Joey Cheek is known for a few things.He dated Mike Bloomberg’s daughter, but more importantly he won multiple gold medals in the Olympics. He also got banned from China before the 2008 Beijing Olympics for his activism work with Team Darfur.
The in-line skater has laid his athletic profession to rest. Now the recent Princeton graduate is trying his hand at a startup.
A few months ago he launched DailyHouse, a digital media company that covers Olympic sports year-round.
His startup is still in the prototype phase. Cheek has been writing diligently and working hard to create readership from thin air.
We sat down with Cheek to talk about Daily House. He also described what it’s like to be on an Olympic podium with gold medals around your neck.
It turns out training to be the world’s best athlete and starting a company from scratch aren’t so dissimilar.
BI: What made you interested in entrepreneurship? Is there any overlap between being an Olympic athlete and an entrepreneur?
Joey Cheek: Unquestionably, the idea that you have to spend years and years without a certain payoff is true of both. Most of the years I spent training I did not make money. If my family hadn’t been supporting me I wouldn’t have been able to do it.
The thing is though, I felt like I was always going to be capable of earning money. But I wouldn’t always have a billion people looking at me.
Do entrepreneurs and Olympic athletes share the same mindset?
Let me start out by saying I haven’t had success with my business yet like I’ve had as an athlete, so it’s hard for me to say. But a lot of Olympians, I think, are driven by this sort of “I’ll show you” or “I’ll prove myself” idea. I don’t know who we’re trying to prove ourselves to, but I think there are a lot of people who are driven that have that ambition. Or maybe it’s a personality defect we have.
As an Olympian, once you prove whatever it is you’re trying to prove and win a medal, everyone really loves you for a week. Then all the media stop calling you. And you’re left with this empty feeling like, “Oh, that’s it.” That’s sort of the reaction I had.
The Olympics were not worth being unhappy and miserable and killing myself over my performance strictly to earn a medal just so I’d be good enough for something. Winning that first medal was really a turning point in my athletic career. I said to myself, “From now on I’m not going to do this unless I love it.”
Ironically, once I was able to let go of some of that pressure I put on myself, I got better. That’s when I started winning tons and tons of medals.
Why did you decide to start a company?
I started DailyHouse because I have always wanted to go into business and I love media, particularly digital media. When I was in the 2002 Olympics there was this thing called the International Broadcast centre where all the journalists went to broadcast out of. It was a massive warehouse. It was just row after row after row of desks and it was huge like a trading floor. Something like 4,000 journalists come to every Olympics.
The first time I walked into it and looked around I thought, “This is so cool, this is an information factory. It’s like the old-school textile mills except it’s cranking out information.”
I realise now that was the dawn of this sort of entrepreneurial ambition that made me want to go into media. I love the idea that you’re creating something. It’s not a physical thing necessarily, but you’ve got this sort of factory, so maybe one day, god willing if I work my tail off, I can have a little information factory of my own.
Tell me about this blog you’ve started, DailyHouse.
The site has only been live for 4 months. I think we have 600 posts, and I’ve done 450 maybe.
I started DailyHouse because the sports I love and want to cover are not well covered anywhere else. And the people I hope to one day attract — the broader market outside of the hardcore Olympic sports fan — need to have an easy on ramp to the site.
Maybe they’ll visit because they love seeing Phelps in the Olympics, and then they’ll stick around because they see interesting, eye-catching stories about other sports, and from there we can get them hooked on the more in depth stuff…That is the hope, but this is a very learn-as-you-go process.
Do people care about Olympic sports more than once every two years?
There are two thoughts on that. One is that people just aren’t that interested in Olympic sports year round. But having been a professional athlete for many years and having met so many others from dozens and dozens of sports, I don’t believe the stories that go on in the off-season are any less compelling. There’s just no ecosystem to support them, there’s no real coverage.
If you happen to see a rare sport you like, maybe curling, there’s nowhere for you to go. You can go to the U.S. Olympic committee, but the site is hard to navigate and it’s hard to find results. The hope is that there is a space there; I think of the 100 million people who watch the Olympics there are millions of Olympics fans who would be passionate followers of the sports year round, because they really do happen year round.
AOL and Yahoo have a few Olympics sports reporters but the writing is very AP or Reuters style. It’s not a blog format with a youthful tone.
You think there’s no outlet for people to watch Olympic sports year-round? Doesn’t ESPN show them?
Extreme sports are fairly well done. They are an area I want to get into, but I’m looking at a beachhead approach. I know the Olympic space really well and I think I’ll be able to build an audience within that space. If I can do that, then I can use it as grounds to do other sports coverage as well.
Do you have a staff of writers or contributors?
I’ve had 10-12 Olympic gold medalists write one-off posts for me. I want to have a real athlete presence on the site. I have a couple people who are part-time editing and contributing. But the site is very new.
In some ways I feel like I have a pot of dirt and I’ve planted something. Maybe I’ve even grown a couple seeds. But I want to build a greenhouse and one day an industrialized farm. Right now I’ve had some sprouts and I have this little plant but I don’t have a business yet. That’s what I want to do now. I want to bring in a few people who are editing and writing full time and put out 10-12 posts a day.
Then I can call up other organisations and say “Look, I guarantee you this much content, how can we work together to make sure people who are interested in the content are reading it?” Right now I’ve been doing a ton of work myself with friends and supporters. There’s a limit to that model and I’ve sort of reached it so it’s time to grow up.
It sounds like a daunting task.
There are two ways I can do it. One, if I raise a seed round then I’ll be able to go and hire a handful of editors and start reaching out to national/Olympic sports organisations and build a big audience. If I write a post and a national governing body of sports puts it up, I know what kind of clicks we’re going to get. Bringing those writers in and hiring people to do some extra tech stuff so I start growing the database and aggregating content is key.
Another way would be to approach sponsors.
So DailyHouse has an advertising-based business model?
I’m not thinking that necessarily in terms of banner ads. Right now I’m focused on trying to bring in traffic. Advertising can definitely be a huge part of the blog format especially with sports coverage. It’s not the same separation of church and state with editorial and advertising in sports. People are used to seeing athletes who endorse products and have sponsors.
So if we’re doing sponsored posts and we’re inserting them into the editorial flow, as long as they’re being marked and the reader isn’t being deceived, I think that sort of model works well. There are massive amounts of sports products and advertisers too. Plus Olympic followers are traditionally passionate and highly engaged.
Is this your first business endeavour?
Yeah, it is. Although after the ’06 Olympics I was heavily involved in activism and I co-founded an organisation called Team Darfur with a water polo player from L.A. We got 475 athletes from 75 countries around the world to come together to do Darfur activism for two years. He and I got banned from China for it.
Why did you get banned from China?
A lot of people don’t realise the Olympics were originally created as an international peace festival before World War I; you had this very fragmented Europe, and it was created to bring everyone together on the field of play. They wanted people to battle on the field so they don’t battle in real life. That type of mission is part of what people love about the Olympics. Of course it’s very commercialized now too.
I was a speed skater, which is not incredibly lucrative, so we relied on the sponsors to make sure we had technology, coaches, and training (which are very expensive). So I don’t fault the games for being commercialized — it’s necessary — but that underlying principle about international peace has been forgotten a bit.
Going into the Beijing ’08 Olympics we were working on Darfur, a region in Western Sudan. China was the number one trading partner with Sudan, which protected them inside the U.N. Security Council. No real sanction was put in place at the U.N. despite massive support from the Western world for protection of civilians because there was always this threat of veto on any sort of resolution. They passed the largest single troop protection force and then never implanted it because of parliamentary techniques.
We pointed that out, and China wasn’t super pumped about it. They accused us of trying to ruin the Olympics. We said, “No we love the Olympics, we’re trying to save it.” Then they banned me 24 hours before the Beijing games were set to begin. I was getting ready to leave for China when I got a call from the Chinese embassy at my office in D.C. and they said, “We’re revoking your visa; you’re not allowed to come to the country.”
They kept you from competing in the Olympics?
No, I wasn’t competing at that point. This was 2008 during the summer Olympics and I was in the ’06 Olympics. In the ’06 Olympics I won gold and silver medals. I donated my Olympic bonus to a charity that was working with Sudanese refugees. Then I was hailed universally by the International Olympic Committee as this ideal holder of the Olympic mission; two years later they acted like they didn’t know me or what I was about.
How did you get into speed skating?
Such dumb luck. I grew up in North Carolina and in the early ’90s. I started racing on in-line skates. In the early ’90s rollerblading was huge — 10 million Rollerblades a year were sold in the early ’90s. If you think of that pool of people, some chunk of them were going to want to race and then some chunk of them were going to be really, really good. I was the U.S. Junior Champion for a couple of years for in-line speed skating. Again, I was from North Carolina and a kid from my neighbourhood was on the in-line team when I was nine years old. He said, “You should come try this.” I put skates on, and it was kind of like I was made to do it. I was really good when I was young but I was also like, this is what I want to do.
Had you ice skated?
Are there similarities?
There are a lot of similarities. I watched the ’94 Olympics which were in Norway. I was about 14 and I was lying on the living room floor watching an American guy named Dan Jansen win a gold medal. A Norwegian guy named Johan Kauss won three. I said, “mum I want to do that.” She said, “Well it ain’t going to happen here.” So I left home at 15 to start training full-time; that’s not terribly uncommon for Olympians.
I took off and moved to Canada, then Milwaukee and kind of all over the country. I switched to speed skating without ever really trying ice skating. I became U.S. junior champion for those two years, then U.S. senior champion, then world champion, then Olympic champion. It took 17 years.
You make it sound easy, maybe I can be an Olympian.
How did you train for the Olympics?
You do a lot of skating in the winter. In the summer you do what’s called dry land imitations. It’s exercises that imitate the skating motion, so I’m a lot skinnier now than I used to be. I raced at 195 and I’m 170 now, so I was about 25 pounds heavier. It’s all in the legs.
And you’re tall, you’re 6′?
6’2ish. A lot of long track speed skaters are 6′ or taller. Short track, like what Apollo Ono does, those guys are all tiny.
5’5″. Those guys are on a 111 meter. It’s a hockey rink that they race on. They’re going almost the same speed as us but literally the entire lap is the distance of one of our corners. They race the same distances, they just do more laps. So the lower your centre of gravity, the easier it is to make your turns.
What’s it like being in the Olympics?
It is really hard to explain the feeling you have the first time you’re in the Olympics because it’s such a huge thing. You spend your whole life dreaming of it and training for it, then when you actually get there it’s fleeting. I was a sprinter so my three races, the 500 meter, 1000 meter and 1500 meter, were the three shortest in speed skating. The sum total of races (you do 500 meters twice) is less than four minutes. By the ’06 games, I had been training for four minutes for 17 years. We trained year-round.
So the Olympics are really short and intense, and if you do well your whole life is different forever. If you don’t do well you’ll spend the whole rest of your life saying you were in the Olympics, and then people will ask, “Did you win a medal?”
I’ve been fortunate, I’ve always won medals. But most people are not going to win Olympic medals; even Olympians. I won a bronze medal in 2002, and people would come up to me and say, “Oh you’re in the Olympics, that’s amazing! How’d you do?” I’d tell them about my bronze and they’d say, “Oh, that’s too bad.” But that’s not too bad at all, it’s amazing. Still I vindicated myself four years later.
How close were you to gold instead of bronze?
That race was a few tenths of a second, but you always just miss in the Olympics. It’s usually a few hundredths of a second that separates first from third.
Do the medals look as cool in person as they do on TV?
I think better. Especially in Italy. In Italy they were disc shaped. They looked like CDs on TV. And they were heavy.
Winning a medal is overwhelming; it’s unbelievable. It’s one of the few things in life that is actually better than your already incredibly lofty expectations. Imagine something as cool as you can possibly imagine, but this was actually better.