By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com
Business rewards bastards. And Seton Claggett was never a bastard.
TriSports.com in Tucson, Arizona is closing after 17 years of being one of the largest, and one of the first, online triathlon retailers. TriSports.com helped invent, define, and then sink the triathlon industry.
What happened to TriSports.com is happening to all of the triathlon and high-end bicycle business, and it is worth looking at.
Seton Claggett, TriSports.com founder and President, messaged me early today with insights on why the business is closing:
“We are closing because I was in litigation with the bank that caused me to go into BK11 4+ years ago. We went to trial on breach of contract, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and fraud. The judge ruled last week that the bank committed all of these but ultimately did not cause us any damages. I now owe them the original $1.8M (most of this would have been paid off by now) plus millions in attorney fees and costs.”
There will be a rush to judgment about what caused TriSports.com to close. Set against Claggett’s disclosure of bank litigation I’ll suggest it was not any singular reason that TriSports.com is closing, but rather a creeping, gradual, decade-long “death by a thousand cuts” that pervades an industry populated by people who like bikes and triathlons first, and do business second. Even though Claggett was not that man- he is a formally trained and gifted businessman- the rest of the industry weighed on pricing and distribution strategies. The Internet experts will have their say, but it’s unlikely many of them will understand the real reasons TriSports.com is closing and the industry as a whole is suffering.
The people still in the bike and triathlon business will pay no heed as the industry continues to contract and fails to adapt under the ruthless crush of economic reality and accelerating business change. I know because I have been one of those people- a business owner, and I did not change, so I know firsthand.
You can’t tell a small business owner anything. I’ve tried with four businesses I worked for; people tried it with me when I owned my own business before that. We never listen.
Until we lose everything, you can’t tell us anything.
I’ve seen five other bicycle and triathlon retailers ride their businesses into the ground. TriSports.com is just the biggest of us to close. It’s the 9/11, the Black Tuesday, the Automotive Recession, the Chernobyl, the Fukushima and the Three-Mile Island of the triathlon retail industry. Once the fallout clears, the industry will be radioactive for years and will only be habitable by ego-driven mutants of the small business world deformed by their bizarre and nonsensical toxic obsession with a sport and a “business” that eats its young, then consumes itself as their internal voice tells them, “I am the one who can get this right”.
They’re wrong. The triathlon business is no longer viable on any significant scale beyond hobby. There are a lot of reasons for that, enough to fill a book.
If you want a single narrative to the complex issue of triathlon business failings, then call it the same thing triathletes suffer from as a culture: hubris. I will, however, suggest that in the case of Seton Claggett and TriSports.com, he is a rare man largely immune to hubris.
I worked at TriSports.com for over two years in their bicycle, then marketing department. One memory of many defines the experience:
The employees of TriSports.com are high in the Arizona mountains outside the sleepy town of Show Low, Arizona. It’s a town named after a bet two prospectors made over a gold strike in the area. Both of them lost. We’re putting on the annual Deuces Wild Triathlon Festival, a series of endurance races in the high, wooded area surrounding Show Low.
Most of the about-50-person staff from TriSports.com drove from Tucson to Show Low, Arizona to help put on the Show Low Triathlon Festival. It’s a massive annual multisport event with kids’ races, various distance triathlons, an off-road triathlon and an orgy of the triathletes’ favorite endurance activity, getting free stuff. The event concludes with a giant raffle benefitting charity where tons, and I mean tons, of triathlon gear and schwag are given away for a charity donation- about the same volume of stuff sold in a small triathlon store in a year. But this is TriSports.com, and we are the largest. So, we can afford to give away tons of stuff for free people probably would have bought at full price anyway.
After the festivities are over it is time to clean up.
It’s hot out and Seton Claggett is addressing us while standing chest deep in disgusting, reeking garbage inside a trash hauling semi-trailer. Every one of us is exhausted, filthy, smelly, sore, hungry and sleep deprived.
“If we leave this mess here it goes against everything we stand for.” He tells our downtrodden mass of long-faced employee volunteers as the sun sags. It’s like a scene in a book about forced labor camps. This is the triathlon industry gulag, and I am exiled here like a less-intellectual retail Solzhenitsyn banished to the labor camps for my own personal failings in this business. Like Cool Hand Luke, I gotta get my mind right.
A key tenant of TriSports.com is environmental responsibility, and cramming all this garbage into the back of a couple semis to dump in a landfill is against Seton Claggett’s molecular make-up as an environmentalist, former boy scout, parent and business owner. It is against the Little Red Book of TriSports.com doctrine.
Despite the sickening, nose-permeating stench of rotting banana peels under the high Arizona sun, dirty bottles filled with congealing sports drinks, discarded race equipment soaked in athlete urine, changed diapers from spectators’ toddlers and all the other disgusting offal produced by a couple thousand athletes and their closest friends, Seton wants us to sort the garbage by hand into bins for environmentally responsible recycling and processing.
Claggett is clamped onto the ethos of environmental responsibility like the face-hugger in “Alien”. The Claggetts have two kids, and Seton’s life mission is to leave the world a better place than he found it for those kids, and for everyone else. Seton and Debbie Claggett’s unswerving attachment to environmentalism isn’t corporate feel-good window dressing. They own it. Environmental responsibility and a doctrine of leaving things better than you found them is in Claggett’s DNA, and he has cloned it into the corporate DNA of TriSports.com and its culture. Not to sell more stuff, but because Claggett doesn’t just believe it’s the right thing to do, he knows it is the right thing to do.
And now he stands chest deep is piss-smelling filth to prove it. And prove it he does.
One by one employees slowly churn into action, pulling trash bags out of the back of the disgusting mess, opening the garbage bags, pulling out discarded wet wipes with… something brown on them. It’s not just gross, it’s fucking gross. But Claggett somehow walks the walk with enough conviction he inspires the entire staff to wade into the offal and begin sorting the revolting mess into neatly organized recycling barrels.
Claggett somehow inspires a crew of tired, volunteer employees to sort filthy garbage by hand in the dark after consecutive 14-hour workdays. Show me a leader strong enough to inspire that, and I will show you Seton Claggett.
A couple hours later, in the dark, we stink like hell and the world is a slightly better place. Claggett himself is covered in filth, and the last to stop working. I have found a new hero.
The Claggetts defined themselves repeatedly with acts of generosity and kindness both large and small. When Seton saw me riding my bike to an airshow loaded down with camera equipment early one weekend morning he secured a pass for me to the Air Force base and took me with him to a private air show during the Heritage Flight Conference at Davis-Monthan AFB. When my cat Frederick died of old age Debbie had every employee sign a sympathy card for me. I still have that card.
The charity and giving doctrine of the Claggetts was infectious. It spread like a smiley-faced plague through the building. After riding my bike to work one day in a rare Tucson downpour the Human Resource Director, a woman named Susan, found dry clothes for me to put on and a towel. When I obsessively worked 70-hour weeks she counseled me for working too many hours.
But heroes are fallible and complex, and Seton Claggett is no exception. Claggett was oddly fixated on loading the dishwasher in the employee kitchen correctly. He produced a YouTube tutorial video on the correct procedure, lectured employees at meetings on the correct process and even installed a video camera over the dishwasher to verify compliance. Where did that come from? I chalk it up to Claggett’s penchant for clear thinking and process. He is a smart man, a man of organized thought, spreadsheets and analytical problem solving. To him it is incomprehensible that a person could not load a dishwasher correctly, and that detail mattered. It was a teachable moment.
The story of TriSports.com and the rise and fall of the triathlon industry deserves to be told. It’s a complex story not well suited for Internet chat room fodder. It is more complex, both worse, and better. It doesn’t fit in a 1300 word blog.
If Seton Claggett had opened a software company, an app developer, a social media outlet or any other emerging business I’ll suggest we would mention his name alongside Gates, Jobs, Buffett and Zuckerberg. Claggett is a tirelessly hard-working man with a Masters in business and a deep, analytical mindset and strong stomach for risk. Unfortunately for him his first round of entrepreneurship was spent on an industry filled largely by people long on enthusiasm for the sport, too quick to give a discount and short on business acumen.
I wager Seton Claggett’s next round at business will conclude very differently.