Running, The Running Room, and social entrepreneurship

Running and entrepreneurship, what could they have in common?  Sure, entrepreneurs may very well be runners, since the drive, passion, and discipline that define most entrepreneurs are a good fit with running.  And, sure, since running has gained extraordinary increases in adherents in the past 15-20 years, there are many business opportunities to be found.  But entrepreneurship is more than just starting a new retail business.  It’s about new ways of thinking about how to develop and deliver your product or service, differentiating yourself for success.

I have been involved for many years, at least indirectly, with our university, regional governments, and the private sector in ensuring we have a supportive environment for incubating and promoting innovation and entrepreneurship in our region.  I’m used to the buzz words that come with the territory.  But I hadn’t been introduced to the term “social entrepreneurship” until recently.  According to Wikipedia, the main aim of social entrepreneurship is to further social and/or environmental goals.

Social entrepreneurs, I have learned, are people who have identified a social problem in their community or beyond, such as poverty, poor health, or illiteracy, and have come up with a way to address the issue. Their approach is likely to be considered creative or innovative, in other words, entrepreneurial.  A social entrepreneur uses entrepreneurial principles to create and manage a venture to achieve change.

Yesterday, while talking to my brother on the phone, along with our usual discussion about whose training was going better (and each of us wondering who was going to kick whose butt in Ottawa in 6 weeks), he mentioned the Running Room in connection with my blog post on children and entrepreneurship.  Afterwards, I thought, “Hey, not only is the founder of The Running Room a successful entrepreneur, he’s also a successful social entrepreneur.”

The story goes that John Stanton, Running Room’s founder, was a successful executive in the food industry when he went for a 3K fun run with his sons in 1981 and realized that he was dreadfully out of shape.  He began running secretly before anyone else was up so his neighbors wouldn’t be able to see this overweight guy who could only run from lamp post to lamp post before having to take a walk break (the beginning of run 10, walk 1).

He became a serious runner and realized there was a need for a store with better products for runners than was currently available.  This entrepreneurial runner decided to fill this niche himself,  opening the first one in the renovated living room of an old house in Edmonton, Alberta in 1984, hence the name Running Room. But his concept took its offerings far beyond just quality running gear.

One of his great innovations came from recognizing that the common routine of running with a group just to try to be the fastest and then getting in your car and going home was not what it could be.  He came up with the notion of building camaraderie around running as an activity, introducing pace groups to accommodate different abilities, making it seem more accessible, and encouraging people to stay the course.

As Kevin McKinnon explained in Canadian Running, “The simple logic of making running inclusive, of using a group to, as Stanton puts it, ‘motivate and inspire,’ is what has separated the Running Room and, to some extent, Stanton himself, from all others involved in the industry.”  This approach has led the Running Room to expand to over 111 locations across Canada and the United States.

The Running Room offers training clinics for newbies, for walkers, and for all standard race distances, using local races as the clinic goals, often races sponsored by the Running Room like the popular Santa Shuffles.  But more than that, their stores offer a community for runners and would-be runners.  Their clinics offer a comfortable group environment in which people who aren’t necessarily convinced they can really do it are encouraged by both the group leader and the others in the group.  The groups become remarkably close and support each other as they prepare for a target race, often their first.

The business model is creative, to say the least.  The clinic instructors are volunteers, often people with busy professional responsibilities and many demands at home.  But they love running and introducing others to the sport.  Running Room stores almost always have people just hanging out, talking about running.  And their weekly Wednesday evening and Sunday morning group runs are open to everyone, not just those paying for a clinic.

The success of these training programs is evident from the over 800,000 clinic graduates to date. The vision of the Running Room is captured by its tag line: We are not just selling shoes and equipment, we are selling a commitment to active living.

For his work in promoting fitness in Canada, John Stanton has been awarded the Award for Excellence in Health Promotion by the Canadian Medical Association and has been made a Member of the Order of Canada.  I can’t think of a better example of successful entrepreneurship, both as a business venture and a social venture.

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4 Responses to Running, The Running Room, and social entrepreneurship

  1. Running in Mommyland says:

    Great post! I often wondered who came up with pace group idea…

  2. Excellent post…after this comment I’m googling running room. I’ve always been interested in the running/entrepreneur connection believing it to be a viable business model.

    Thanks again, and be encouraged!

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Steve. It is a pretty impressive business model because wherever it sets up shop, dedicated runners who manage the franchise or work there greatly enlarge the existing running community by providing all their clinics, sponsoring current local races and introducing new ones, as well as virually serving as a club house. It’s huge in Canada. I think it is just starting to move into the US. I wouldn’t say that their web site was the best thing about their organization!

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