Mike Ressler, founder and CEO of StatEasy, typifies the young entrepreneur: doing what he loves, loving what he does, and scared to shit about what might happen, or what might not! Mike exudes the qualities that are essential for entrepreneurs: smart, technical (computer science degree from a top institution), outrageously optimistic, and confident. Like many, Mike didn’t aim to be an entrepreneur. As he tells it, he “fell backwards into it.”
The idea. Mike always was (and still is) a problem solver. In middle school math, Mike just loved the challenge of solving problems. In college, he came across a problem that affected him personally – as an athlete and assisting the coach. That problem, or rather solving the problem, is the geneses of StatEasy.
Mike had played volleyball in high school in New Jersey, winning some championships. He was, and still is, passionate about the game and sports in general. From New Jersey, Mike set his aims on attending a top technical university where he could participate in sports even if they didn’t have varsity volleyball. Calling himself a D-1 nerd (for Division 1), Mike learned programming on his own and through taking classes at Stanford during off-times in high school. He attended a session at Carnegie Mellon and its top computers science program and, in spite of the odds against him, that became his target. Mike still believes that he holds the record of graduating CMU’s CS department in the shortest time: 2.5 years, which included a minor in technical writing.
Since there was no men’s varsity volleyball team at CMU, Mike became a manager to the women’s team. The challenge came when the women’s volleyball coach showed her new assistant the stat system: “Here is the program that we use for stats.” That was the year 2000, and Mike was a freshman. Mike tells me his reaction:
“Coach wanted different things as most coaches do – they are very opinionated. The program that she showed me was in DOS and I said, ‘No absolutely not; I would rather use pencil and paper.’ I wrote a new program that would solve what we needed. It was like technology tennis – volleyball action is near far, near far, and it’s fast paced. As coach you want to watch the court and continue watching. What we needed was a program that allowed us to do eyes-free, live data collection.”
Mike was able to get the coach what she needed. But it wasn’t a company or even an idea for a company for quite some time. It became what Mike calls a “cowboy coding” project: “She would continually say, Can you give me this?’ and I would say, ‘Yes, give me an hour.’ And that just kept going.”
Once Mike graduated he went after technical jobs. He worked at a couple of Pittsburgh-based companies for several years. Along the way, he met his wife, who also played volleyball and coached in schools. His wife wanted an easy stat tool too:
“My wife was confronting stat software that is hard to use and expensive. She would ask me, ‘Mike can you add, change, help?’ I would stay up late and get her new code by the morning. I had promised her that she could add a new player before school started. That got old pretty quickly!”
The company. By 2009, Mike knew what he had to do. He had attended the national volleyball coaches association meeting in Florida as a coach and mid-way through was a vendor exhibit. Mike talked his way into a booth, bought a screen and projector (which he returned after the show), and demoed his product.
“People loved it. It was new; it solved a problem; they were ready to buy. I realized that I had a real opportunity beyond my own needs.”
Mike formed StatEasy in mid- 2009. By early 2010, Mike quit his day job. StatEasy had five users at the time. They were unpaid beta users. But these early customers gave StatEasy the validation that they needed to move forward.
Differentiators. StatEasy’s competition are programs that are hard to use: “One of our competitors requires a week-long course to learn to use it,” Mike explains. “And then, only one person can use it.” In contrast, StatEasy is focused on a good user experience. StatEasy’s system lies at the intersection of video and stats: “No one else is doing this,” Mike assures me.
From volleyball, StatEasy has expanded into other sports. “There is nothing in the code that is one-sport specific,” Mike tells me. And, since the system was designed to be eyes-free, all the stats are done live and in real-time. Currently, in addition to volleyball, StatEasy offers solutions for basketball, bowling, football, ice hockey, soccer, tennis and wrestling. Additional sports are in the works.
Funding and growth. Today, StatEasy is five people: in addition to Mike as CEO, Tom Matta is COO, there are three in sales and marketing. The company is adding more in sales, marketing and development. The company was bootstrapped from the start. Mike used his own savings and his wife is a teacher so they kept food on the table for their young daughter while building the company so that it could attract financing. In March of 2012, StatEasy raised seed funding from Innovation Works, a regional economic development organization. Recently, StatEasy was funded by CMU’s new Open Field Entrepreneur’s Fund. The company has also been working with Thinktiv, a new venture accelerator in Pittsburgh.
Customers. The company has been morphing its business model, from starting with colleges, moving to high schools, and even selling directly to parents (who might want to see the game that they just missed). Recently, StatEasy landed a big win with WPIAL basketball (WPIAL is Pennsylvania’s District 7 encompassing all of Greater Pittsburgh). The contract is for all 60 of their QuadA (largest school size) boys and girls basketball teams. “It’s a huge step forward for the company,” Mike proudly announces. The high school market is a larger market for the company and is a better fit.
Lessons learned. What I find relevant about Mike’s story is the following:
- Find what you love. Then learn from doing what you love of a problem that you can solve that others’ haven’t. Examine the competition and the way they solve the problem now and make sure that you have an advantage over those methods.
- Don’t run out and call yourself an entrepreneur and hope to raise money on an untested idea. Bootstrap your idea along, testing as cheaply as you can with prototypes for customers to find out if you really have a solution that they will value.
- Figure out your value proposition to customers before you build your first commercially-ready product. Almost always you get it wrong,but forcing yourself to think about the customer first will put you in the mindset of how to always seek the value in what you offer before anything else.
- Have the core competence to build your first system in-house so that you can adapt quickly as you learn about customers, the market, and value.
- Focus like a laser on a single market once you know you have something, but create the platform to expand to other markets. In StatEasy’s case, starting with volleyball was critical to the startup’s early success. But quickly expanding to other sports was essential to being able to grow.
It’s not over for StatEasy. It’s really just beginning. But, when I look into my personal crystal ball I would bet that Mike has what it takes and that he will drive StatEasy to success. I know that Mike doesn’t really know where he is going – no one, no matter how precocious, can see around the corner or through solid objects like walls. But Mike does know how to take the foundation of what he knows and make it real for those who matter – customers!