By: Jon Foss
As Foss Swim School begins its 30th year in business, I’ve been thinking a lot about the lessons I have learned and put into practice and how humble ideas can grow into something that seems completely different from the outside – and yet has the same heart.
Looking at our custom-built pools, beautiful branding, and many locations, you might think of FOSS as a chain, but peel back the layers and you’ll see everything we do has been built piece-by-piece from the things we learned. We are a family run company.
BEFORE OUR FIRST LESSON: The school began long before our first swim lesson. In 1987 I wrote detailed manuals on how to teach world-class competitive technique to my swim teams. The program was called KADS and it helped create 12 championship teams and a dozen national records. We had a waiting list for competitive lessons which then turned into sophisticated technique clinics with swimmers flying in from other states to attend. Susan and I saw a demand to improve the quality of swim instruction and began planning the swim school in 1992.
THE POOLS: Our first “location” wasn’t ours at all, but an apartment pool where I taught our first group of twelve students in March of 1993. My wife Susan handled the business side; marketing, registration, enrollment all with old school paper forms and an answering machine. Kids would shiver and the situation was less than ideal. We saw what they wanted and needed – a comfortable place to learn, warm water, friendly atmosphere and an encouraging staff.
THE PROCESS: Likewise, in developing our curriculum, we learned from watching how the kids learned. We believe every kid can learn to swim and swim well, this was actually a novel thought back then. We spent hours breaking down every step of the journey that helped kids succeed in the pool. We found that there were consistent breakthrough “Lightbulb” moments when kids would GET IT, and then be ready to move on. We arranged the bite-sized lessons in ways that they would build upon each other, figured out how to make them fun for kids to do, and documented them.
This step-by step approach became the foundation of the FOSS system, helping us define the different levels in our program and standards for passing each level that helps us ensure kids are ready to move on. Susan wrote our Credo for the company – “Laughter then Learning then Confidence then Mastery” It is far more than just a tagline but a deep philosophy on how to teach children to overcome fear and become excellent. Our Credo is a promise, and key to our process.
THE PEOPLE: As we grew, I couldn’t teach each child myself and Susan could not handle the dry side of the business. It was a shame because I love teaching and we were a fantastic team, but it reinforced to us the importance of passing on what we knew.
Over the first 7 years of the school, I personally taught 50,000+ lessons, that experience built our curriculum and our 52 hours of training each instructor receives before teaching their first class the FOSS way. The experience at any FOSS school is even better now than our first years with just Susan and I.
Our people are also the beating heart of our culture, and we want you to feel that every time you meet a team member at FOSS. Our excellent pay and detailed accountability systems ensure high-quality instruction.
I remember an important lesson taught to me by my collegiate coach. One day I had a great swim, and he came running up to the edge of the pool, shaking with joy, shouting “Way to go Eddie” (his nickname for me was Eddie – don’t ask.). I felt how much he cared and the happiness we shared, that moment changed my life. As a coach and teacher, I want every swimmer to feel a similar moment, and we hire people who have that kind of connection with kids and parents and train them how to express it.
Growing and learning how to grow
We were really fortunate to have the success we did – our first dozen families told a dozen more, and soon the word about FOSS began to spread. Our second session, we had 50 or 60 kids enrolled, we kept reinvesting and growing and soon we had opened seven locations throughout the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. In 2005 we expanded to Susan’s home state of Illinois in 2005, where we now have 6 locations.
I handled the curriculum and training but Susan’s business acumen created the organizational structure that works for parents. We experimented with monthly memberships and drop-in classes, which is the current rage in child classes. But we found students progress to learning and lesson quality is far greater with pre-scheduled, quarter-long sessions or short-term, high-intensity camps. Hence our offices have found ways to schedule our pools with a mix of both.
Susan learned early that every neighborhood and family is unique, just like every child. The business fundamentals must be consistent, just like a teacher has to forge a unique bond of trust with each swimmer, each school’s staff has learned how to be good neighbors and a part of the neighborhoods we serve. It’s a lesson we continue to refine and put into practice each day.
To Learn to Swim Well is an asset for life
If there is one lesson I learned with this business that I would also like to pass on to the kids, it’s that you need to keep going, become an excellent swimmer. We are proud to teach kids the basics of swimming for their own safety and fun – but as a passionate swimmer, I promise that by mastering techniques, and developing stamina, one’s enjoyment of swimming will grow exponentially. It was the same when growing the FOSS schools – we could have said “We’ve made it” once the first school was steady, but we kept seeing the need and desire of families and kept going and growing.
Swimming is the central theme of my life and an important part of Susan’s and our five children’s lives. To be sure, part of the reason I learned to swim was the practical need of safety – my mother at age 17 was watching her 9-year-old brother when he silently drowned. She did everything in her power to make sure I was a strong swimmer growing up – but that strong skill became the source of my life’s passion and joy. I hope our wonderful staff of professionals has or can help you and your family find that same joy in your time with FOSS.
Thank you for taking part of your journey with us. — Jon Foss