Most of you have had some interaction with Stretch Internet founder and president Ryan Ermeling, but I bet not many have heard the story of how the company came to be. I had the chance to sit down with Mr. Stretch himself and asked everything from where the company name originated to what he believes the future has in store. A timeline, if you will, of how Stretch Internet was born and you may be surprised at just how far the company has come.
Question: Give us some insight into your past jobs and what led up to you becoming the president of Stretch Internet.
Ryan: I was a communications graduate and worked in athletics media relations straight out of college. I graduated in 1997 and worked at the community college level and then was fortunate enough to work at a Division I school. I worked with the Cal State Fullerton baseball program and that was an awesome experience. I got my ring in 2004 when they beat Texas for the College World Series title and then I pulled a “John Elway” and “retired,” and that was the last game I worked as an SID. I started Stretch when I was still at Fullerton and pursued it full time after that 2004 season.
Question: How did you first come up with the idea for Stretch?
I am an entrepreneur by accident. The initial idea for Stretch was not to develop a company that has blossomed the way it has. We have been very fortunate and it has surpassed my wildest dreams in terms of growth. When I started it in the fall of 2003, the idea was for me to do something on the side that was fun and unique. There was a real opening at that point to provide streaming for, not so much Division I schools, but D-II, D-III, and NAIA schools. For a lot of those schools at that point, Internet broadcasting was not part of their vernacular. That first year, we started with 12 schools and had 17 by the end of that year. I think by April or May of 2004 we were starting to see more and more interest and I began to realize there was something more to it.
At Fullerton, I developed a way to broadcast our games on-line in house, and that was kind of the brain child for what I did with Stretch. The initial marketing was pretty straightforward – I had a graphic designer friend (Mike Greenlee, who took over for me as the baseball SID at Fullerton) design our logo and our first marketing piece and sent it out in the CoSIDA Digest, and started getting interest right away.
Question: Who were your first clients?
The first two schools to commit – and I can’t remember which one was first and which one was second – were East Tennessee State and Northwest Missouri State. East Tennessee State was with us until 2005 or 2006, when they had to leave because of a local arrangement they had, but Northwest Missouri State is still a client. We still have some of our other charter clients with us as well. Christopher Newport is one that I remember very well. At our first CoSIDA convention, I set up our booth and didn’t know what to expect. Within a few minutes of the show opening, Wayne Block and Francis Tommasino of Christopher Newport walked up, and they just said, ‘We are ready to go,’ and I was blown away. Of course, they weren’t all that easy. Sacramento State, University of Pacific, Muskingum, and Southern Illinois are some of the other charter clients that are still with us nine years later, which is very cool to see.
Question: When and how did you come up with the name?
Well I am 6’5, it wasn’t a regular nickname of mine, but people would call me Stretch every now and then. It actually originated from my interest in baseball. My buddy, Mike, was starting his own graphic design firm, and we were both baseball fans so we had the idea that it would be cool to have business names with baseball connotations. His was ‘643 Design’ and I liked ‘Stretch Internet’. It was short and different and kind of catchy. At least people would remember it – it wasn’t like ‘Streaming Internet Services’ or something bland.
Question: Take me through the early days of Stretch.
It was your classic garage business to start with. I think I had the only garage in America with 72 phone lines coming into it. I had industrial racks, each with six of these big all-in-one Apple eMac computers on them. Obviously the technology has completely changed now. My wife always kids me now, but back then she got kind of annoyed because my office was on one side of my house and to get to the garage you had to walk through the kitchen, the family room, and in front of the TV. So on Saturdays I would be working in my office then I would have to go check a broadcast or change the volume or something, so there I was just sprinting back and forth all the way across the house. I had this worn out path between the office and the garage.
Question: When did you move the company to AZ and why?
We moved in the summer of 2006 mostly because we decided as a family that we were going to pursue Stretch full time. My wife stopped teaching, and we wanted a change of scenery. Plus I had grown up in Arizona and we liked it out here.
Question: What have been the best parts of growing your own business and what have been the challenges?
I think just watching things grow. When you are mired in the day-to-day operations, you don’t really appreciate it, but when you step back and look at where we came from – the days of a garage with all these phone lines and me running back and forth – to having a bunch of full time employees and almost 300 schools, it’s pretty neat. It has been really cool to see that growth. I also really enjoy developing relationships with other SIDs. I’m an SID at heart so I enjoy those connections. From a selfish standpoint, being your own boss is kind of cool. I guess, technically speaking, I have about 300 bosses if you look at it that way, and obviously the business is always on your mind, but being able to call the shots is rewarding.
When you’re in technology there are a lot of challenges, and a lot of things are out of your control, whether it’s server malfunctions or data center issues or phone lines that don’t work the way they are suppose to. We have certainly had our fair share of those kind of frustrations, but otherwise I don’t know if I have had any overwhelming moments. Obviously, we’ve had some growing pains here and there and decisions that we might have executed a little differently in hindsight, but we haven’t had many major challenges or frustrations we haven’t been able to overcome.
Question: What does the future have in store for Stretch Internet?
I am excited. I think there are a lot of opportunities in education and in other sectors we haven’t even begun to explore. I really think there’s a large market out there for a service that’s truly driven by customer support. There are hundreds of streaming companies out there, but I don’t know if there are any that focus their model completely around customer support like we do. Most of them will brag about different features or pricing or whatever it might be – not that we don’t have that as well, but I think our entire core is built around customer support. It is an easy sell when you are dealing with technology because people want to know that their provider has their back. Certainly, I think our base will always be athletics, but I think there will be some chances for us to really aggressively market to some other segments. We have been fortunate and lucky in some ways, because a lot of our marketing is done for us by our clients, and so many of our leads are generated from word of mouth. We market, but we don’t really have to market hard, so I would like to be a little more aggressive in our pursuit of these other areas.