Steel City Road Runners, two months after (aka “Stepping Down, part2”)

Two months ago, I stepped down from the SCRR ambassador position. This decision was motivated by many reasons detailed in the previous post. but the main one is that the new leadership team decided to forget the initial core values and turn the community into a product. But running a product requires good management.


The post-race cookie run in 2013: let's get warm and stay together indoor!
The post-race cookie run in 2013: let’s get warm and stay together indoor!

The reaction to the initial post varied: some people started to ignore me completely, others were really supportive while others did not care at all. In the meantime, several things happened: the CEO from Pittsburgh Three Rivers Marathon, Inc. reached out to me and apologized in person for what happened, for the behavior of one of her employee (which obviously, shows that she really cares about this club – probably more than many of the members!), others asked me to join a club and others encouraged me to start my own group. Yep, a lot of things happened but my goal was clearly not to start something. I want to support the running community. Finally, after I left, people told me that actions have been taken to address the issues I reported. Seems that change was going on.

The discussion started a debate, so it was time to take actions and continue the marketing operation by:

  1. recruiting new customers (aka members): a lot of actions have been made to increase the number of customers. I am guessing the underlying goal was to get more money for the club. With an average membership price of $28 (see financial reports), they need to recruit a ton of new folks!
  2. applying band-aids and patches instead of addressing real issues: there are many examples but two come in mind
    1. the runs no longer started from the marathon office but from remote businesses (bakery, bar, etc.). The goal is probably to hide the fact that there is no solution for having bathroom and indoor room for runners. Interesting fact: the run of the day of the status report took place in a garage. To compare with last year (with less money and members), the meeting took place indoor in a warm room and runners had access to nice bathroom.
    2. the website is still a mess and the only change made was some edits here and there. But it cannot hide the fact that the website management system is outdated and editors do not have the appropriate skills to edit the website (for example, some pages contains 12MB of data so that a visit to the website can consume more than 10% of your data plan in case you have a limited wireless plan!).  Plus, some information are still outdated or just totally wrong (for example, SCRR is NOT a non-profit itself but a part of a non-profit) which makes you wonder if the editors really know what they are writing about. On top of that, the connectivity of the service provider is a mess and the website is not accessible through comcast or other universities. The highlight was on Black Friday when  the site was not accessible while the club offered a deal to renew the membership: probably a nightmare for a product manager! With a website and marketing costs of $10K (see the official financial report), this is not acceptable.
  3. getting more sales representative (also called coaches or ambassadors): the club reached out to get more people involved! It’s like a party, everybody is welcome to recruit more customers! Problem is the requirement to enter the club is as the efforts for managing them: none. The mission: get more members to get more … money! The ambassadors are supposed to suggest ideas to improve the club, but so far no idea suggested since 6 months has been implemented. Some will say change take time, I hope the members are expecting to train for the marathon in 2016. Unfortunately, there are great people in the team but none of them are very considered or valued as they should.

Change happened

On December, 13, a meeting was held to present the results of a satisfaction survey made on the members and present the financial report. Basically, this should show the satisfaction but also where the money goes. The satisfaction survey was sent by e-mail and also and two respondents will be chosen to win a $100 gift card for replying to the survey (yes, it seems that people needs motivation for trying to improve what they are supposed to love …). The results were presented in a garage during what is called the annual cookie run (which happened one year ago indoors … see pictures included!).

One thing that is good about numbers: you cannot fake them. If you do great, no matter what people is saying, they will show how well you are doing. The opposite is true as well. You can argue, discuss, nothing replace actions, proofs and numbers. Now, let’s discuss the numbers from the satisfaction survey and the financial report.

The Satisfaction Survey

The cookie run version 2014: please come in my garage in December!
The cookie run version 2014: you are welcome in a garage that looks like a food pantry during the cold weather December!

More than 300 persons replied to the survey (329 exactly), so, it seems to be representative of the club members. The survey shows that they are more females than males, so, it seems that SCRR is a good place if you want to find your partner or just try to date somebody (and I will not argue with that!). An interesting fact is that the club has members from several surrounding states (Maryland, Ohio, Virginia, etc.). One surprising fact is the target race: the more popular race is the half-marathon (more than 80% of the members plan to run one) while the marathon is the target for almost half of the members.

The surprise is the satisfaction index: 3 out of 5 are satisfied by the club. It clearly shows the failure of the last efforts made on the club. In addition, when replying to such survey, people are not very critical (I gave myself a 4 to this question) so a 3 is a dissatisfaction warning. After more than 6 months with the new leadership team, it shoes its inefficiency, lack of consideration for members concerns and failure to make SCRR a place runners appreciate.

Yeah, less than 60% of satisfaction! Champagne!
Yeah, less than 60% of satisfaction! Champagne!

While asking to get the slides and discussing them on social media, some members tried to argue and highlight the good services provided by the club. I admire fair people and the willingness to be positive (at least, we need some!) and I would just ask two questions:

  1. “Would you buy a car if only 60% of its owner are satisfied with it?”
  2. “Would you eat in a restaurant where only 60% of actual customers recommend it?”

As SCRR is now branded as a product and not as a community, this is how people look at it. And as a brand, a rating of 3 out of 5 puts you in an outsider position. With such a rating, you cannot claim yourself a leader and give you the label of the “premier running club”. A rating of 3 out of 5 is a red flag that shows you have to work and change. And right now: stop discussing on social media between a small group of less than 100 happy fews and start to reach out to more than 1500 members – you need to change their minds. Self-satisfaction can be rewarding once primary objectives are met.

What is supposedly included with your membership
What is supposedly included with your membership

The financial report

lolcat-moneyThe finance is the most interesting part. Two main slides were presented: the one that presents what is included with your membership and another that details the costs breakdown for the club.

The report claimed that your $40 membership is worth $241 with:

  • $15 for a tech shirt – the real value of such apparel is around $5 (low estimate) to $10 (high estimate). Investigating the finance showed that the real cost is about $3 (see below).
  • $15 off the marathon entry – that is just a way for the marathon to promote their own event! This is just a coupon you could get in many other ways! It is an early bird discount that is also a way to attract people to get in!
  • $55 for the marathon week-end – dude, for that price, I cater a barbecue company, order hundred cases of champagne and celebrate with ribs and pulled pork! With more than 1380 members, and considering that only 25% of the cost is paid by SCRR, it means that the marathon week end costs $300K. It would be interesting to see the receipts …
  • $1 per training run, so $156 in total since the club proposes 156 training runs (logical, you will go to all of them, right?) I have no idea that a training run costs me anything, especially because SCRR stopped to provide any food and just give water. In addition, the club provides less than 156 runs (many runs are skipped because of holidays, upcoming races, etc. and others are just track training). Claiming this number is just a way to create a fake value: a training run does not cost anything.

The real joke (or ripoff, depending your perspective) is in the detailed costs breakdown that explained the costs and revenue for FY15. Let’s have a closer look:

  • $3.5K for social events: members pay for social events (for example, the Christmas party was $30 per person) so, why it costs $3.5K to the club and thus, to members that even do not participate? This is just not fair – why the membership from people in other states should be used to organize parties in Pittsburgh? Even if social events are useful and definitively fun, this should not be done at the expense of the money used to run the core activities.
  • $4.3K for training runs: the most insane cost since the cost of labors are already charged in another line. The club stopped to offer anything but water during training runs and thus, costs are limited to the cost of water and printing maps. Why almost $5K are charged for that reason? Do they finally print the maps on parchment paper and serve bourbon for hydration? Again, there is no detail and I cannot see any reason for that? Is water and cups so expensive?
  • Almost $10K for marketing and website: The website costs about $1K per year (according to the website provider costs) so it means that the marketing costs about $9K. Is there any marketing materials? There was some postcards here and there but nothing that is worth $9K. Considering the website quality (my grandma made better designs years ago) and the marketing activities, this is definitively a joke.
  • $11.7K for merchandise with 8K in merchandise revenue. It means that the merchandise costs associated with the memberships costs about 3.7K (so, less than $3 per t-shirt, which is good number to consider to evaluate how much the value of your membership) and that SCRR merchandise is selling pretty well!
  • 12K for the marathon week-end: dude, this ice cream and photo-booth stands cost a lot! Definitively, I am very curious to see the actual costs breakdown for the marathon week-end, especially because the finisher tent was (as far as I remember) sponsored. Also, this is interesting that the expense for the marathon week end is $12K whereas the club itself value it at $75K. Is the leadership team trying to over-value what is offered?
The SCRR Budget
The SCRR Budget


These reports (both survey and financial) show the lack of professionalism and management skills. I am critical? Probably. Hard and Rude? Probably but you are hard with who you love, you want the best of them! Let’s compare these numbers with other related organizations in the Pittsburgh area. Take the example of BikePGH and their annual report. This is clear, well detailed and do not try to hide any information. Is it difficult to have a clear transparency?

Is the Steel City Road Runners membership still worth it?

After that, you may wonder if getting a membership is worth it. I still recommend people to sign up! For $30, this is a very good deal, and the membership pays off quickly considering the free tech-shirt, the discounts for local races/stores and the access to the private area during the marathon. The membership is totally over-valued but still a good deal. For sure, you cannot really expect too much from the community side but if you consider the membership as a product, it pays off. If you are only looking for a community to establish connections and join a nice club of runners and meet new people, that can be an idea but you might also consider trying other options (other clubs, groups in your neighborhood, etc.)

Should I join Steel City Road Runners for training for a race?

It depends on what is your actual goal and how serious you are about running. If you are looking to train between a 5K and a marathon, Steel City is more than enough: all you need is to log more miles, establish connection with running buddies and learn your training routine (nutrition, bathrooms, etc.). The final decision is more driven by your ability in adapting your own training. My suggestion will be to go with Steel City: if you are planning to run a marathon, you have to learn how to train and there is no better way to do it by yourself (which, on the long run will pay off). On the other way, learning to run from scratch 26.2 miles can be intimidating and you might want to pay for a better support. Still, SCRR provides runs, the supported is not as good as it used to be but can be at least a start.

What’s next?

Bad customer satisfaction: who is to blame?

The actual survey showed by numbers that the reboot of the club initiated months ago did not work. This is a fact and not a personal attack against anybody: many people are working very hard to improve things (by organizing social events, reaching out to members, providing coaching tips and advices, etc). Let’s face the numbers: members satisfaction is really bad and money is wasted. Calling this club the “premier running club” with such a rating is just inappropriate and/or inaccurate. The survey results may not match the efforts made but is a measure of the club benefits with the members expectation and SCRR does not seem to provide what the members want. The financial report also showed that with good management SCRR can be sustainable without the support of any other organization. Running an independent, non-profit group is totally feasible from a financial perspective.

How to improve satisfaction? There is no magic formula but before starting to think about how to improve, one might think about to remove what did not work. Get out people that failed in being respectful and transforming this club. Stop the wave the self-satisfaction on social media and face reality (i.e. satisfaction of club members not social media users). Work on the core values. That might be a first idea.

I wish a good luck to the leadership team, the coaches and ambassadors for trying to fix the issues and giving their time for working on this (especially after being this position for a while and experiencing the related frustration!). This post will probably hit a new statistics record and show who care or not about this topic with folks starting to totally ignore me and others supporting me (trust me, I appreciate both but not for the same reasons!). But as usual, people will protect their position, interest and benefits, come back to denial and continue things as they were. Until it starts over again.

On a personal side, looking back two months ago, I am glad I left the position because the benefits (mostly, a complimentary SCRR membership – about $30) are not worth the constraints and resources it requires (attending training runs 8 times a month in various locations, participating to private meeting at the marathon office). It gave me an opportunity to make many other things (focus on work, having a better – in terms of quality – training, finishing a 50 milers before the end of the year, starting new projects, etc.) and being part of other communities. I no longer believe in the values promoted by the leadership team but I want to be supportive for newcomers, help and be there to share the friendship and camaraderie. For that reason, I will be there in SCRR (probably less present over the next months) and around other running groups.

And as mentioned before, I will keep my SCRR membership (probably more with a customer perspective), will be happy to meet new folks, run with new buddies and participate in social activities … until the next change!

And to conclude, I hope you will enjoy this wonderful cartoon!

I wish all of you a merry Christmas, a happy new year, and hope to see you soon, “for the love of the run”!


Steel City Road Runners, two months after (aka “Stepping Down, part2”)

8 thoughts on “Steel City Road Runners, two months after (aka “Stepping Down, part2”)

  1. I have never been part of the SCRR so I can’t say to much but I recently just had a bad experience that made me realize some of these marathon sponsors are worried way more about the money than the runner. I hope the SCRR does get their problems fixed. I think running groups are great if they are for the runner more than the money. I kno a few small groups and I put them at the top of the list because what you get out of it is people who want to help you and work with you rather than take your money.

  2. Joe says:

    I was there for the meeting…. had a lot of thoughts on the issues and the money… I liked the presentation and clearly some people worked hard to put together a good presentation… it did seem like there was quite a bit of umm… how to say this.. oversell … I for one could do without a “free” shirt, I have way too many shirts that I never wear… seems like a waste of my money… I prefer that we just order them if we actually like a shirt they offer us.. A brand new member should probably get a shirt for club “branding” purposes.

    I enjoy the club and find value in the membership. That said, I think my biggest concern is that without elected representation the club has the potential to become a corporate entity more concerned with the propagation of membership (or other corporate interests) than the members wants and needs. I am way too jaded, I well know that “non-profit” has little meaning other than for tax purposes. I for one highly value the volunteers time and effort that have been put into the club to make all aspects of the club an enjoyable experience. So far the strange arrangement with the Marathon office and the club has more or less worked…. and I hope it continues to work. That said, the club should consider having some elected position(s?) for the interface with the Marathon office. I don’t think anything would really change.

    I do think it is important to find a home base for the club. The Marathon office is great for most everyone as it is centrally located and with easy access to the trails. Problems and issues with using it seem overly complicated. Not sure why. But hopefully some kind of resolution has arrived as we did have the meeting there.

    I look forward to another year in the club and hope it really works for its members and the members work for it.

  3. Mark Shipley says:

    Julien, I held my tongue when you wrote your first “Stepping Down” post because I wanted to give you the benefit of the doubt. I assumed that you were angry, hurt, and frustrated and that the reason your post read like the musings of a petulant 8-year-old was because it was too raw for you. However, your continued snide remarks and nasty comments on the Steel City Facebook page and now this latest “Stepping Down” post make it clear to me that this is not the case. Equally as troubling is that you chose to post something so negative on Christmas Eve, knowing that it would hurt many people, some of whom you may not even realize. It is obvious that you have a personal problem with one or more of the people associated with the Steel City Road Runners Club because your brilliant observations and plans for improvements were not taken verbatim and acted upon immediately. Consequently, you are making it your mission to be a subversive force within the club. While most of the information contained within your posts has been factual, it is spun so much to suit your agenda that it is hardly recognizable as the truth. Rather, it is your perspective, and that is what you fail to see. You are one person, and your perspective is one of hundreds. It is no more and no less important than that of the other members. However, you do not seem to realize this. You have chosen to make the issue about you rather than about improving the club. If you truly wanted to better the club, then you would not have posted these comments, at least not in the subversive manner you have done, and you would have put your personal differences aside to work toward consensus solutions. Yes, there are problems and issues within the club, and more needs to be done to address them. But that is clearly not your goal. You are looking to start a mini-revolution within the club to overthrow the current powers that be, especially those with whom you have problems. I suggest a similar tactic for you. Rather than revolution, I strongly encourage you to pursue secession. Leave the group. If as you say others have encouraged you to start your own group, then do it. You will be much happier for it and so will Steel City. It is time to move on. Your negative attitude and personal issues have brought you to a point of no return. I wish you well, but I will not be following up on this. As I do not want such negativity in my life, I have unfollowed and unfriended you, so I will not see any further posts of yours. For all concerned I hope that the next one will be titled “Moving On.”

    1. Dear Mark,

      Thank you for your comment. I had hoped this post would start a fruitful debate focused on facts and issues listed rather than turning into harsh and personnal attacks. Especially because we never exchanged more than 2 facebook messages or tweets online.

      Nevertheless, even if this post seems to impact your Holidays, I wish you a happy new year!

  4. Mark says:

    This has nothing to do with me. It doesn’t affect me one bit other than you have made unwarranted and ridiculous attacks. I’m not the least bit hurt, but I know some who are. You owe them all an apology.

    1. Dear Mark,

      Thanks for your concerns for others. However, everybody is free to debate, discuss and comment if they feel offended. I never censored or refused any discussion and always be happy to discuss face to face any topic or point of view.

      However, if this has nothing to do with you, I do not understand why you spent (waste?) your time commenting on this blog. Why not letting people discuss their own concern? They are probably more able to express their own needs or concerns than you do. Finally, I am just wondering how legitimate are your recommendations about what I owe to others considering that we do not know each other and never discussed seriously about that.

      I have nothing personal against you but I am just surprised to get such a personal attack considering that we do not know each other, did not see you so involved in SCRR (but I might be wrong) and so, does not understand how legitimate you are to be part of this debate.

      Happy new year 2015, hope you’ll be able to run sooner … or later!


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