You might not look to cheerleaders as a source of entrepreneurial wisdom…yet. But those pom-poms, the cheer camps, and the signature moves are acts of branding genius. And the cheeriest cheerleader of them all, Lawrence Herkimer, has much to offer a budding business leader. He didn’t invent the sport, but somehow, he managed to turn it into an empire. Here’s his story, and the big ideas that budding entrepreneurs can borrow from his playbook.
Lesson 1: Resilience is king.
If you’ve seen “Bring It On”, you’ve heard of the “Herkie”. It’s a popular cheer pose involving one bent leg, one straight leg, and a fist in the air. The joke is, the move was actually a mistake. Lawrence Herkimer “invented” it as a cheerleader in the 1940s at Southern Methodist University when he tried (and failed) to do a split-jump. Instead of bowing his head in shame, he owned the jump as a signature style. Eventually, people began imitating him, and the move became his namesake. He’s a winner because he chose to win in the face of a definite loss. Entrepreneurs will tell you how much “fake-it-’til-you-make-it” they go through as they believe in themselves enough to stand up and announce what they’re building. It’s an incredibly vulnerable experience to invest your whole self in something and then face the inevitable naysayers, obstacles, and loser moments. It’s not the smartest leaders who make it through. It’s the ones who are resilient enough to continue rising in the face of tremendous downward pull.
Lesson 2: Go big by being specific.
A lot of entrepreneurs are scared to limit their potential customers. They don’t want to be too narrow in what they do, because they’re nervous it will turn away some prospective clients. The thing is, the less specific you are, the less likely you are to attract any clients. Think about it…it’s hard enough to get a generic summer camp off the ground. A cheer camp? In 1948 when cheerleading was barely recognized as a sport? Lawrence Herkimer was going to turn away 99% of prospective camp goers. Only the die-hard lovers of cheerleading would immerse themselves in an entire summer of learning new cheers before that was even a “thing”. And in the first summer, he attracted only 53 participants. But those participants were his “tribe leaders“. The gung-ho early-adopters who created buzz and drew others in. Because only a true believer would participate in something unfounded like a first-ever cheerleading-focused summer camp. By the second year he had 350 campers, and the network kept growing until tens of thousands of enthusiastic participants flocked to his camps and competitions. Herkimer built a massive enterprise because people knew exactly what he was about, and his earliest customers were emphatic, over-the-top believers. Sometimes, it’s better to turn away short-term customers in order to build a loyal long-term following.
Lesson 3: Invent the accessories.
Sure, Lawrence Herkimer sold his cheerleading camps for $20 million in 1986, but his true genius wasn’t even in his main business. It was in all of the accessories he built around it. He is the inventor of pom-pons. (yes, that’s an “n”). Spirit sticks. A Cheerleading supply company for cheer uniforms and other necessary cheer-resources. The Complete Book of Cheerleading.
He built his own enthusiastic consumer base and then he figured out all of the things that his network would need in order to participate…and he began selling those items. At times, he would even invent things for his network to use, and then manufacture and sell those items. Your big win might not be your first business. It might be the things that you create ten years from now by paying close attention to the needs of your customers.
Cheerleading? Sure, it’s a blast to watch. But tonight, I’m raising my glass to fellow Miami resident, Lawrence Herkimer, for being an entrepreneurial genius. Herkie, you’re an all-star.
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