Follow Your Nose
By Christine Ziegler & Steve Sullivan

Here are a couple of pointers for starting your own business:

First, choose something you love to do, since you’re probably going to be doing a lot of it. Most successful entrepreneurs aren’t strangers to round-the-clock hours.
Second, it helps if you sneeze—hard enough to temporarily paralyze yourself from the waist down.

Well, on second thought, that’s extreme perhaps, but it worked for Joe Magno, founder of one of Southern California’s most popular baseball programs, the AABA in Long Beach.

A former college baseball player, Magno spent about a dozen years coaching in various situations—camps, colleges and private lessons—while holding down a full-time job as a vice president of marketing. Then, one day something tickled his nose and the big achoo changed his life.

“I was paralyzed from the waist down on my left side,” recalls Magno. “As I was lying in the hospital bed, I was thinking, ‘I don’t really want to be sitting behind a desk anymore.’ Then I went to sleep and dreamt about putting on a cowboy hat and boots, climbing into my ‘Jimmy,’ moving out to California and starting a baseball school.”

Once Magno had recovered, that’s precisely what he did. Having been put into a compromised situation by stress and dissatisfaction with the way his life was going, he decided that it was time to follow his passion—before something more serious happened to him.

Virtually penniless when he arrived in The Golden State, Magno picked up some advertising consulting work and then began to pitch his idea for a baseball school. “I had this great thirty-page business plan with all these marketing ideas. But, I realized that without money and a local presence it would be pretty much impossible for me to start this on my own. So, I talked to the coaches at a couple of different colleges. Some of them did what we call ‘Big League’ me. They told me, ‘Hey, you just showed us how to do it, so we’ll do it without you.’ The funny thing is none of their baseball schools succeeded.”

Undaunted, Magno approached the coach of the U.S. Olympic team, Dave Snow, who worked at Long Beach State. Snow was impressed by the plan but hesitant because he didn’t know Magno. After checking out Magno’s teaching references, Snow agreed to give it a shot—and the AABA was on its way.

“With Dave Snow’s reputation, the school really started to take off,” says Magno. “We put together a great staff of coaches who really know how to teach and who love kids. My guys know how to touch a kid’s heart, which opens up their minds to our teaching techniques.”

Magno takes a creative approach to training kids in the art of baseball, utilizing novel devices such as the “Lightning Stick.” Magno explains, “I actually dreamt of that, too, back when I was laid up in the hospital. It’s a tool that teaches a batter how to change his muscle memory to improve his speed and learn how to be palm up, palm down at contact. It may look difficult, but after fifteen minutes of using the stick, a five-year-old kid can hit the ball palm up, palm down in ninety percent of the cases.” Magno now markets the Lightning Stick nationally, to everyone from Little Leaguers to pro teams. His invention is currently being reviewed for manufacture by bat manufacturer Louisville Slugger.

Another key to Magno’s training techniques is that sessions are specifically structured to keep the kids focused. He says, “Some folks call it ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), but I just think these kids are extremely creative. I know, myself, when I was kid I couldn’t concentrate on one thing for more than fifteen minutes. That’s why we rotate every fifteen minutes, use strange training tools and create a game atmosphere so the kids feel like they’re competing against themselves.”

But what really has made the business a success is Magno’s drive. He points out, “You have to have a passion for what you’re doing. I eat, sleep and drink AABA. If you don’t, I believe your business, no matter what it is, will fail. You have to be willing to work nights and weekends. I spend the days doing office work and promotion. Then, at night, it’s community relations—going out to Little League fields, shaking hands and showing the kids stuff, saying, ‘Hey, try this.’ We also hold free clinics for coaches. A lot of kids have gone from baseball to soccer, and I think a big reason is that the typical soccer coach is trained by the AYSO (American Youth Soccer Organization) in how to run a practice and make it fun. So, we’re trying to do the same for baseball.”

From the original center at Long Beach State, the AABA has expanded to locations at Huntington Beach, Brea and Palos Verdes, California. Along with day camps held during summer, and Christmas and Easter breaks, the Academy offers year-round private lessons, as well as a sleep-away camp at Catalina Island. Magno envisions his academies eventually being throughout the country. Meanwhile, he continues to staff his growing enterprise. He adds, “I’m always looking for good baseball coaches who love kids.”

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