept me going to practice and working.”
One could say the same thing about the way Kessler approaches his business: taking one huge blowout cheerleading event, JAMFest, executing it, fine-tuning it and ultimately growing it into a 130-event-a-year production company, The JAM Brands, whose competitions young cheerleaders and dancers all over the continent clamor to attend.
In 2000, Kessler joined JAM Brands co-owners Aaron Flaker and Emmett Tyler, two of his old college buddies who’d started JAMFest in 1995, and made the team a “triumvirate,” as they call it. “People say [not to] mix business with pleasure or friends with business, but the personal relationship and appreciation and care that we have for each other [is what makes us different]. We like to see each other succeed in life, and that’s helpful,” Kessler says.
As far as splitting up the work goes, Kessler credits Flaker for JAM Brands’ marketing success—right down to the fonts on the signage—and Tyler for a “top-down” perspective, including calculating dollars and cents). Kessler says his own contribution to the triad has been a strong focus on product development, as well as vision for the energetic, fun vibe and look that JAM Brands events are known for. He’s also a pro at “relationship-building,” a strength that’s paid off in spades—for instance, the ideas for both the Majors and the U.S. Finals grew from listening to what cheerleaders, parents, coaches and industry professionals had to say.
“Customer service and listening to people is very important. I try to listen to what is wanted and needed and then bring that into our products,” Kessler says.
Keeping the lines of communication open: Kessler heavily relies on personal communication with coaches and gym owners to disseminate information, and he leans on his office staff to facilitate that end. “Our staff is there to answer and make calls, answer emails as quickly as possible and get out the information as quick as possible,” he says. “You’ve got to have people communicate [your] message.”
Using social media to your advantage: Banners advertising event hashtags and Twitter accounts have become invaluable tools, as has using social media to “pre-promote” logistics information. “We try to tell the coaches and owners to tell the families to like us, follow us and hashtag us, so they can always be up-to-date,” he says. “That’s one of the things unique to us, even now, is the ability to get [information] right away.”
Viewing others’ successes as good for the industry as a whole: Even when competitions similar to JAM Brands pop up, Kessler welcomes new entries into the event business. “We feel pride that we can put out great products and services that other people want to replicate or duplicate or imitate, because that means it’s good,” Kessler says. He’s also keenly aware of how more events can aid the bigger picture of growing the sport in general: “Ultimately, our goal is to get as many kids to walk through the doors of a gym as possible—because that’s the most important thing in our industry: growing the number of participants.”
Making it about the kids: Kid-friendly bells and whistles like inflatable “fun zones,” Jammy the mascot, interactive video technology, social media participation and humorous gags like coaches or grandmas dancing together are all hallmarks of JAM Brands events. These elements are designed to encourage children to have a blast—and their decision-makers to attend the next JAM Brands event.
In event-speak, these are “external fun factors,” according to Kessler. “We invented or created many of the things you see on the all-star market today, and it started with focusing on the kids—that’s why we went with the name JAMFest,” Kessler says. “When you think of JAMFest, it has nothing to do with cheerleading. Back in the day it was NCA, UCA, MCA…very ‘alphabet’ companies. This idea was, ‘We want to have competitions, but we want to remember that these events are fun.’”
Fun is also a personal value of Kessler’s, right down to regular evening playtime with his two daughters and his legendary annual Kentucky Derby party, famous in Louisville for providing what Kessler calls a “slow start” to the long weekend, by way of conversation and bourbon cocktails. This year, his wife Shannon’s new company, Primp Style Lounge (a hair wash-and-style service similar to the popular Drybar chain), is slated to make an appearance at the festivities.
Kessler is proud that his other half shares his entrepreneurial spirit. “We’re America,” says Kessler. “You watch cheerleading competitions and you say, ‘I can do it better.’ [Same with Primp Style Lounge]—it’s along the lines of what we see in New York and Chicago and LA. [Shannon thought], ‘These ‘dry bars’ and blowout places are great, so we’ll bring it to Louisville.”
Now that’s what we call Kentucky fried business smarts.