How a tech-savvy soccer dad turned a snack snafu into SignUpGenius

The soccer moms and dads of the world will know Dan Rutledge’s story well.

A little over a decade ago, he was coaching one of his kids’ soccer teams and trying to manage the tricky but all-important process of snack signups. He needed to know which parents were bringing snack on which days so his team would be well fed and ready for battle.

So he created a paper signup sheet and passed it around to all the other soccer moms and dads. Then he tucked it into his bag — and lost it.

The rest of the season devolved into snack-related chaos.

“We just had this terrible season where we’d come and two people would bring snacks, and the next week no one would bring snacks. There were times when the other team is eating brownies and your team has nothing,” Rutledge, CEO of SignUpGenius, recalls with a laugh. “I was like, ‘I don’t have time to organize this. I just want to coach.’”

And it wasn’t just the snack debacle. Rutledge and his wife have four children. Organizing sports and church and nonprofit work and school commitments was, in a word, “frustrating.”

It inspired Rutledge to take action. He built SignUpGenius, a free online software tool for volunteer management and event planning, in 2008 and has grown it to a major brand, drawing 77.2 million visitors to the SignUpGenius site last year alone.

“Our mission is to empower people to change the world by making it simple for people to organize groups,” Rutledge says. “We hear again and again that a well-organized group of ordinary people can do amazing things.”

There are a lot of event signup platforms online these days, but when Rutledge built the first version of SignUpGenius, the landscape was far less crowded. That’s why he resorted to pen and paper to manage soccer snacks: He wasn’t tech-phobic. In fact, he was an early Internet adopter. He just couldn’t find a service to suit his needs.

At the time, Rutledge had joined a Charlotte company started by serial entrepreneur Michael Vadini. The focus was part video production and part web development, and during a lull between clients, Rutledge pitched Vadini on the idea for SignUpGenius.

Vadini agreed.

“This was an opportunity to start a company while having a revenue source,” Rutledge explains. “And because we were bootstrapping it, the risk was not high.”

They also took things slow. When the first version took shape back in 2008, Rutledge used it just for himself and his family. But as more of their friends and acquaintances used SignUpGenius, they’d ask to share it with others who had a similar need.

“People would write into me and say, ‘Have you ever thought about adding this feature?’ So we added a few things based on requests, and it just kept spreading,” Rutledge recalls.

By 2011, SignUpGenius was bringing in enough money that Rutledge and Vadini could scale back on client work and scale up the startup.

“There were times where, week to week, I was seeing 20, 30, 40 percent more traffic than I’d seen before. So I’d stay up in the middle of the night trying to figure out how to put up another server or something so that tomorrow, the site would be able to handle the load,” Rutledge recalls. “But you know, those are great problems to have.”

What distinguished SignUpGenius from the growing pool of competition — and still does, Rutledge adds — is that the tool can be used for a variety of needs.

“Most tools on the Internet are niched, and this is because most entrepreneurs are niched. So you have someone who’s an educator, and they build a tool to sell to schools. Or someone who’s a coach builds a sports tool,” Rutledge explains. “We didn’t want five different tools. We wanted to organize it and be able to use across all arenas in our life.”

Rutledge’s wife, Angel, joined SignUpGenius full time in 2011 as COO and CMO, and the company began building the team steadily from there. Today, SignUpGenius has 32 employees.

“The people we’ve hired here are very into simplicity and efficiency in organization,” he says. “Everything has to be systemized and thought about for scale.”

Rutledge and Vadini bootstrapped SignUpGenius until about a year ago, when they sold a majority share to Providence Strategy Growth (PSG), the growth equity affiliate of Providence Equity Partners, a global private equity firm with $50 billion in assets under management. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Rutledge said it came about when SignUpGenius decided it needed a “good partner” to manage the scale the company had achieved. PSG came to the table with the “expertise and resources to greatly expand our ability to serve our customers.”

Rutledge says finding tech talent and developers in Charlotte has been a challenge, but overall, the city has been a huge source of support in growing the business.

“We’ve found a lot of encouragement and interest, particularly from people who want to see tech companies succeed in Charlotte,” he says. “Running a tech company can be exhausting because of the pace. You have to just constantly innovate and move. That’s a challenge when you’re a small team managing a huge amount of people. It’s also exciting and fun.”

And his advice to other entrepreneurs is to focus on doing the basics well.

“We just tried to use common sense and biblical principles in running a company — like don’t spend more than you bring in and treat your employees better than you’d expect to be treated if you were an employee,” he says. “If you don’t spend more than you make, you can’t lose money. And if you treat people well, they enjoy working with you and you building relationships and connections and friends.”

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