Meticulously crafted product platform is big part of SportsEngine's unique identity, culture
The guts of the oversized hockey puck consisted of Styrofoam and Liquid Nails. The outer black-velvet skin served as the canvas depicting a hand-painted strongman lifting not the heavens but, in a twist on the iconic Rockefeller Center sculpture of Atlas, a giant puck.
The completed masterpiece measured about the size of a coffee table. Positioning that puck atop the roll bars of Justin Kaufenberg’s road-weary Jeep Wrangler (it had no top, no doors, no speedometer, no interior lights and no floorboards to speak of, all casualties of its more than 250,000 miles) was a considerable chore.
Turns out, keeping it there was even more difficult.
“We had it strapped to the top of the Wrangler, driving to the (Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul) and holding on for dear life on the highway,” Kaufenberg said. “I mean, that thing was catching air.”
These were the early days of SportsEngine, back when the company was called Puck Systems and consisted of Kaufenberg (now the Chief Executive Officer), fellow co-founder and college buddy Carson Kipfer and partners Michael Lewis and Greg Blasko. Back then the marketing budget topped out at zero dollars, so promotional items used at expos and trade shows – massive pucks included – were all handcrafted, combining whatever materials could be scrounged and salvaged with heaping doses of imagination.
Fittingly, it was Kipfer who painted the old Puck Systems logo on the giant puck, using a picture of Kaufenberg - hoisting the puck on his shoulders while wearing only his boxers - as the inspiration.
It was around this time that Kaufenberg and Kipfer faced what would prove to be their biggest decision, one that would not only chart their future but effectively create the culture for their burgeoning technology company.
“Very, very early on we had to decide if we wanted to outsource all of the development or do it ourselves,” Kipfer said.
Looking back, that decision, given Kaufenberg and Kipfer’s early hammer-and-nail approach to marketing, office renovations and most everything else company related, seems obvious. They brought in Lewis and Blasko, fellow entrepreneurs and accomplished developers, doubling the company’s size and effectively plotting the course that would lead to SportsEngine becoming the world’s largest independent youth and amateur sports technology company.
SportsEngine Co-Founder and CEO Justin Kaufenberg speaks during a "Donut Day" gathering at the company's new headquarters.
More than a decade later, it’s no coincidence that SportsEngine's new headquarters is the former brick-and-timber home of an early 1900s lightbulb factory in a part of Minneapolis (affectionately known as Nordeast) that is teeming with craft breweries and home to dive bars serving gourmet fare such as lobster rolls and lamb sandwiches.
“We had the opportunity to move to downtown Minneapolis or the North Loop, which is hip and trendy, but if at all possible we wanted to stay in Northeast,” said Kipfer, who as SportsEngine's Chief Evangelist (his actual title) meticulously maintains and cultivates the company’s culture. “Just this area of Minneapolis has this unique flavor and history of people building things and working really hard to see their ideas come to fruition.
“Very blue collar.”
SportsEngine's do-it-yourself origins have had a trickle-down effect in the employees it attracts and the work that they do. It’s no coincidence that SportsEngine Vice President of Engineering Odell Tuttle has built two cars (a replica 1964 Shelby Cobra and a Factory Five mid-engine GTM supercar) from the ground up and offers “The Power of Product Platforms” as recommended reading for anyone showing an interest in the development side of the company.
It’s no coincidence that Luke Ludwig, SportsEngine’s first non-partner developer, was lured from his stable job at a large defense contractor to sign on at a scrappy, swing-for-the-fences startup.
“I was seeing a lot of waste–wasting time, wasting effort, not adding value to the company,” Ludwig, who joined SportsEngine in October of 2007, said about his previous job. “I was specifically looking for a much smaller company, someplace where I could feel like I was making a real impact.
“Building products for the youth sports industry seemed exciting and impactful in people’s lives.”
Among Ludwig’s many accomplishments is his oversight of the labor-intensive and detail-oriented development that allowed SportsEngine to achieve Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard Level 1 compliance. PCI DSS is an information security standard for organizations that handle branded credit cards. SportsEngine is the only company with Level 1 status (the highest among the four levels that can be attained) offering registration and payment services for youth sports organizations.
"It was a huge, huge effort for us," Ludwig said about achieving and maintaining (security audits are conducted regularly) Level 1 compliance. "The exciting thing is it made our entire platform way more secure than it was."
Senior Web Designer Frank Denney won a company contest with his artwork that now hangs, fittingly, in SportsEngine's Champions Lounge.
It’s no coincidence that the lunch tables in SportsEngine's great room were handcrafted from wood and steel and layered with copious amounts of lacquer by company employees with a passion for furniture creation. It’s no coincidence that employee-created artwork, including an image showing the downtown streets of a fictional city being destroyed by raining megapucks (yes, oversized pucks live on at SportsEngine), can be found hanging throughout the office space. It’s no coincidence that the beverages flowing from the great room’s “Beer Ngin” are often homemade employee brews. It’s no coincidence that bring-your-dog-to-work day is an everyday occurrence.
It’s no coincidence that Value Craftsmanship is one of SportsEngine's six core values, or that the company’s products are part of a constantly evolving integrated platform designed to make life easier for youth sports volunteers.
“In our development team, when we talk culture, we’re not just talking Pingpong and beer, a lot of it is how we actively develop,” Ludwig said. “When you start reading about DevOps (a phrase used to describe an agile relationship between a company’s Development and Operations arms), a lot of it is just about culture and empathy -- for other teams and other people.
“When we talk culture, that relates directly to how we build things, like the culture of writing quality code. We have tools that analyze the quality of code we are writing.”
As one of the driving forces behind the creation of SportsEngine's "Beer Ngin," developer Carl Allen helps keep the beverages flowing.
Kaufenberg and Kipfer haven’t wavered from their decision to build the company from within. Outsourcing and acquisitions have accounted for only a fraction of the company’s growth (SportsEngine has more than 250 employees and 5,000 clients).
“We kind of had this dream that, if you had development in-house, everybody in the office would hear whatever this coach or team manager or association president was going through, and then we would be immediately able to hang up and determine how we could help them,” Kaufenberg said. “We just kept coming back to the fact that, if we are outsourcing this, we are going to end up sending requirements to a third party, and they will do what we say we want them to do, but we are never going to have this rapid iteration.”
When you are spending all your time integrating products that weren’t made to work together, what new value are you adding?"
- Luke Ludwig, SportsEngine Director of Infrastructure
Ludwig almost always has advocated for in-house development over any other option. Integrating an average of 15 platform updates a day, as well as a never-ending series of two-week “Sprints” that produce a constant stream of new products and major upgrades, demands much of the company’s development horsepower.
“One of the hardest challenges there is in software development is integration,” Ludwig said. “When you are spending all your time integrating products that weren’t made to work together, what new value are you adding? In the world of software development, you want to run lean. And they would call that waste.”
Although Kaufenberg emphasizes that much is left to be accomplished, that initial dream of having the ability to quickly recognize and solve the problems of youth and amateur sports volunteers, coaches and administrators is being realized every day. SportsEngine's Registration, Sitebuilder, Tourney, League and Verify offerings all live on the same platform. No competitor can match SportEngine's single-platform breadth and depth of products, Tuttle said, adding, “This is the first true platform to exist in the youth sports world.”
Blasko and Lewis chose Ruby on Rails as the initial framework for SportsEngine's platform because, they believed, it would give them the ability to develop quickly and, “Get product out the door, per se,” Blasko said.
As the platform has evolved, it has been separated into unique individual services. Tasks such as user services, statistical entry and content management all are handled by separate components of the platform, again allowing for faster development.
“What that has done is create an API (application program interface) around the entire platform and each unique service,” Blasko said.
Web and mobile applications are now being created using that API to access core platform information such as roster and statistical data.
Director of Infrastructure Luke Ludwig is one of SportsEngine's longest-tenured employees.
Among SportsEngine's largest clients is the National Sports Center in Blaine, Minnesota, a sprawling multisport facility (it has an eight-sheet ice arena and more than 50 full-sized soccer fields) that attracts more than 3.8 million visitors each year. The NSC maximizes SportsEngine's products and platform in multiple ways, most visibly through its content-rich responsive website. The NSC also uses Tourney and SportsEngine's mobile app to publish information each July during the Schwan’s USA CUP, the largest soccer tournament in the Western Hemisphere with more than 1,000 teams. The combined tens of thousands of players, coaches and fans attending the event instantly have access to updated brackets, schedules, scores, field assignments, photos, videos and more through SportsEngine's platform.
New products, ranging from tools that allow coaches and managers to better communicate with their teams to new capabilities for SportsEngine's content management system (Sitebuilder), all are built using a platform approach to solving the problem.
It only makes sense that all of our products are connected, which makes for a way better user experience than a random array of tools.”
- Odell Tuttle, SportsEngine Vice President of Engineering
"It only makes sense that all of our products are connected, which makes for a way better user experience than a random array of tools,” Tuttle said. “You don’t have to learn a new piece of software each time you try to do something.
Tuttle, who managed the technology at several companies before joining SportsEngine in 2014, wholeheartedly endorses the company’s lean-running culture.
“A suite of products will always win over a bunch that are cobbled together,” he said. “I’ve never seen major integrations of products work successfully."
Tuttle said that when he thought about his perfect job, he pictured a company that was at the confluence of sports, technology and art. Combine that with a craftsmanship-coveting mentality and a highly productive but decidedly laidback environment, and Tuttle found a snug fit in SportsEngine.
“As much care has gone into designing our culture as has designing our products,” he said, emphasizing his point by adding, with a grin, “I mean, I just saw a dog walk past."
It's play time for two of SportsEngine's more furry and rambunctious headquarters regulars.