Ep. 6: Connecting High School Communities with Ryan Vaughn
In each episode of The GameDay Playbook presented by FanFood, Rob Cressy discusses how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate gameday more efficiently.
Ryan Vaughn, Co-Founder and President of Varsity News Network, joins Rob Cressy to talk about connecting communities and the opportunity within the high school market. How did VNN capture the fragmented high school market and find product market fit? Where is technology heading in the high school space? Why is the concept of “Use Good Judgement” so important to their success?
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Rob Cressy: (00:04)
Welcome to the Gameday Playbook presented by FanFood, a discussion around how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate gameday more efficiently. I’m your host Rob Cressy and joining me today is Ryan Vaughn, Co-Founder and President of Varsity News Network. Ryan, super excited to have you on the show.
Ryan Vaughn: (00:34)
Yeah, thanks for, I’m really excited to be here and I should say it’s VNN Sports.
Rob Cressy: (00:40)
Awesome. So can you give a quick overview on who you are and what you do?
Ryan Vaughn: (00:50)
Yeah, so I’m the Founder and President of VNN. VNN is the largest consumer platform for the high school sports market. High school is increasingly becoming a focus in the sports industry because a lot of the innovation and a lot of the value that’s been created in other areas, of course like professional and college and club sports, hasn’t yet reached the high school market. So a lot of people look at high school as sort of the Wild West or the Great White Whale of the sports market — the largest market and all of the sports, larger than professional and college combined. When you think about attendance and you know, despite its size, it has does none of the innovation or very little of the innovation that some of the other sports markets do because it’s so fragmented. There are 20,000 individual schools making up the market and each one of those schools comes with its own bureaucracy. And now that fragmentation has sort of stifled a lot of the innovation, a lot of the new value that’s been created in other markets from reaching high school. So what we’ve done is we’ve created a communication platform that serves as a distribution vehicle for all of this innovation to reach the high school market down into the individual communities. And you know, the individual families that are participating.
Rob Cressy: (02:17)
So let’s get to this. Speaking of fragmentation — so how did you start building VNN knowing that this was something that was underserved and fragmented?
Ryan Vaughn: (02:29)
Well, so there’re really two ways historically that people have approached the high school market. You know, once upon a time, 10 years ago or so, there was a previous cycle where companies like Tackle and ScheduleStar and then some others were created. And really the idea at that phase of the market was approach high school sports as a single entity; approach it as sort of a national high school sports with the capital H. And you know, that created a number of pretty successful businesses. But ultimately what we learned from that is that if you look at high school sport at a national level, you only really see the top, you know, 3% of athletes which is effectively recruiting, right? Those are the people that are relevant at the national level. And we just actually, I just got done watching some of the NBA draft last night, and that’s the people we’re talking about. Those are the people that are relevant nationally.
I played high school sports or all throughout high school. I played sports my whole life. And it was almost like my entire makeup growing up was based on basketball: I ate it, I breathed it, I drank it, you know, everything was basketball and I certainly was not one of those guys that was relevant nationally, but I was super relevant locally. So there’re millions and millions of kids that you know, are in that boat. They live and breathe their sport. Um, and they, you know, they spend hours and hours and hours of time with family members and friends participating, and are incredibly invested in the local level. And that really makes up 97% of the high school market. And that, you know, is the meat and potatoes in the local communities.
Ryan Vaughn: (04:13)
So when we created VNN and we set out to capture that part of high school sports. The other 97% that other companies left behind. And the way we did that was approaching school by school, by school, and creating a communication platform that enabled the school to connect all of the people in one school to each other to celebrate sports. And now we’ve done that so many dang times that now we work where the communication infrastructure for about 20% of all the high schools in the country, which makes us the largest player on the space. But we’ve really done it one community at a time to make sure we’re providing value where people really feel it in those local communities.
Rob Cressy: (04:55)
So now let’s talk about product-market fit. So now that you are going in and identifying the high schools, now you’ve got your products for them. But just because you have the product doesn’t mean that it’s going to be the solution that they want or that is the best thing. So talk to us a little bit more about how that side of things works for you.
Ryan Vaughn: (05:16)
Well, so it’s evolved a lot over time. I mean, I think there’re two areas where we’ve hit that product-market fit. The first is there’s a broad trend. I think it’s all stems from the professionalization of youth sport. So one, an increase in pressure for Athletic Directors in local high school communities to communicate more effectively with their communities. Do you think about like, as a parent, I have two young boys and I can tell you that communication in my world is infant. It’s easy, it’s convenient, it comes to me when I want it. And that’s just the expectation that you have. But when I’m dealing with my kids’ school, it’s the entire opposite because it’s all stemming from one person.
The Athletic Director who is creating the schedule and responsible for distributing all that information. So like, there’s this frustration from parents: “Why can’t schools just communicates the same way that the rest of my life does?” And that puts a lot of pressure on an Athletic Director who is, you know, most of the time, uh, inexperience at providing that level of communication. That was the first person probably ended up heading out to solve was a secure communication platform that was designed for an Athletic Director, meeting them where they are to help them communicate to all their communities without going entirely gray. So in doing that, that was goal number one and that took us a couple of different revisions for sure to finally get to the point where we had automated the communication process now so that an Athletic Director could effectively set it and forget it, and have the platform make sure that it kept everybody in the loop.
So that’s sort of job number one for us. And that enabled us to create a connective tissue between the school and all of its community members. And then vis-a-vis our whole network across 20% of the country and growing. And then more broadly, what we’ve seen is that in the high school market, there’s this professionalization of youth sports, which is effectively a whole bunch of paper and pencil processes from fundraising to recruiting to ticketing, that has forever been paper and pencil — going digital now. And as so many different product categories undergo this transition, every single one of them faces the same problem, which is the distribution problem because the market’s so fragmented. The last couple of years what we’ve been building toward and executing against is leveraging our communication network to distribute the latest products and services and software and all of these different categories into the high school market down to, you know, each individual person’s phone. So now we’re selling tickets, we’re doing fundraisers, we’re selling design software, any number of different things all through the same communication platform. And it really ends up looking a lot like an app store for the high school sports market, which is ultimately what all of this innovation needs in order to reach that tough-to-reach market.
Rob Cressy: (08:59)
Oh, I like that idea. So let’s start looking forward. Where do you see technology and innovation headed in the high school space?
Ryan Vaughn: (09:09)
Well, I mean, broadly speaking, it’s what we were just talking about. It’s this professionalization of, of analog processes. And that that’s a broad sweeping trend that is just getting started now and will continue for a long time. Cause ultimately the way that things are done in the high school market is relatively behind the times from a technological perspective. And so catching up, historically it’s been stifled because of the fragmentation of the market. But now that that’s being removed, now that VNN is removing that, it is catching up very, very quickly. So what I think you’ll see is over the next few years, a lot of the tools and technologies and processes that have been or are currently in place in the professional ranks or in the college ranks will be making their way to high school very, very rapidly, all the way from registration and fundraising and so forth, to advanced analytic data, some of the more cutting edge things. It’s all relevant to the high school world and it’s catching up in a big way.
Rob Cressy: (10:24)
So there is so much about your company that I dig and when I was on your website, there was one thing that really stuck out to me. It was the idea of “UGJ,” or use good judgment. It gives our team that power to change things and make them better without waiting at VNN we recognize and reward people who see a problem and just solve it. And seeing that stated is so refreshing because it should just be the way, but it’s not always the case with all companies out there. So take me into sort of the foundation of how that originated and then sort of how it manifests itself in your company.
Ryan Vaughn: (11:10)
Well, so it was pretty early on that we went that direction and certainly we didn’t pioneer it, thankfully. I think I stole it from Netflix, if I remember correctly. But somebody smarter than I had developed the acronym and I definitely fell in love with it. Ultimately it’s a matter of efficiency, and making good decisions but making them at scale without a founder or a leader having to micromanage everything. Early on we established that as sort of a cultural tenant that we were going to build around, which required that we were very, very specific and intentional about establishing a shared set of values and sort of a decision framework for everybody so that we could be pretty sure that if left by themselves they’d make with the right information, they’d make a reasonable decision that’d be pretty close to what we all would choose.
And you know, once we set that in place and then obviously hired the type of people that were comfortable and embraced the autonomy to just run, what it’s enabled us to do is it enabled us to work cross departmentally but also autonomous, silly and do so very, very quickly and remarkably. It’s very rare that somebody makes a decision that’s completely off track with other people. More often than not, it’s pretty damn close, and they don’t have to wait for some decision making tree to get back to them. At the end of the day, this enables me to have trust in our team, and then just go play golf all day. It still hasn’t happened yet. I have this as a fantasy, like that’s what I want to do is just go play golf all day. But at least we’re headed that way. And I’m pretty confident at this stage that I could get hit by a bus and our company would be full speed ahead. After a 24-hour morning period, I got my dark, didn’t it? I didn’t mean it to get dark.
Rob Cressy: (13:17)
Well, no, I very much enjoy that because it really is all about culture and culture starts at the top and you’ve got a set of foundation. But it’s also gotta be a culture of accountability. And I’ve read a ton of books about things like this. And oftentimes, someone may ask you a question that says, “Ryan, how do I…” And the answer may be, “what would you do if I was not here?” And then have them answer it for themselves.
Ryan Vaughn: (13:49)
Well, so for us, we ended up hiring people right out of school pretty consistently. That’s certainly a good pipeline and it’s enabled me to identify some trends. And one of the trends that I’ve seen at this point is that somebody coming out of college, the vast majority of the time they are wired to complete schoolwork. Basically what that means is they’ll come to whoever’s managing them and they’ll get an assignment and then they’ll do that assignment and complete it as best they can and then they’ll turn in and come back for another assignment and like that, that just never works. So we’ve seen it enough now that we let that happen once and then we actually have a codified process where we’re like, “Hey, this is how school works — this is not how you’re going to be successful here. If you’re going to be here, you need to be the one directing what you work on. You need to be the one that’s driving all of it, not your manager’s job to figure out what you should do. It’s your job to learn how the company works, the environment that company works in and what’s important such that as you’re going through your day to day work and executing the job he hired you for.” You see the ways that things can be made better and then it’s up to you to take those and solve them and fix them and make them better. And then we get innovation coming from everybody. And what we’ve found is that that’s completely abnormal for 90% of new graduates. If you catch them early and you have the right type of conversation, you can rewire that really quickly. And I think we’ve done that over a period of almost a decade now. Everybody who works at VNN personifies that.
Rob Cressy: (15:59)
One thing that I enjoyed again on your website — and this sort of speaks to environment and culture, which I really believe does help produce better results out of the employees — was some of the more athletic or unique or fun things about what you do. You mentioned that you’ve played games of horse for people to get jobs and there was a slam dunk contest and there’s actually a pull-up contest with a guy who worked at Jimmy John’s. Can you briefly talk about the importance of the culture and sort of your mindset in this and how having this unique culture actually does allow you to produce better results?
Ryan Vaughn: (16:40)
Well, so first off, let’s just look to be clear, the standing record right now, the standing pull-up record is mine and Jimmy John’s guy’s don’t stand a chance versus our game relative to pull up. So let’s get that out of the way. But you know, we have office Olympics, we have a bunch of cool stuff and that’s great. I think the team really digs it and it’s a great means for bonding outside of work, but ultimately that’s the window dressing on top of culture and is mostly irrelevant. And I think not only me saying that — the person who’s sort of architecting the culture — but I think if you were to ask anybody on our team, they’d say “yeah, that’s fun, but that’s not our culture.” I think what they’d say the culture is, is this shared commitment that we all have to building something bigger than ourselves. That’s what we’ve been really intentional about architecting. We hire for people who are looking to invest themselves in a cause rather than for talented people who we can utilize as a resource. I think that’s soup to nuts. That’s how we do all of our processes. That’s how we do all of our hiring and we’re incredibly intentional about it. And that’s what has created our culture is a whole bunch of people who are deeply committed to creating something, you know, world-changing, creating something that we really believe will be the infrastructure, the train tracks across the entire industry of high school sports. With that at stake, that’s what people buy into. And that’s what creates our culture. If people build toward that shared vision rather than just talented people coming in and lending their expertise. I’ve worked on the opposite side too. And in fact, early days of VNN, we didn’t always have this culture. We sort of got burned by the opposite, and then learn from it.
Rob Cressy: (18:52)
I’m going to get you out on this. Is there anything I didn’t ask you regarding technology or innovation or the high school space that you think would benefit the audience?
Ryan Vaughn: (19:08)
I mean, anybody that’s looking at sports, everybody has a focus, right? Either it’s a market, professional, college club, sports, whatever, or it’s a vertical like, you know, fundraising or recruiting or gameday operations. I think what we’ve seen is that there’s an opportunity for tremendous cross-pollination. We see it tactically every day with things that have been successful in club sports or college sports or pro sports coming into the high school market. It’s our job and our company’s job to help those companies and tools to make that transition into high school and navigate the unique characteristics of the high school market. But I think even more broadly than that, what that’s made available to us and what that’s taught us is that there are so many lessons that, you know, we’re going through and trying to figure out organically that have already been figured out in other markets.
I’d already figured out in pro sports, in college sports and I think that’s, that sort of cross pollinated pollinization of ideas is pervasive across sports. And so we always look at like, you know what, we’re trying to solve a new problem. We always look at, all right, well how do the pros do it? How does the college market do it? And how are they doing it in club sports? And I think that it gives you the opportunity to leverage, um, you know, sort of the shared creativity of the entire industry and just to bring things that already work in other areas to where you are. And I would imagine that that philosophy can be beneficial to people working in gameday operations and pro sports, you know, stealing ideas from high school and college just like it would be the other way.
Rob Cressy: (20:53)
Very much so. I dig it, Ryan, I really enjoyed this conversation. Where can people connect with you and VNN?
Ryan Vaughn: (21:01)
Yeah, we’re vnnsports.net. That’s the easiest way to get in touch with us. We have of course a bunch of contact information on there as well, but if you want to get in touch with me directly, I’m firstname.lastname@example.org and we’d love to chat.
Rob Cressy: (21:18)
And as always, I would love to hear from you about this episode. Did this cause you to think or take action? You can hit up FanFood on Twitter @fanfoodondemand, on Instagram @fanfoodapp or on LinkedIn. And you can hit me up on LinkedIn by searching Rob Cressy.