Claudia Sjoberg is the founder and president of The Pedalheads Group, a thriving multi-sport enterprise with three brands and more than 1400 employees offering kids’ camps in 95 locations across North America. Her unique approach earned her the 2017 TELUS Trailblazer Award at the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards — a well-deserved honour for over three decades of growth and success.
by Karen van Kampen
Claudia Sjoberg was in her early twenties, working as a swim programmer at a public pool in North Delta, B.C., when she had a eureka moment that would change the course of her life.
“There wasn’t any scope for excellence,” she says, frustrated by the confines of working at a government-run pool. “There were so many more things that I felt you could do with the program.” Claudia envisioned a swim school that offered specialized, small classes with a family atmosphere where parents “could feel like this was a home.” In 1986, at 25 years old, she launched the Atlantis Programs swim school, teaching six to eight classes a day.
Thirty-two years later, Claudia’s one-woman business has grown into a thriving multi-sport enterprise with three brands and more than 1400 employees at 95 locations across North America. So far in 2018, there are 55,000 kids registered in the Atlantis swim school, Pedalheads bike programs and Heroheads multi-sports camps. “My programs provide life skills for kids, but ultimately they also give this confidence and independence and this sense of composure that you can’t put a price tag on,” says Claudia.
By offering kids a special combination of enrichment, accomplishment, and fun, Claudia has become an award-winning trendsetter in the field of children’s sports programming. As President and Founder of The Pedalheads Group, Claudia was the 2017 winner of the TELUS Trailblazer Award, granted to an entrepreneur who has recognized and captured a new market while setting standards for originality, quality and successful management.
“My programs provide life skills for kids, but ultimately they also give this confidence and independence and this sense of composure that you can’t put a price tag on.”
Claudia says she has always had an entrepreneurial spirit. “I was always the kid selling the most raffle tickets,” she says. “I was always wanting to get a job and hustle things.” As a girl growing up in Vancouver Island’s Cowichan Valley, “I don’t think I ever identified it as entrepreneurism,” she says, adding, “I didn’t understand what it was for a long time. It’s just the idea that if I work really hard at something and if I solve the secret of whatever that problem is, that I’ll succeed.”
A key milestone on Claudia’s path to success was identifying a unifying obstacle among parents: teaching their children how to ride a bike. “It’s one of those really stressful life events,” says Claudia. “There’s a lot of tears.” In 1995, Claudia launched Pedalheads bike camps. Now, approximately 55% of her program is focused on learn-to-ride. Children are also taught bike safety and maintenance in the 10-level program.
Parents tell Claudia how nervous their kids were at drop-off. By the end of the day, the parents say, “They’re like a whole new kid.” Claudia ensures that staff share her enthusiasm. “We create a nurturing, fun environment so they want to stay with us,” she says, explaining that each site is allotted funds for team activities. The Pedalheads manifesto is built on this sense of happiness and fulfillment.
Parents love it, and the rave reviews have spread across schoolyards and playgrounds. “That’s how the program has grown, really,” says Claudia, adding that a “trust-based” parent network is invaluable. “More than anything, it’s about parents telling other parents.”
In 2008, with 12 locations in British Columbia, Pedalheads expanded into Alberta. The following year, it launched in Ontario. The first year is difficult with every new market, says Claudia, comparing it to “pushing a boulder up a hill” as she builds brand awareness.
In 2014, Pedalheads opened its first U.S. location in Seattle. There were people trying to dissuade Claudia from entering the U.S. market, warning her that many Canadian businesses fail because their products don’t translate well to the American customer. Claudia says it’s always a challenge to decide, “Is growth really the way to go, or is it better to just maximize on what you have? I find it so exciting to move to new cities and to grow the business that it’s a bit of a no-brainer for me.”
In the same year of her U.S. expansion, Claudia embarked on an MBA at Royal Roads University. “I feel so much more tapped into what’s going on,” she says. “I got a lot of resources around strategic planning and strategic positioning, and I think about those on a daily basis.”
“Is growth really the way to go, or is it better to just maximize on what you have?”
Where is her strategy taking her next? With new locations in Denver, Chicago, Portland and Montreal as well as plans to expand into California next year, Claudia is focusing on digital marketing and social media campaigns to broaden her marketing reach. Looking to the future, Claudia says, “We want to be able to bring the Pedalheads experience to as many kids in North America as we can.” This includes providing bikes and lessons to kids who don’t have the financial resources to participate in her programs.
It’s an ambitious goal. One that Claudia can’t do on her own. “There’s just no way that you can do everything, and there’s no way that you can be good at everything,” she says. Her advice to young entrepreneurs: spend the money and hire experts to help you. Another way to kick-start your business is to join entrepreneur groups. “Find like minded people that you can talk to and that you can build with,” she says.
For Claudia, one of the most rewarding aspects of being an entrepreneur is having the ability to create and build something. “I love that I can get up in the morning and I can have an idea,” she says, “and I can put that idea into action.”