“I couldn’t call myself an entrepreneur for the longest time, but I guess that’s what they call me now,” Scott Cupit, the brains behind the wildly popular swing dance school, Swing Patrol, tells GrowthBusiness.
“I walked away from my banking career, so you can imagine the conversation I had with my dad when I told him I’m giving it up to start a swing dancing school,” he says. He started up in Melbourne in 1998, before expanding in Australia.
When Cupit landed in London in 2009 from sunny Melbourne, however, he had no contacts, and, according to him, no idea just how difficult it would be to start up in a new city. “I moved to London after reading Richard Branson’s book, and feeling inspired to try something bigger and bolder. We had no Google ranking, and I was a bit naive. This is a tough city! London is your competitor itself. You need to constantly think how you can stand out.”
Cupit realised the best way to stand out from the crowd was through media attention. “Honestly, I’ve had a few lucky breaks. By chance, we got a lot of media attention in our first year. From there, we worked really hard and grew and grew. We found a formula people liked, and made sure that learning to swing dance becomes a really immersive experience,” he says.
A highlight of Swing Patrol’s first year in London was the hour Cupit spent on the Plinth in Trafalgar Square.
Cupit also attributes his success to the larger swing dance community of impassioned dancers. “We worked on the community side of things. Like me, a lot of Londoners are foreigners. We encourage dancers to connect with each other, from saying hello to two people you don’t know, to rotating partners. The fact that we broke a world record shows the size of the community we’ve built. It was really tough in the early months. But suddenly out of the blue got a call from Dragons Den, and that was a turning point.”
And what a turning point it was. Cupit’s appearance on Dragon’s Den did a lot to boost Swing Patrol’s profile, as well as sowing the seeds for SwingTrain, a fitness focussed arm of the dance form.
“I got the call, saying ‘we did research on you and you should come on Dragon’s Den’, and suddenly I was on Dragon’s Den! By then, we had grown a bit, and I did well. Of the five Dragons, three were interested,” Cupit explains.
“We’ve had a few lucky breaks, and going on Dragon’s Den really raised our profile. London changed my life in so many ways.”
“For me, swing is a dance, a beautiful art form I must protect. It’s not a fitness programme, but we’re perfectly positioned for that,” Cupit adds. On the BBC 4 programme, Cupit’s supporters, Duncan Bannatyne, Kelly Hoppen and Deborah Meaden all expressed great interest in getting involved, but in the end, Cupit chose Meaden as an investor, who provided £65,000 for 20 per cent equity, a decision he believes helped propel Swing Patrol even further than he expected.
“What you won’t see on TV is that I was quite frustrated at the end of Dragon’s Den. It may look like a nine-minute pitch, but I was standing in front of Dragons for 75 minutes, and it was stressful. I was emotionally exhausted at the end,” he says.
“There’s a fine line between running a business and protecting an art form, and this was confusing to some of the Dragons. But Deborah was nodding, and that’s why I chose her.”
Duncan Bannatyne wanted swing dancing to be in health clubs and Piers Linney was looking for Cupit to mould his business as “the Zumba of Swing”. Kelly Hoppen seemed underwhelmed with the business model, but saw potential in Cupit’s brain child. Ultimately, Cupit chose the guidance of investor and former Strictly Come Dancing star Deborah Meaden, Swing Patrol, because, as he explains, “she got it.”
“Swing is a form of art. There’s a fine line between running a business and protecting an art form, and this was confusing to some of the Dragons. But Deborah was nodding, and that’s why I chose her. Of course we need to pay the bills, but it’s not all about that.”
On and off-screen, Cupit’s relationship with Meaden has only flourished as his business has grown. “Fortunately, Deborah is so good about where the business is going, and when I meet her, it’s obvious that she gets me and she gets what we’re all about.”
According to Cupit, Swing Patrol is not just a tiny dance class; it’s a movement. It’s a lifestyle. His biggest advice to other entrepreneurs like him is to always look for the right person when seeking funding.
“In the future, this can definitely function like a business-in-a-box, where trainers anywhere can have their own business and pay us a licence fee. It’s quite scalable, but we need to figure out how to do it.”
“You’ve got to choose the right person, and you’ve got to be clear from the start what your mandate is. I was very clear from the absolute start that this is where we draw the line. Making Swing Patrol a fitness thing is not easy. It’s a dance form, and will remain that way. But that did lay the groundwork for a cardio fitness programme inspired by swing dancing, SwingTrain. We are very clear that there’s a huge difference between what we do as Swing Patrol, and SwingTrain, from having a completely different bunch of trainers, who are fitness qualified and passionate about fitness, to the type of music, mostly electro swing. It’s the same spirit and buzz, but completely different goals.”
Setting up SwingTrain took a lot of planning, says Cupit. “We took all our knowledge and expertise, as well as all the great music we know that’s great for a workout. SwingTrain is at 30 venues already, and it’s so scalable, it’s definitely got the potential to be a business-in-a-box.”
Trainers from all over the world have been reaching out to Cupit, seeing how they can get involved and bring SwingTrain to their geographies. “We’re still trying to figure out how to accredit these trainers; whether we’d have to fly them out here, or get a few trainers out there. In the future, this can definitely function like a business-in-a-box, where trainers anywhere can have their own business and pay us a licence fee. It’s quite scalable, but we need to figure out how to do it.”
So what makes Swing Patrol a scalable business? Cupit says it all boils down to strong foundations. “You need someone who’s the nuts and bolts of the business, a director that makes sure all the trainers are properly accredited and of the highest standards. Make sure all the checks and balances are done before we let trainers loose out there. There’s public liability, trademarking and all that other boring stuff which needs to be taken care of, as well.”
What about growing in London, a market he admits is one of the toughest for dance classes? “Before Dragon’s Den, we were just in the swing dance industry, drowning in the noise in London. It was really tough every day. SwingTrain has all the marketing of Swing Patrol, and Dragon’s Den to bounce off. We have a huge database from the success of Swing Patrol; over 16,000 people signed up to our newsletter. The cross-over naturally promotes the newer business, and we’re so grateful for that.”
“Believe in yourself and pick good people who know what they’re doing to be around you. Have a good strategy in place and manage your budget well.”
The first choreography for SwingTrain was overpitched, says Cupit. “It was too geared for dancers, so we knew we got it wrong. We had to strip it down. I told the trainers, imagine your mum walked in–which makes sense, since a lot of our students are mums–and she’s never done a squat Charleston. It’s been a learning curve for us that we need to pitch this to promote fitness to the public, not to ourselves.”
But it wasn’t easy in the least, starting out. Cupit’s words of wisdom? Work hard.
“I never went to bed early in those days until I did something revenue generating, like posting an ad on Gumtree or booking an opportunity. You have to set goals and be very driven so you stick to it. If you graft, you will open doors and make sure you put yourself out there,” he advises.
No stranger to rejection, the Dragon’s Den success emphasises the importance of hearing ‘no’. “You will get rejections, but it will get better. You’ve got do your time and earn your stripes. Keep plugging away!”