Last week, I was able to speak with former NBA power forward Malik Allen and his business partner Joe Rocco about a new recruiting service they recently started. inRecruit, which allows student athletes and their parents to get in touch with college coaches (and vice versa), as well as build their personal brand, has been called the LinkedIn for sports recruiting by various media sources, and I personally wish the service was around when I was a mediocre high school football player. I’d elaborate on the service more, but I’d rather let the businessmen speak for themselves. What follows is an edited transcript of our chat. – Ed.
How did you guys meet, and how did you decide to go into business together?
Rocco: We are actually from the same general area in South Jersey. Mailk went to a high school in Medford, and I grew up in Medford. I went to a private high school. Through a common friend we were introduced to each other in our high school years. From there, Malik and I went on to Villanova University together, so we have known each other for quite some time.
In terms of going into business together, I think Malik always expected to [go into business], given his work ethic and ambition (demonstrated by the fact that he was able to maintain a career in the NBA for a decade when the average career is somewhere between four and five years). He’s someone I had a lot of respect for, and when his career was winding down, I wanted to do something with him in the “normal” world. Then we got together, started talking, and he told to me that there was this void in the area of recruiting. He explained to me what his idea was and we just took it from there.
Malik, is this idea something you had thought about throughout your career or did it only come up once you retired?
Allen: It was something I always had in my mind in some way, shape, or form. Joe and I had the same mutual friend, and some of [the platform] was built around his experience. [The friend] was a good player, and I wish he could have gone on to play college; he was good enough to play. It just didn’t break for him.
And I think we took a lot of that experience and put it toward this. Watching the recruiting world just from continuing to be around the game, and watching high school players and being around college guys, you’re not that far removed from it. Given what’s happening in the world technologically now, we felt it was a good time to come out with something like this that was really fresh and really gives the power to the parents and the kids in terms of building a brand.
I would imagine, then, that you anticipate most of your customer base coming from the parent/recruit side rather than the school or coach side.
Allen: We do. It ultimately comes down to the athlete’s parents and their involvement, and their willingness. There are a lot of kids out there, playing a lot of sports. We really think it’s a great platform for the athlete, and it’s great for parents to get involved more too.
With high school recruiting, you’re dealing with almost exclusively minors. How do you make sure the parents are involved, or stay involved in the process?
Allen: We had to build something that was very unique to ensure that they were heavily involved. We didn’t want to leave anybody out. Once kids are over the age of 14, they can sign up for an account on their own. If they’re under the age of 14, they have to have a parent. And especially with the younger athletes, parents will automatically get a notification sent to them [when someone contacts their child]. Parents also have the ability to upload photos and videos to their child’s profile. We really, really wanted to make sure the parents were heavily involved.
Is this a paid service for either the recruits or the schools, or is it free?
Allen: Everything is free right now. We’re not so much worried about monetizing right now as we are concentrated on giving people the opportunity to come on the platform and be a part of the community, and be seen.
How does the communication aspect of the service work?
Allen: There’s an internal messaging system there. You have the ability to connect either publicly or privately. Kind of a LinkedIn-ish type of community.
There are a lot of enforcement guidelines from the NCAA in terms of the communication that is allowed between coaches and athletes or coaches and parents. Is there anyone monitoring communications? How does it work to ensure everyone stays within the guidelines?
Rocco: One thing that we’ve done throughout the process of developing the application is interact with the NCAA. We made sure that we were developing this thing with all the applicable regulations in mind. The messaging system is similar to direct messaging on Twitter rather than public messaging. Or similar to Facebook private messaging or LinkedIn emails.
The reason for that is because of the NCAA regulations that allow certain types of communication between coaches and athletes after a certain time period and after they come of a certain age, where they can have unlimited messages now. So we got the NCAA’s advice on how to build this thing. We shared some of our development specifications early in the process so we could make sure we were on the right track.
We collect a ton of data on the messaging. And we can provide that to the schools to make it very easy for them to see how many times their coach has contacted a certain recruit and stay within the guidelines. We don’t get into regulating or policing them, because frankly, it’s really hard to do. But we make it very easy for them to abide by the particular guidelines.
Is there any internal mechanism built in that issues some sort of warning when a coach tries to make contact that is a violation of the rules?
Rocco: We’ve toyed with that. But the rules on that type of thing have changed two or three times already in the time that we’ve been developing inRecruit. We’ve decided for now just to collect the data and give it back to the university, so they can keep tabs on how often they’ve contacted kids.
Is there a way for the athletes or parents to keep track of that data or is it just for the schools?
Rocco: You’re going to know who looked at your profile, who looked at your videos, how long they were on there for, how many times they came back. It will often be very easy to know if a school is interested in you before they actually come right out and contact you.
How many student-athletes do you have signed up for the service so far?
Rocco: We’ve reached 2,000 student-athletes to this point. We launched at the end of June, and our growth has been over 60 percent each month. But we also have a few dozen high school coaches, and another two or three dozen AAU or club coaches on inRecruit right now. And we have a few verified college coaches as well. Right now they are all in basketball.
That was my next question. Obviously, the football recruiting business is bigger than basketball just by virtue of how many players there are. Do you have plans to expand into football and college sports?
Rocco: Beginning January or February 2014, inRecruit will launch football and other select sports. It’s pretty much by demanded. You can probably run a whole company, if you want to, on football alone. We’ve gotten a lot of sports that were really not on our radar to begin with. Lacrosse, swimming, girls softball, field hockey. Parents have reached out to us, so at this point we’ve made the decision to open it up to other sports.
What would you say is the long-term goal for the site to become?
Rocco: Some media is calling it the LinkedIn on sports recruiting and we’re flattered by that, but our goal is really to help youth athletes to get opportunities they might not get otherwise, by using our service. We want everyone to be able to use the technology to be able to build their brand. And that goes for coaches as well.
You’ve both spoken fairly openly about how this service would really help the “99 percent” of recruits that aren’t top 100 kids. How did that group come to be a focus for you guys, rather than the top 100?
Allen: I think we obviously would like for everybody to use the service. One of my things, especially as a former athlete who has been through this before, you have to prepare yourself to be able to live in this world. The thing that I really identify with from an athlete perspective is that this is what these kids will have to do when they go out into the world even if they don’t play sports. They will have to build a positive brand around themselves. This is a great way to allow them to do that.
There are 300 or 400 Division 3 schools, and there are lots of kids who want to go and play there. And this is a great way for them to be able to get their name out there, so they are able to play sports they love and get an education.