A love for a sport which started in childhood has now matured into a successful business venture. P&P editor Melanie Attlesey speaks to Ryan Cleaver of Power Nation to find out more about both his sporting and professional achievements.
At the age of 26, Ryan has achieved more than most. Not only is he a world champion cheerleader, but he is also the owner of a flourishing business.
Ryan’s story begins at the tender age of five when he was struck down with meningitis. After five weeks in hospital, Ryan recovered from the infection, but was left deaf in one ear. It was recommended that he start gymnastics at a local sports centre to help regain some of the balance he had lost as a result.
At the age of eight, Ryan joined a gymnastics club as he was clearly a natural at the sport. He progressed to a high level becoming a member of the junior GB squad. At one point, Ryan was putting in 28 hours’ worth of training a week and coaching other gymnasts.
Ryan discovered cheerleading through his gymnastics coaching. A friend of his suggested sharing his coaching abilities with the local cheerleading squad, in particular tumbling which is where Ryan’s strength lies. And with this skill, he entered the world of cheerleading at the age of 16 in 2010 and joined Coventry Dynamite, one the leading cheerleading teams in the country.
“It was a sport which I didn’t really know much about, but I quickly became attached to it,” he explains.
During his time at Coventry Dynamite, Ryan competed on the world stage seven times. The highest he placed at club level was fifth at the US All Star Federation competition and with Team England, of which he is just one of two athletes that has competed every year since the team’s inception in 2013, he placed third in 2016, second in 2017 and in 2018 the team won, becoming world champions at the International Cheer Union competition.
On the coaching front, one of the teams he coached alongside Sarah Biggs, head coach of Coventry Dynamite, placed third last year on the world stage, something which he is incredibly proud of and something that was a first in the club’s history.
This is the first year that Ryan is not competing at the annual competition in the States. “I will still be attending and supporting some of the teams that I sponsor. I am on the team’s roster, so if anyone gets injured, I can jump in if need be,” he says.
It’s certainly true to say, that Ryan has had an incredible career as an athlete and these achievements really do speak for themselves. Now Ryan is emulating this success in the business world.
Enter garment decoration
At the age of 18, like most people his age, Ryan started university. He attended for about a month, before realising it just wasn’t for him and quickly returned to coaching and the world of cheer.
His first dalliance with garment decoration began when himself and Sarah wanted to source merchandise and practicewear for Coventry Dynamite. After doing a little bit of research, Ryan purchased a direct to garment printer and set about printing T shirts and other items for the cheer team all in his garage.
For Ryan the timing could not have been more perfect. “At this point teamwear for cheerleaders was just about starting. Footballers and other teams had their own practicewear and cheerleaders said ‘you know what, we want to have a T shirt for this, that and the other’.”
He started to gain a customer base and working long hours to fulfil orders. With some sound advice from his dad, Adrian, about running a business, Ryan took the plunge and in 2013 created Power Nation, specialising in cheer apparel.
Seeing a great business opportunity when it presents itself, Sarah and Ryan eventually went into partnership with each other, becoming joint co-owners of both Coventry Dynamite and Power Nation.
Eventually, Ryan moved Power Nation out from his garage and began to rent a small portion of space in a unit owned by his dad. He initially outsourced a lot of work that required screen printing via a family friend, but undertook all DTG printing and vinyl printing himself. Even teaching himself how to do basic design work to give cheerleaders the bold, in your face, designs that they desired.
As work picked up, Ryan could no longer carry on doing all of the design work and production himself because time just would not allow. Putting his feelers out among the cheerleading community, he employed fellow cheerleader Alex Bestwick as a freelance graphic designer. She joined the business on a permanent basis in 2015. Being an ex-cheerleader, Alex was expertly positioned to know what cheerleaders wanted from their uniforms and practicewear.
In 2016, Lewis Briggs was recruited to the role of factory supervisor, becoming Ryan’s first full-time employee. Lewis was at university studying sports science, but had reached a crossroads not knowing where this degree would take him. During his breaks from university, Lewis would provide a helping hand at Power Nation, and it was during one of these stints that Ryan offered him the opportunity to join the growing business and Lewis jumped at the chance.
Between Ryan and Lewis, the pair began to bring more and more work in house. Still in his dad’s unit, Ryan moved the business upstairs to take more space. Growth of the business accelerated with the purchase of a manual screen print carousel, meaning that a lot of the smaller screen print jobs could be done by Lewis and Ryan.
Big business decisions
In August 2018, Ryan made perhaps his biggest business decision to date and signed the lease on his own 3,500sq ft unit in Rugby. “Much to Sarah’s dismay at the time,” laughs Ryan. Just a month later Ryan took delivery of an M&R Diamondback automatic screen printing press, purchased through Screen Print World. Ryan has been running all screen printing jobs on this machine since.
Over the years, Ryan has also purchased two extra vinyl cutters and two heat presses to speed up production to run multiple jobs alongside each other. And most recently he has branched out with the purchase of a Mutoh ValueJet 1624X large format printer, so he can now print competition banners for cheer teams and event providers, in addition to uniforms and merchandise. Power Nation now offers the complete package for cheerleading clubs and teams.
The business has now grown to the point where, Ryan employs five full-time and two part-time members of staff, and exports to countries such as France, Sweden and Malta.
“Cheerleading teams in these countries really like the stuff that we do and I don’t think they have access to anything like what we do in their own countries. The US is definitely the biggest market and I think it’s difficult for companies over there to provide uniforms in Europe. I would like to say we are the next best thing and that is going to help us grow,” explains Ryan. Ryan’s aim – to become the biggest cheer apparel provider in Europe.
The leading authority in the US for cheerleading apparel and competitions is Varsity. In 2019, the company’s revenue reached $1.6 billion, rising from $1.35 billion the previous year. The company employs 8,600 people. These huge figures give an indication of the rapid growth of the sport in recent years and the size of the market that Ryan is tapping into. “Some cheerleaders have over a million followers on Instagram and have verified accounts. There is a saying that ‘cheer-lebrities’ is a thing,” he adds.
All of the cheer uniforms are designed by Alex and manufactured in China, on a factory line that Ryan has invested in. These include sublimated items such as sports bras and teamwear. Other products such as T shirts, hoodies, drop shoulder jumpers, bags, water bottles are either screen printed or vinyl printed in house.
Unusually for a screen printer, Power Nation operates a low minimum order quantity of 10 for the first order and five for repeat orders. Although this can mean a lot of stop starting when changing screens, this ensures customers return time and time again. However, Ryan states that most teams order anywhere between 10 and 200 T shirts, while one of the biggest orders ever printed was 3,000 for an event provider.
Finding your forte
Ryan’s forte is that he is a cheerleader turned printer. Printing in an industry that he knows plenty about. He knows what cheerleaders want and what they are looking for from their uniforms and merchandise. He states that he has at least two competitors in the UK, which also happen to be run by former cheerleaders, but he is not fazed by this as he says: “Competition is great. It keeps you on your toes.”
Sarah and Ryan have now parted ways to concentrate on the running of their own businesses, as both have grown so large in recent times. In the coming years Ryan hopes to continue expanding his customer base, while watching his revenue steadily grow. He has plans to expand the space in which he currently operates by adding in a mezzanine floor, and when the time is right add more machinery and employees to the business. “We are just going to carry on what we do and see what happens from there,” he muses.
As someone who started his business from scratch with one DTG printer, Ryan is well-placed to impart some sound advice to others who are looking to set-up their own garment printing business.
“My best piece of advice is to deal with issues as and when they arise. There will be issues along the way and things that go wrong. But planning ahead for these and setting a goal is key. I would also advise doing your research on the market, the costs involved. This is really important.”
It is clear from speaking with Ryan that he is someone who does not let what happened to him as a five-year-old boy stand in his way. “I don’t know any different to being deaf in one ear. It is a pain still to this day, because I can’t gauge where sound is coming from. I’m definitely one of the luckier survivors of meningitis. It sounds silly really but I’m almost happy that it happened because it’s led me down the path to where I am today with the business that I run and what I achieved sports wise. I mean I’ve competed for Team England, been on one of the best cheerleading teams in the UK and at my peak was one of the top athletes in the sport – what more can I say?”
Time for Ryan is now a precious commodity. Although he has given up competing on the world stage, once a week he still cheers with a lower level team and he still coaches when he can to help the kids out. Ryan takes a lot of pride in seeing cheerleaders he has coached in the past, now compete on the world stage.
But it seems that leaving behind a sport that you have such an affiliation with, is easier said than done.