No matter what industry you are in, if you don’t know how to make your business stand out, then you are easily out. Today’s guest took this to heart and transformed a baseball team into an entertainment business. Steve Farber interviews Jesse Cole, the founder of Fans First Entertainment and owner of The Savannah Bananas, about his journey of making his baseball team into the best entertainment that came to sports. Since then, the team has sold out every game for two seasons straight and currently have a waiting list in the thousands for tickets. Jesse shares how he was able to do that and what role did putting fans first contribute to their success. He then enumerates the three loves of The Savannah Bananas that encompass the importance of not only your fans but also your people and yourself to the business. Addressing the current situation, Jesse shares how he is taking care of his team and how they are working together to impact people’s lives in a positive way.
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The Three Loves Of The Savannah Bananas With Jesse Cole
“Take me out to the ball game. Take me out to the crowd.” There’s not much of either ballgame or crowd going on nowadays, but not to worry because I have the remedy for any wistfulness you might have for either baseball or crowds. My guest is Jesse Cole, who’s the Owner of The Savannah Bananas baseball team. You may not have heard of The Savannah Bananas before, but I guarantee you after reading this conversation, you will never forget them. I had to control myself from laughing to the point where I would annoy the hell out of you. I did my best, but this is one of the most delightful, insightful, and inspiring conversations I’ve ever had with any business person on this show.
Here’s a little bit about Jesse. Jesse Cole is the Founder of Fans First Entertainment and the Owner of The Savannah Bananas. His teams have welcomed more than one million fans to their ballparks and had been featured on MSNBC, CNN, and ESPN. The Bananas had been awarded the Organization of the Year, Entrepreneur of the Year, Business of the Year, and won the CPL Championship in their first year. Fans First Entertainment has been featured on the Inc. 5000 list as one of the fastest-growing companies in America. The Savannah Bananas have sold out every game for two straight seasons and have a waiting list in the thousands for tickets to their future games. Jesse is an in-demand speaker and released his first book, Find Your Yellow Tux: How to Be Successful by Standing Out in January of 2018. The book launched number one in three categories on Amazon and has been sold in eighteen countries.
Staying true to his mantra, “Whatever’s Normal, Do the Exact Opposite,” Cole launched the book with a World Book Tour at Epcot. Cole’s greatest mentors are Bill Veeck, PT Barnum, and Walt Disney. All three share a wall in his office on custom-made posters that display the words, “Innovation, Showmanship, and Vision.” Cole believes to be successful, you need to stand out and be different. He releases daily videos, blogs, and articles on LinkedIn. He is passionate about creating attention, loving your customers more than your product, and loving your employees more than your customers. Cole is the host of the Business Done Differently podcast and has been featured on more than 100 podcasts, including the Ziglar Show, StoryBrand with Donald Miller, and NPR’s Only a Game. The three loves you are about to discover of The Savannah Bananas are love your customers more than you love your product, love your employees more than you love your customers, and love yourself first. Fasten your banana peel and learn from this incredibly entertaining discussion with my new friend, Jesse Cole.
Jesse Cole, thank you for being with me. I’ve been looking forward to this.
Steve, I am fired up to be with you. I can’t thank you enough for the impact your book has had on our team and me.
Thank you. I’m looking forward to hearing about that, but I have other things that I want to find out about first. When we do this show, Jesse, a lot of people read it. For those who are watching us on YouTube, what they’re going to see is your amazing yellow uniform as you call it, with the all yellow hat and the sport coat. The Savannah Bananas is your enterprise so I want to hear about that. For those of you who are reading, I want you to picture Jesse. Go to his website, check him out and get a picture of him in his amazing brand. He lives and breathes this brand. It’s a unique thing, The Savannah Bananas. I’m going to turn you loose. Tell us your story. What is this amazing thing that you have created there? How did you get to where you are?
I was a kid who fell in love with baseball. I played my whole life and I was fortunate to get a college scholarship. That was my whole dream to play professional baseball. In my senior year, I tore everything in my shoulder and my career was over. I had no idea what I was going to do. I got an email about an internship. I took that internship with a terrible performing team. It’s a bad low-level team but I found out that I love trying to sell the idea of coming to a baseball game. I got offered the job as a GM at 23 years old of a team in Gastonia, North Carolina. Steve, how do you get offered a job as a GM at 23? It’s the worst-performing team in the entire country.Love your employees more than you love your customers. Click To Tweet
They had nothing to lose. Only 200 fans were coming to the game. That first day that I showed up, there was only $268 in the bank account and we had three full-time employees, and payroll was on Friday. It was a team that no one knew what was happening. It was bad. I met with people in the community and they’re like, “We have no interest in going to your games.” I went to the owner and said, “We can no longer be a baseball team.” He goes, “What are you talking about, Jesse?” I go, “People don’t care about us as a baseball team. We need to be different.” He goes, “What do you have in mind?” I go, “We’re going to be in an entertainment business.”
The question that I always ask everyone is, “What business are you in?” We weren’t going to be the best baseball team, but we felt we could try to be the best entertainment that comes to sports. He’s like, “What are you talking about?” I go, “I think our players should do choreographed dances every single game. We should have grandma beauty pageants at our games. We should have flatulence fun nights, and salute to underwear nights and try it all.” He didn’t fire me and he said, “Good luck. We’ve got nothing to lose.”
You are 23 years old and you’re coming to this team, what class of baseball is this? What’s the technical term for it?
There’s Major League at the top, then Triple-A, Double-A, High-A, Regular-A, Low-A, Rookie Ball, top-level independent baseball, top-level college baseball, and there’s us right down here, college summer baseball. We’re college players who come to play for the summer. They’re not paid. They stay with host families. It’s a low-level.
You are the GM and essentially, your peers that you’re playing with are college players, so they’re not much younger than you were at the time.
They were 20, 21, 22 years old. I am ahead for 2 or 3 years.
You’re coming with this insight that says, “We’re not in the baseball business. We’re in the entertainment business.” Where did that insight come from? For 23 years old, that’s quite a revelation for anybody to let alone a little kid in short pants.
Fortunately, a ton of mentors from afar. I started reading every single book on Walt Disney and Bill Veeck, the famous baseball owner in the ‘60s. I was like, “This is what we need to be. I want to be a PT Barnum type, put on a show, bring in a cast of characters and make it fun.” The first week, I made calls and I met with everyone in the community. Everyone said, “Sorry, we don’t like baseball. Baseball is too boring, long, and slow.” I was like, “Everyone is saying this.” I go, “We can’t position ourselves as a baseball team.” We’re going to say, “You don’t like baseball? Perfect. You’ll love our shows,” and change the language to it. It’s a baptism by fire. I started learning, reading, meeting with people and hearing over and over again the frustration they had with what we were doing. With anyone, the starting point for most innovation is what is frustrating to your customers? What are the friction points? Do the exact opposite. We were like, “We can no longer be boring. We have to be fun.” That’s where we started in Gastonia and all of a sudden, it created attention. We started getting a 1,000, 1,500, 2,000 fans and started selling out games. I eventually bought that team, sold it when we came to Savannah. That’s when the journey got a lot more national publicity because it was a giant failure to start then it became more successful.
Let’s stay in Gastonia before we pop-on over to Savannah. You had to sell the owner on this whole concept. Part of that image is, “Let’s have our baseball players do a choreographed dance.” I imagine it has to do a little selling on your baseball players who thought they were coming to play baseball.
I am 23 and it’s the first-day practice. The players show up right before the season. I said, “Before we practice, you’re going to learn how to dance.” They looked at me like, “What are you talking about?” I brought a dance instructor from the local dancing studio and I said, “We’re going to do 30 minutes of dancing.” A few guys were like, “I’m not dancing. I’m here to play baseball.” I remember one guy was going down to the bullpen and said, “I’m not doing it.” I watched these guys dance. They were good ballplayers, but they were terrible dancers. It was like, “It was bad.” They couldn’t dance and that’s not what they came here for.
I told them, “We want to make it fun for the fans. That’s our number one goal. I bet you, it’d be fun for you as well.” The first night, we had 4 or 5 guys danced. They did the Apache (Jump On It) dance where they do the Jump On It, so they got the fans in. By the third night, I’m walking through the grandstand and I see a wife talking to her husband, and all of a sudden I hear, “Shut up, honey. They’re about to dance.” I was like, “We’ve got something here.” We’ve got those players started becoming the most popular players. They were signing the most autographs. They had the most fun.
That pitcher who went out to the bullpen halfway through the season said, “Forget this, I’m dancing.” He rips off his belt and throwing it over his head. The fans are going wild. I found out a few years ago that he was on a billboard in LA. He’s already a male model. It came full circle, but the question that we started asking ourselves is, “What can we be the only at?” Everyone says, “I’m a little bit better, faster, cheaper, quicker, but what can you be the only?” We said, “We’re the only team that has dancing players.” That became a framework for us in finding what are we the only at, and that built our whole repertoire and got our fans to be able to talk about our team differently.
You proved the concept there. You had this insight. You were able to enlist the support for it. You got the results that you wanted. You ended up buying the enterprise. Why did you leave?
Long story short, the last game of the 2014 season, I proposed to my wife on the field in the yellow tuxedo in front of 4,000 fans because we met there for the first time. She was our Director of Fun. I got down in the knee and I had the ring inside of baseball. Thankfully, she said, “Yes.” I had a huge firework show go off in the middle of the game. The umpires are like, “What are we doing here?” It’s a 30-minute delay. I was like, “This is our time and moment.” The next day she surprised me and said, “I can’t believe you plan this. I’m excited to marry you, but we’ve all always talked about going on a trip to Savannah, so I booked a trip to Savannah, Georgia.” We went to Savannah, Georgia and we fell in love with the city. I heard they had a Minor League team, a 1926 historic ballpark, Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron played there. We walked in and I felt like a kid in a candy store. I could feel history coming out of the stadium. It was a beautiful night, 80 degrees, and the Minor League teams play the New York Mets affiliates. I walked up into the stands and there were 100 total people are there.
What was the capacity?
It was 4,000 and it was the deadest environment I’ve ever seen. I looked at them and I go, “What is happening? This is a beautiful stadium in a beautiful city. No one cares.” I called the commissioner of our league that night and I said, “If this Minor League team ever leaves, we’re claiming this market. We’re coming to Savannah because this is a huge opportunity to make a big impact.” He’s like, “Sure, Jesse, whatever you say.” Lo and behold, we found out that the Minor League team couldn’t draw fans so they asked the city to build them a $40 million stadium. The city was like, “We’re not building you a $40 million stadium.” The team left. All of a sudden, I reached out to the city and they were like, “I guess we’ll give you a try. We’ve had professional baseball for 90 years, but we’ll give a college summer ball team a try.”
I convinced them because they went to a Gastonia game and saw the fun and the entertainment and they let it happen. On October 5th, 2015, we showed up to Savannah to take over this new stadium. We bought the expansion franchise from the League. We took on an outrageous amount of debt. It’s myself, my wife, our 24-year-old president, and three 22-year-olds out of college. When we showed up, the former team had cut the phone lines, the internet lines and they took everything out of the ballpark. We grabbed a picnic table from outside the park, brought it into an abandoned storage building, started using our cell phones, and calling people in the community. They were like, “Who are you, guys?” That’s when it got crazy. That’s how we started a few years ago.
That’s ridiculous in a good way. It was a Minor League team and now, it’s a college summer team. Were there any that stayed in that stadium?
It is a historic stadium, but it was bare-bones and you had to build it back up. How receptive was the Savannah community? They used to have a respectable baseball team and now we’ve got a bunch of college kids.
I don’t blame them, it was the poorest reception any team could ever have. Let’s put it this way. We sold two total tickets in the first three months. I feel like it was a donation. It got so bad that on January 15th, 2016, I’ll never forget the date and time. It was 4:45 on a Friday. My wife and I were at my best friend’s wedding up in New Jersey and we got a call from one of our employees. They said, “We overdrafted our account. We’re completely out of money.” My wife and I looked at each other. We drove home from New Jersey and she turned to me and said, “We have to sell our house.” At that point, we sold our house, we emptied our savings account, the little money we had, we put it into the team. We’ve got a place in Savannah and got an air bed. We’re sleeping on an air bed and we were like, “This better work.” That’s when we went all-in on Fans First Entertainment, the name of our business, who we were going to be in creating attention. That’s when things started to change a little bit.Whatever's normal, do the exact opposite. Click To Tweet
If we jump into the trajectory here, before you took over, they had a stadium that was drawing 100 people to a game. You took over and sold two tickets. You’ve got the concept and all of that but how do you go from two tickets to filling the place up? How did you get out of the gate from that place? I get that it is a great entrepreneur psychology. “We’re all in. We’re burning the bridges, selling our house, sleeping on an air mattress, and we are in the fun business.” You know that, but how did you get the message out and the experience to everybody else?
What we realized is we had to get everyone’s eyes and ears. We had to create attention. I believe attention beats marketing 1000% of the time. You can market like everyone else, which we did. In the first four months, we were on TV, newspapers, radio or whatever. It’s like, “I don’t care about these guys.” No matter what we said, we had to create attention. We had a Name the Team contest to involve our fans, which the name of our company is Fans First Entertainment. Our mission is fans first entertain always. We’ve got a contest, we’ve got about 1,000 suggestions and every name was generic, The Sailors, The Skippers, The Ports, The Anchors. I was like, “These are all boring and miserable.” Yet, one person suggested The Savannah Bananas, only 1 of the 1,000.
We looked at each other and said, “We could have a senior citizen dance team called The Banana Nanas. We could have our mascot named Split. We could have a male cheerleading team called The Man-Nanas, but now they’re referred to as the Dad Bod Cheerleading Squad. We could do music videos to Can’t Stop The Peeling with our players.” We started looking at all the things, Go Bananas T-shirt Line. We started thinking, “This is it.” I don’t talk much about this, but we prepared our staff for two days before the announcement on February 25th, 2016. We spent two days training our staff on how to handle the criticism. We knew we were going to get criticized like crazy because we knew that it was too silly and ridiculous. People won’t take us seriously, but we knew would get attention.
On February 25th, when we announced it, immediately we were number one trending on Twitter that night. All of a sudden, merchandise started going from all over the world. We didn’t understand we were charging $5 to ship to Australia and the UK. That wasn’t making any sense. We were losing our shirts on that one, but it started creating huge national attention. Locally, Steve, we have ripped apart. These are the comments we were getting, “The owners should be thrown out of town. You guys are an embarrassment to the city. You’ll never sell a ticket. Leave our town.” I remember us taking every one of those emails, social media clips, everything, and saving them. I go, “Wait until one year from now, we’re going to do a mean tweet video and share all that.”
Lo and behold, we did a year later, which got a lot of publicity but we created the attention and then we started wearing it with, “Here’s why we’re different.” We’re going to have a break dancing first base coach. We’re going to have a full pep band playing in every game. We’re going to have a senior citizen dance team. We’re going to have the banana baby that we lift at home plate in front of all the fans. We’re going to be ridiculous. We then started looking at all the friction points, baseball is long, slow, and boring. The next one, you get nickel and dime when you go to a ballpark, everybody is like, “$8 for a burger, $6 for this, $10 for a beer.” It’s ridiculous. We said, “We’re not going to do that.”
We decided to make the first-ever all-inclusive ballpark. We make every ticket include all your burgers, hotdogs, chicken sandwiches, soda, water, popcorn and dessert, everything including the ticket for $15 total. When we came up with that, they’re like, “That’s a good deal.” The other team was giving away tickets for free. We’re like, “We’re going to charge more or we’re going to layer it with value.” We did that and that first night, we introduced the team and they were all wearing green jerseys because they weren’t quite ripe yet. We had them come out said, “We are not quite ripe Bananas.”
It was pouring rain. The game then started not until 9:00. I remember on the field, I looked up into the crowd and not one fan had left. About 200 people brought their banana costumes. People were doing banana-shaped beards. They were wearing banana accessories. I was like, “We got something.” When they left that game and talked about the experience, it went viral. Since this day, we’ve sold out every single game for four straight seasons and have a waitlist for tickets in the thousands. It was mind-blowing. It’s based on that Fans First Entertainment always philosophy. We tried a lot, some failed but luckily, a lot more worked.
Let me interject a couple of questions here. What an incredible story from a principle standpoint, if I take that story and I draw out the thinking underlying it. Your company is Fans First. You went to the fans and you said, “Give us recommendations for the name of the team?”
Yes, and the mascot name.
What you didn’t do was make it a voting process and pick the most popular name. You pick one name that you loved and went to town on it as a bit of an understatement. I would love to have been a fly on the wall at that brainstorming session. The point is that you got the fans involved and you can legitimately say, “You helped us come up with the name even though it’s one person said it.” What you did was you engage the community and you applied your sense, creativity, and sense of humor to that versus the knee-jerk reaction would be, “Everybody says they want us to be the Savannah Anchors and it’s a boring name.” That’s what everybody said. It’s the wrong interpretation of customer first kind of a thing. It is Fans First, but it becomes a collaboration because you are applying your ridiculously creative, fun, sensibility to that. You’ve created it together.
Groupthink always brings you to the middle. Our philosophy of whatever’s normal does the exact opposite. No one talks about normal. Normal get normal results. People talk about unique and different and interesting. We’re always trying to create what is remarkable. Turn whatever’s normal to remarkable and that’s how you create a great brand. We spent so much money on marketing that first year and failed. We spend $0 on marketing but spent everything on the experience from hiring. We hired professional high-fiver. A person at our stadium and their job are to professionally high-five and we couldn’t find anybody. It was bad. We were struggling. Finally, right before the season last year, a mother and a six-year-old walked into our stadium and he high-fives everyone on the staff. I said, “Kid, you’ve got the job.” We got him a jersey and it says, “High on the back and number five.” His job is too high five between 1,500 and 2,000 fans a game. This year and when we hopefully play, that’ll be a little different. We need as much hand sanitizer or whatever we can do, but it was big our first year.
That kid’s going to grow up having his right hand three times the size of his left hand.
He’ll never forget his first job though, I’ll tell you that.
That’s the modern take on the Walmart greeter, except the opposite. You’ve got a kid versus a senior in the community. They’re high fiving versus pushing the shopping cart and saying, “Welcome to Walmart.”
Instead of investing in marketing, we paid him, which probably broke every child labor law there is paying a six-year-old. The reality is, people, talk about it like, “I met the professional high-fiver, the break dancing coach, the Summer Santa, I met DJ Peels on Wheels, the Team Grandma,” whatever it is, and we keep going and that makes people hopefully talk about things.
You are making me wish that I lived in Savannah. Let me take this into a slightly different tack. It’s an incredible story and we’re having this conversation right in the middle of this whole Coronavirus challenge in sporting events. Our people are beginning to talk about them in a wistful way, like, “Someday, we’ll be able to go to a baseball game again.” I want to hear a little bit about how you’re approaching that. Before we get there, let’s assume we’re up and running. People are still coming to games. What you’ve been doing over the last several years? Turn the lens inward a little bit. You’ve been talking about the fan experience. What’s the culture like your enterprise? Tell me a little bit about the dynamics. Who’s on your team? What’s important to you in the way you do business together?
Outside every day, everybody sees Fans First, but we know internally who are our biggest fans and they are our people. Our entire culture is built on our people and we share in our Fans First playbook that we give to everyone on our team, including our players, our game day staff, everybody. It’s the three loves. Love your customers more than you love your product. For us, love our fans more than you love our product. Number two, love your team, love your people even more than you love your customers. Number three, you got to love yourself to be the best for everyone else. We go through those three loves over and over again. That’s how we built it. We imagine what the friction points for our customers and our people are? We do the exact opposite and map it. We map the experience for our customers religiously, from the thank-you calls to the videos they get. As soon as they buy a ticket from us, they get an email.
I’ll try to forward that to you and it’s, “Congrats. You made the best decision on your day. Your ticket order came in a high priority siren we’re offering in our stadium, Our Banana Nanas ran to our ticket laboratory to get your tickets ready. The Banana Nanas slowly walked in and hand-selected your tickets. They placed them on a silk pillow. We raise the silk pillow to the air. We sing ‘Savannah’ to celebrate the birth of a new fan and we brought your tickets into our vault with our maximum security ready for you to Go Bananas.” That’s part of the process. I’ve done that many times on stage. It’s not that I remember at this time. Every fan gets a thank-you call. I want to share on the thank you call. We’ve been doing this for years and everyone on our staff, we split it up. I’ll make the calls and mostly, it’s voicemail because no one answers their phone anymore. Our intern who started with us, on the first day, I go, “Do you have any ideas?” It’s his first day. He goes, “I love the thank-you calls. I got one when I came to a game, but I think they should be more fun.”
I go, “What do you have in mind, Austin?” He goes, “I think it should be a rap.” I go, “A rap.” He goes, “Like a rap,” I go, “You’ll do one by the end of the day.” He goes, “What?” He turns bright red. He goes, “I’m socially awkward. I don’t think I could do it.” I go, “You’ll be Austin the Awkward Bananas Rapper.” He’s like, “No.” All-day, he’s writing this rap and I said, “Austin, by 4:00 you’re calling a fan and doing a rap to someone who bought merchandise.” He’s like, “All right.” I get him in there in the room and he has the rap ready to go. He starts his beat and he goes, “This is Austin, the Bananas’ Awkward Rapper. I’m here to fill your day with fun, joy, and laughter. Thankful for you, buying your merchant. I hope you enjoy this great perch.” He starts doing this ridiculous rap and the guy was like, “Thanks.” He’s like, “It was awesome.” I go, “What happened?” He said, “What’s the worst that can happen to hang up on you?” He writes raps. He’s an intern that writes raps to give to fans. It was cool because he learned on his first day that if you have an idea you can implement it. He made our steps even better. Our ticket experience coordinator who started in 2019, he said, “Let’s send them a playlist for every fan before they come to the games.”
They have music to listen to on the way to the ballpark so you can start setting the tone. Everyone has started putting a piece into it. When you love someone, you’ll notice and focus on every little detail of the journey, not just the big experience, the big anniversary dinner. We do the same for our people. Our 24-year-old president set the tone for this. When we brought those three 22-year-olds on the first day, the first thing he did was write letters to their parents to say, “We’re going to take care of your kids. We’re going to make sure they’re in a safe environment.” I remember in your book, you talked about the letter you got for your son about what you do and the impact you’re making and why you’re traveling. That set the tone. Some of our people say they still remember that and how much of an impact that made. We kept going and say, “What are those things on those experiences?”
We’ve let our people dictate their salary. We let them come up. They own their job. They own their position. We surprised our team with a trip to Disney. We’ve done cruises. We sent our Fans First director to her bucket list trip to go to Ireland with her dad. When people leave, which we had a few people leave, everyone writes them a thank you letter and reads it out loud. We have a highlight video showing all their highlights. We film everything here. Everything that they’d been a part the last years and gives them a plaque. We met from the day they show to the day they leave because we want them to remember that this is an experience that made something special for them in their life.What are the three loves of the Savannah Bananas? Click To Tweet
We try to create a remarkable experience for our people and I’m proud of that. During the virus, the first thing my wife did was she wrote a letter to every one of our people, including all their spouses and significant others. Me and her went grocery shopping for everybody and did deliveries. She’s like, “Jesse, I know you’re not going to get real items.” I was like, “I got Hot Pockets, Lunchables and ridiculous food items,” but we also got real meals and we wrote a poem to everyone. She writes poems. We did a dash. We rang their doorbell, dropped off a delivery of food, and dashed, and we said, “These are things that we can do.”
I’m proud of my wife because she’s always had that lens from, “We want to send Danny to the game, one of the world’s series, with his dad.” He’s the biggest Cleveland Indians fan and his dad’s never been to a playoff game. I saw them in line and his dad was crying when they found out they were going.” Those moments, no matter what the costs mean more than anything. We’re always looking at how do we do that. With the virus, the first thing you should do is how do you take care of your team more? We’re like, “We’re not furloughing. We’re not telling unemployment. We’re in a challenge, but what can we do more?” The more you do for your team, the more they do for your customers, the more the customers take care of your bottom line. That’s what we’re constantly asking ourselves.
The three loves of The Savannah Bananas: love the fans, the employees, and the team. What’s the terminology you use?
We use team, we’re teammates.
Love the team even more than the customers and then love yourself.
You can’t be your best for others unless you love yourself unless you give yourself oxygen first. That’s why we’re constantly asking them, “How are they growing?” Asking about themselves and making sure that they’re in a good spot, healthy mentally and physically.
What are the roles you play? What does that landscape look like?
We have fifteen full-time year-round. We have about fifteen full seasonal interns, about 200 game day staff, about 30, 35 team players and coaches. During the summer, we’re pushing 250 to 300 people that are here at the ballpark and part of our team every night.
During this stay at home times, you don’t have the players. What’s the crew that you’re taking care of?
It’s our full-time team. We have fifteen. Every day, we do our Zoom lunch call and sing the National Anthem. We have a lot of fun with that and do happy hours. Every day, we’re communicating, which is our fifteen full-time people.
You have lunch together every day.
Every day, we break bread. That’s such an important part of having lunch together. On Friday afternoon, we have drinks together. We have a lot of fun. Let’s put it this way. We do Ideapaloozas every Friday. That’s been a big thing for us since we started. How do we come up with different ideas to serve our fans in different ways?
What does an Ideapalooza look like?
In the first year, we have an idea box at the stadium and we’ll come up with a question that we want to solve for our fans, whether it’s, “How do we create more You Wouldn’t Believe moments?” The last one we had is, “How can we entertain our fans more while they’re at home?” The one before that is, “What can we do at our ballpark to make fans want to stay to the end of the game?” Each person contributes three ideas and then we read them off and we put them into a category there, Yes, definitely let’s do it to maybe or needs work. Afterward, everyone owns it and then we start rolling. It goes idea to implementation. Our company has been based on ideas and we want everyone to crowdsource and come up with them. It’s been probably the most fun meetings that we have because it’s a “Yes, and” culture. It’s not a “No, that won’t work.” There’s no skunking allowed in our Ideapalooza. You can’t say that’s a terrible idea. Yeah. We have to say, “That’s not a great idea. How do we make it worse?” We try to think of how we can make that idea worse and keep building on it. It’s a fun culture that we’ve been fortunate to be part of.
In telling the story, you have rattled off a whole series of crazy, out of the box, wonderful ideas. Is there anyone, in particular, that rises to the surface? Is the cream on the top of the banana split where you say, “This is the craziest thing we ever came up with?” Is there anything that falls into that category?
You’re talking to a guy who’s given away colon cleansings and porta-johns at our ballpark. It’s tough to see which one rises to the top. Steve, we’ve played games in kilts, literally skirts. St. Patrick’s Day is huge in Savannah, so we played our Saint Patty’s day in kilts. Savannah Bananas plaid kilts and I’ll never forget the first guy, our hitter gets a double. As he’s running to second, he lifts his kilt up to the fans. I’m like, “This is happening,” and they danced in kilts. They did a Brittany Spears number, Hit Me Baby One More Time on chairs while they were dancing. It’s outrageously ridiculous, but there’s so much that we’d come up with and a lot of things don’t work. The living piñata, we put an intern in a turtle costume.
It had kids with little plastic bats hit him on the field while he threw candy up in the air. Our fans are like, “Are you doing this on the field?” I go, “Yes, we are.” We had the kiss cam, which everyone has a kiss cam, but we don’t have a digital scoreboard. It’s a 1926 ballpark. We had a guy with a big beard, a big man bun, and we said, “Your name is no longer Ricky.” He goes, “What do you mean?” I go, “Your name’s Cam. You’re going to be Kiss Cam for the rest of the year.” Fans going around the stadium, “There’s Cam, it’s time to kiss Cam.” All of a sudden, people were begrudging to kiss him on his bearded cheek and he was our kiss cam every night. We think of whatever’s normal, do the exact opposite.
I hope Cam is not going to be out of a job in a post-virus world. That’s a brilliant idea.
Cam was also our actor for our Dolce and Banana underwear. We have two sets of underwear. There’s a Banana on the Crotch, one’s the big banana and another one’s the small banana. The big banana outsells the small banana dramatically. He was part of the commercial that we did, black and white, Italian music, pouring water over his head. It was a risky commercial. Some fans thought we went a little too far over the edge with that one. To this day, I would say we’re selling underwear to fans, which is ridiculous.
Your merchant business is alive and well.
Our underwear business is staying strong. We think about in our sense, if you can create something that you would buy and laugh at that would bring joy to you, why not do it for your fans? Many people are scared of trying and testing things, but that’s who we are. During the whole virus, our whole goal, everyone in our staff is a content producer. Everyone’s an entertainer. Everyone is coming up with ideas to do things for our fans. We’ve involved our fans. They’re part of the music video. We send out an email and they record themselves dancing at home and we put out a music video dancing with me, Billy Idol. We did a Hey Baby song. It gives our people a lot of purposes. When you talk about with your book and everything, it’s how you can give people a purpose? It’s not based on how many sales, how much revenue, what you’re doing, it’s the impact you’re making on people’s lives. Every day we get emails, letters, and reviews and people saying, “Thank you for putting a smile on my face. You made a difference.”
That’s huge for us. Not to go too serious after all that, but once after a game, a gentleman with a big mustache came up to me, which anyone knows he has a mustache. I’ll never forget it these days and a lot of mustaches were going around. He came around and gave me this huge hug and he said, “Thank you.” I said, “What was that for?” He goes, “You have no idea how much your dance means to me.” I go, “What do you mean?” He goes, “My mother and I haven’t talked for years, but she came to one of the first games and watched the dancing players and break dancing first base coach and had fun with the band. Now, my mother and I sit together in every game. You helped bring together our relationship.” It’s those moments we share with our team over and over again because it’s like, “It’s a joke. It’s fun. It’s ridiculous.” Our players go on dates with fans, go on conga lines, and give roses to little girls during the games. It’s not normal, but it’s the impact that we’re making and what our fans are telling us. Our people feel like, “This is special.” I feel like they feel a lot of meaning in what they’re doing.
That’s beautiful. You are an organization that is based on three loves. You know my point of view on love as a powerful business principle. One of the things that makes it powerful is it gives rise. If you operationalize it and put it into practice like you are doing in such a significant way, it gives rise to all different kinds of experiences. It’s your personality as an organization that expresses itself and there are wonderful entertainment and humor. I have done my level best in this conversation to keep from guffawing into the microphone. I’m doing my best to not cover you up with my laughter because it’s hilarious and it’s my sense of humor.
What you’re also illustrating for us is it’s fun and entertaining, but it is not frivolous because that experience brings people together. It nourishes people in all kinds of ways that you can’t expect. When this guy said to you, “You brought my mother and me together.” That doesn’t say it anywhere in your business plan, “Let’s help repair people’s personal relationships.” That’s the natural outcome of doing what you guys do. I’m not surprised to hear that story. I love that you share those stories with everybody. Everybody always knows the impact that you’re having collectively.
I’ll share how it came full circle for my wife and me. We do the love language test with our team. We found out that almost everyone on our team was top of the line at words of affirmation. They want to be told. Our president was a ten on words of affirmation but zero on physical touch. He’s like, “Tell me you love me, but don’t you ever touch me.” That’s his philosophy. We know what makes us tick. We know the love language. I’ll never forget at the end of the season, we planned a little barbecue at one of our team members’ houses and so they told my wife and me, “Be there at 5:00 and bring paper plates.”
My wife was offended. She was like, “I love to cook, why paper plates?” She didn’t understand it, but anyways, we show up and the thing we see is a parking penguin. At our games, the first thing you’ll see is parking penguins. People dressed in penguin costumes, parking your cars. Does it make any sense? Of course not, but the idea of getting parked like a penguin is funny. They pass off freezy pops to kids and say, “Stay cool.” We’re pulling into our team member’s house. All of a sudden, we see a penguin guiding our car. We’re like, “What the heck is going on here.” As we pull in, our director of first impressions opens the door, we were like, “What is going on?”
They say, “Welcome, here’s your tickets over here.” They walked us to our director of tickets, who’s in a full banana costume, gives us our tickets with an all you can eat wristband. They walk us out to the back and they have a private dining setup. They have our favorite music playing. They have lights and our president walked out and he says, “Mr. and Mrs. Cole, welcome to your fans the first experience.” We’re like, “What is going on?” They’re like, “We’ve prepared a meal for you and we want to tell you how much we care about you.” My wife, we found out that she was pregnant with our son. They didn’t know that. We hadn’t told anybody.The starting point for most innovation is what is frustrating to your customers. Click To Tweet
They bring our favorite alcoholic drinks and Emily’s favorite drink was a 9% beer. She was like, “Jesse, drink.” I’m drinking two beers while she’s emotional. They bring out our favorite meal. We then finished the meal and they bring our favorite dessert. They then bring us an iPad and it has everyone on our staff recording saying how much of an impact we’ve made on their life. Emily is bawling her eyes out. They come up with a personalized book with all the fans, pictures, quotes, and the meaning that we brought to Savannah. We’ve had this point where we’re blown away and we come at the end. We thank them all. They prepared for the dinner, the whole team was there. We said, “Thank you for an amazing night.”
They said, “It’s time to exit.” That’s something we pride ourselves in. The last impression leaves a lasting impression. Our whole staff is out at the gate and young people. They line up and every one of them hugged us and said, “We love you guys.” It was the first time I’ve ever heard it, but these are all 23, 24. Our president was 25 or 26, then. They all said the word love. We went home and we were like, “We couldn’t have been prouder to be a part of that.” It was our team. They did it back to us. They demonstrated what we do to our fans. It’s a moment I’ll never forget. It’s shared that that’s what we’re trying to do for our fans and my wife and I try to do that to them every single chance we get.
I want to hear more stories, but let’s start to bring this in for a landing for now. Your child is two and no banana name.
We named him Maverick. No banana name, but he was the banana baby on opening night. In 2019, he was also in the turtle versus toddler race, which is the world’s slowest race where we play Chariots of Fire theme music. Unfortunately, he lost and the fans started booing. He might be traumatized because of that.
You’ll find out eventually.
We will, sooner than later.
You’ve got your own family and you’re looking ahead, but let’s not forget that the times that we’re living in will pass. As you look out to the future, do you have a vision for where you want to take the enterprise and what you see it developing into? Is it more of the same and continue to be innovative or is there a bigger vision here?
We always think about is if we’re not growing, we’re not able to help our people grow and take care of them. When we’ve reached capacity, we’ve sold every ticket to every game. Our first few years were massive growth and we have to be able to have that. Our next step is how do we bring this impact to more people? We’re going to be bringing the show on the road and so the Bananas will be traveling. Maybe they’ll end up in San Diego one time, but we’ll probably keep it slow. We’re probably going to do a one city World Tour, First World Tour. When my book came out, Find Your Yellow Tux, I did a World Book Tour, but I did it in Epcot. I went from country to country.The last impression leaves a lasting impression. Click To Tweet
That’s called efficiency.
I got kicked out at Morocco but that’s a whole other story. The security guard thought I was confusing the guest as one of their characters. The reality is we’ll take the show on the road and we’ve experienced even more. The question we’re always asking, and if you want to love your customers and love your people, you’ve got to always look at what are those friction points. What are those frustrations? We’re continuing to try to eliminate those. We eliminated all advertising from our ballpark. We created the first-ever ad-free stadium. We threw away hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe millions because we don’t feel anyone wants to come to a ballpark to be advertised to.
We’re going to continue to eliminate those frustrations and the next step is baseball. It is still too long. It takes 3 to 4 hours to play. You watch a baseball game. People are on their phones, they’re talking, and they aren’t watching the game. We’ve experimented and created a game that you can play the equivalent of a nine-inning game in 99 minutes. It’s the most fun and exciting baseball game you’ve ever seen. We’re going to take that on the road and continue to work on those friction points and make it more fun. It’s only a matter of time. Hopefully, we get clear with all this craziness and we’re able to start having fun with more people.
Jesse, thank you for making my day, my week, my month. What an incredible story. I know that our readers are getting tremendous value out of this as well you’re lifting up our spirits in times where we need to be reminded that it is about love and life has led us here to enjoy. We can help each other do that whether we’re a business enterprise or not. I know that people are going to want to have some of The Savannah Bananas experience remotely. Where can people go to connect with you and your team? Is there a place where we can watch some of these videos you’ve talked about? Point us in the right direction.
TheSavannahBananas.com is our website, but if you go to our website, we got the Banana Story. It’s a twenty-minute documentary that shares it from Emily and me on the air bed to the struggles to the crazy things that we’re doing. That twenty-minute documentary is a lot of fun. You can see our music video, Can’t Stop the Peeling, Old Town Road. We’ve done a Titanic and Sandlot parody. We’ve done a lot of fun videos. We’re constantly uploading there for our fans. I want to thank you, as I shared, I sent a video to you and the impact of your book. I finished the book report and it’s about three pages long of notes and ideas, the stories that you share of people that are demonstrating love in unique ways. I had six things that I’m going to do immediately because of your book. I know you have your readers who have read the book but read it again, take more notes. We’re sharing it with our team because it’s making us better and be even more fans first. A huge thank you for you because of the inspiration.
That’s incredibly gratifying, Jesse. I appreciate it. Let me make sure I heard you correctly. You wrote a book report?
Part of Love is Just Damn Good Business, we are part of the BetterBookClub and what we do is we pay our people to read. Everyone who reads a book does a book report, gets paid $50, $75. We’ve paid thousands of dollars to our team. For me, I don’t pay myself but what I do is I do the book report because it helps me remember all the key points. I’ve got about 150 to 200 book reports since we started. For all the great points in your book, I can come back to it and remember what those things I want to implement are.Attention beats marketing 1000% of the time. Click To Tweet
Thank you, Jesse. This has been extraordinary and I can’t wait to see what you come up with next. This is my prediction. I’m not much of a prognosticator, but I’m going to guess that Maverick is going to be fine despite the racing trauma that you think he might’ve experienced something. He’s grown up in such a great environment and I’m happy for you on many levels. Thanks for being with us.
Thank you, Steve.
- The Savannah Bananas
- Find Your Yellow Tux: How to Be Successful by Standing Out
- Business Done Differently
- YouTube – Steve Farber
- Love is Just Damn Good Business
About Jesse Cole
Jesse Cole is the founder of Fans First Entertainment and owner of the Savannah Bananas.
His teams have welcomed more than one million fans to their ballparks and have been featured on MSNBC, CNN, and ESPN.
The Bananas have been awarded the Organization of the Year, Entrepreneur of the Year, Business of the Year, and won the CPL Championship in their first year. Fans First Entertainment has been featured on the INC 5000 lists as one of the fastest-growing companies in America.
The Savannah Bananas currently have sold out every game for two straight seasons and have a waiting list in the thousands for tickets.
Jesse is an in-demand speaker and released his first book “Find Your Yellow Tux – How to Be Successful by Standing Out” in January of 2018. The book launched #1 in three categories on Amazon and has been sold in 18 countries. Staying true to his mantra, “Whatever’s Normal, Do the Exact Opposite,” Cole launched the book with a World Book Tour….at Epcot.
Cole’s greatest mentors are Bill Veeck, PT Barnum, and Walt Disney. All three share a wall in his office on custom-made posters that display the words Innovation, Showmanship, and Vision. Cole believes to be successful you need to Stand Out and Be Different. He releases daily videos, blogs, and articles on LinkedIn. He is passionate about creating attention, loving your customers more than your product, and loving your employees more than your customers.
Cole is the host of the Business Done Differently Podcast and has been featured on more than 100 podcasts including the Ziglar Show, StoryBrand with Donald Miller, and NPR’s Only a Game.