Ryan Vaughn – Co-founder of Varsity News Network

I immediately write down every thought or idea that I have in a digital notebook. This way, I don’t have to remember anything — ever. My personal goal is to free up some brain space so that I can focus on solving the important problems I’m facing. The human brain should be used for processing, not storage.

Ryan Vaughn is the co-founder of Varsity News Network, the largest, fastest-growing network that unites people around their school sports. VNN’s product is a turnkey content production platform for high school and middle school sports that facilitates the digital communication of more than 1,000 schools nationwide. The company employs more than 75 people throughout 20 states, each of whom has a personal relationship with sports and technology.

Ryan is an expert in sales and product management, digital marketing, human-centered design, and fundraising. He has a Bachelor of Fine Arts in creative writing from Western Michigan University and a Master of Science in communications from Grand Valley State University, and he’s a graduate of the NewNorth Center for Design in Business.

Where did the idea for Varsity News Network come from?

I’d started a previous publishing company focused on high school sports in western Michigan, but because of the economics of the traditional journalism model, we were forced to behave certain ways. Specifically, we had to cover football disproportionately to every other sport.

As mainstream media started covering fewer high school sports events, we saw a way to localize high school sports content through each school’s official athletic website and cover every athlete from every sport. The concept has since evolved into the largest platform to connect people around their scholastic sports, and our long-term goals continue to increase in size and scope.

What does your typical day look like, and how do you make it productive?

One structure that I’ve put in place is dedicating a two-hour time frame — usually from 6:30 to 8:30 a.m. — to crank out my top priorities for the day. I’ve found that getting those done first gives me a clearer head throughout the rest of the day.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I’m a storyteller at heart, and I’m trained as a creative writer, which — on the surface — doesn’t really apply to what I’m doing now. But if you take it down one level, you’ll see that writing, particularly creatively, is applicable to everything.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

I really like discussing transhumanism, or the creation of a new species of humanity via the marriage of technology and the human body. The scope and scale of the changes we’ll see in what it means to be “human” over our lifetime absolutely fascinates me.

It’s already happening. Just look at the woman on YouTube who was deaf her whole life and was able to hear after receiving an auditory implant. Why couldn’t we use that same technology to give people super hearing?

What’s one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I immediately write down every thought or idea that I have in a digital notebook. This way, I don’t have to remember anything — ever. My personal goal is to free up some brain space so that I can focus on solving the important problems I’m facing. The human brain should be used for processing, not storage.

What was the worst job you ever had, and what did you learn from it?

I worked in truck sales for three years after college. This wasn’t the worst job I’ve ever had, but it was amazingly instructive. I entered that industry with a negative perception of salespeople. I often see this same preconceived notion in many young people who come out of school — particularly with a liberal arts degree.

Despite my initial resistance, my manager at the time shaped me into a pretty decent salesperson. That has proven to be the single most valuable skill I have in business and in life, and I firmly believe that every young person should be required to work in sales after college — it will dramatically impact her career trajectory. If she’s not the sales type, she should learn how to program computers.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

If I could start over, I wouldn’t sweat the small things. Founders are the type of people used to succeeding when they put their mind to something. But starting a tech company is a lot like baseball. If you make the perfect decision 30 percent of the time, you’ll be in the Hall of Fame.

When I started my company, I expected to enjoy immediate success, but it took us time to gain traction. Initially, that really threw me off my game, and it made me less effective as a leader. Knowing what I know now, I would have understood that those growing pains and wrong decisions are normal, and in doing so, I would have likely generated more momentum early on.

As an entrepreneur, what’s the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Make sure you’re asking yourself the right questions. Your brain is the best computer in existence — constantly synthesizing disparate groups of information to answer the question posed to it. But remember that it only answers the question that’s posed, so it’s important to ask the right question.

For example, don’t ask yourself why something isn’t working because you’ll get a whole bunch of really thoughtful answers that send you in an unproductive direction. Instead, ask yourself how you can make it work so you get the answer you’re looking for. Recently, I’ve been asking myself how I can crush this day/meeting/presentation.

What’s one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

It’s incredibly important to focus on a growth model that’s replicable. Focus on the smallest unit of growth that you can put a dollar into, and get more than a dollar out of, along with growth. It’s critical not to focus on “whales” in the early days; instead, focus on the small growth engines that can scale with additional capital.

That type of “flywheel” engine is the kind of thing that investors want to fund. In Varsity News Network’s case, we spent a lot of time perfecting a sales model that allowed us to grow our base of schools in a profitable way, which makes it very easy to replicate.

What’s one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

There are far too many to count. I fail all the time, but like a quarterback, the key is to have a very short memory of your failures and successes to remain focused on what’s next.

What is the best $100 you recently spent, and why?

Without a doubt, the best $100 I spent recently was on a book. I have never regretted buying a book.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

The one tool I couldn’t live without is a robust task management tool called Things. It’s expensive, but it’s absolutely vital to my sanity.

What’s the one book that you recommend our community should read, and why?

I tend to read much more fiction than nonfiction, which comes from a personal passion for fiction. If you’re a fiction reader, I recommend “1Q84” by Haruki Murakami. It’s so amazing that one of our team members got a tattoo inspired by the book.

As far as business books go, I recommend “Startup CEO” by Matt Blumberg. It’s the most actionable book I’ve ever read as a startup CEO. I often found myself putting the book down mid-chapter to go implement something I had just read.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

Ben Horowitz is a great thinker when it comes to venture capital and startups, and I love his blog. He’s a tremendously smart and honest writer, which comes across in each post, and he shares my affinity for hip-hop music.


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