We met up at a bustling coffee shop in January 2019. I had met Joyce Anderson years before. She was an expert advising high school student-athletes on college recruiting and academic eligibility, and I was the executive director of a non-profit providing academic tutoring, mentorship and athletic training for under-resourced student-athletes. I came prepared to read my manifesto about bringing equal access to student-athletes everywhere using technology.
The gist of my pitch was that we were both driving equal access in education in our respective spheres, but that our impact could be so much greater if we joined forces and scaled our impact with technology. As I continued to read page two of my five-page manifesto, Joyce stopped me and said, “Kim, you had me at hello.” Today, more than a year later, Joyce jokingly refers to that January coffee as my “Jerry Maguire” moment; the moment Honest Game was born.
We officially launched Honest Game’s MVP in January 2020 and 60 days later we had signed up 12 customers (high schools and youth club organizations). We hosted 7,500 users in our portal. We beat out more than 150 startups in the Chicago Bulls Venture Competition powered by LOUD Capital. Through this win, we received our first venture capital investment of $50,000, followed by family members investing another $50,000. It was enough to get us through the first half-year or so. The excitement was palpable. We were walking on air.
One week later COVID-19 struck.
We knew what we were doing was important. Every year, some 800,000 student-athletes miss out on more than $3 billion in college scholarships because of academic ineligibility, yet many don’t even realize they’re ineligible until after high school graduation: their courses might not have qualified, their NCAA GPA might be too low (it is different from a school GPA), their test scores might be too low, or all of the above.
The rules to NCAA academic eligibility are stringent, complicated, and change each year in order to increase college retention rates, but this results in fewer student-athletes going to college at all. This disproportionately impacts students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, as their schools often don’t have the budgets for full-time college counselors and athletic directors.
To address this disparity, Honest Game, helps high school student-athletes meet and keep track of their academic requirements for NCAA eligibility.
Here’s how we’ve managed to survive and even grow in the pandemic.
Governors ordered statewide shutdowns of schools and all non-essential activities. Considering that high schools and youth sports teams are Honest Game’s key customers, this wasn’t great news for our business. In addition to fear, we felt sadness for our high school student-athletes missing out on what were supposed to be life-long memories like high school prom, graduation, their final senior athletic season, or their last shot at the state championship. It also happened right when our baby start-up was learning to run.
We were so early stage that we weren’t yet taking a salary and had zero employees, thus were ineligible for the PPP loan. We quickly pivoted to optimism as the cure. The terrain was going to be tough, but this adversity was a test of our fortitude. If we could survive the pandemic, Honest Game would be unstoppable.
Despite the shutdown, we have continued to sign on new customers — we are up to 32. High schools pay a $750 annual subscription and club teams are $40/student annual subscription (average $2500/club). We expanded our customer base outside of Illinois to New York City and are poised to move into Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Ohio, Kansas and Texas.
Here are some of the strategies that have guided us through this challenging period.
Go Virtual Visual
We turn our cameras on during every virtual call to normalize this time that is anything but normal. Faces, albeit virtual, serve as our lifeline to the outside world. We want to be present and we call on others to do the same. No judgment about shaggy hair, children interrupting or messy living spaces. Human connection is a key ingredient to our resilience and success amid the pandemic.
It’s OK To Be Less Than Perfect
COVID-19 turned our lives upside down. Suddenly, our kids were home all day and we lost our ability to manage our schedules. We have given ourselves permission to be flexible and let go of the things we can’t control, which often translates into long workdays at odd hours.
Try Empowering Your Customers
We continued networking, product development and sales. We learned that with our customers sheltering in place, they had the time to take a quick video chat. Moreover, people were looking for something uplifting and our mission to bring equal access gave them an opportunity to take control and do some good. Our product provides a strategic plan in a time of uncertainty.
Don’t Sell Too Hard. Be A Trustworthy Guide To The Changed World
The pandemic was the impetus for temporary NCAA changes to academic eligibility requirements for high school seniors. This was the Super Bowl of news for our consumers, high schools and youth athletic clubs. We knew that these changes would not be immediately processed and understood. We developed and shared free infographics immediately to explain the rule changes in simple terms on our social media channels. This content communicated our authority on academic eligibility, driving our brand recognition as the industry role model. We believe there has never been a better time to double down on thoughtful content about the impact of the pandemic on our business and overall sector. This content is best when its focus is on knowledge, timeliness and specific expertise versus a sales pitch. In essence, sell without being sale-sy.
As we anticipate a post COVID-19 world, we expect more change. Uncertainty will drive fear and an even greater digitized economy. The same tenets that have led Honest Game through the pandemic will be the key to our survival and success afterwards.
See you on the other side.
Honest Game builds roadmaps for all high school student-athletes to achieve academic eligibility to college sports. To learn more, visit honestgame.com.
To read about founders and innovation beyond Silicon Valley, sign up for Times of E’s weekly news briefs: www.timesofe.com/introduction. Compiled by world-class journalists.
This story and others on Times of E are made possible by a sponsorship from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is a private, nonpartisan foundation that provides access to opportunities that help people achieve financial stability, upward mobility, and economic prosperity – regardless of race, gender, or geography. The Kansas City, Mo.-based foundation uses its grantmaking, research, programs, and initiatives to support the start and growth of new businesses, a more prepared workforce, and stronger communities. For more information, visit www.kauffman.org and connect with www.twitter.com/kauffmanfdn and www.facebook.com/kauffmanfdn.