Behind every great business rests an identity that customers can connect with—at least, that’s how it should be. One that prides itself on innovation. One that is built on a foundation of authenticity. It’s the quality that ensures an organization can survive on more than just one good product or service. Should there come a day when those products falter, the brand’s identity will remain true, provided it was developed right in the first place. At least, that’s how Jesse Cole sees it.
Recently, the entrepreneur and founder of the Savannah Bananas sat down with me for a fascinating discussion that touched upon the success of her “Banana Ball” team, why authenticity matters so much in business, and more.
FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME
Erik Huberman: When did you start playing baseball?
Jesse Cole: There are pictures from when I was like 1 year old. A 1-year-old holding a baseball bat. I really start doing it at probably 4 or 5. It became the sport that I played all the time.
Huberman: What drew you to it that you loved it so much as a little kid?
Cole: I don’t know. I don’t think I excelled. I practiced all the time. My parents were divorced. My dad raised me. He would work all day, he’d get home at six, and we’d go outside and start playing catch. And we just played and played.
So he got me throwing when I was very young and doing long toss. I threw harder than most kids in my area. That’s where I started excelling.
My dad tells a story about the first time I came up to bat at T-ball, and I was scared out of my mind. I walked up to bat and my dad yelled ”swing hard, in case you hit it!” And literally everyone laughs, and I came up to bat and my dad would say that every time. So I learned at a young age to swing hard.
I started hitting balls over the fence when I was 10 years old. I started having a lot of success.
WHEN LIFE THROWS YOU A CURVEBALL
After suffering a series of shoulder injuries from overuse during his senior year, things changed for Cole fairly quickly. His professional baseball aspirations were dashed, so he decided to go into coaching. However, he quickly realized it wasn’t for him.
Huberman: At that point, what did you think you were going to do?
Cole: I was 23 years old and I got the opportunity to be the general manager of a team. My pay was $27,000 to run the entire team. The first day I showed up, there was $268 in the bank account. We had three full-time employees and payroll was on Friday. I realized that the team had lost $150,000 the previous year. They were only drawing 200 to 300 fans per game.
It was an adventure to say the least. I didn’t pay myself for the first three-and-a-half months. I made it a goal—can I sell tickets every day? Can I sell sponsorship every day? I was making 50 to 100 cold calls every single day, trying to get out and do something to move the needle.
BRAND IDENTITY: THE KEY TO BUILDING SOMETHING FROM NOTHING
In 2015, it was announced that the Savannah Bananas, the team founded by Cole, would be the Coastal Plain League’s newest team and would begin playing the following year. It was his follow-up to his previous efforts with the Gastonia Grizzlies, which, in his own words, he’d ultimately “failed pretty miserably” at.
Huberman: In 2015, you start this expansion team. What’s your plan?
Cole: To really build it from the get-go was something that was very exciting to me because we were still getting away from the stigma of the Gastonia Grizzlies and who they were now. The goal was to start something, build our own brand, and take it to another level. And we failed pretty miserably trying to fit in because we were too scared to go out big, as we were just kids running a baseball team.
I mean, our president was 24 years old. We had three 22-year-olds on staff. [Cole’s wife] Emily was 28. I think I just turned 31 when we took over the Bananas.
Huberman: That’s how a lot of the best, biggest companies in the world started—with a bunch of twentysomethings.
Cole: We were just trying to create something that we would love ourselves. Something that would be fun.
TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE
Although the early days of the new team were precarious to say the least, Cole and his colleagues remained true to themselves and immediately got to work establishing a brand identity that was both authentic and innovative.
Cole: The tipping point in a bad direction was January 15, 2016. That’s when we got the phone call that we overdrafted our account and we were completely out of money. Emily and I had to sell our dream house that we had in Charlotte next to our team in Gastonia. We emptied our savings account found a dump and got an air bed, which was just a disaster—$30 a week was all we had for food.
We knew we had to do something big and dramatic. No one cared, so we had to get their attention. So when we did a “Name the Team” contest. We wanted something bizarre, crazy, outrageous, unique, different. And we got 999 normal names. Except for one, and it was the Bananas.
People are going to say “You named a baseball team after a fruit?” We decided to go with it. We invested in a logo, which everyone in my team thought was crazy because we didn’t have any money. We had to take out another credit card to do it. I knew we needed to make the brand something special.
So we invested and got the logo that we all loved and on February 25 announced it. That’s when everything changed.
Listen to the full interview here.
Erik Huberman is founder and CEO of Hawke Media, a full-service performance marketing group based in Santa Monica, Calif., that launched in 2014 and has been valued at $60 million.