After meeting their freshman year on the UConn Men’s Tennis team in 2007, Jesse Silkoff and Andrew Marcus are now business partners, running MyTennisLessons and FitnessTrainer.com out of Austin, Texas. Their online companies help match clients searching for a tennis coach or personal trainer in their local area. Silkoff and Marcus both earned degrees in applied and resource economics from the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. Their path to becoming business owners began before leaving UConn in 2011.
During their senior year, Silkoff and Marcus entered a business plan competition held by the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CCEI) in the School of Business. The competition was university-wide, open to all students regardless of major or academic level. Seventy-six teams entered the competition with their plans being judged by a panel that included several business executives. Silkoff and Marcus won the top prize of $10,000 for their promising strategy for their proposal entitled Tennis Professionals.
The foundations of their plans came from Marcus’s first entrepreneurial venture, DC Tennis Pros. During his summers at home in Washington, DC, Marcus worked as a tennis instructor. While he marketed his own services as a trainer, he also helped other instructors connect with clients for lessons. Most of their customers were beginning tennis players looking to learn the basics from a professional, offering more reasonable costs and flexibility with time and location than country clubs or other sports establishments offer. Creating an online marketplace for customers to find and book instructors benefits both the clients and trainers.
Silkoff and Marcus started collaborating with aims of expanding the business nationally following a College career fair. “It was the beginning of our senior year and after the event Andrew was telling me how well DC Tennis Pros went for him over the summer. He was thinking about ways to turn it into a full-time job. I was getting excited by what he was suggesting and we decided to work together on it,” says Silkoff.
The CCEI competition provided a financial springboard for Silkoff and Marcus along with instilling confidence that others believed in their business model as well. They ran a LivingSocial campaign in the summer following their graduation, selling over 1,000 tennis lessons and making another $15,000 to invest. During this time, Silkoff had moved in with Marcus in Washington, DC, as they debated where to establish the company and considered hiring more help.
“We were living with Andrew’s parents for a few months and talking about hiring some friends and where we should move to. We considered Miami, a popular city for tennis, but then I ended up giving a tennis lesson to a journalist for the Washington Post. We were talking after the lesson and he told me about living in Austin when he was in his twenties and how it was the best place he’d ever lived,” says Silkoff.
“I had only ever been to the airport in Austin. I had flown there with friends because the prices for flights were cheaper than Houston. We were traveling to Texas to see UConn in the Final Four in Houston in 2011. Though I didn’t spend any time in the city, I had several conversations with people asking me if I was visiting Austin while I was down there. I didn’t think much of it at the time and then when this journalist suggested it, I went to Andrew and suggested that we explore going there. It had a growing tech scene, the cost of living was cheaper, the weather was better and there were a lot of younger people there; it felt like a good fit for us,” says Silkoff.
“We brought two other friends and talented UConn grads on board, Dan Buzaid and John Hayes, packed up a car and headed to Austin,” says Marcus.
In Austin, DC Tennis Pros became MyTennisLessons. The company grew quickly as customer inquiries about lessons increased. As founders of the company, Silkoff and Marcus have learned to be well-versed and flexible in all aspects of operations.
“I wear a lot of hats in this job. On any given day, I might be speaking with customers, writing updates to investors, dealing with legal agreements, fundraising, optimizing search engine rankings or overseeing operations, including web development, marketing, sales and customer service,” says Marcus.
“We started raising money from investors for the first time in 2013, and that’s helped speed things along. We hired our first outside employee at the beginning of 2014 to take over my customer service role. Then I spent about six months getting more tennis instructors on the site. Things evolve in a company and you have to learn new things to solve the problems at hand. For example, two of the people in our office taught themselves coding and became our software developers. A lot of the work is planning and thinking strategically, constantly thinking about how to improve, how to grow, etc. It is time consuming to make contact with targeted investors, pitch them, develop the relationship and ultimately convince them you will do well by their money,” says Silkoff.
The time and work has been paying off. With the success of MyTennisLessons, Silkoff and Marcus launched FitnessTrainer.com in early 2015. The new site connects trainers and those looking to enhance their fitness. A number of customers are individuals seeking to lose weight and improve their overall health and reduce their risk for weight-related diseases.
Their education at UConn helped shape their understanding of business and imparted them with the skills they continue to use. Silkoff cites a difficult cost-benefit analysis class taught by Professor Boris Bravo-Ureta as one of the most valuable experiences during his time at the College.
“It was extremely challenging and everyone in the class struggled, but it was a great experience because everyone started working together to figure concepts out. Being put in that frame of mind was very useful for me and became a good way to think about things – facing problems directly and recognizing the need to work together to solve them. I continue to do work that challenges me; it causes you to grow and learn very quickly,” says Silkoff.
Marcus also has advice to those looking for success. “Put yourself in a position to get lucky. Many people insist that success is directly attributed to good luck. While luck is inevitably involved in some capacity along the way, it’s the hard work and persistence that enables luck to exist in the first place. Without those, it’s very hard to succeed.”
“I am fortunate to be able to work hard at something I believe in with people who are both amazing friends and coworkers,” says Marcus.