As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert Kinsler.
Robert Kinsler is the founder and CEO of United Fray and Publisher of District Fray Magazine. As a lifestyle services and media company, Fray is on a mission to “Make Fun Possible” by creating and sharing fun things to do. Examples of what United Fray provides includes social sports leagues, weekly city based events and activation and media coverage. Working across social sports, events, and media, Fray builds communities, fosters relationships, and creates value for our members and community & corporate partners. Fray operates out of four primary markets; Washington, DC, Phoenix, AZ, Jacksonville, FL and New Orleans, LA and actively executes events and activities across the country. Servicing over 350,000 event and sports participants since inception, Fray has been recognized as an INC 5000 fastest growing company for the last four years. (2016, 2017, 2018, 2019)
Kinsler was named the Small Business Person of the year by the DC Chamber of Commerce in 2017 and currently serves on the board of the Sports and Social Industry Association (SSIA). Kinsler previously served as Finance and Membership chair for the executive board of the Baltimore Chapter of the Entrepreneurs Organization and served on the executive board of the DC based nonprofit, CRYSP DC which through advocacy, community outreach and facility management, leverages underused property to provide recreation facilities for local DC residents. Kinsler is a husband and a father of three amazing children under the age of 6 and has (mostly) kept his sanity during COVID-19 thanks to his amazing wife Victoria, his incredible team at the office, his mentors and his mastermind group called Netcito, which is a network of peer advisory groups for entrepreneurs. Robert has a passion for entrepreneurial potential and the pursuit of capturing it. Some of his past experiences include earning his SAG card, serving in the Army National Guard, living in the Virgin Islands and lending his voice to a McDonald’s radio commercial. You can join Kinsler on twitter or instagram @RAKinsler for snippets of the journey.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
In a nutshell, I’ve had a very non-traditional experience that helped shape me to who I am today. Early I was molded more by examples of things I shouldn’t do, than things I should which led me to several opportunities and a non-traditional path to my business journey. I have a diverse background serving as an Infantry Soldier to once being hired as a hand model and lots of adventures in between. Looking for an excuse to hang out with my friends led me to an article about skeeball leagues out of NYC. I decided that was exactly what we needed in DC and the rest just grew from there.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I wish the mistakes were limited to “earlier on” ha! I’ve made a whole slew of missteps along the way. I guess in some way there is a bit of humor in all of them. The more authentically humorous might have been our failed attempt in running a cruise ship style shuffleboard league? But on a more serious note, mistakes I’ve made include things like losing my cool when stressed, trying to make everyone happy with the decisions I make, or not believing people when they show you who they are. Heavier things like that have been a constant learning experience from me.
One of the biggest lessons of my 30’s is that you just can’t make everyone happy. Trying to put every decision through a lens of making others happy causes you to show up differently for each of your team members since they are all different and that leads to inconsistency and ultimately an erosion of trust with your team. Care about your team, put people first, try and do right, but know that you’ll never satisfy everyone and trying to will cause even more problems.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I’m a big reader. I subscribe to the notion that not all readers are leaders but certainly all leaders are readers. I don’t always finish the books I start, but I have a very high stack of them on my nightstand and desk. The two books most impact for me recently are the Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and Factfulness. The prior does an amazing job outlining the difference between fault and responsibility and how important it is as leaders and entrepreneurs for us to understand that difference. The latter is a great book about how we digest and filter information in the world and the importance of having a fact based world view.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Early on, I didn’t think of my venture as a business, but more as an excuse to have fun with my friends. That quickly evolved as momentum picked up. For our first few years, our mission wasn’t terribly clear but there were driving principles that were leading us. About four years in, with the help of a fantastic creative strategist and wordsmith, Erica Schlaikjer, we honed those principles into our current mission statement To Make Fun Possible by creating and sharing fun things to do.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
I don’t have just one principal, instead we have seven company values that guide us through our actions, behaviors and how we operate as a business. Our seven core values are: Fun, Gratitude, Positive, Innovation, Community, Courage and just recently added..Hustle!
The main core of those values would be gratitude. It is the foundational virtue that others spring from and help inform all we do. Additionally the idea around comfort vs discomfort and the importance of being willing to be uncomfortable to help disrupt, innovate and grow.. That may actually be the most core principle to managing the ups and downs of a business.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
COVID-19 has been a real challenge for our company and for me personally. Having three small children suddenly out of school and showing up for them while also working from home and navigating our business has been a tough balancing act.
As a company built on social gathering and fun, COVID-19 and social distancing have had a direct impact on business and revenue for United Fray, the parent company of DC Fray, JAX Fray, PHX Fray, and NOLA Fray. In order to operate business as usual, our company has pivoted to online solutions that unite the community more than ever.
The two biggest challenges in our business are how we socialize moving forward and what does social sports look like. As a business who works with partners, sponsors and has a huge population of individuals who participate in social sports or social outings, the uncertainty on what this looks like moving forward is hard to determine or predict. We all have to navigate various different degrees of comfort and risk mitigation around the risk of contracting Covid in the future until an effective vaccine is created. We had to pivot our operations at record speed and re-tool the way we are providing social and sports entertainment to help folks stay active while mobilizing and supporting a powerful community.
United Fray paused outdoor social leagues and started to focus on an online experience with both weekly trivia and bingo. Local partners, like bars and restaurants that are still able to provide delivery, also want to be a part of the fun offering prizes for community engagement. This pivot for our B2C base has outlined the opportunity for our B2B clients creating digital recess events for companies that span states, or simply can’t gather in the office anymore. Using basic technology, we have been busy creating fun opportunities while everyone is stuck inside.
United Fray now thinks of ourselves as a digital business, identifying and pursuing opportunities that engage the community at large and benefit both large and small businesses. For our conference and event production services in the next 6–12 months, we’re developing digital programming and video production based on client demand to help sustain business continuity. Even though we are more heavily reliant on digital platforms and offerings, our business clients and partners need the support to in turn support their customers and employees.
As you can see, there isn’t one key way we have dealt with this other than working to let go of pre-COVID-19 thinking and assumptions, working to find new routines and also heaping on a healthy amount of compassion for ourselves and others during this time.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The bulk of our business operations have been shuttered due to the shutdowns. Events and sports leagues just aren’t happening. We’ve pivoted to new opportunities that are still focused on our mission, just delivering on them in new ways. I used a structure of “defend and stabilize” “reset” and “offense” to help organize our planning and response actions. We also have shifted to a much smaller planning and execution style. Quarterly goals are out, weekly and monthly planning is in.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the corona virus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
The 24 hour news cycle can be tough on anyone’s mental health. We need space to process, grieve, breathe or figure out how to take action. At the height of this uncertainty and fear, I also find peace in reminding myself that some of the smartest people in the world are working on solutions and as a leader I need to focus on the things I can control that are right in front of me. I am not always successful at that, but it is my goal and intent. When I slip on it, I try to give myself compassion.
When it comes to supporting family, friends and my community, the best action I’ve found is simply listening and holding space. Letting those around me know that I am there for them and ready to be an ear if they need one has brought me closer to others and seems to have helped each other move forward in some small way.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
For those in the B2B space there is a big opportunity to serve remote and distributed teams. There are lots of tech plays in that area but there is room as well as room on the services side as well. There is also opportunity in the B2C space around virtual engagement and entertainment as well. The demand may change over time, but fundamentally I think people have been introduced to the idea of virtual entertainment in a new way that has created opportunities.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I certainly think it will change our behavior, but probably not in the ways we expect. You can’t go through an experience like this and not be changed in some way. How it will play out, which fundamentals will stay unchanged (our need for connection for instance) and what will shift more is the billion dollar question. I don’t have the answer right now, but I’m staying keen to try and figure it out.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
We are expanding in our B2B world and our virtual digital offerings. We are also growing our media business which includes launching a membership program. Local media is rapidly changing and it’s our goal to cheerlead for our community and help our members have fun. We believe if we can do that effectively a membership program is a great way to grow the business. On our legacy business that was thriving before COVID, our plan is to reopen as we can taking prudent steps in adjusting operations and processes to ensure players are able to stay healthy!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
You are what you repeatedly do. Your habits, your actions, they create yourself and your identity.
My biggest challenge is in this area, setting the discipline to manage the volume of work and responsibility on my plate needs a level of diligence that I am building each day.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can follow me on twitter/Instagram @RAKinsler or on linkedin or our company website at www.unitedfray.comFeel free to reach out. I enjoy engaging with other doers!