CoachUp’s John Kelley on Leading the Future of Private Sports Coaching
When John Kelley took over as CEO of CoachUp in January 2015, he never imagined his previous experience marketing test prep options at The Princeton Review would be so relevant to selling the concept of private coaching.
“I always had to market to both kids and parents,” he said. “At CoachUp, it’s the same concept. The parents are typically paying, and they need to understand the value of private coaching.”
CoachUp is a Boston-based startup founded in 2011 that hires top level athletes to provide one-on-one training. The company offers an online marketplace that matches athletes with private coaches in a wide range of sports—from football and basketball, to yoga and running.
While Kelley may no longer be pitching the benefits of private tutoring versus an online course to prepare for the SAT, he is still focused on helping students succeed with the help of their parents.
Under Kelley’s leadership, CoachUp recently surpassed 250K training sessions on its platform, and is expected to onboard coach 20K later this month. The company has quickly expanded across the country, and currently offers 35 different sports to athletes of all ages.
I recently sat down with Kelley to talk about the new direction he’s taking CoachUp, how the company’s target customer has changed, and how he plans to attack a potential $30B market.
A NATURAL FIT
Kelley is a native of Cincinnati and a Harvard grad. He worked 13 years for larger corporations, including Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson before catching the startup bug.
He returned to Massachusetts and was employee number 10 at Waltham-based Imagitas, a marketing services company that was eventually acquired by Pitney Bowes for $230M in 2005. He also led marketing at Monster.com, and was the CMO at The Princeton Review during the time it was acquired by internet giant IAC in 2014.
CoachUp founder Jordan Fliegel stepped aside from the company last December to work on a new venture and book release. Fliegel reached out to Kelley based on his experience in marketing and success scaling businesses and online marketplaces, which was critical as CoachUp looked to expand in 2015.
“My first focus was to understand the business,” Kelley said. “One of the key areas I focused on was optimizing and refining our brand to speak to who our customers really are. When I came on board, there was very much a male-centric, jock orientation to the brand. That’s not who our customer really is.”
AN EVOLVING BUSINESS
Kelley reads each and every one of the coach reviews clients submit after a session. He’s found that, although kids are the end users of CoachUp, parents are typically the ones making a purchase decision. The mom, in particular, is often the customer.
“We’ve found that this experience is not necessarily about the skills,” he said. “It’s about the confidence, self esteem, and the way a child responds to someone other than a parent or team coach who decides what their playing time is. It takes the parent back into being a parent, and lets the kid enjoy the sport and get better on their own terms.”
When Kelley joined CoachUp in 2015, the company was focused on the 12 to 18-year-old demographic for major team sports, like basketball, soccer, football, lacrosse, and baseball. These sports represented 90 percent of the business, he explained.
But more recently, CoachUp has been attracting athletes who are both younger and older than its original target customer.
“As the business has grown, we’ve seen more people getting involved in post-collegiate sports and activities—whether that’s strength and conditioning, yoga, pilates, golf, tennis, or even triathlons,” Kelley said. “And more parents want to get their younger kids involved in CoachUp. Many parents just want their kids to get involved and try different things.”
In August, CoachUp will be launching an event in Boston called “CoachUp Play”, designed to expose four to ten year old kids to a variety of sports in a group setting. Kelley explained the event is part of the company’s push to market to a younger audience.
THE COACHING EXPERIENCE
Tim West was playing basketball at a sports club in Los Angeles one day when Fliegel approached him and asked if he’d like to make some extra cash.
“It sounded great,” West said. “I really didn’t know what I was getting into, but people started reaching out to me right away.”
West has been a coach at CoachUp for the past five years. He’s originally from Chicago and received a scholarship to play basketball at Northeastern University before being drafted professionally into the Korean Basketball League. He is currently a physical education teacher in the Boston Public Schools system, and teaches basketball for CoachUp in his free time.
“The families are so grateful for this experience,” West said. “Parents really look up to you. They call you and tell you their kid is improving. It’s a great feeling. And I love the relationships I’m building through this.”
All CoachUp instructors must have coached at least at the high school level, or played in college or professionally to become a registered coach. For many coaches, their playing careers are over, so CoachUp is an opportunity for them to stay involved with the sport they love.
“This really just started as a way for me to make some extra money, but I’ve grown as a coach and found this experience to be incredibly rewarding,” West said. “I love helping these kids reach their goals and take their game to the next level.”
GOING AFTER THE LARGER POT
Looking to the future, Kelley and the CoachUp team want to create more value for coaches. This includes expanding the functionality of the CoachUp platform to give coaches more flexibility beyond one-on-one coaching—like sessions with four athletes, camps and clinics with 20 athletes, or multiple coaches could collaborate and offer a session for 500.
This fall, Kelley plans to give coaches the option to put some of their own content on the CoachUp platform, and conduct virtual sessions online.
“Coaches have egos and want to build their own brand,” he said. “They want a way to interact with other coaches and clients. With 20K of them, they’re not all great writers or videographers. But there is a solid core with good content, and we want to push that going forward.”
CoachUp has quickly expanded across the country, setting up major markets in California, Texas, Florida, New York, and Illinois. Kelley said the company has gotten smarter at optimizing the supply and demand of coaches and sport offerings in each market—having more than doubled its conversion rate over the past year.
“We’re the first to move into this category, and there’s no one that has taken the broader market approach that we have,” Kelley said. “There’s a $30B available market in U.S., and we’re operating at a very small sliver of that right now. We have the opportunity to go after the larger pot.”