Neil Hornsby (Founder & CEO at Pro Football Focus)
From the UK to founding an American football statistics & analytics company. Yash's first interview for The Takeoff 🚀
Interview Guest: Neil Hornsby
Role: Founder and CEO at Pro Football Focus
What is PFF?: PFF is a football statistics and analytics company founded in the United Kingdom. In 2014 it was acquired by Cris Collinsworth, veteran sports broadcaster and a regular on NBC's Sunday Night Football. Now headquartered in Cincinnati, OH, PFF is the premier analytics platform for all 32 NFL Teams, 83 College Football Teams, as well as media organizations such as the Washington Post and The Atlantic.
Prior: Prior to founding PFF, Neil was working as a management consultant in the UK. He actually began PFF as a hobby.
Final Note: This is Yash’s first interview as a Contributor for The Takeoff. We’re super excited to have him on board, and we hope you enjoy today’s Edition!
Yash’s favorite quotes from the interview:
On starting a company: “There should be a balance between taking too long to start your business and starting your business without the necessary skill set to have a fighting chance to succeed.”
On the fundamentals of business: “Business is fundamentally about attracting and retaining profitable customers. If you remember that in everything you do (and importantly ensure your team understands that), then you have a really good model. When you make any decision, always ask yourself, am I attracting or retaining a profitable customer?”
On tools & content: “I've always felt that churning out content, particularly non-evergreen content, is very difficult compared to building tools. When you produce tools, and those tools run automatically off the data, you can sell that many times over for multiple years.”
On the role of a leader: “A leader has three things that they need to do. First, they need to set a vision for the company. Second, they need to get the right people to move that vision forward. Then third, you need to get out of the way of your people. Your whole job should be about removing barriers to people doing their jobs.”
On social media advertising: “The type of people who react to a tweet that says, ‘Why don't you come to the website and have a look at this,’ is completely different from the type of people who react to a tweet that says, ‘Come to the website and buy this.’ So, we spent a lot of time getting people in and eventually found that volume isn’t anywhere near as important as demographics when it comes to revenue. You've got to get the right people in if sales is your goal.”
Yash: Hi, Neil, thanks for joining today. To get started, what is Pro Football Focus? How did you get started founding the company and what's your mission?
Neil: We collect and analyze more data on football than anybody else on the planet, and we do it more deeply than anybody else on the planet. It started as a hobby for me. I was a business consultant in the UK, I had my own company, and that was fine. But, I just always had a love for football. I decided to use some of my spare time and spare cash to build a little website. Living in the UK, you want to have discussions with people about American football, and your friends are into soccer and things of that sort of nature and that’s all they know and want to chat about obviously.
Few people in the UK know much about American football, so the website was really a vehicle for that type of discussion. Eventually, it grew into something much bigger than I was anticipating. If anybody told me that it would end up where it is today, I would have laughed and said, “You're joking! You know that that's never going to happen.” But now, we have all 32 NFL teams as customers to not only our NFL product but also our college product. We have 83 schools, including 90% of the power five, and we sell to all the big media companies: NBC, Fox, CBS. We also have tens of thousands of regular consumers — customers who love to gamble, play fantasy, or just love football as much as we do.
Yash: Super interesting story. Along those lines, how has the product evolved as you've gone on?
Neil: When you start something, you're building something for yourself, which is different from if you're doing it for an NFL team. There’s a different level of robustness required. When we started, we used technologies that were cheap and easy to get hold of and didn't have production capabilities in mind. We built up a huge amount of technical debt.
When Cris Collinsworth bought the company in 2014, and we effectively became a real company, we needed to completely rebuild everything from the ground up. We put in place a three-year plan to completely rebuild our core infrastructure. We didn't actually finish rebuilding the full infrastructure until this year. The last thing we had to update was our e-commerce platform. We were using a Russian product that initially bought back in 2009 that cost us like $100 a year. At the time we basically did whatever allowed us to scale up quickly and cheaply.
Yash: That's really cool. What were some of the challenges you faced, both in the earlier stages when you were scaling it from just your hobby to an actual business, and then growing it once you got acquired?
Neil: A lot of our people who got involved in the early days were there because of football. They had a set of skills that allowed them to analyze football games. They didn't necessarily have skills to manage a team or run a business, and a lot of people have had to learn those skills on the fly. Now, half of our leadership team is made up of people who were here before Cris bought the company, and the other half arrived since Cris bought the company. It's a really interesting dynamic.
The other thing is, bringing in people to a culture that is already set up is somewhat tricky. People will come in and appear to have the right skill set, but for one reason or another do not. We've had a number of missteps in terms of bringing people into what is already an established culture but not an established business.
Another big thing was the ability to learn skills we didn't initially think were important. When it's a hobby, you don't really care what your search engine optimization looks like. At the end of the day, if 100 people find it or 120 people find it, it doesn't matter. But when it's the difference between 100 million and 120 million, that's a big deal. Later, as revenue became important we made a few assumptions that turned out not to be true. Things like if we got 100 people into the website, we sell X, and if we get 1000 people into the website, we get 10X sales, and so on.
Therefore, we prioritized bringing as many people to the website as possible and thought that the conversion rate of site traffic into subscribers would be linear. Unfortunately, it's really not. There is only a certain segment of the population that wants to purchase your product. There's another section of the population that's interested in what you're doing but doesn't want to purchase your product. The type of people who react to a tweet that says, “Why don't you come to the website and have a look at this,” is completely different from the type of people who react to a tweet that says, “Come to the website and buy this.”
So, we spent a lot of time getting people in and eventually found that volume isn’t anywhere near as important as demographics when it comes to revenue. You've got to get the right people in if sales is your goal.
Yash: How did you transform your strategy beyond just trying to get as many clicks as possible?
Neil: I have a mantra in the business: Build once, sell many times. I've always felt that churning out content, particularly non-evergreen content, is very difficult compared to building tools. When you produce tools, and those tools run automatically off the data, you can sell that many times over for multiple years. After building our platform for the NFL teams, it was a relatively straightforward thing to then amend. Once you build it and sell it to one NFL team, you've built it for 32 NFL teams, and then you've built it for 130 college teams and then you can take parts of exactly the same thing and sell it to consumers. Building automated tools always gives you a significantly higher return on investment than, say, selling handcrafted reports to agents.
Yash: That's a super useful mantra for new companies to keep in mind. Most of our other interviews have been with founders and investors that are usually in places like the Bay Area and NYC. So I was wondering, what are some of the benefits and drawbacks you see to being in a region with a smaller startup ecosystem, like Cincinnati?
Neil: The benefit of Cincinnati is that if you need somebody here, the cost of living in Cincinnati is significantly lower than being in the Bay Area or NYC. It's a great place to be. It's relatively cheap, and the infrastructure is not bad. You can get around easily compared to a lot of other places. You've got an NFL team, you've got a college football team, you've got MLB. You've got opera, ballet, musicals, and cultural infrastructure, but without all of the downsides that normally come in a bigger city like Atlanta or Chicago.
But the truth of the matter is, we could run our business from anywhere. If COVID taught us anything, it's that we don't need people in an office in order to succeed and build fantastic products and do really well. We started with a very distributed infrastructure. Before our acquisition, we had 13 NFL teams and we were supporting them and managing our product from the UK. COVID has reminded us that we could quite easily run our business from anywhere. Of course, I'm ignoring things like the more social aspects of work, and how much fun it is to be together in an office.
Yash: How else has COVID impacted your business given the curveball that was thrown to almost every professional sports league?
Neil: It's been interesting. I think if somebody had told the NFL to pick a week for COVID to strike on, they would have probably said, “Ah, maybe sometime late February, early March. Maybe if you could just let us get the combine over with.” I'm fairly confident there is going to be an NFL season and there is going to be a college season, fall, or otherwise. When it comes to our business, this was initially one of our best seasons ever. We did more revenue than in any previous draft. People flocked to our product more than ever before, because there was nothing else. From a media perspective, this could certainly be the biggest NFL season ever — if it’s played. People are going to want to talk about something else besides COVID and elections.
Yash: Definitely. With the upcoming season, as your company continues to grow, where do you see your company's next 10x evolution?
Neil: 10x evolutions are interesting. I would say that of all the entrepreneurs and the companies I've come across, 90% of the people who get involved are involved to make money. Yeah, they do it to build something, and then five years down the line, sell it for like a gazillion dollars and go to a beach in the Bahamas. Then, they go on to the next project and try to do that again. If the company they initially started ended up as nothing, it's just a drop in the ocean. They really don't care because they've already made their money. There's a whole industry around what some people call “dressing a pig”, which is making your company look better than it actually is, then selling it and getting the hell out, and somebody else is left holding the bag. That's a business model that is going on throughout the US and throughout the world.
I never ever got into this thing to make money. I'm not saying that I don't enjoy the money that I earn, but that was never the reason. When I talk to prospective investors in our company, I say, “Why are you doing this? Are you doing this because you love football and you like a really solid business that does things the right way and you can feel ethically comfortable with? Or, do you want to really get a return on your money? If you only want a massive return on your money, don't invest, because that's not the type of company we are. We'll build and get better every single week, every single month. We are not a group of people who want to make money and then bail. We get offers to buy the company on a monthly basis from VCs, and I'm not saying any of this is a bad thing, that's a value judgment that I'm not going to make about other people. All I'm going to tell you is that that isn’t a big thing for me or Cris Collinsworth. If we sold PFF for $500 million tomorrow, what am I going to do differently? I'll still go out with the same friends. I’ll still go to the same restaurants.
As for our newest product, we have a new tool for the NFL teams that goes beyond just providing data, but also a workflow for evaluating a player all the way through from high school to college to the NFL. We only implemented it a couple of weeks ago, so that's going to be exciting.
Yash: Definitely an interesting and controversial take. I have one final question: Our audience at The Takeoff is mostly comprised of college students, both grad students and undergrads, like me. What advice would you give to a current student who is interested in starting their own company?
Neil: Get as much background and grounding as you can without overdoing it. I once gave a talk to an entrepreneurship class. For that, I took all of my past history, every single job I've done throughout my career, and I put the multiple functions within a business (finance, HR, IT, etc.) as the rows of a matrix and I put all of my past jobs as columns. Then, I mapped out the multiple functions I gained knowledge of based on the overlap on the matrix. Not every job was great, some I hated but at every one I got a critical opportunity to learn and see various companies and their problems and issues.
Those basic key skills that are necessary for all businesses, and especially for all entrepreneurs get those skills, because there should be a balance between taking too long to start your business and starting your business without the necessary skill set to have a fighting chance to succeed.
Prioritize project management. It’s crucial in every type of business. Gain a real understanding of what project management is: Why do you break something down into tasks? Why do you put dependencies on things? If you aren't looking at where things are, and you don’t have the task planned down to its relevant details, then you can’t see incoming risk and mitigate for that risk.
You also need to be a leader. A leader has three things that they need to do. First, they need to set a vision for the company. Second, they need to get the right people to move that vision forward. Then third, you need to get out of the way of your people. Your whole job should be about removing barriers to people doing their jobs.
Once you get your business off the ground, you must remember that business is fundamentally about attracting and retaining profitable customers. If you remember that in everything you do (and importantly ensure your team understands that), then you have a really good model. When you make any decision, always ask yourself, am I attracting or retaining a profitable customer?
We hope you learned a lot from Neil. You can find him on Twitter @PFF_Neil.
I’m on Twitter @yash_gaitonde 👋