We had the chance to speak to Ben Weiss, founder and CEO of Zcruit. Zcruit was acquired by Reigning Champs in November 2017. Ben shared his story with us and lessons from his journey are below.
What is Zcruit? Zcruit helps colleges sports teams access information on recruits. Ben started working for the Northwestern football recruiting department at the start of his freshman year of college, and by his sophomore year, he became frustrated with how inefficient the recruiting process was. Northwestern’s football program was manually entering data on 5,000+ recruits per year, offering scholarships to roughly 120, and would get about 20 to commit to joining the program. Ultimately, a majority of time in the recruiting process was being wasted chasing the wrong talent. Ben’s goal was to squeeze out this inefficiency, so mid-way through college he started Zcruit.
Zcruit had a critical partner. Ben built an algorithm using data to predict recruitment decisions and outcomes. He was working directly with Northwestern’s football program to hone the product, and sure enough Northwestern changed their approach to recruiting based on Ben’s analytics. Northwestern was a critical partner in firming up the product.
Software engineers bring their friends. Ben struggled to recruit software engineers. Zcruit got only 1 response from a software engineer posting, and ultimately that role took 6 months to fill. That one engineer ended up bringing on a talented friend though and they ultimately became co-founders with Ben, splitting the business equally.
Hiring software engineers is hard. Even after Ben got real budget from his acquirer, it’s still a multi-month hiring process to find and bring on software engineers. This is the hardest thing Ben has to do at the company. It requires persistence to attract software engineering talent, and now Ben relies on internal recruiters at Reigning Champs to get the job done. Going about it on his own before Reigning Champs would eat up 50% of his time. Reaching out to people on LinkedIn was fruitless, using a recruiter was expensive (1/3rd of salary is the typical fee), and putting out job postings resulted in often pretty mediocre talent. Talented software developers don’t have to go to job boards; they go through recruiters or just go work at name brand companies.
Ben had a good accelerator experience. They joined an accelerator program providing 10 weeks of help and $10,000 of funding. By the end of the summer, they had a fully functional product and 3 beta customers.
Zcruit was bootstrapped. They never raised money. Ben put in $1,000, got $10,000 from the accelerator, and bootstrapped the rest. They were 4 kids in college that hacked the company together. Ben was naïve about raising capital — he was a 19 year old and had no idea where to start to raise money. Ben also knew he could attract other college kids to work with him, because college kids don’t need real salaries and will try things out. Prior to being approached by their ultimate acquirer, they considered raising a round but ultimately opted to sell in order to avoid having to build the business for investors and instead link with an acquirer that shared their vision and mission.
Getting to first revenue takes time. They brought on two software engineers, rushed a product to market, and got paid customers on board. It took 2 years to get to first revenue. They used the revenue to pay the team, build out a new product, and went from 3 schools to 14 schools.
Conventions and conferences were critical. Zcruit went to a football coaches convention with a protype of the product. They didn’t get a booth or even buy entry into the convention. They cold emailed coaches ahead of time, set up meetings around the event, and crashed on a buddy’s couch. Two weeks after the football trade show, a reporter from USA Today wrote a feature article about the company. They blew up and schools all over the country were calling. The USA Today article was an inflection point for the company resulting in paid customers, acceleration of go-to-market, and using customer feedback to re-build a stronger product. Had they not used the momentum of the USA Today article to learn more about the customer and make the product better, the trajectory of the business would have differed.
M&A was a surprise. Reigning Champs, the world’s largest college sports recruiting company, gave Ben and his team an acquisition offer out of nowhere. There was no partnership in place — Reigning Champs saw the USA Today article and the CEO reached out directly. They courted Ben and his team and actually surprised him with an LOI over breakfast after a few months. Ben and the team sold to Reigning Champs and Ben now leads the product within that company. They now have 40+ teams signed on to the product.
Big thanks to Ben Weiss for sharing his story and lessons with us.
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