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April 30, 2021 · 24 min read

Interview with Bo Boroski, Founder of RefQuest

In this episode, we speak to Bo Boroski, Founder and Managing Director of RefQuest, about the best decisions he’s made as a founder, the importance of hustled mistakes, and how to build a support system both inside and outside of the business.

Bo Boroski

Founder and Managing Director of RefQuest
Read transcript

Teja: Hey, what’s up bro?

Bo: Hey, how are you?

Teja: Hey, I’m doing well. Thanks for hopping on.

Bo: Oh, no problem.

Teja: Let’s start with a little bit about your company, RefQuest. How’d you conceive of the idea? Where is it today?

Bo: RefQuest was exactly that. Just an idea. Like many other companies, it culminated from kind of a need-based approach.

We’re very niche because we’re, you know, within the sports official space and it’s not particularly a crowded space, but when you think about sports officials scaling or the foundation for a business, it doesn’t pop into your head first. Having been in several roles within the sports officiating community, as a coordinator, as an official, I knew that there was a need.

It basically answered the question. There’s gotta be a better way. How do we teach, train, collaborate? How do we be an end-to-end resource with the use primarily in video. We felt that it was extremely cumbersome, extremely difficult to trade video and to give the officials access to video.

A lot of people think with video, especially as it relates to sports officials, that it’s a negative connotation that, “Oh, they’re going to show all of my mistakes and say, don’t do this”. It’s actually quite the contrary, “We got this play right and here’s why”.

So we entered this space of the sports officiating space intentionally not to compete with other companies. Our goal is to convince people that you need this, not why we’re better than your company. So from our perspective, three years going into four years now, we haven’t had to compete with other companies and say, “no, choose us”.

We just had to have the conversation, “this is why you need our company”. We’ve been told yes. We’ve been told no, and that’s okay. The real rewarding ones are the ones that told you no, and then a period of time later came back and said, “yes, we now see the value”. So it was need-based in our mind and we’ve had people, especially during the pandemic, that have bought into it.

Teja: That’s cool. So there’s a ref, his name is Mark Smith and he’s a UFC ref. He was on the Joe Rogan podcast. I don’t know if you are familiar with that podcast, but in mixed martial arts, you have the spotlight on you and it’s just two guys and you, and the octagon and the entire audience is mad at you.

How many tens of millions of people, if you get one thing wrong in a split second decision? It’s a life or death situation in some cases to stop a fighter or to not, and certainly millions of dollars for the fighters. I imagine that this is something that for every sport, you know, especially as you get into the elite tiers of the sports, proper officiating is a multi- million dollar opportunity or problem for the teams and for the players themselves. So yeah, it makes a lot of sense.

We looked at your site and you guys are in a couple of sports, wrestling, basketball, and your background is a basketball athlete. What sports did you guys get started in? And how’d you make the decisions to cover the sports that you guys are in today?

Bo: Yeah, we started with basketball and it made the most sense for me because I’m a current basketball official and a current coordinator. So that was easy to start with basketball. I know the coordinators, I know a lot of the officials and we relied on them in a big, big way through our first 12 months for feedback. Like what’s great? What sticks? Tell us.

We did change our business model a bit. We can get into that in a little bit, but I can tell you that we started with basketball and as I talk to you today, we’re in nine sports on our portal. Some people will joke with me, they’ll say, you know, but what do you know about women’s lacrosse? Well, nothing. I know nothing about it, but the technology doesn’t change.

RefQuest is used to collaborate, teach and train that the clients use to engage with their officials. So we have some backend work that we do as it relates to what level of play is this particular sport? Is it high school? Is it a small college? Is it division one? Is it professional? Is it a national association? That helps us determine, and we do this alongside our clients. What are our play types? What are our conferences? Are our conferences, local state associations? Are our conferences the traditional sense of the word? You know, the PAC 12 conference, the big 10 conference, the SEC. Well, that’s true, if it’s a division one collegiate conference. If it’s a small college conference, now we’re talking about the 50, 60 small college conferences that are division two, division three junior college NAIA level.

We customize that for each client, and the next thing that changes is the play types. We’re talking about baseball. Well, here’s your 50 play types. We’re talking about basketball, here’s your 60. Football, here’s your 70. And then they’re customizable from there. The engagement is the same as it relates to the technology, how the video is sent, how we send training tapes, you make the call plays use of our refput clipping software. All that’s the same.

So I anticipate that we’ll be adding more sports, but that is a part of that scale that I referenced earlier. There are a ton of sports officials in this country at all different levels. We’re taking the high tide raises, all boats approach.

Teja: So then, the customer is typically an association that is in charge of, and correct me if I’m wrong, I’m just trying to understand the landscape.

So, the customer is the association that then has officials that work for the association, that are paid by the teams to officiate, and RefQuest will help the association just have more consistent officiating and better officiating over time. Is that right?

Bo: Yeah, it’s a pretty good summary. Every association has a hierarchy.

There’s somebody that, at the state level, that is in charge of officiating, period. Oftentimes it might be at the, if we’re talking about high school, it may be at the city level. Take a city like Indianapolis. They might have five different associations.

So a point of entry on the RefQuest, for those associations, would be for each of them to join. But it’s not a best case scenario for our company. Our company, if we go to the state level, and we get invited under that umbrella, which happens to be, you know, just call it 31 associations throughout the state. Now, on day one, when we bring in the state of Indiana, we have 3,300 high school basketball officials, just like that.

That’s one of the ways we bring a client in, we go to the decision makers. It’s really no different than any other business model out there. So the inverse of that is we don’t allow for individual signups. We’ve got one other company out there that is somewhat in our space. Or, maybe we’re in their space, I’m not sure.

One of the things they say in a negative light toward our company is, “well, they don’t allow for individuals to sign up” and that’s true. That’s not something we push back on. We want the entire organization, the entire group, and we require that you have a minimum of 50 users in that group. We’ve got some groups with 50, and we’ve got one organization that has 5,000, and then, of course, we have everybody in between. We’ve tried to service the masses.

What we think is a foul on Tuesday in New York, we want to be a foul on Thursday in LA and that’s kind of our approach to this, and we feel that better with a larger volume than speaking individually to people.

Teja: Oh, totally, and it helps the teams and the players ultimately because they know that, you know, no matter where they play, it’s the same ruleset.

Bo: That’s the goal.

Teja: That’s really difficult sometimes.

So, I train jiu-jitsu, and in local tournaments, you have to be thinking about what’s this ref’s affiliation and most obviously everybody’s objective. Jitsu is a sport that is, sort of, emerging in the US and I think it’s pretty popular now, especially with broader MMA, but still a lot of room to go and become more professional.

Okay. So then your customers are basically like the state athletic commission. If I’m not mistaken, right?

Bo: Leaders of organization. At the high school level, it’s the head of the state association. At the college level, it’s the coordinator of officials or a commissioner, or associate commissioner. Then at the professional level, they have people that are in charge of an officiating department. So leaders within said groups for sure.

Teja: Okay. Got it.

What are some of the organizational metrics or things that, you know, one of your customers would be able to track to know that RefQuest is adding a lot of value to their organization?

Bo: I’ve done a lot of these. I’ve never been asked that, and it’s a great question. And it’s something that we spend a lot of time on, on backend data to provide that sort of feedback.

It’s an interesting dynamic so, I’m going to go a little bit longer way to answer your question. We didn’t realize this so much until we got neck deep in it.

So our decision-makers by and large are in their mid forties up to their mid seventies. And the bulk of our users are 21 to 35. So we are in the mode of convincing the leadership that in order to recruit and retain your officials, they need a technology solution. Some people say, “no, pen and paper, I still mail their schedule” or, ” well, if there’s a question, I just call them”. Well, that’s great. That’s what they did in the seventies and eighties, and even into the nineties, but it’s 2021. All right?

The athletic directors and the coaches, and the commissioners demand accountability at all levels. You have to have an accountability program in place. So once we get them onboarded, we’re able to provide them metrics and data associated with user engagement.

It could be something as simple as, you sent this play to a hundred people, it had 97 views, and 96% of them watched the play, these four didn’t. It can be as simple as that response. But we certainly go a lot deeper as it relates to how many total comments, how many total videos were uploaded, how many individual videos were uploaded by each user, who is committed to getting better on and off the court.

In the Google and Bing and Yahoo world it’s about impressions. How many different times did this person engage and work their brain from a collaborative standpoint, from a teaching and training standpoint? How many people try to get better? And we’re able to give raw data, I’m sorry, hard data as it relates to those things.

So we’ve yet to create a product that fixes the call they made last night, but we can certainly reinforce our commitment to tomorrow. And from an officiating standpoint, it’s a collaboration, teaching, and training platform from a coach, slash AD, slash coordinator and commissioner. It’s an accountability platform and we’ve got the data to back that up.

Teja: Yeah, that’s super interesting.

If you’re already an official, you can improve your craft by using RefQuest, is there a use case for people who want to become officials? You know, maybe they’re transitioning from their athletic career and they want to become an official. Or do they need to sign up for their organization’s training program, and then once they’ve officiated a couple of games, they can start to get value from this?

Bo: To appropriately answer that question, it would require a ton of depth. I am still learning every day about the importance of the recruitment aspect of this.

If you, again, I’ll use the state of Indiana as an example. They have very active leadership within the IHSAA. They have a woman named Sandra Walter, and she is very proactive, very progressive as it relates to officials, and is committed to getting their officials better. And they do utilize, in the interest of full disclosure, they do utilize the RefQuest platform. But as it relates to your question, they have significant concerns about games being covered. Forget good officials. Just officials, warm bodies.

What we’ve done is, we broaden our scope. We’re not just saying we want to get your officials better. We want to help through this technology online solution to not only recruit, but retain them. We need them. We want to get them in the pipeline, but we want to keep them .

When I bring up Sandra Walter, she’s got a deal with, I think it’s associated with the national guard. She goes to these people that have been in the military or currently in the military. And I’ve said, listen, we’ll waive your licensing fee. Come be an official. You know how structure works, you know how to delegate responsibility, you know how to accept responsibility. You’re a prime candidate.

There’s some initiatives going on behind the scenes to get former students athletes within the NCAA and NAIA level, involved in becoming sports officials. So that is a never ending plight.

RefQuest is committed to being part of the solution for it, as well.

Teja: Got it. That’s cool.

That wasn’t originally in the plan, but you guys have determined that that need exists based on just talking to your customers and that’s something that you guys will dive more into. That’s interesting.

Bo: If we followed the original plan, you’d be talking to a blank screen.

Teja: That poses an interesting branch to take. What’s been, let’s say, the hardest decision you’ve had to make as a founder and building your business? I’m sure there are many, but if you had to think of one really difficult decision.

Bo: That’s a difficult question because there’s so many answers.

I am the type of person that hears everything, but I don’t listen to everything. So I constantly have that filter going.

We have two other owners involved and I know what they’re good at and I lean on those individuals heavily for that type of experience and background. That’s why they’re a part of the group.

And I know what I do well, and I just have to trust myself. But more importantly, I know what I don’t do well.

So, I think the most difficult thing is not to make a mistake that you can’t recover from. We’ve made some mistakes, but all the mistakes we’ve made have been hustled mistakes. It hasn’t been because we weren’t engaged or, because we didn’t return a phone call or, because we took this swing for the fences and just missed. We try and be thoughtful about the steps we take, but regardless, there’s only a certain amount of risk you can mitigate.

You have to expose yourself. You want to limit the amount of, maybe personal liquidity you’re putting in, but at some point you can’t be half pregnant, you have to do it or not.

When you talk about mistakes, the first thing my brain goes to is how much longer are you willing to work without paying yourself? How much longer are you willing to convince the people that trust you, that this thing is going to explode or that you can deliver on what you promise them?

We felt very vulnerable early on, and as time has gone on entering our fourth year, we’ve been able to deliver on those promises. We’ve had that, “see, I told you” moment.

We’re smarter today because we made those mistakes in the past. So we’ve avoided that unrecoverable moment, and we hope to be able to do that every day, quite honestly.

Teja: I totally hear you.

I mean, it took us three years since founding, we founded the company January 28th, 2013, and I took my first paycheck, January 15th, 2016. Three years of basically, you make revenue, you pay yourself a couple hundred bucks here and there, you look at your expenses and your 401k, and you just go, “Hmm, okay, that is what it is”. So I totally hear you.

Was it tough to manage the expectations of your family as you were building this business? Or were they all in with you?

Bo: For 11 years, my wife, who’s very supportive of this, has known from day one that I had that entrepreneurial blood. She’s told me on many occasions that, and I think somebody got to her, that she knows and trust, and basically said, you can’t talk these people out of it. These people that think like Bo does, that start their own businesses that start and fail, start and fail, you’ve got to accept that, you’ve got to learn to live with it.

And when I hear her say those things, it just makes that green light brighter. Like, oh, I really do have her support.

So I haven’t had to deal with that at home at all. And she knows that there was that period, like, “okay, is this going to work”? She knows we’re beyond that point.

So there’s that level of excitement associated with it, but it goes back to that risk aspect. You’re putting in your own money. You’re talking people out of their money, “hey, invest in this, I promise I’ll do this”. And then it goes from “I promise” to, “I hope”, and if it never gets to, “I thought it was gonna”, then we’re in good shape.

I’ve had the support of my wife the entire time. So that is been one barrier I haven’t had to overcome. Thank God.

Teja: Yeah, that’s awesome. I mean, I think that makes a hell of a difference, just in terms of having the team outside of the business aligned in what you’re trying to do.

I’m very fortunate in that there’s a budding entrepreneurial ecosystem here in Nashville, where we’re headquartered, where there are people who’ve built companies, who have sold them, or people who’ve built companies and then something went wrong, people who have taken their companies public. You have this cohort of people that have come out the other side of the journey.

And for me, I find it so electrifying and energizing to talk to people who are maybe a couple of years ahead, five, 10 years ahead. It’s so exciting because you see the light at the end of the tunnel. That makes a lot of sense.

What has been the best decision that you’ve made? Like, have you taken a bet somewhere?

The scenario is, people probably don’t think it’s the right bet and by definition, I believe the best bets are things that other people disagree with that you make, that ends up being right. Those are the most valuable bets, is for you to be right when other people are wrong.

So do you have something like that in mind?

Bo: Oh, for sure. First off, you’re dealing with sports officials, so we don’t use the word bet.

Teja: That’s fair, that’s fair. Call. You guys make a call.

I’m a poker player, so, you know.

Bo: Okay. No, fair enough. I’m giving you a hard time.

The best decision that we made specific to our company, is we started this with the mindset that we were going to be open to anybody with a credit card, and “wait till they see this, everybody’s going to sign up”.

What we found ourselves doing was, we ended up in a kind of, public model. Meaning, any individual with a credit card could sign up. We were explaining what we do to individuals, to the point of nausea. And we ended up with, I’m going to say somewhere around 2,000-2,500 individual members. It was great and it was a sub model. So, we were hitting their credit card every month and we had a very high retention rate. We were feeling really good about where we were and we didn’t have to deal with a whole lot of churn.

Then we found out that at some point we were going to hit a ceiling because there were a certain number of officials that simply could not afford the monthly nut, and we didn’t like that. In our mind, at the time, I can’t even remember what it was, maybe $25 to $30 a month. From my perspective, I think they’re getting great value for that. Well, the official low socio economic group might think that $360 is a great value, but they don’t have the money.

So, we had to make a big decision, where do we go from here? We knew that we couldn’t achieve the scale. We’ve had these captive audience people by and large, that. We’re going to be a part of the platform in the short term, but there were no guarantees for continuity. And we just, we felt like staying in the course with that original model was the risk. So it was pretty easy for us to go to the private model.

Where we went to the leaders and we said, all right, we want your 80 people. We want your 800 year, 8,000. And it has been the best decision we’ve ever made. So that’s an easy question to answer. The private model took us basically from 2000 to 31,000 in just under a three-year period.

Teja: That’s awesome. How’d you guys manage the cut-over?

Did you guys, you know, was that difficult to do from sort of individually charging folks to then move into charging kind of groups? Did you guys sunset the existing users? How did you guys run that?

Bo: So our existing users, I’d say to the tune of 95% ended up on the new platform. Got it. You know, we went from ref requests basically to re RQ plus got it.

That model because the bulk of those 2,500 users. We’re under one of our clients umbrellas. We have, you know, 160 different portals right now. So inevitably they’re still on the platform, but going from public to private, everything had to be rewritten to say, everything’s not true, but some of the core functionality stayed the same, but the access points were different to ensure that people’s content stays private.

So that’s a whole other animal that we’ve been able to tackle because that’s an easy question. You know, the best decision we ever made to realize that scale just reinforces how good of a decision it is.

Teja: How do you make your impact decisions? Do you have a decision making process? Do you go for a drive? Go work out? What’s that process like for you when there’s a big, high leverage thing on the table and you’re like, should we do it or should we not do it?

Bo: Yeah. If you asked me that question on 10 different days and I’ll have 10 different answers for you. It’s I am now the guy that wakes up. And sit straight up in bed at three 30 and I always have my pen and paper sit right next to me.

It’s in the car, it’s on the airplane, it’s in my bed. So I have trusted people in my life on a multitude of levels. And I’m smart enough to know the enormity of a situation that I just don’t need to make an on the fly decision because, although I do have a level of trust in my decision-making I know what decisions have short-term and long-term consequences.

And I respect the process enough to know, to at least be thorough. So , I mean, I’ve got these individuals in my mind that have just been incredible for me to go to, and they know when they talk to me, it’s not going to be a three minute conversation. So I respect that they genuinely enjoy talking with me and helping me or they’re great actors and just can’t wait for the end of the call. I try to be empathetic when I talk to them.

Teja: Oh, totally.

You know, so we have a couple of investors and I’ll hit them up and I’ll say, “Hey, do you have five minutes?”. I look at the phone when I hang up, it’s like 45 minutes, you know, and I could hear them tell their wives, like, “hold on , I’d expect it to take this long”. And so, yeah, I know, I feel bad about that, but I’m definitely the same way.

So what’s in the future? As far as, you know, roadmap from a product standpoint, or even from an overall company strategy standpoint for 2021?

Bo: So we’re very active. We’re very busy right now.

We have made some significant decisions over the last several months, not only to increase our efforts in making our customer base even bigger, but expanding our functionality. So as I talked to you now, we’re engaged in not only improving our current products, but adding additional functionality within the site, determining what the value is associated with that and being mindful of, retaining our existing clients.

So some of our clients, when we introduce this new functionality, they’re going to go, “Oh, that’s great, but we don’t need that”. Everything we do is customizable. So if you want this experience, it’s there for you, but if you don’t, you can keep doing what you’re doing.

There are certain things that we’re going to offer the professional levels, the collegiate levels, that the high school level may not have any interest in and vice versa. There are certain hoops we’ll jump through with the high school organizations and officials that the division one and professional levels have no interest in.

So we’re trying to be very thoughtful in how we integrate and implement new functionality. And we take a lot of our input and feedback as it relates to new functionality from our existing clients. So we’re never going to take a product to a hundred percent of our clients and go, “hey, what do you think about this?”

Odds are they’ve had a hand in, in some capacity and as you know, cause that’s your business, new functionality means programming, means code, means development and that’s expensive. And what we want to stay away from are redos and rewrites and complete scraps.

When we went public to private, that was a scrap. There was a significant number that we just threw in the dumpster, but we would have never gotten to this private model, had we not made the mistakes we made on the public side. And that was our most expensive mistake, is one way to think about it, but it wasn’t a mistake. It was the path. The path was to be public.

Because that path led to being private. So that’s the way we justify those decisions.

Teja: I mean, you know, we’ve been in this business long enough and we’ve seen so many companies. And what I always think about is the turnoff for learning is either time or money. So if you got time, burn the time, if you’ve got money, burn the money, but you know, it’s one or the other. It’s interesting because the equation changes depending on the funding environment, your age, the age of the company, right? It all just depends.

And you know, I used to laugh at Silicon Valley companies that are raising a $5 million seed round. And I’m like, where’s all this money going? And then you go and you say, well, that’ll save them five years. It’ll save them the five years it took us to figure out how to scale to several million in revenue. That’s the trade-off.

Well, how’s it been working with us? What feedback do you have for us? Are you generally happy with our service?

Bo: Yes, we are. If I wasn’t, we wouldn’t be on this call right. I wouldn’t want to waste your time or mine. We’ve been very happy.

There is some of your exposure, right? You’re at risk because you’re only as good as the people that you provide. And if you provide nine out of 10 that are a plus, but we get the D minus, you know, from my perspective, your business stinks.

We knew it was a bit of a roll of the dice because as nice as the young lady was that helped us to get started and as great of a guy as you seem, if our guys stinks we’re in trouble.

We’ve been over the moon happy. He has been a huge value add for us and has definitely allowed us to punt on additional investments, from a programming standpoint. Now we’ve made significant investments and we will continue to do so, but we were looking for someone to fill a gap on a short term, for some things we’re working on and this individual from our perspective has been wonderful. So I’m not just telling you that because I would give you the other end of the spectrum. I’m very happy.

Teja: Great. That’s excellent.

I mean, that’s one of the things that I love about my job is that we get to help people get paid and then help companies grow.

And to me, there’s nothing more fun than that. And if we do that effectively, our company grows, which is, you know, to me like fully aligned. So I’m so glad to hear that.

I could tell you that a lot of it also is the quality of your management. You know, the client organizations management and the clarity of objectives, the cadence and the focus of the company.

So we’ve put good people on projects and it does not work out and we’ve done our vetting and all this stuff, but if the company does not have a clear forward mission, it can still be a problem. The money’s wasted, the company is not happy, the dev is not happy, and so, because it’s working out, I would say that you guys are more than halfway responsible for the relationship to have been as successful as it has been.

Bo: I value the dollar too much to bring on additional labor in your company and the expenses that come with that, if we don’t get our return on investment. And we wanted to see that quickly, Because we were of the mindset, this is going to be cut and dry, it’s going to work or it’s not, unlike officiating, that’s very subjective. There’s a lot of gray. This was going to be black and white. This person’s either going to help us, or they’re not and we found out very early on, which helped us re up with you, that they were going to benefit our company in a big, big way and they have.

Teja: Awesome. Well, it’s been a real pleasure talking to you. Appreciate your time, appreciate your business, and congrats on the continued success.

Bo: Well, I appreciate it. Thanks for having me on.