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How Hail Varsity persuaded investors to put $300K in print, online media

Hail Varsity is a startup online, print and radio media company that recently moved out of FUSE coworking and raised $300,000. Founder Aaron Babcock says entrepreneurs don’t have to be just tech to get funding.

Ask almost anyone and they’d tell you print is dying.

But ask Aaron Babcock, founder of Hail Varsity, a startup media company covering the Huskers in Lincoln, and he’ll tell you another story.

Niche publications, especially those with a rabid audience like Nebraska football fans, are doing well across the board.

So when Babcock needed to grow he had convince investors to buy into media. It was difficult, but not impossible, Babcock said.

In July, Hail Varsity closed a $300,000 seed round from a few undisclosed angel investors, Babcock told SPN.

“Right now a lot of investors are looking for high-growth businesses and opportunities and the first question we always got was, ‘Why print when everything else is focused on tech?’ but what we’re doing is building a media brand across all platforms,” Babcock (left) said. “It’s good for startups to know that companies outside of tech are getting funded in Nebraska.”

For this deal, finding the right fit for investors was the most important part. He said these angels had background in these types of deals.

Babcock felt he proved Hail Varsity’s model—a high quality magazine with subscribers in every state, website and accompanying radio shows and a strong presence on social media. They’re on 400 newsstands and in 3,000 waiting rooms.

“We’ve reached the point where we had a proof of concept and had subscribers and advertisers,” Babcock said.

With the influx of cash, Hail Varsity is launching a new website, built by fellow Lincoln startup Hurrdat, and hiring ad sales staff.

The two-year-old company also has moved out of FUSE coworking in the Haymarket and into the nearby Peanut Butter Factory, a building that also is home to hunting startup Powderhook.

Babcock has a long history in sports media, working for the University of Nebraska at Kearney and later in Lincoln as a sports information directors, before working as the media relations director for the Kansas City Royals. In 2006, he started Barnstorm Media, Hail Varsity’s parent company that did freelance work for the New York Yankees media guide.

He had a stop at Huskers Illustrated before deciding to venture out on his own.

“I wondered what would happen if we started from scratch with a different vision and philosophy,” Babcock said. “We create a high quality publication with great photography and my family and I bootstrapped it until now.”

His first concern was an over-saturated market. He’d have to go against two major newspapers, a plethora of professional and fan websites, TV stations, national magazines, a handful of radio shows, Twitter personalities and more. But he decided to capitalize by taking a different approach.

“Nebraska was by far one of the most over-saturated media markets per fan,” he said. “Nebraska has a big fan base, but nothing like Michigan or Ohio State, but we still saw an absence of real good features, photography that went beyond action shots and analysis.”

Babcock cites one recent example of their willingness to put in the time, money and effort to go beyond the normal story: This summer, he sent journalists to Alabama to interview and photograph running back Ameer Abdullah and his family.

He’s also reached smaller, underserved Nebraska radio markets like Columbus, Hastings, North Platte and Grand Island with the Hail Varsity radio show.

And there’s grander plans, too: replicating the Hail Varsity model in other college football communities in coming years.

The parent company did a basketball yearbook for Creighton last year, Babcock said.

“It was good to see that project be successful and now we can investigate other college towns to see if we can repeat the process.”

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