Ryan Spoon, a senior vice president of product development at ESPN, spoke with TechRepublic about his unique career path, how his team builds products, and how swimming for Duke University inspired his first startup.
When Ryan Spoon was in college at Duke University, he was one of the top collegiate swimmers in the country. Little did he know that swimming for Duke would start him on a career path that would eventually land him at ESPN.
Spoon is the senior vice president of product development at ESPN where he is responsible for digital products such as ESPN.com, ESPN Mobile, WatchESPN, ESPN3, the company's fantasy sports, and its social media.
It was 1999 when Spoon started his schooling at Duke, and the opportunity to compete at such a high level as a student-athlete gave Spoon very specific insights about athletic recruiting.
"While I was happy to be at Duke, I did realize that the recruiting process to arrive there was inherently flawed...for all the major players — the athlete, the family, and the coach," Spoon said.
So, he did what any entrepreneurial-minded person would do and he built a tool to fix the problem. In 2000, he founded beRecruited, a freemium online recruiting platform for high school student-athletes and college coaches. He started with swimming, and within a couple years, had more than 90% of NCAA swim coaches on the platform. He got a college buddy on board and they began building it out to include other sports.
Founding beRecruited was his introduction to many of the skills he would use later in his career, such as SEO and SEM. After graduating, he went to work for eBay full time as an internet marketing manager, and continued working on beRecruited in the evenings.
In 2007, he sold off a stake in beRecruited and left eBay, and headed back into the startup world. Spoon worked with sfEntrepreneurs, Widgetbox, and InGameNow before going to work as a principal at Polaris Venture Partners (now Polaris Partners) in 2009.
He spent a little more than three years at Polaris, working mostly with early stage startups. A big part of his time at Polaris was spent working with the firm's incubator program, Dogpatch Labs. Then, in July 2012, he was named the senior vice president of product development at ESPN.
As someone who has worked for both big and small companies, his advice remains the same regardless of the type of work someone wants to go into: "You do what you love and the stage of the company, the 'ownership,' or your influence, whatever that is, that comes secondary," he said.
His time at eBay was special because eBay users would often tell him stories of the unique item they purchased, or the gift they were able to buy for a loved one. With beRecruited, he was energized by emails sent by students who were able to find a college scholarship through the site.
With his position at ESPN, it's similar. He travels frequently, often encountering people who are using the ESPN products he has worked on, and he doesn't shy away from asking the users to provide their honest opinion of the product.
"Opinions, whether they're sometimes tough to hear, or they're positive, they're rooted in caring," Spoon said.
When his team is building the products Spoon said he doesn't care what tools or services they use, such as Dropbox or Slack, as long as they are productive and efficient. However, he asks for some level of consistency and the value transparency in the process. In testing, Spoon said they often take the products directly to the end user for their thoughts.
"Every product we launch, we put prototypes in front of active users and fans and we collect feedback," Spoon said. "We don't ask 'What would you like us to build?' We ask, 'What do you think of this?,' and we go through a series of interactions."
When he got to ESPN two and a half years ago, they had more than 50 mobile apps, which Spoon said put too much demand on the fans and the product team. His main focus has been consolidating products and unifying experiences — doing fewer things better.
"We'll have a new website coming out on April 1st that looks and feels a lot like our mobile app, and that's incredibly intentional," he said.
It's all about creating that consistency of experience across the different screens that ESPN fans are using, so the products all have the same feeling. He is proud of the work that's been accomplished, but Spoon said that he is most proud of his team.
In his own words...
What do you do to unplug?
"I've got two young boys, a great wife, and a third one coming — a daughter. I spend a lot of time with my kids. That, to me, is the biggest "unplug." I'm very guilty of generally always being plugged in, though.
"I play a lot of golf, I love golf. It's the four hours of the week, or hopefully eight hours of the week if you get to play twice — when it's not snowing five feet like it has been — where I am actually unplugged. You cannot be on your phone, both by rules and also by your game just suffers. I like for as much that point, and I love the sport."
If you weren't working in tech, what other profession would you love to try?
"I am a believer in, and I have an attraction to, entrepreneurship in some capacity, whether it's yourself, or investing or so forth. I have an attraction in content. At the end of the day we are a content company, I play a technology role around the content. And, obviously, who doesn't dream of some capacity of sports, a sports team or that kind of stuff."
What have you read lately?
"The book I just finished, which was lengthy, is the Console Wars — outstanding. The early days of the video game industry, Sega battling Nintendo, what those few years looked like. Actually, a lot of it is a precursor, in many ways, to the way that app stores [are] open versus relatively tight. Value of quality, long approach versus short approach, marketing, user acquisition, dealing with distribution, it's fascinating. I left impressed with how so many of those lessons were relevant to all the mobile discussions we have now in terms of platforms, hardware, software, content, freemium, etc."