During a pause at a recent tournament I took a few minutes to record an interview with Phil Butler, one of the masterminds behind refFinder.net. At a mere 21 years of age, Phil has started what appears to be an essential part of the future of fencing.
Even when the site was in its infancy, it was already generating interest from the UK. One thing is clear: both Phil and the site have a bright future. Read further for the interview (ironically written on the back of a DE table we had both finished refereeing).
LMC: Where did the idea come to you for refFinder?
Phil Butler: I was interning on Wall Street, which led to me taking my Sophomore year off from fencing at St. Johns. To stay involved in fencing, I was refereeing a lot during that time. As I continued to officiate, more and more people kept calling me, and asking me if I knew any referees in the area.
Eventually I realized how burdensome it is to find a fencing referee and that there was absolutely no way a fencing referee could find jobs on their own. So it came to me (the idea) that you should be able to hire fencing referees online.
LMC: What’s the end result you are hoping for?
Phil Butler: Create a centralized place that clubs and tournament organizers can go to find referees and where referees can go to and find jobs. As for me personally, I hope and plan to expand to refFinder to other sports, so it can become more than just a supplemental income after college.
LMC: Do you have a technical partner?
Phil Butler: The co-founder and other mastermind behind refFinder is William McGough. He’s also 21 years old and is entering his senior year at Notre Dame.
LMC: How did you guys connect?
Phil Butler: When I first came up with the idea, I was looking for the most cost-effective way to create the site. Originally, I looked around my area for computer science majors and as I continued looking I found people who knew computers but didn’t quite understand the sport of fencing. So I began to ask my friends and other fencers if they knew anybody that could create websites. Eventually, I contacted Lucas Lin who’s currently studying at Harvard University and he forwarded me to my eventual partner and co-founder of the site William McGough. Lucas knew of Will because at the time Will had his own personal business of making websites. So in retrospect, really Lucas is the reason the refFinder we know today was able to get started!
LMC: How much technical work is needed to maintain it?
Phil Butler: Will is a computer science genius, so right now it runs perfectly. What we are hoping to do with USA Fencing is to find out what the Fencing Officials Commission (FOC) needs to better use the site for national tournaments and expand it from there.
LMC: So on the site there are the referee’s ratings?
Phil Butler: Right now the referees add their own ratings. After the ref inputs what they believe their rating to be, we cross-reference it with the ratings on the FOC database that is located on askfred. Currently, ratings issues are reviewed by hand.
The hope is that we can make the ratings automatically get populated into a master referee database. This is a new idea specifically for the FOC, who could then start using an interactive, well-maintained database of referees to keep track of and develop US Fencing officials. We’re also working on a way for the FOC and tournament organizers to import the referees hired on refFinder into Fencing Time where you could easily assign them to their pools or D.E’s on Fencing Time.
LMC: Currently there is not a way to do that?
Phil Butler: For the FOC and to my knowledge, not yet. I’ve heard some comments about the USFA thinking of paying Railstation to develop software that would allow them to import officials into Fencing Time but this of course would cost the USFA thousands to tens of thousands of dollars to get done and would probably come back with yet another confusing Railstation developed software.
We hope to work with Dan Berke (the developer of Fencing Time) to allow the details of all referees hired for a tournament to be automatically imported. Once we have that going, whenever you are running a tournament and assigning a referee for the DE’s you can use the specific database in Fencing Time to assign whatever referees were hired for the event. The other thing we’re hoping to develop for the FOC is a more interactive, data-collecting database for referees. This database would automatically collect referee data on officials at national tournaments.
For example: Let’s say a referee has to this point refereed ‘0’ bouts at a NAC in the round of 128 and this is his first one. When a fencer hands in a bout to the bout committee that bout gets input into Fencing Time by the bout committee and it would then automatically go to the new FOC database indicating where in the tournament the bout was. It would automatically send to the database that the referee refereed another bout in the top 128 changing his total number from ‘0’ to ‘1’ (meaning 1 bout refereed in the 128). That way when the FOC is looking to give out ratings, they have easy to access hard data to use to help make their decisions. (Which is one of the many reasons the FOC is really interested in refFinder)
LMC: How do you get financial benefit from this?
Phil Butler: A tournament organizer posts a tournament for 5 dollars. And that gets your tournament up on the site. For every referee that the organizer hires from refFinder; refFinder gets two dollars per referee. We decided to keep the costs extremely low as our business strategy is based on volume rather high prices. We are in the United Kingdom too and have been in brief discussions with the newly founded Jamaica Fencing Federation to see how we can help them. Hopefully we will be able to expand to other countries as well. . .once the USFA signs on board.
LMC: Did you actually have a connection in the UK to make that happen?
Phil Butler: They actually contacted us while we were still in the Beta version of the site and asked to bring the site over there.
LMC: In this age of technology it really seems like part of what the coming future is.
Phil Butler: Right, there is no reason to have to do it by phone, or back and forth with even email anymore. It’s the same way as if you ever order your food online, you could call the restaurant and tell them what you want, or you could just go on your computer, click a few buttons and pay.
LMC: So the UK approached you, how far along in the process are you with them?
Phil Butler: We are in the same place with the USFA as we are with the UK. In the United Kingdom, to my understanding, every tournament they have counts towards their national standing. The NGB supplies the referees for every single tournament.
LMC: Well that could be cumbersome, which is why they have such interest in the program.
Phil Butler: Exactly! Here in the states I am asking the FOC: “what can we put on the site for you guys?” I am asking the UK’s NGB the same thing as well.
LMC: What additions have people asked for?
Phil Butler: Locally not everyone can referee for the whole tournament. Many times a referee only does one day of an event. At a national tournaments you get hired for the duration of the whole tournament rather than daily. Right now on the website you can hire them for one event at a time.
One addition we want to make is that you can block hire. Send them an invitation for Saturday and Sunday, and if the referee can only ref one day, they could de-select the day that they can’t ref and send it back to the organizer for confirmation.
LMC: I heard about issues with PayPal?
Phil Butler: Organizers do not have to sign up with PayPal. Originally in our beta version you could only pay using PayPal. Now you can either pay in person (cash/check) or with PayPal. However, a referee does have to sign up with PayPal, just in case an organizer does wants to pay them electronically.
LMC: Has there been resistance to this?
Phil Butler: For a lot of tournament organizers, online payment is not (yet) their primary use, they still use checks and cash. With the refFinder site it’s easier, rather than writing twenty checks, the organizer just has to click one button and that would automatically pay all those referees via PayPal. As people use electronic payments more and more, we will see this become more the norm.
LMC: What’s the feedback about this idea? I know you have presented to the USFA. Are people excited about it? Think its time has come?
Phil Butler: So far everyone has said it’s a great idea. The FOC really liked it from what I can tell. They especially seem to like the database idea. It helps them a lot because they have to hire rated referees. A local event can self-direct, but national events require rated referees. With refFinder they can search based on a referees distance from the tournament, which could help reduce travel costs for the larger national events on one coast or the other as referees that are closer to the state where the tournament is being held could be hired before referees from the other side of the nation.
LMC: I’ll bet new refs really like this idea. Since everything in their world is online.
Phil Butler: Yes, younger and college age referees really like it because they are just starting out refereeing and don’t know the organizers. They don’t have the connections (yet). They register online and search based on pay or distance, and then apply for the event with the simple click of a button. From what I hear everyone sees it as pretty user friendly. I use the site; I think it is easy, I enjoy it, but I know it. From what I hear, people say it’s pretty simple.
LMC: How many referees do you have registered for it? How many organizers?
Phil Butler: We have 156 referees and 41 organizers in the US that are registered. The northeast and New Jersey is mostly where the usage is. A few in other areas (California, Texas, South Florida) And, of course, we have less usage in the summer as there are less local tournaments.
LMC: How long have the site been live? Non-beta version?
Phil Butler: August 2011 Beta launched
September 2011 UK contacted refFinder
November: 2011 Feedback for cash/check payments needed-Changes made
January 2012 Went Live
LMC: Sounds like great progress for only being around for less than a year. What’s the plan for marketing?
Phil Butler: Getting the word out has made some pretty good progress, especially since it has been less than a year. Mostly the marketing has been through online avenues: blogs, fencing.net, facebook.
Hopefully as more organizers register and use the site, the word will get around more. Really the hope is that the database idea gets going and the FOC uses it. Rather than charging the association money (we know that the USFA is in a tight spot financially) we would look to make a deal. We still want to help out fencing; it not all about the money. It is about making the sport and the organization responsible for its growth better, as well.
So what we are trying to do is make a deal for advertising space in the fencing magazine. That would help us on the marketing side and the USFA would not have to spend money on another database: it would be a “win-win” situation. Another way that we are thinking we could save the USFA money is that we have heard that they want to use Railstation to make a database so that they can select which referees are hired for the national tournaments and then put them into Fencing Time. But Railstation would charge them money to develop that.
For us, a private company, we could develop that because it would be something that would make our site better and we would essentially be taking that cost on. And really because we have the site developed already, it would mainly be our time, rather than cash the USFA would have to pay which would get the database developed.
LMC: Are you working with Dan, the creator of Fencing Time?
Phil Butler: Yes, we are trying to touch base again. (Thanks to Facebook, I know he is on what looks like a great vacation.) When we have spoken, he seems very supportive of the idea. It’s clear that he would rather work with someone who knows fencing rather than a 3rd party like Railstation. And it’s not too complex of a process for experienced developers like him and Will.
According to Will, we just need to agree on a common file format for our respective software to import and export the referees’ data.
LMC: What are the short and long term goals? 1 year? 3 years? 5 Years?
Phil Butler: One year? I hope that the UK and USFA are using the software to hire their referees for national events. 3 years? I am hoping we are in 6 other countries. Hoping to spread to volleyball and karate and basketball (more mainstream).
LMC: Have you done the research for other sports?
Phil Butler: When I first came up with the idea to expand to other sports; I did do some research. I saw that Karate did a lot of the same things as us and it has a bigger population of competitors and referees. I have not yet looked too much in the details because (in the short term) I wanted us to focus on fencing. There is a need for this in fencing right now. In a lot of sports they already have this type of software. For example, soccer hires refs using an online system and has the same type of developmental database set in place for their referees.
LMC: And in 5 years?
Phil Butler: I have some top secret stuff that I am working on that you will hopefully see on refFinder in five years. Basically, I am hoping that in 5 years refFinder and its subsidiaries are a household name!