SE: Dirk Ochs Takes K-State Success to Athlete Network

Dirk Ochs enjoys being a builder, not necessarily the hammer-and-nail type, but along the same lines.  He appreciates the challenge of taking an idea, however unlikely it may seem at the time, and helping grow it into a success.

Ochs did this while at K-State, and now the former defensive end is doing so in the professional world with Athlete Network, a Lenexa-based company designed exclusively for athletes. After launching in January of 2015, Athlete Network already has more than 200,000 users and a solid amount of corporate partnerships.  

“I’ve always liked challenges. It’s kind of easy to go somewhere that’s already established, has everything, more or less, figured out and you’re just kind of a plug-and-play person,” he said. “For me, what’s always been attractive is going in and having an opportunity to build something.”

While Ochs was at K-State (1991-95), the Wildcats made the program’s second bowl game — the first of head coach Bill Snyder’s tenure — that turned into a streak of 11 straight seasons with postseason football. 

After graduating from K-State, where he still ranks third all-time in career sacks, Ochs found himself in the financial services industry. Eventually, a business connection with Chris Smith, the founder and current CEO of Athlete Network, led to another ground-floor opportunity, albeit a risky one. 

The company started out as a headhunting business for athletes, evolving into its current athlete-focused online network.

“It was a risk. You go from making pretty good money to basically making nothing, without a promise of anything and spending your own money trying to get things going,” Ochs, COO of Athlete Network, said. “I just felt like there was so much potential there and maybe I was a little biased because, being an athlete, it made a lot of sense to me. It felt right. I knew it was going to be a long slog, but at the same time, I felt like if we did things the right way it could be worth it. It’s been a fun journey.”

For Ochs, his experiences at K-State and Athlete Network were not all that different. 

“When I came to K-State, there wasn’t the level of success that K-State’s enjoyed the last 20 or so years. To me, it was one of those situations where I felt that this is something that could be big and I wanted to be a part of this at the ground level,” Ochs said. “It’s very similar with Athlete Network. This is something that can be huge.”

Throughout the evolution of what is now Athlete Network, Ochs said he has leaned on his experiences at K-State. During this process, he said K-State head coach Bill Snyder’s influence became clearer than ever. 

“It’s funny, when you’re going through it, you don’t necessarily recognize it. It’s when you get out and you’re starting to work and realize that a lot of the things Coach Snyder wanted us to do and the way he operated is really very business oriented,” Ochs said. “When you’re building a business, you can’t go from zero to Fortune 500 overnight. It just doesn’t happen. One of the biggest things I learned from him is you want to find a way to get a little bit better every day. You don’t necessarily notice it right away, but you look back and realize how far you’ve come. If you keep doing that, it starts to become exponential.

“Also, being able to do a lot without very much,” he continued. “Again, starting a business with limited resources, you have to be creative, you have to work hard. Big boys can just throw money at it. We really had to think through things and come up with creative solutions.”

This year especially, Athlete Network has seen some of that hard work pay off. 

The company announced a partnership with Disney/ESPN that will allow them to recruit and hire Athlete Network members for internships. Athlete Network also announced a multi-year agreement with the U.S. Olympic Committee to provide a software platform to its Athlete and Career Education (ACE) program. 

“We’ve had a lot of great things happen this year,” Ochs said. “The Olympic agreement, it’s just exciting to be associated with them and that they value us as that kind of a partner. Of course, Disney/ESPN dovetails perfectly with our mission. Then we had a nice capital raise ($2 million) a few months ago that just helps you be able to accelerate some of the things we want to do to get to where we’re trying to go.”

These notable accomplishments, Ochs said, again remind him of his time with the Wildcats. In his senior year, K-State capped its first 10-win season ever with a Holiday Bowl victory to finish No. 7 in the final AP Poll, still tied for best in the program’s history. 

“With Coach Snyder, you’re just getting better every day and you don’t necessarily recognize it while you’re in it, but then all of a sudden something like that happens and you go, ‘Man, that’s huge,’” Ochs said. “We’ve been going after Disney for years, and we got them. Being partnered with the USOC, it doesn’t get a whole lot better than that.

“Those are victories that you want to savor for a few minutes, but then you have to get back to work.”

Athlete Network boasts a variety of other corporate sponsors — Enterprise, Northwestern Mutual and Stryker, to name a few. Internally, it has grown to a full-time staff of 17 people, including two other former Wildcats in Alex (Muff) Doller (volleyball, 2009-12) and Jake Brown (baseball, 2009-12).  

“We’re excited about what we’re doing,” Ochs said. “I love having the opportunity to work with K-State and stay connected to K-State.”

Ochs said the company has “global aspirations” that includes trying to bring in as many of the estimated 300 million worldwide athletes into the fold.

“What we want to do is bring the world’s athletes together so they can benefit from having a network of like-minded people,” Ochs said. “Whether that’s from a career perspective, just being able to enjoy content that they can relate to — more athlete-to-athlete type of content — or just pure networking. There’s a lot of ways to leverage those mindsets of people with that common bond.”