Sandlot Sports Academy: Success Story

Where do baseball and softball players practice their swing when they live in cold climates? Entrepreneurs Donna and Rocky Ayers asked themselves this question when searching for a location for her son to work out.

“We were always trying to find an available gym where he could practice baseball but it was tough,” she says. “We saw a great batting cage facility when we were traveling. My husband and I said to each other ‘We need one of these.’”

Donna and her husband Rocky had always wanted to work for themselves and this seemed like a promising opportunity. They flew to Denver to talk to other sports facility owners and decided to take the plunge.

“We thought long and hard about becoming business owners. We started the business on the side and kept working our full time jobs.”

Donna worked as a digital imaging specialist at a museum and her husband is an electrician. However, a layoff and a medical condition brought their jobs to an end and they were able to concentrate on the business full time. They have now owned the Sandlot Sports Academy in Corning, NY for ten years and have big plans for the future.

The Sandlot Sports Academy is housed in a 16,000 square foot facility that includes indoor batting cages with automated pitching machines, automated soft-toss machines and pitching mounds. The Academy offers year-round camps, professional instruction, fundraising events and birthday party options.

The venture was initially partially self-financed. Donna and Rocky cashed in their 401k savings plans and pensions got a business credit card and took out micro-loans putting up their house and cars as collateral. It took about $160,000 dollars to get up and running. Donna says, “Everything that we had we put into it. We really believed in this business.”

As the business grew, they sought a debt consolidation loan for $75,000. “The local bank turned me down,” Donna says. “I was really surprised as we have a stellar credit rating. I think a lot of small businesses face that problem. Local banks need to be more helpful for small businesses.”

Donna started looking online for financing solutions but she was very skeptical. “I came across SmartBiz. After speaking to a Loan Specialist, I quickly realized that SmartBiz was the right solution. It took about a month and a half to pull together the paperwork but the result has been amazing.”

The Ayers secured a loan for $75,000 and were able to cut their monthly debt payments in half. “We gained about $10,000 in profit because of that loan,” Donna confirms.

When a new business opportunity came up, the Ayers returned to SmartBiz for a 2nd SBA loan and are now starting a second small business, selling a proprietary piece of equipment, that compliments their first.

One of the training machines for sale in the Sandlot’s Pro Shop is the Backyard Batter Pro, invented and patented in 2003. Billed as the ultimate training tool, the Backyard Batter Pro was designed specifically to help develop proper swing mechanics. Donna and Rocky were was so impressed with the equipment that they made the big decision to purchase the business in late 2016 directly from the inventor. “I know that we have the ability to build a multi-million dollar business based on this training tool,” she says firmly. “Next week we’re packing up our 1993 RV and going to a Connecticut trade show to launch. There will be over 2,000 coaches there and we expect to be very successful.”

As the owner of two small businesses, Donna has unique insight for others who want to make an entrepreneurial move. First, she emphasizes the importance of high credit scores. “My father told me that credit is everything – make sure your rating is A+”.

She also encourages business owners to have an up-to-date accounting system. “I’m doing my own accounting right now because I like to know what’s going on. Having finances and a complete business plan in order is key when you’re looking for a loan.”

Another element of her success is constantly striving to learn more.

“I used the local Small Business Development Center as a resource,” she says. “There’s so much more involved with running a business than you can imagine! Our SBDC offers free classes to help you understand the process.”

Finally, she encourages budding entrepreneurs to proceed with cautious optimism. She stresses that the time commitment can be daunting. “You don’t realize how much time you’re going to need to put into your business. Be willing to work 60 – 80 hours a week,” she says. “Business ownership is glamourized on TV – that’s just not how it is!”

In the end, Donna feels that the hard work does pay off.

“We love what we do. We’re hoping that with our SmartBiz SBA loan, we’ll really have a new level of success.”

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