Private Coaches ‘Pay It Forward’ to Young Athletes with Help of Online Marketplace

    If the secret to creating a wildly successful tech startup is to build it around something you’re passionate about, Jordan Fliegel is off to a good start. Actually, Fliegel is off to a pretty good start by just about any measure.

    A 26-year-old native of Cambridge, Mass., with a stint as a professional basketball player under his belt, Fliegel is the founder and CEO of CoachUp, a Boston-based online marketplace that matches young athletes in just about any sport imaginable with private coaches. It may seem like a relatively simple, straightforward idea, but it’s one that has gotten a lot of attention from some serious backers. Launched just last year, it has raised $2.7 million in funding after being named by MassChallenge, a nonprofit startup accelerator in Boston, as the company “Most Likely to Succeed” out of more than 1,200 applicants in the 2012 program.

    To date, CoachUp has signed up over 8,000 coaches and more than 25,000 young athletes who compete in over 60 sports in the United States. I spoke with Fliegel on Monday, and he said it’s “only a matter of time” before CoachUp expands internationally. It’s all about providing a means for accomplished athletes to “pay it forward” by helping the next generation of aspiring athletes, he said.

    I asked Fliegel about CoachUp’s revenue model, and this is how he explained it:

    We’re transactional. There’s no subscription—it’s free to apply to be a coach; if we accept you, it’s free to be on the site. For athletes and their parents, it’s free to get started on CoachUp, to search and to use our concierge service. We really just try to help make the connection. Once a parent has been matched with a coach, we introduce the athlete to the coach for the first time, and the athlete books the coach. We charge the athlete a $15 one-time finder’s fee, and a 6 percent service fee. So the coaches are the entrepreneurs—they set their own pricing and packages; they can offer discounts and structure it however they want. We’re the back end, to help give them a Web presence and the tools to manage their business. So the 6 percent service fee on top of their rate covers all the tools and functionality we provide. We also offer $100,000 in liability insurance protection on every single session. That’s really important, because most coaches don’t have their own insurance.

    I wondered whether anybody with a pulse who took the time to fill out the online application could be listed on the site as a coach. It turns out the process is remarkably stringent. Fliegel encapsulated it for me:

    We have a team here called the Coach Selection Committee. We take the application; if we need more information, we ask for it before we process it. Any coach who applies at a minimum has to have played at the collegiate level or higher, or coached at the high school level or higher. We make some exceptions for sports like gymnastics, yoga, and dance—for that we just look for some sort of baseline of quality of experience, either competing or coaching. Once they’ve established that baseline in their application, we do a national sex offender registry check on the coaches to make sure they’re safe; no one who hasn’t passed that background check can be a coach. If they meet those criteria, we’ll let them on the site. And then from there, we have a coach scoring system that ranks them on their performance, based on reviews, retention rate, number of sessions and what their clients have said about them. Those things will determine what their level is on CoachUp. Coaches that don’t perform well are taken off the site.

    I told Fliegel I thought that the demand for academic coaches would be every bit as high as the demand for athletic coaches. It also occurred to me that people in the corporate world pay a lot of money for good leadership coaches. So I asked Fliegel if matchmaking in those realms would be a possibility. His response:

    I think ultimately, our brand will be the brand for coaching, period, not only in the U.S., but internationally. We could easily go after a lot of other markets. A lot of the tools and functionality we’re providing—the backend tools to manage the business—we could easily roll that over into other industries. We have an amazing engineering team that’s in-house; we do all of our marketing in-house; we have great customer support. But for now, we’re just really focused on ensuring the sports aspect is the absolute best in the world, and is a really great experience. Once we’ve really nailed that, then we’ll figure out if we want to do other stuff. It’s the easiest thing in the world to imagine other things that we could do. It’s really hard to stay focused.

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