"Like everything in life, you have to grow organically. The funding that we had initially didn't seem to last very long. It surprised me how much everything cost"
Dave Saltman, Managing Director, Pitchcare
Every entrepreneur can tell you the exact moment, when the light bulb lit up and the seeds of a business idea began to germinate. For Dave Saltman it was a question from a young groundsman, at the beginning of the 2000/01 football season, as they were busy preparing the pitch at Molineux. "How do you make money from the internet?" asked the youngster.
So started the thought process which led Dave to spending all his savings, and more, plus investments he coaxed from a large number of supportive family and friends, on pursuing a dream to produce the best ever website for the sports turf industry, offering free help and advice and, hopefully, making a living for himself in the process.
After fifteen months in the planning, and investment in design and developing the website, Pitchcare went live on the 26th July 2001 with, not unsurprisingly, Dave Saltman as its first member. By the end of August, membership had zoomed to the grand total of twenty-two! Ten years on and the website is attracting fifteen new members a day.
As Pitchcare celebrates its 10th anniversary, we ask the founder and Managing Director, David Saltman, to share some of the highs and lows of a website that has revolutionised the sports turf industry.
Where did the idea for Pitchcare come from?
I was half way through cutting Molineux on a lovely June day in 2000. The lad working with me (Simon Britton) and I stopped for a break and sat up in the North bank. He asked me how to make money on the internet, did you get paid for the number of hits the website got? I replied saying, no but that, with good traffic, you could get advertising and, by selling online, there was also generation of revenue.
As far as I can remember, that was the catalyst that gave me the idea to start Pitchcare at that moment. I excused myself from Simon and went and knocked on the door of the club secretary, Richard Skirrow. Richard invited me in, and I asked him if I could bounce an idea off him - it took about one minute to do so and, when I finished, he said "what are you going to write about at the end of the first year?"
I said that I could probably write a different article at each venue and for each sport every year as finances, resources, usage and weather were always changeable.
How did you go about turning the idea into reality?
Well, initially, I spoke to the local chamber of commerce and enrolled with a business adviser to get a business plan written. This service was free and I'd meet up, maybe once a week for a month or so, to finalise the dialogue and then work closely with the adviser to put some figures and forecasts together. I also started making appointments to meet up with various key figures working within the industry, both practitioners and Managing Directors of companies, to explain the concept that was Pitchcare.
Richard continued to advise and mentor me, meeting up after work for a jar in the local, to go through various issues. He also set up some meetings with accountants and solicitors that he knew. We even took Mark McGhee, the then Wolves manager, out one night for a meal, as he'd recently bought and funded a different website venture.
The other main issue was funding the project. I didn't think about it too much at the time, but it's a massive step to leave a 'safe' job and step into the great unknown. Finding funding wasn't an easy task, Pitchcare was going to launch soon after the Dot Com stock market crash, and persuading people to part with cash on a new internet model for a small equity stake was difficult.
However, I did receive some money from friends and family, as well as two or three businesses in the industry, before being permitted to do a presentation to the Wolves players one lunchtime. Happily, a couple of the lads also bought into the idea, and I had raised over £100,000 to get started.
So, it was now time to leave my job as head groundsman at Wolves, but Richard Skirrow still continued to mentor me. I remember saying to him, "I think I'm ready to start now, but I could do with someone who can shoulder responsibility and doesn't need a big salary, initially". At that point he suggested I spoke with John Richards, my former MD at Wolves.
I went to see John (he loved the concept) and, within a week or two, he and I set up in our first office on the Wolverhampton Science Park. That was July 2001, just over twelve months from the original idea.
What was your biggest hurdle in getting the project off the ground?
I'm not sure if there was particularly one big hurdle, but there were certainly many hurdles to overcome; some, as I've detailed before, were in the initial setup. People that I went to see, who weren't interested (for varying reasons), obtaining funding, companies that couldn't understand or see the virtues of what Pitchcare could offer.
Like everything in life, you have to grow organically. The funding that we had initially didn't seem to last very long. It surprised me how much everything cost; rent, car, fuel, insurances, advertising, salaries, travel and accommodation. It all adds up, and I was soon using a host of credit cards to their maximum limit to keep the business going. At the time of starting out, I'd applied for every single credit card going, and many of them had maximum borrowing of up to £15,000 each. NatWest, Visa, MBNA, Marbles, Lloyds, Barclays, American Express, Capital One ... I had them all!
It was nearly two years before we started getting any real sort of income, and the end of year three before we showed a slight profit on paper for the year. Years one and two showed losses of around £250,000!
What was the initial reaction to Pitchcare from within the industry?
As I said before, many companies were not really certain about what Pitchcare was. The most common response was, "we have our own website, why do we want to be involved in yours". Another was "groundsmen and greenkeepers don't have access to the internet". However, the response from those that did get online was amazing, and it was their encouragement that kept us going through those early, dark days.
I could write a book on the dealings with both BIGGA and the IOG. Both organisations, for whatever reasons, have seen Pitchcare as a direct threat to their respective associations. Both, I believe, have it noted in Board meeting minutes on a number of occasions.
It was a shame that they viewed Pitchcare only with suspicion, and chose to fight us verbally, in writing and, in some instances, legally. The internet allows for so much diversity and freedom of information. It's a shame, because we could have helped both associations reach the 21st century amicably.
Most people that I speak to, either from a greenkeeping or a groundsmanship background, don't see the point in having two separate associations anymore. Even the few that believe that they should remain autonomous can't give me a good reason as to why that should be the case. It's surely just a case of resisting change. Whilst this continues, the industry remains in an unhealthy position, in my view.
Did you, at anytime, consider giving up on the project?
I'm not sure that I considered throwing in the towel, I've never quit at anything in my life, not without pursuing something (or someone) to a natural conclusion. However, there were many dark days, certainly in the first two years of Pitchcare. There were a lot of good days too, and I describe that time as a rollercoaster of emotions. One day on the peak of a wave, the next in the bowels of the ocean. I was always encouraged and motivated by my team, and by the sheer goodwill and thanks that we received from a growing membership of groundsmen and greenkeepers. People who were grateful that so much good information and advice was becoming available to them for free. The opportunity to see everyone interact, chat online and share knowledge was immensely gratifying.
What have been the key turning points and milestones for the business?
Where do I start? The thousandth member, finding someone a job, the first paid advertisement, the first shop sale, the first export sale, the internet cafe at various events and shows, the merger with ALS, doing the Millennium Stadium, while the team continued to grow the business.
There are hundreds of milestones, but the key ones are the team themselves. From John Richards getting involved at the start, we aimed to bring in qualified individuals who were experts in their own fields. Sharon Taylor, who ran the finances brilliantly in those early days, robbing Peter to pay Paul. Alastair Battrick, who has developed a web platform that can be used globally, both from a Pitchcare perspective to any other industry business. Dan Hughes, who has grown the online sales and marketing strategy of the business, Laurence Gale who ... is just Loz, and I love him to death. Peter Britton also deserves special praise, producing the most fabulous magazine, where every issue continues to be "the best yet", as he keeps telling us!
The biggest milestone though, and my biggest thanks, goes to John Richards. He has steered the good ship Pitchcare through those storms, keeping my feet on the ground and always offering sound advice, despite me ignoring it from time to time!
With the merger of ALS, we have grown to a group of businesses that employ sixty-five staff, all of whom are exceptionally talented, experienced and qualified. Despite a recession, they have managed to increase profitability year on year, as well as quality of service. As a business we have continued to plough back the profit to grow and improve our range of services, as we well and truly become the one-stop advice, service and shop. Everything I always wanted, as a groundsman or greenkeeper, from an online resource.
Achievements of which you are particularly proud?
Pitchcare achieves so much that, again, it's difficult to be specific, scanning the message boards is always a great source of achievement. Reading about people helping each other on a daily basis is what Pitchcare is all about. Yes, there can often be a difference of opinion; what works for one, doesn't necessarily work for another, and that's what's so great. All the articles produced by Pitchcare show someone in their environment doing something a particular way. Others read it and can decide on whether that would offer the same results at their venue.
Education is key and everyone takes learning at very different paces, Pitchcare allows everyone the opportunity to learn at a level that they are comfortable with. If you can educate the practitioner they, in turn, can educate the committee, bursar or chairman. Together we can all improve sports and golf surfaces for the end user to enjoy.
What next for Pitchcare?
Interesting question and the answer is, who knows! All the way through, Pitchcare has experienced a diverse number of opportunities and we've looked at all of them uniquely.
There are many fronts to the business now and so, I suppose, it's about first consolidating and then expanding each avenue.
The most exciting of these is the development of a Global business. Pitchcare Oceania launched about three years ago and has now started to turn the corner over in Australia. Pitchcare Germany is about to launch and there is interest from many other countries.
Our trading arm is now global and the ability to communicate and share information worldwide, using the Pitchcare template, seems the most appropriate way forward.
August 2001 - Pitchcare website goes live
April 2002 - 1,000th member
September 2002 - 2,000th member
January 2003 - Pitchcare sponsor of inaugural Unsung Heroes Award
June 2003 - 5,000th member
July 2003 - Technical Merit Award launched
October 2003 - Pitchcare Survey of Premier and Football League Groundsmen, leading to implementation of warm-up and warm-down procedures
January 2004 - Pitchcare host the first ever internet cafe at BTME Harrogate
July 2004: 10,000th member
July 2004 - Pitchcare, in association with Cricket World, launch the Cricket Groundsman of the Year Awards
July 2004 - Pitchcare build a grass tennis court on a Thames barge for an American Express publicity event
July 2005 - Pitchcare hard copy magazine launched
September 2005 - Pitchcare run the internet cafe at Saltex for the first time
June 2006 - 20,000th member
May 2007 - Dave Saltman awarded the 2007 Professional Excellence on a Global Scale Award by The Ohio State University
August 2007 - Pitchcare Oceania launched
February 2008 - 30,000th member
August 2009 - merger with ALS
October 2009 - Pitchcare become main sponsors of the Racecourse Groundstaff Awards
May 2010 - 40,000th member
May 2010 - Pitchcare magazine nominated for 'Best Front Cover on a Trade Magazine' in the national Maggies award - cover features Gary Kemp of Norwich FC
September 2011 - Pitchcare Germany launched