Upper Hand CEO Kevin MacCauley On Why Culture Is Key

upper hand
Upper Hand CEO Kevin MacCauley.

Through his experiences in coaching Little League baseball, Upper Hand CEO Kevin MacCauley was inspired to launch a business that solution that allowed sports organizations to spend less time on administrative duties and focus more on developing athletes.

Upper Hand offers sports business professionals a suite of cutting-edge tech tools to help them run their organizations more efficiently, including business intelligence reporting solutions and video analysis tools such as its video tagging software that is being used by NHL goalies.

But people are at the core of the business, and culture is extremely important to both MacCauley and to Upper Hand’s success. Chief Executive spoke with the CEO about the process of building a team when launching the business, the challenges of securing funding for a tech startup, why R&D is critical and how his leadership style has evolved. Here’s what he had to say:

Building a team from the ground up

We started the company and really thought there, “Okay, what’s the right hiring process?” because you can’t fake culture. Culture is created over time and it’s marinated with the values that you decide on. And so we incorporated values-based hiring at the very beginning, where you basically take your core initial team of three, four, five people that start the company, your first employees, and you sit down in a conference room for a number of hours and you decide “What are the core values that we want other future employees to have when we hire them?”

Once you identify what those core values are, you then develop your entire interview process around interviewing on those core values. And it does really two things: One, as a company, it makes sure we’re hiring the right people for being able to do the job. But two, it helps the candidate because they want to work at a place where other people have similar core values, right? Sometimes we’ll find people that are very qualified or maybe overqualified for a position, but we won’t give them an offer because they may not be passionate about sports, they may not be passionate about technology, or be competitive, or coachable. If you don’t have those you’re going to be pretty miserable here, because those are all the things that people here have.

So value-based hiring is what we implemented at the core when we started and we continue to use it today.

“if you truly believe you’re revolutionizing something, or creating a market that previously hasn’t existed, you have to have an all-in mentality.”

The challenges of securing outside funding

First and foremost I’d say if you truly believe you’re revolutionizing something, or creating a market that previously hasn’t existed, you have to have an all-in mentality. For us, when we go pitch the business I can tell you thousands of people say no. I mean, it’s amazing. I remember five years ago when we first started, people tell you “Sports is kind of a niche little play,” and “Can it really be a billion-dollar space?” Now you’re starting to see money coming in the space, the average American family spends 10% of their annual income on sports, and you mean to tell me it’s not big enough?

Having an all-in mentality and realizing you’re building a business, not a social club, understanding that you never can stop learning, and just believe in yourself. There’s a great quote out there, “Doubt whom you will, but never yourself.” And if you’re revolutionizing something it’s going to take a long time for people to see the opportunity, and that’s tougher than the case in our space. I don’t even think we’re fully there yet. I think we’re still in the early stages of what this industry is going to shape up to be. We’re probably two, three, four years off from starting to see major growth in this industry, but it’s really very close.

R&D is a continuous effort for tech startups

Especially at our stage, because we can never move fast enough. It drives me crazy when we don’t spend all our time on R&D knowing that there’s so much value creation that’s available out there. But you’ve got to build the foundation. The way we approach it here is when you’re with your customers, you’re learning all the pains and frustrations and the gains you can make on the core business. Once a month here we devote a Friday—we call it Innovation Friday—where our entire company devotes the day to stepping outside of our existing product, and code, and the way we do things, and we give our developers and engineers an opportunity to use development language they never used before, or pick an idea that somehow would create value in our space and go at it, and present it to the team at the end of the day.

So we have seen a lot of success with our Innovation Friday platform as a way to make sure we’re always providing value, not just to our engineers but always thinking cutting edge. Maybe it’s something we don’t build for two years, but we’re learning about it, we’re understanding it.

The evolution of his leadership style

Probably first and foremost is communication, I’ve had to learn and continue to get better motivating and directing people when you communicate. It’s easy for somebody that’s a driver, like myself, to just keep your head down, keep going. You’ve got to think like a coach of a team, right? I mean if the coach just sits in the dugout and never gets out, you’re never going to be any good. You’ve really got to, one, never ask somebody to do something you aren’t willing to do yourself, just like a coach would. It’s literally getting the trash out—don’t ever ask somebody to do something as a leader if you’re not willing to do it yourself. Know how to show how, right? Just like in coaching, you can’t tell a kid how to pitch if you can’t step in and show him how to do it and break it down for them. And we’re now in a stage where before it was just me, and now we’re developing leaders and seeing some of the first employees becoming the leaders within the organization. And we need to teach them to show people how to do stuff.

And then the last thing is, you can never give up on your weakest player when the effort is there. And the reality is, if that effort is there it could be their at-bat that is the one you have to count on in the most important critical situation. That could be the at-bat that takes you all the way or you don’t make it, and I’ve seen that in sports and we’ve seen it here. So, we can never give up on the weakest person here when the effort is there. Obviously, when there’s not effort, they’re weak then they’re not here, but you can never give up on the person that is all out and just needs to continually be coached.

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