This is an interview that I had been looking forward to doing for a long time. Ben Larcombe is one of my closest friends, he is the coach behind the Expert in a Year challenge, we have been business partners on quite a few ventures and he is the founder of probably the most popular English speaking table tennis blog in the world. But more than that, Ben is one of the few people I know who has taken a completely alternative route through life.
What struck me most during the interview was how Ben never just followed the herd. He always took his own route, even if it was completely counter to conventional wisdom. From turning down a place at a prestigious university in order to go to table tennis academy to starting a starting a website about clothing in grime music. From convincing a university to let him skip the first year to leaving his enjoyable, comfortable job to take a pay cut and blog full time. In the interview you’ll hear Ben consistently making decisions where an outsider might say “that’ll never work”, or “that’s a stupid idea”. Spoiler: they often do work and turn out to be great ideas.
Now we got a bit carried away and the interview ended up being 45 minutes long. So I have written up the highlights but to get the full story I recommend listening to it below.
Ben on University
To be honest I just didn’t really want to go to university. Everyone else was very excited and eager to go but I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea what, if anything, I should study. I just chose some random subjects for A-Levels and then put down my favourite subject, Geography on my university application forms. I was so keen to not go to university that I didn’t really bother to look round, I only applied to two and I said that if they ask for a interview I’m not going. I was just a moron I suppose.Luckily they didn’t ask and Kings College London offered me a place conditional on getting BBB at A-level. I got BBC but they sent me a letter saying that it was fine and giving me the place.
At about the same time I discovered that a friend of mine was going to Grantham table tennis academy which sounded like a much better idea, so I changed route and decided I would rather do that instead. The problem was that the Grantham application process was through the same system as Kings – the only way it would let me change is if Kings withdrew their offer. So I had to phone them up and have an awkward conversation where I asked them to reject me. Then I had to do it all over again with my second choice.
I don’t think my parents minded that much, I remember my dad saying something like: “you can’t play table tennis forever, you have to do something.” But I have always been a bit of an optimist so I just assumed it would all work out in the end. It always does so I continue to be an optimist. My mum on the other hand has always been keen on not following the traditional route. She didn’t have any good alternatives but was perfectly happy for me to not go to university. At one point she was trying to convince me not to do A-levels and go and do some sort of apprenticeship instead. She just thought “you might prefer to do plumbing or some other vocational course, it might be more interesting”. I didn’t really have any long term plans but I did assume I could make some sort of a living out of table tennis, either through playing or coaching.
My friends thought it was a stupid decision, but at the same time I think they quite liked it. People like to know someone who is doing something ridiculous because it gives them a talking point. If all your friends go to university that is less interesting than having a friend who goes to table tennis academy. They wouldn’t want to do it themselves but the novelty of me doing it was appealing. I had one friend who would always jump in and tell everyone we met how I was going to ‘ping pong school’.
The Grantham course was only two years long after which I decided to get a degree. I had quite a few friends in and around Nottingham and there was a sports course I liked the look of at Nottingham Trent. So I found the email address of the head of the department and emailed him asking if I could do the course but skip the first year. I had the idea that my Grantham course should count for something and the first year doesn’t really count anyway. We had a bit of back and forth and he eventually said yeah that’s fine. When I turned up on the first day everyone was looking at me like: “who’s is this weirdo?”. Nobody normally joins a course at year two. Most people, if they really wanted to go to Nottingham would just start all over again and it would never occur to them to try their luck.
Sam: If you had a son or daughter who decided to turn down a good university offer and go to table tennis academy, would you be supportive?
Yeah I would, it wouldn’t bother me. Umm, but having said that I do think it depends on the person, I mean some kids would just go to Grantham and then doss around and bury their head in the sand. I think you can tell if someone is going to make a proper go at it or not.
I have always been a bit of an optimist so I just assumed it would all work out in the end. It always does so I continue to be an optimist.
Ben on Grime Blogging
Grime music was quite a big thing while I was at university. What is grime music? Well it’s hard to describe, think UK rap but done at a faster tempo. One thing I worked out is that almost all grime is done at 140 bpm. So by going through a song in my head I could work out how much time had passed. If I counted 70 beats I knew it had been 30 seconds.
I started blogging about it after watching a music video and spending a few hours trying to find out the brand of t-shirt the guy was wearing. I basically thought if I wanted to know then other people probably would too. So I started a small simple blog with wordpress. Initially I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, but after a few years I had built up a very good following and the blog was doing pretty well.
I made money mainly through affiliates to the few websites that sold the clothing I was writing about and offered kick backs to referrers. I soon went from just writing about what clothes people were wearing, which I found quite boring, to writing about more general streetwear stuff. I spent a couple of years on it but in 2010 I started phasing it out and eventually shut it down. You had got me into the gambling stuff where I was making a lot more money than blogging about clothes. I guess looking back it was a step in the wrong direction. I went for short term cash rather than long term growth. Who knows how much it would have been making or how big it would have got if I had continued doing it?
Ben on Graduate Schemes
After graduating I moved back in with my parents and so had a few months to work out what I wanted to do. All my friends were applying for graduate schemes but I decided I didn’t really want to do that. Actually I did apply to one. I applied to MI5! I’m not really sure why, it just sounded fun. I got through the first stage and they offered me an interview which happened to be two days into this Christian camp I help out on each year. There was no way I could do both so I just basically said “I won’t become a spy then”. Thinking back I make a lot of major decisions for really random reasons…
I got back from the camp and thought I better find something else to do so I started looking for table tennis coaching jobs. Some of the kids from my local table tennis club told me that the coach at their school was leaving. I got in touch with him, he showed me round the school and offered me the job. It was only 10 hours a week but was a start. Obviously I needed to fill up the rest of my time. The following week I went on another church camp and basically spent the entire time emailing different places.
I put together a list of about 100 schools which I could get to from my parents house and just sent them the same stock email with a few lines changed saying what I liked about their school. Most of them didn’t even do table tennis so I would try and convince them that table tennis was a great sport to offer and that they should definitely create a job and employ me. I just blasted out loads of emails. It was pretty great really, one school liked the idea but had no idea how to implement a table tennis scheme. So I told them what I did at the first school and they copied everything, I even gave them the same contract for them to replicate and told them what tables and equipment to buy. They had never done table tennis before and now they’re one of the best in the area. Once I left I gave the job to another coach I knew and he’s doing really well. I think he’s doing three or four days a week there.
A lot of people seem to think that you can’t just email schools and ask them to give you a job. I remember on my university course they suggested volunteering and offering to coach for free to get your foot in the door. But I thought that was the worst idea ever. Why would a good coach be doing it for free?
I’m a big fan of emails. In one afternoon I could email all 100 or so schools. There wasn’t a chance to get de-motivated or fail. Even though most places turned me down I had already done most of the ‘hard’ work. I could have sat there phoning up 30 people and getting rejected again and again. It would have been horrible, demotivating and unpleasant both for me and the poor person I was pestering. Cold emails are much better, if they don’t like it they can just delete it.
Ben on Affiliate Advertising
Even though I was doing a lot of coaching I was still interested in websites and online business. I started listening to stuff about putting up small targeted websites with niche information on them and making money off them. At the time there seemed to loads of people who had a few hundred rubbish websites and they’d be making £50 or so a month from each one. That starts to add up. It sounded really easy so I created the site, Africanpigmyhedgehogs.com, it’s not there any-more, but I wrote four or five articles for it. “The best food for your African pygmy hedgehog”, “The best bedding for your African pygmy hedgehog”, that sort of thing. Then I plastered the site with adverts.
Pretty soon I was sick to death of hedgehogs. I had written down a long list of ideas for other niches. But after doing one I realised I really didn’t want to keep doing it, writing about random things I didn’t care about. It didn’t make very much money at all.
Ben on Expert Table Tennis
There were quite a few stupid websites that came after that. Similar stories where they wouldn’t really make any money and I’d eventually shut them down. I pretty much gave up on the idea of making money and I decided I should make a website about table tennis, something that I’m actually really interested in and is ‘my thing’. It was originally called pingcoach.com but after deciding it was important to have table tennis in the URL I re-branded it as experttabletennis.com. I think I launched it sometime in 2012. It was really just a hobby to start with but it didn’t take long to get noticed. I would just post it on Facebook and people would read the articles and I slowly built up a good following.
I was really helped because I knew a lot of people in table tennis and so had a level of credibility. Plus there wasn’t very much competition. Along the way I’ve seen a lot of other people start to write a blog and I’ve thought “oh they could have a nice website, it could be better than mine”. But a couple of months later they’d disappear. I think people just don’t realise how much work it is. I was spending about two hours a day on it for the first couple of years and then moved full time to work on it and other related projects in July 2014.
At the time the blog was making a bit of money through affiliate sales and I was also selling some table tennis equipment too. I was making pretty much the bare minimum to live to justify to myself (and Katie, my wife) quitting the job. But being the optimist I was expecting constant growth and for my earnings to build to a comfortable level.
Also unless you have a really high up job in table tennis, coaching pretty much pays the same to everyone. So if I decided tomorrow I really wanted to get back into coaching I assume I’d be able to find a reasonable number of hours. That’s why although I was taking a pay cut there wasn’t really any career risk. If it all went belly up I could be back coaching and earning money the next day.
What’s Next for Ben?
There’s all the Expert in a Year stuff at the moment, which is a big project and pretty cool. We’re writing a book about the original challenge which should be released in 2015. We are also soon going to be launching our new sporting goods brand in the next couple of month, Eastfield. If you want to find out more of what I am doing then follow me on Twitter or if you’re into table tennis please check out Expert Table Tennis.