In sports and in business, communication is key. But when it comes to high school athletics, it isn’t just the players on the field, track or court that need to be in constant contact. Athletic department need to keep parents, coaches and fans in the loop of everything happening with their teams. But how?
Enter Varsity News Network (VNN), a Grand Rapids-based startup that aims to connect communities with their local high school sporting teams. With their easy-to-use mobile applications and online software, athletic departments can update schedules, scores and roster information with a click of a button. Founded in 2011, VNN has grown to include 1,500 partner schools across the U.S., including 200+ in Michigan.
To learn more about VNN we caught up with the company’s Marketing Director, Romy Glazer, to hear more about their services and the role Grand Rapids has played in the company’s growth.
Meet Varsity News Network
What does your company do?
VNN is a communications platform that brings the local community together around high school sports.
Our apps help athletic directors streamline the tasks they already have to do every day (scheduling, registration, reporting scores), and our technology delivers that information to the right people at the right time. With VNN, final scores are delivered to the media the second a game ends, messages reach athletes the second their coach makes an announcement, and parents are alerted with any new photo gallery of images from sports their kid plays on.
What role does the city of Grand Rapids play in your company’s identity and culture? Do you think things would have been the same if you’d chosen to start somewhere else?
Grand Rapids is our home. It’s where many members of our team grew up, where our family lives, and where we’ve been welcomed and enriched by the startup environment. Being from the Midwest, it means we are hard-workers, and it shows in our culture. In Grand Rapids, we’ve benefitted from the boom in young creative talent that’s come to the city, as well as our low-cost of living and scenery.
I do think things would be different if we started elsewhere. For one – our company being surrounded by local communities passionate about high school sports is something you can find elsewhere, but is very near and dear to the hearts of the Grand Rapids, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and the rest of the area that our company is from. In ten minutes, we can drive out to any number of our local customers, share in their excitement and become a part of what they’re doing in part because we’re located here. Had we started the company in a place like NY, our passion for high school sports would have stayed the same, but I don’t think we’d have been living our business quite like we do with our home here.
In addition to the communication software, VNN also runs a fantastic blog, chock full of intriguing high school sports stories from around the country. Check it out!
What has been your company’s largest challenge so far? How have you/are you able to overcome this?
Our biggest challenge is balancing the short-term, and the long-term goals, of the company. We’re venture-funded, which from the outside seems glamorous. But what it really says is that our products have lots of potential, but don’t currently make us enough money to sustain ourselves, so we borrow from partners who think we can succeed in exchange for growth. And when you’re doing that – you always need to balance things that you can learn and achieve quickly –– to show your team that the company is moving in the right direction –– while also planning ahead to position the company correctly and build the platforms needed to truly own the market. Focus too short term and you’ll only tackle the small things and build it on a shaky foundation, while if you focus too long term, you’ll run out of money with nothing to show for it. The only way to overcome this is through good communication between departments, utilizing small-scale prototypes to teach us about what the market wants, and digging into the user information we already have to learn about trends and estimate impact on the organization.
How has your company evolved since it was first founded?
In our experience, our product has evolved as we’ve learned more about our customer, the high school athletic director (AD), spent time with and empathized with them. At first, our product was a website, which allowed athletic directors to post information so parents could find it and promote their entire sports program. When we learned that ADs didn’t always have enough time to keep their site active, our apps came into the picture –– streamlining the things they already have to do every day and automatically creating posts, and allowing other stakeholders, like coaches, to help carry the load. Once we had the information, we realized that a website was only one way to communicate, and that our company would be well served by providing the right information to the right person at the right time. So, we built text message and email functionality into our platform along with a sync to social media, which gave us new channels to bring a community closer together. It’s incremental, but our product should always be evolving to stay relevant to the needs of our customer.
What is your company’s vision for the next three years?
We see a lot of potential in the power of contextual information that actively helps parents manage their kids sports lifestyle, and delights fans. The simple relationships within communities and how people connect with one another will be essential for us to understand to move to the next level.
Don’t miss our other Startup Spotlights on companies in the Detroit and Grand Rapids areas!