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The Graduate: Adam Grossman

The Oppy is commemorating another decade of NYU Stern with ‘The Graduate’ series. Each month, we’ll interview a notable alum from each decade since the 1960s through the 2010s that has made an impact in their community and industry. This month’s ‘The Graduate’ interview is with 2010s alum Adam Grossman, CEO & Founder, of Block Six Analytics.

Few positions across team sports involve the pressure and isolation that comes with being a goalkeeper. Take it from this month’s notable alum. Before Adam Grossman came to Stern to pursue his MBA, he was a goalkeeper during his undergraduate years for Northwestern University’s men’s soccer team. Keepers are often responsible for positioning teammates and making split-second decisions that can make or break the team’s success. As Grossman has found, it’s not all that different from starting your own business.

The instincts Grossman honed on the pitch, and the skills he developed at Stern, provided him with the foundation to build the sports analytics firm Block Six Analytics, of which he now serves as CEO. Grossman recently chatted with The Oppy to discuss his experience as a successful entrepreneur and university lecturer, and why he has a lot of purple in his closet.

Answers have been edited for clarity.

You’re the CEO and founder of Block Six Analytics, a sports analytics company. This developed from your time interning with the Washington Capitals. Can you go into your experience there and how it led to your decision to start this business?

In between my first and second year at NYU I got an internship with the Washington Capitals — actually, my boss at the time was also a recent Stern graduate — and one project that came up was trying to find a sponsor for the first female fan club in the NHL at the time, which was the Scarlet Caps. The marketing group wanted to work with the sponsorship team to figure out the best way to get a sponsor, and essentially I figured out there wasn’t necessarily a good answer for how you value a sponsorship and how you can display that value to potential partners. If the Capitals were struggling with this problem, I figured other sports teams, leagues, events and athletes would have similar struggles.

[READ: Adam Grossman breaks down marketing valuation with help from Will Ferrell]

Your company counts multiple big four sports teams and some major international brands among its clients. What was that ride like from startup to where you are now?

It’s always still happening. You could ask Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos and they’d say the ride is still happening to a certain degree. To be clear Block Six is nowhere near where Facebook and Amazon are.

Oh, don’t sell yourself short.

Ha. Thank you. I want to make it clear I don’t consider B6A to be that kind of success. Entrepreneurship in general, at least when you get started, is a lot of one step forward, at least two steps back. You’re constantly stressed out. You’re constantly looking for money. You’re potentially stressing out your personal relationships. And you pretty much articulated the reward.

Did I think it was possible that we would get to this point? Yes. But when it is actually happening, whether you’re signing on Fortune 500 companies or large global media agencies or major professional sports teams, all of those things — it’s good to see that what you thought of as a business school student can actually impact these large organizations in significant and tangible ways, to the point where we’re becoming one of the leaders in the sponsorship industry, and we’re able to create differentiated products that resonate with these types of companies. These companies work with a lot of different providers, and being able to clearly articulate our points of differentiation has separated ourselves — I think we’ve really hit our stride.

When you’re in the day to day, it’s hard to see the successes. One of the things you have to be aware of is if it were easy to start a company, almost anybody would do it because there’s so much potential upside. But it isn’t easy to do. There’s just constantly dealing with issues and stress, and the people who are successful are the ones who translate that stress into productivity. It’s obviously great to see us be successful, but when you’re looking at it day to day it can be difficult to see that.

Was there a particular point or client you signed that finally made it feel like this was a success?

Yes. I can’t really talk about it because of NDAs, but the short answer is yes, and it was very gratifying to hear them say “Yes, this is what we want to do.” This company literally told me, and obviously take this with a gigantic grain of salt because it’s in my interest to say this, but basically what they said was, “We’ve looked at what you could provide and we fell in love with what you’re doing.” For a company of that size and that scale to tell us that as part of their review process was really validating. We’ve now added a bunch of new clients to longer-term deals, and we now have people who worked with some of our clients and moved onto other organizations and want to bring us into those organizations. Clients refer us to other clients. You see the team really starting to hit its stride and being able to say, “This is what we can do, this is how we can deliver it, this is how we add value, and this is why we’re going to be successful in helping you achieve your goals.” Being able to say that confidently, and have successful results and have the validation of these larger organizations has been really gratifying.

You were the goalkeeper for the Northwestern men’s soccer team in undergrad. Soccer is a team sport, but at times being keeper is a very isolating position. Did that teach you anything being a decision-maker when you run your own business?

I actually used that exact example on my NYU application, so hopefully yes. (Laughs) Often people think you must be crazy to be a goalie. There’s a lot of potential downside. If the ball goes in, you can almost always pinpoint some of the blame on the goalie, right? The upside is you potentially make a save, but a lot of being a goalie isn’t actually making that save. It’s putting yourself in position, one, to avoid a shot coming on goal in the first place by helping to position your teammates, but, two, putting yourself in the best position to make sure you could save the ball. That’s all very similar to entrepreneurship. The vast majority of time you’re putting yourself in position to be successful so you can have that successful sales meeting or do that successful pitch to an investor or hire the right people or get good people interested in the company so they want to work there. That’s a lot of what you’re doing.

Being a Division I athlete and running a business, what kinds of team concepts do you feel apply in both worlds?

A lot of times, whether it’s soccer or otherwise, you need people to be successful in their position. I think it took us a long time to get there with B6A, but it’s one of those things you have to focus on, particularly as you’re getting started. There are going to be a lot of people who have position fluidity, but essentially, you need people to be successful and understand what their roles are and how you can effectively position people to be successful. If you’re constantly thinking about how you can position other people to be successful rather than thinking about what you’re doing on your own, particularly from a goalkeeper perspective, you’re doing it right. The best thing, in theory, for a goalkeeper is that they never face a shot on goal because they’ve set up the defense to be in position to block a shot from ever coming in on goal. I think, when you’re getting started from an entrepreneurial perspective, the more you can prevent things from getting to a bad spot, the better.

You worked in consulting for a few years after college. What made you decide to take the step of pursuing an MBA?

I really wanted to build out my quantitative skill set. What I thought I was going to do was go back into consulting in some form. I actually focused more on strategic technology consulting, looking at roles that were typically considered cost centers. I focused on human resources, and then legal technology consulting, and I really wanted to focus more on revenue-generating and larger strategic issues. I was a history and psychology major in college, which are not necessarily the best majors for getting jobs, and I wanted to build a more robust quantitative skill set. I took a lot of steps to do that. I took as many quantitative classes as I could and a lot of the quantitative classes I ended up taking were things that ended up impacting the business now. All of those things I ended up integrating into business. It never even occurred to me to work in the sports industry, let alone start my own company, before I got to business school. The thought never crossed my mind whatsoever.

When you enrolled at Stern, was it a relief to not buy any new clothing? I assume you had plenty of purple.

Yes, I actually make that point all the time. That’s why my company is all purple as well. Only purple stuff for me. It was nice not to have to buy new clothes. And now that I’m teaching at Northwestern, I still don’t have to buy new clothes.

Now that you’re lecturing at Northwestern, what’s it like to teach at the same institution you were a student in 15 years earlier?

I teach in the downtown campus in Chicago and the distance learning program, so I don’t go to the undergrad campus in Evanston, Ill., as much as you would think. Being a teacher as opposed to a student is definitely weird at first. I was relatively young for teaching, when I started a few years ago, but I think what was interesting is the concepts that ended up being big parts of the class. I think people are increasingly interested in them. It’s still weird when people call me Professor Grossman, and I tell them to call me Adam, but you get used to it. It’s the same thing as starting a company. When you do that, you’re relatively young to be the CEO and relatively young to be working with a lot of these major organizations, so I already dealt with that weirdness to some extent.

You co-wrote a book, The Sports Strategist. What was the inspiration for that?

So the two other co-authors, Ben Shields and Irving J. Rein, had written a book called The Elusive Fan, which was focused on the fan, and they wanted to focus on the sports industry, more generally. One of the co-authors is one of my best friends from Northwestern. We were in the same fantasy football league and he saw how I ran a fantasy football league, but he also knew I was interested in quantitative concepts and that I had started my own company. He thought that would provide an interesting new perspective that he and the other co-author didn’t have. Starting from scratch and working with different authors from different points of view with different schedules, and weaving that all together into a single voice, was interesting. You’re not always going to agree on how to move forward, but you have to move forward and there were definitely times I thought we should move forward in one direction and I was definitely wrong. Luckily, we did move forward in the right direction, and I think there were times when I pushed us to talk about things they wouldn’t have talked about on their own, which is the give and take and type of communication that is really important. Writing a book is something that never occurred to me in business school, but I’m really glad that I did it. I’m really happy with the result.

Last question: Deep Dish pizza: Giordano’s or Lou Malnati’s?

This is an unpopular opinion for people in Chicago, but Giordano’s. I really prefer Pequod’s, but it’s not one-to-one because it’s panned vs. stuffed. I think Pequod’s is actually now the right answer to that question. I did Northwestern’s summer Cherub program junior year of high school, so I’ve been going to half-priced pies at Giordano’s on Mondays since 1998.

And you were still in condition to be a Division I athlete?

Well…. No. Something like that. I think our team in my freshman year got the highest GPA of any team at Northwestern and had the worst record, so if that helps….

Photo credit: Block Six Analytics https://www.blocksixanalytics.com/teammembers

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