Why Jacie deHoop co-created an accessible online sports community for women

Sep 18 2019, 11:41 am

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The year was 2017. It was a Tuesday night, and three friends were catching up over takeout — when something magic happened.

One of the friends, Ellen (who is a big sports fan) was telling the other two girls about the big Toronto Maple Leafs game that happened the night before. This was back when the Leafs were in rebuild mode, and Ellen was excited because they were probably going to make the playoffs.

The other two, Roslyn and Jacie, had heard about the big game, but didn’t really feel part of the conversation – they just didn’t know the context behind the excitement, so couldn’t fully understand why last night’s game was such a big deal.

This sparked a conversation around why they felt the way they did, and the friends started to talk about how sports felt like a boys club. It was a really intimidating space, and it was difficult to be a casual fan, especially as a woman.

That realization stirred something in the three women, and they started to do some digging. What they discovered was a massive gap in gender diversity in sports — they found that less than 14% of sports journalists are female, and less than 4% of media coverage is on female athletes.

So, being the bold, courageous women they are, they decided to do something to address this gender gap — and that’s how The GIST was born.

We spoke with one of the co-founders, Jacie deHoop, to get her thoughts on what it’s like to start an online media company, how being an entrepreneur has affected her personal life, and what’s next for the fast-growing business.

Jacie deHoop / The GIST

  • Birthplace: Kingston, Ontario
  • Place you consider home: Toronto, Ontario
  • Where your family is originally from: Mom is from Hong Kong, dad is Canadian but family is Dutch
  • Age: 27
  • What you wanted to be when you were a kid: Prime Minister of Canada
  • Favourite class in school: Exercise Science
  • Previous job: Management consulting
  • How do you commute: Bicycle
  • What you always have with you besides your phone: Headphones and a small notebook
  • Favourite vacation spot: Vancouver, BC
  • What time you normally wake up at: Between 6 and 7 am
  • What time you normally sleep at: 11 pm when it’s not newsletter night, past midnight when it is
  • Normal breakfast: Smoothie and toast
  • Reading/listening to right now: Reading Michelle Obama’s “Becoming”, and listening to Digiday podcast
  • How big is The GIST team: Three full-time co-founders and contributors and interns

What’s your elevator pitch?

We create sports content and experiences that are all by women, for women. Our vision is to be the go-to source for sports for women.

We’re making sports news just more fun and acceptable, mainly through our free and twice-weekly newsletter. That’s at thegistnews.ca if you’d like to subscribe.

How and when did all this begin?

All three of us have been friends since university, and it was a random Tuesday night back in 2017 when we were all catching up over takeout. Ellen, who’s a really avid sports fan and always talking about it, was talking about the Leafs game from the night before. She was so excited about the huge win they had and how they were probably going to make the playoffs. Roslyn and I were like “oh yeah, everyone was talking about that today at work” but didn’t feel a part of that conversation. I knew people were talking about it but I didn’t know the whole context behind it, about why last night’s game was such a big deal.

We then starting discussing why that was the case.

It’s no secret that sports can really feel like a boys club in a lot of ways. It’s one of those spaces where, for a lot of women and more casual fans, it can be really intimidating. We all grew up playing sports in school, but that didn’t really translate into being a sports fan.

So we took a look at why this problem was happening and did some digging around, and unsurprisingly found a massive lack of gender diversity in sports. It’s something like less than 14% of sports journalists are female, less than 4% of media coverage is on female athletics, and then those in decision-making or executive positions is less than 5%.

Across the game you’re just not seeing a lot of gender representation, so we thought – how can we disrupt this industry and create something that really has a female voice that makes it feel like you’re just talking to your sporty best friend the way Ellen was talking to us that night. And that also covers female sports, which was a big area we found we just weren’t seeing a lot of in the current sports media landscape.

So we started by sending a weekly newsletter, mostly to our friends and colleagues.

Six months later, when we were getting some really great growth and attraction, we were accepted into an incubator program with the DMZ in Toronto, an incubator for startups and Facebook. It was a five-month incubator program that came with funding mentors, office space, all of that kind of thing. So that was really the catalyst for us to quit our jobs and do GIST full-time.

We formally launched in July 2018.

Did any of you go to school to become writers?

No, we didn’t. It’s definitely been a learning curve and I definitely credit Ellen – she leads our content and is the one that’s the crazy avid sports fan.

A big thing is that we’ve been able to grow a really, really engaged community and to really encourage as much feedback as possible. And so we’ve really just iterated the writing and the kind of content that we’re creating based on what our audience is most interested in.

Have you raised any money to date?

We’re just closing a $600,000 pre-seed fundraiser now.

The GIST receiving funding from the Digital News Innovation Challenger / Instagram

Has it been easy to raise the money?

I think we’ve been very fortunate to have some experience in the workforce, and we’ve been able to tap into our network a bit.

Then we’ve also been fortunate to be part of the DMZ in a startup ecosystem, so we’ve been able to build some of those connections that can connect us to different angel investors and that kind of thing.

That said, it’s definitely a pain point that our target audience is a female consumer – the reality is that a lot of angels aren’t female millennials, so they just aren’t going to understand where The GIST is coming from. But we don’t really focus on those types of investors and we have been fortunate to connect with a lot of people that immediately get it and understand what we’re all about.

How has Toronto played a role in the development of the company?

Toronto is a really great sports city.

We have really passionate fans here. We’re also in Ottawa, where it’s similar. The Suns might not be doing super well, but people are still really great sports fans. And so it was important for us to first launch where we were actually based locally to be part of the community and understand where our community was and what they’re most interested in.

That being said, we’re going to have a newsletter that’s going to be across Canada, but Toronto was a really important first market for us to really just test the concept and see if this is something that women actually were interested in.

What’s been one of the biggest challenges your team has faced or is facing today?

There’s just so much to do and we are a very small team.

A lot of people are interested in the space we’re operating in, and a lot of different brands are interested in partnering with us — a lot of people are really trying to access a female millennial market — which is fantastic, but it can feel overwhelming.

And a huge transition for the three of us has been understanding that as an entrepreneur, you have to be so hyper-focused on actual growth or what is actually going to move your company forward each day.

Knowing what you know today, what do you wish you knew when you first started?

I wish I’d known that, while the lows are really low, the highs are really high and THEY make up for the lows.

I wish I knew that the whole journey is really fun when you take a step back, and I wish I recognized that the whole point in doing this is to pursue a passion and to have a good time doing it.

As an entrepreneur, what’s been the biggest pain that you yourself have had to overcome?

Adjusting to how volatile things can be.

You experience that in a corporate role as well or just when you’re anyone that has a really demanding job. I’ve found since transitioning to The GIST full-time that it’s literally hour to hour, minute to minute where things are going really well or they’re not.

So that’s just a big adjustment mentally.

the gist newsletter

The GIST co-founders/Instagram

What are you learning right now?

So many things.

There’s a lot of things that were definitely outside of my previous skill set, like learning how to act when you’re being interviewed on TV.

Another thing that I’ve been diving into more recently is data analytics. One of the first books that we all read was “The Lean Startup“, and lean analytics is something that’s really important to a company like ours, especially where we are driving for a really high subscriber community growth.

How do you prevent burnout?

I think that it’s really important to have a few people around you for support, and I  definitely recommend transitioning to being an entrepreneur.

It’s really different to maintain a large network of friends, but having those key people that you go to can be a huge stress reliever.

I also always feel better after doing a nice workout.

Has becoming an entrepreneur affected your personal life?

Absolutely – 100%.

I think a big thing is that there is no 9 to 5. There’s no time when you’re in and you’re out, you’re always thinking about your business and the different things that you have to do. So you’re always thinking about the opportunity cost of doing something else. And sometimes, unfortunately, that means not being able to go to all the social things that you want to.

On the flipside, I think it also can really strengthen your personal relationships, because you quickly figure out the people that are your go-to source for stress relief and the people that are super supportive in the whole journey.

What’s the biggest failure that you’ve experienced? 

I lead our community growth, so there’s a lot of growth tests that just did not work at all.

A big learning too has been just to fail fast and fail often and just pick up the pieces and make sure that you’re moving forward and learning from it each time those incidents or those things happen.

I feel like especially in a startup you are failing literally all the time. I think you get really banged around — there are a lot of things that are always wearing you down or making you second guess what you should have done. But I’m a very firm believer in that’s okay to make mistakes, as long as you’re learning something from it and just moving forward.

Co-founders at DMZ / The GIST

Has anyone done this before? Why did you feel like you needed to?

There definitely have been different players that have highlighted women in sports and done a really good job at that.

I think we’ve been seeing some really great early traction and growth because now is really the right time for this, I think that the female consumer is looking for content and experiences that are catered to her.

But there are definitely other players in this space that are doing similar things, and we welcome that, because there are a lot of underserved female fans, so the more players that are serving them, the better.

Is there a quote that’s changed the way that you approach business?

I’m not sure where this quote comes from — I think it’s from a tennis player — but there is one, ‘you control your wins and losses.’

This is one I really like because I think you feel out of control a lot of the time being an entrepreneur. Recognizing you can control a lot, that you can control whether something is going to be a win or a loss, and simply knowing that you’ve done everything you can — that in itself is a win.

How do you generate revenue?

We’re currently earning revenue through brand partnerships, so that’s through advertising, affiliates, or providing data insights.

The female fan is a consumer that not a lot of people know a lot about and so we’re gathering some really great information on her. We’re also currently earning revenue through some of the events that we do.

We see an opportunity for there to be a more direct to consumer play further down the line and we’re testing a lot of different things for what that could look like. The gamification aspect like pool, brackets, drafts. We see a lot of really great engagement around that and so what are different ways that we could potentially monetize, maybe entrants to The GIST March Madness bracket or the Women’s World Cup bracket — that kind of thing.

Other than the number of subscribers, how do you measure success?

The size of our community is a big one, but another big metric for us in terms of success is the level of engagement. Anyone can go and buy an email list or buy followers, but ensuring that our community is really engaged, and cares about what we’re doing is something you can’t really buy.

Do you have any mentors?

Yeah, we have quite a few different mentors that we work with pretty regularly in a lot of different areas that we’re in. Whether that’s in sports and media, or in tech specifically. We definitely lean on our mentors and advisors quite a bit.

What do the next six to 12 months look like?

We’re actually expanding into the US pretty shortly.

We’re launching a newsletter that everyone from across Canada can sign up for, which we’re really excited about. Hopefully, we’ll get some traction in Vancouver and on the West Coast in general.

We’re moving down to Philadelphia for the summer because we were accepted to an incubator with Techstars and Comcast NBC. They’re actually investing in us and we’re going to be there for a few months.

The GIST co-founders, from L to R: Jacie deHoop, Roslyn McLarty, Ellen Hyslop / The GIST

It seems like The GIST could be for any casual fan, not just females – is that something you’ve thought about for the future?

Yeah, I would say that we are absolutely creating our content so that it’s for everyone.

We recognize that there is a certain archetype of a sports fan that today a lot of content is catered towards, but we’re really looking to make sports just more accessible. Female sports fans specifically are an underserved market, but the reality is that anyone who is a casual sports fans is underserved.

Sports can be really intimidating, whether you’re a male, female, or however you identify. We actually have a lot of male subscribers and they’re super engaged too because a lot of the time they might be more casual fans, yet they feel a lot of social pressure to know what’s going on.

We definitely see an evolution to be able to really just making sports for everyone. That’s really what we want to do.

I know it’s very early on but have you thought about an exit strategy?

Yeah, we have a little bit. Once you go into the fundraising process and start speaking with investors, you kind of have to be. But we’re staying really open. We love working on The GIST, we’re seeing a lot of great growth so we don’t have any near term exit tactics or strategies right now.

How do you want people to remember you personally?

I want to be remembered as somebody who really leveled the playing field in the sports industry. Whether that’s on the content side, having more female sports journalists, or on the media coverage side in terms of covering female athletes, or maybe it’s just women in sports on the business side.

Myself and our team and The GIST, our goal is to move things forward in the sports industry on a whole.


Interview edited for clarity

 

Since chatting with Jacie, The GIST has launched a Canada-wide, US-wide, and Philadelphia-specific newsletters – subscribe to them today.

Get in touch with Jacie through email and follow The GIST on Instagram at @thegistnews.ca.

And if you know an entrepreneur that should be featured, let us know!

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