We speak with Alex Sereno from Café Barista and Barista Triathlon in Montreal, Qc. Alex has been coaching since the early 1990s and continues to play a key role in the development of swimmers and triathletes today; we talk with Alex about his time in coaching, his evolution in business, and how all these learned can be put back into coaching and club building.
The text that follows is an excerpt from our hour long conversation. The full video interview can be found on our youtube channel and by the link here. The full audio can be found by Clicking here
All this started from you being a swimmer. Jumping into coaching, give me a really quick synopsis; where did that all start?
Well, I swam until I was 18 years old, I think to the 92 Olympic trials. Then I just jumped into coaching, at a club, out East in Montreal, and I got hooked, I just loved it.
It was so much fun, shortly after that, Pierre Lafountaine got the job at CAMO, and again shortly after that, he recruited me as an assistant coach, and the rest is history.
Working with Pierre, what was that like?
Amazing. I always refer to that as my most important & formative coaching years; I learned most of the craft. During the four years I spent with Pierre, I made sure I was around all the time. If you know, Pierre, he just loves to coach, and he's so passionate about it. I'd make sure, even though I wasn't coaching, I'd be on deck whenever he was there, watching and asking questions. At the time, I was coaching younger kids.
He always challenged me at every stage in my coaching career with projects and gave me many responsibilities. It gave me a ton of confidence. It allowed me to believe in myself enough to say, "okay, I can do this."
One of the first things he did, that was, that was surprising for me was he sent me on an open water World Cup circuit in Argentina with one of our top swimmers. I think she was a champion at the time, I had no experience with open water; I'd never done it before, I'd never even been on a boat. Piere said - she's got experience, she'll tell you how to do it. You'll figure it out. And like that, I was sent to Argentina. I learned so much and hooked on open water; after that, I started specializing in open water swimming, and he gave me more responsibility.
After that, I resolved to challenge myself all day & every step of the way, I needed to put myself in a scenario where I would be afraid to challenge myself and learn from it.
That was the school of coaching with Pierre.
What other businesses led up to Barista?
I had many businesses that weren't very successful, but they were a means to an end, a process that was all leading up to what I do today.
When I jumped from swimming to triathlon in 1998, I was very early to the sport. It was a really young sport that didn't have the infrastructure developed like clubs do today; we had to create everything.
I had to find ways to generate revenue to do what I loved, which is coaching, so I built this little side business doing personal coaching at home. That led to eventually building a club within the DDO(Dollard-des-Ormeaux) infrastructure. The business aspect was always interrelated to my coaching and the club. Today it still is, I have Cafe Barista and the pro-team with Amelie Kretz. In triathlon, there's a big business component to it, many clubs are private, a lot of coaches have private clients; it's a little bit different than from swimming where you're in a club environment, club structure, and there's pros and cons.
I like to be the master of my environment and I believe that's the reason why I ended up being in business for myself. I always thought that there's a lot that business and coaching have in common. They're very similar. Its challenging, goals need to be hard to achieve; you need to set yourself up with a plan, and then you need to execute it. You will make mistakes; you will fail. You need to be prepared to pick yourself up and learn from the failures and carry on; you always need to be in learning mode.
As I get older, I realize that there is a lot that I don't know.
I do a lot of digital marketing with Cafe Barista. That's something that I've learned over the course of the last 12 years. The Barista brand is a digital brand; we're very involved online where we have a beautiful community.
I find it exciting to always be in a learning mode.
I'm going to jump ahead in my question set. You dropped a breadcrumb there. Getting to a point where you recognize, you know what you don't know, understanding the value in learning from failure and the lessons leading to this point. Patience & perspective become supremely important; when you're talking to an athlete who says, I want to now, or conversely, a sales rep or somebody within the company that says, I want it now, what's your answer them today?
It is not going to happen! That's simple. I have a track record to show that doesn't happen, so I can base myself on facts. This company is 17 years in the making; to develop & grow into what it is today and prepare for what's coming for the company in the next phase is the same process I use with the athletes. I never compromise as a business owner, I don't compromise as a coach. I know what I know and can base my decisions on that, I've made mistakes, learned from them, and don't want to repeat them. I won't fast-track something if I know the athlete's not ready or the business's not prepared.
How do you deal with an athlete, who as an example, is having trouble pushing through a barrier?
Every athlete is different; it's case by case, not one formula fits all.
Sometimes you don't have the answers. Sometimes you don't have the recipe. Coaching is about listening; if you listen enough and observe, you might find the solution you're looking for. But it's not; it's not black and white. That's the beauty of what we do. It's very strategic.
I've been lucky enough to work with some, some very mature athletes. I worked with Kathy Tremblay leading up to the 2012 Olympics, and now I'm working with Amelie Kretz leading up to Tokyo, getting ready for the selection.
Two things that come to mind when I think about these two mature athletes;
- I've learned a lot from these athletes because I listen, I can base myself on their experience. What have they've done that worked, and what hasn't worked. That honest conversation leads to leads to great things.
- It's not the same when you're working at the development stage because there's a big teaching component, and it's important to build a strong foundation. You have to have all your bases covered to avoid having to go back and fix things; then they can progress into that next phase of their career.
It's not all luck. We interviewed with Sean Baker from Markham a couple of weeks ago. One of the things he mentioned was that winners want to be where winners are. People go where they're going to get what they need to get.
You Mentioned Kathy Tremblay going back to the subject of patience that was almost a 12-year project to get her to the Olympics. That's a lot of ups and downs; it is sticking to a plan, sticking to an idea. Can you speak to that?
She had a fantastic career in retrospect; she raced until she was 30, attended two Olympics, 2008, 2012, she won world cup medals, but it was a process to achieve. I started working with her in 2002, which led to our first world cup podium in 2006. That first four years of really solid work created a foundation that would lead to the 2008 Olympics; it would lead to international level racing, leading to getting ready to make that second Olympic team, it's a very long process. There were so many people involved in the journey that made it happen. I played a role, her husband, David James played a role, her development coach played a role, many people played a role in that 12-year journey.
Reinforcing the idea of patience, So now it's been 17 years with Barista, and I watched it be built brick by brick. I remember one of the first things you told me when you started; you said, "I'm going into this, and this is what I understand about sales. If I knock on ten doors, one person will answer, and that's where I'm going to start." That's where you started. You then moved to Facebook, and you created different ways to then, take those ten doors and turn them into ten mouse clicks. With that said, 17 years getting Barista to this point, a new location, you just opened up your coffee shop at your location, which you opened in the ashes of a pandemic when the lockdown happened. You found a way again to turn the situation on its head.
I want to talk to you about what you did for marketing in those early days. You were early to Facebook to use as a primary tool to get your message out. What made you realize it was as effective as it was? And then what did you do then, and how has that evolved?
Yeah, you mentioned we built Barista brick by brick; we literally did that. We started in a flea market with a table, then we moved to Enrico's basement, and that evolved to what you see today.
The patience factor is a massive game-changer in the equation. When we started looking at the digital world, we saw it as an opportunity to do some marketing. We thought it was relatively easy because we're a very young brand, we had no money, no resources, and Facebook, or anything in the digital world seemed like an opportunity; we thought it was free. And getting to learn the digital world, you realize quickly, nothing is free.
We saw an opportunity none-the-less; I call it the far West of the web, Facebook was maybe four years old, and new platforms were starting to open. We thought this would probably be where people would meet as communities to exchange ideas and more. I guess we were right because they are. These platforms have a community; each represents an audience with which we have an opportunity to engage. We understood that it was an opportunity for us to bring value; the best value we could share was what we do best, which is our coffee knowledge.
That was a great framework to create content, through YouTube, Facebook, our blog, and other great platforms, for our community and our consumers.
Along the way, we've learned what digital marketing is, and in 2011, we built a digital marketing agency to help our B2B clients, and we would invest the extra revenue back into the brand. When we had enough knowledge, we decided to vertically integrate and focus on the Barista brand and its clients. That gave rise to the brand as it is today. We now have a big enough digital footprint; we have a beautiful community on these different platforms. Now, ten-plus years on and finding our way through the digital world, we have a solid e-commerce business, sell online, and sell B2B; we sell to at scale to grocery stores, it took a lot of work and was a process; it's just like coaching. We learned, and we still do every day, because these platforms evolve, the algorithms change the best practice changes. We're always in a learning mode, which is very exciting for me.
The parallel that you draw is interesting between business and coaching. There's research in coaching, but at the same time, there's no research - things change all the time. There are people who are experts, but at the same time, there are no experts. When we talk about social media, it is an industry that is so new. The bureaucratic nature of our educational institutions hasn't caught up. I don't think they will ever catch up; it evolves so fast and changes so quickly. There's nobody to teach it. Paraphrasing something from Gary V, he's blatantly said to universities," you don't have a clue what is actually going on out there because you're still living in an old world," Whether or not he's right or wrong. I don't know. I'm no expert, but I know that if you spend the time to learn something you want to learn, the resources are out there. To my next question, you mentioned the different channels, B2B(business to business) D2C(Direct to Consumer). The co-existence of these two usually is something that a lot of people are afraid of. You're either in the lane of B2B, or you're in this lane of D2C, and never shall the two meet; traditional thought says you want to avoid the angry mob. You found a way like others found the way of finding harmony between the two streams. One compliments the other, you can speak directly to your customers., the people will buy directly from you, buy your coffee, and then go out and support a local coffee shop that may also be selling your coffee. What was your thought going in? Was it always that these two can exist in harmony, or was that a learning process for you?
They need to co-exist. I have a very high respect for all the people, merchants, the coffee shops, the bakeries that support the brand, and who have allowed us to exist on their shelf.
They've given us a chance to promote the Barista brand within their businesses. The relationship also creates another avenue where, as you said, the consumer also has an opportunity to shop product online; I can talk directly to them, both co-exist, and that's the beauty of it. We're going to see a shift in the retail industry in the next few years, it's already happening because of the past year. I don't think it's going to be a purely digital world. It is going to be a shift to a mix between both, and they both can co-exist. I don't know where that will lead, but it's shifting, and we see it. This year is the first year we are selling at scale; we have an exclusive distribution agreement with Metro groceres, one of Quebec's biggest grocery chains year. That's another channel that needs and co-exist in our ecosystem. At the end of the day, we're all trying to reach the consumer and allow them to find the Barista brand. Each of these channels needs to be nurtured in different ways, but they need to co-exist together.
One of our company's strengths is understanding that and making sure that we don't just focus on one and we just don't leave one aside; we really try to nurture each one of those channels. It's the best of both worlds for the consumer; they find the product, whether they want to go to their local bakery, which they do to buy bread and a bag of coffee, or want a subscription of our coffee.
You've always given back. When you plan video content, you'll go to a local coffee shop or bakery that sells your coffee, and your plan revolves around them, you're, you're doing work on them, promoting them. You believe there's value in that. It ultimately comes down to your belief that it's important to create value for those in the community. That seems to be one of the keys to creating that harmony and synergy between the B2B & D2C channel. Would you agree?
Absolutely, I don't take anything for granted, and I have very high respect for people that permit me to sell my products in their business.
So that relationship needs to be nurtured if we can find a way to bring value to that, whether it's a video, a post, or other forms of collaboration if we can showcase one of our partners.
It's crucial to create value for my community and the people who buy our coffee via our website, at the end of the day where we're all trying to talk to the consumer.
As for you guys, I love the Vorgee brand. It's one of my favorite aquatic brands. It's very easy to promote because they are super products. You need to talk to me, the guy who wears the goggles, I need to know where I find the goggles? I can find them on Ocean Junction, but I could also find it at my local store, it's so it's your job to make sure that I know whether I want to go to the store because I need something you don't carry or whether I just want to order online. It's your job to make sure that, you create those channels for me.
You talked about learning and listening from athletes; how have you found that mutual respect in coaching?
I'm very lucky to have people like you that I've crossed paths with in my career. I've learned so much from everybody; coaching is broader than just the coaching community. It's everybody that works within that sphere—physiotherapists, physiologists, doctors that I've met over the past 30 years. I see myself as a generalist. As a coach and a business owner, I'm not an expert, I'm a guy that knows a little bit of everything, but I'm far from being an expert. I've always tried to surround myself with people that are experts in their field.
That's how I built the triathlon program. I got the best physio; I found the best sponsors, I try to find the best in every field relating to my coaching.
I do the same thing for my business. I've got a fantastic marketing director, I've got a fantastic content creator, I've got fabulous freelancers that are so good at what they do, I've got fantastic business partners. That is what makes my business, coaching everything that it is today.
I've met some amazing designers, content creators, and coaches; they're so good at what they do. They were also very open about what they do and sharing their expertise. When I started Barista, I didn't know anything about digital marketing, I came across a talented lady who at the time who was an early adopter of social media strategy and community management. She was very open to helping and teaching me what todo. I am fortunate enough to have met so many people like that I've learned from, particularly because the digital world evolves so fast, and it's tough to find a curriculum, so you have to find the information yourself.
You have to be very self-aware, as coaches, we are or have to be very good at learning at finding solutions, finding answers.
I want to bring this right back to the beginning, with the wealth of knowledge that you've gained over the last 30 years through coaching and business. If a new coach is listening to this or a young head coach, maybe a board member is listening to this. If you had a blank slate and could use your recipe to get a club started, what would you do?
Well, two things I've, I've always had a dream of owning a private club, A good friend of mine does it very well in Quebec City. He owns a Capital Triathlon & Swimming. He has his private infrastructure, with the feel of nonprofit, they've got every age group, they've got kids, they've got swimming now. As a business person, that appeals to me, but that's not the nature of the sport across the country; most clubs are nonprofit organizations, but I still think there's value to looking at a club as a business. Suppose you can generate the revenue you need to build the infrastructure, ensure the model is self-sustainable, and generate revenue that can be reinvested back in the program for coaches and athletes. You'll be able to invest in high-performance. The key idea is really to look at it in terms of how to make it into a self-sustaining business; the catch 22 is finding a balance with the community and high performance.
To summarize our conversation on business, coaching, and building an entity:
Alex's core list for building a swimming or triathlon club:
Alex's core list for building a swimming or triathlon club:
You mentioned high-performance. I want to get your perspective on the importance of making sure that it's applied accurately when that term is used. Often, a club will name a group a high-performance group. The current definition of high-performance is top 16 in the world, if you fall outside of that, you don't fit that definition. My question is, is there value in making sure that that term is as accurate? To have a kid that's a really good swimmer, but doesn't make it to the top 16 at nationals, is that high-performance? Does that matter?
High-performance swimming & triathlon is a niche; it's very selective, like you said, probably the top 16 in the world. Let's talk elite swimming and elite triathlon. That's kids being committed, being very involved in their sport. To me, the outcome is secondary.
Whether you come in 16th at nationals or third, it's not of great importance for me. It's the process you go through to achieve a goal. We're a school for life. If you go through elite sport, it will make you a better businessman or doctor; teaching that process is what we do. I've coached 30 something years, and I have had one person at the Olympics, a few world cup medals, you know, working with another athlete, trying to make the 2020(2021) team. But I've coached so many athletes and now, looking back, I realized that I have coached so many engineers, doctors, architects & business people. I think that the pathway of elite sport makes a difference in the next phase of adulthood. To make a long story short, it doesn't matter; it's all about bringing these kids to that next phase of their life. That's what I think sports should be.
That is a fantastic answer. It gives you the perspective and again comes back to that theme of patience.
Where to find Alex and Café Barista:
Coffee shop: 111A rue de Louvain Ouest
Montréal, Qc, H2N 1A3
Barista Training: https://cafebarista.ca/en/national-barista-institute/