This business instructor just keeps rolling along
Story by Peter Corbett
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau
Instructor Jon Ruybalid’s career path to Grand Canyon University was a long and crooked trail.
It took him from a two-room schoolhouse near Central City, Neb., to Dallas, to the Twin Cities, to Washington, D.C., and back to rural Nebraska.
Now, Ruybalid has finished his first semester of teaching business law and sports business law after a six-year run as an executive with a San Francisco startup called BandPage, a digital platform for bands, musicians and their fans.
YouTube, owned by Google, bought BandPage for an undisclosed price in February.
Ruybalid, 57, is an entrepreneur armed with a law degree, theology degree and a skateboard that he rides from the bus stop on Camelback Road to his office in the Colangelo College of Business.
He said his business experience gives him some degree of respect from students that he uses to deliver a fundamental message.
“I want them to understand there are things you can’t control,” Ruybalid said. “That’s not the issue. The issue is, what are you going to do with the things you can control? How hard are you going to work?”
Variety of jobs
Ruybalid’s career has included doing the legal work and developing company policies for BandPage, opening Starbucks stores in Nebraska, opening his own coffee shop and law office in Virginia, and a five-year stint with a major law firm representing religious organizations. He even spent six months as an interim pastor in his hometown, two hours west of Omaha.
Ruybalid said he had good fortune in landing his first job in 1992 out of the University of Minnesota law school and created his own good luck in connecting with the founder of BandPage. He tells his students to be ready for their moment.
“Make sure you’re ready when opportunity comes,” Ruybalid said. “You’re prepared to be hyper-competent in whatever they want you to do.”
Ruybalid got his bachelor’s degree at Grace University in Omaha and a master’s of theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary.
He went to work for Gammon & Grange after meeting a partner of the suburban Washington law firm on the beach at St. Simons Island, Ga.
“That was God at work,” he said of the chance meeting. “But if I hadn’t studied hard in college, they wouldn’t have hired me.”
Ruybalid worked at Gammon & Grange for five years and then started his own law firm so he could travel less and spend more time with his family on their farm in Lincoln, Va.
That led him to lease and reopen Lincoln’s general store, a village hub for generations. Ruybalid set up his law office and a coffee shop, Legal Grounds, in the historic building and made room for the post office to move back in.
A local resident called him “our local hero” for reviving the store as the community gathering place, according to a story in The Washington Post.
Back to Nebraska
Lincoln’s hero moved back home with his family a few years later to Hampton, Neb., not far from Central City. He was working for Starbucks, training managers and opening stores in rural Nebraska when a chance encounter on the side of the road led him — eventually — to an entrepreneurial opportunity in San Francisco’s booming technology sector.
Ruybalid said he was on his way home on a Saturday afternoon when he came across a young couple stranded off Interstate 80 after their 1987 Volkswagen van broke down. It was too late to get the van towed to Omaha for repairs, so Ruybalid invited the travelers to spend the weekend at his home.
The driver of that van, James Sider, forged a friendship with Ruybalid that endured over several years.
Sider said he felt lucky that his VW broke down there in Nebraska because he met Ruybalid, whom he listed in his smartphone back then as “Kind Jon.” He’s still listed that way.
“In addition to being a heavy-hitting businessman, Jon is one of the most kind, genuine people I’ve ever met,” he said.
Sider, who goes by the initial “J,” had managed bands and music venues. In 2009, Sider joined the tech startup world in San Francisco working with programmers on building the BandPage platform to help performers promote their music and connect with fans.
“In addition to being a heavy-hitting businessman, Jon is one of the most kind, genuine people I’ve ever met.”
Business associate James Sider
Ruybalid said Sider was living in a house with 17 other people as he developed BandPage.
“He would call me from outside a laundromat” in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood when he needed legal help, Ruybalid recalled.
It was often 2 or 3 a.m., and Ruybalid was working pro bono.
“I stopped to help ‘J’ because that’s how I was taught to be,” Ruybalid said.
He credits his father with instilling that Good Samaritan ethic in him.
“When it snowed in Nebraska, my dad would tell me to throw a shovel in the back of the pickup and we would go around digging people out,” he said.
Worked for nothing
Ruybalid said he worked for Sider for 15 months with no pay, and Sider said Ruybalid was invaluable in building the company from the ground up and setting up the management structure, human resources and payroll for what would become a staff of about 40 employees.
“We relied on him across the board on how to build the business,” Sider said.
Sider launched BandPage in 2010 at the South by Southwest music festival and tech conference, handing out hundreds of postcards to lure traffic.
The startup grew rapidly, propelled initially by a deal with singer-songwriter Jason Mraz, and attracted about $22 million in venture capital over two years.
BandPage created a Facebook app that allowed musicians to customize their landing pages on Facebook to share tour dates, photos, song lists and other information with their fans.
Close to a half-million musicians signed up for BandPage, and it grew to 32 million average monthly users. Then Facebook changed its structure so that landing pages were replaced by users’ timelines.
BandPage lost 90 percent of its user traffic, down to 3.3 million, according to a case study of the company by the Harvard Business School in October 2015.
Sider and the BandPage executive team rebuilt the company over the next four years by leveraging its band and fan data, analytics, band connections and developing partnerships with a wide array of music-streaming providers, ticket agencies and merchandise companies.
BandPage began talking to Google’s YouTube at the end of 2015 and closed the deal in February.
Good fit with GCU
Ruybalid still has obligations with Google during a transition period, but he has been teaching two sections each of business law and sports business law at GCU since January.
Tim Kelley, assistant professor for entrepreneurship and economics in the Colangelo College of Business, said Ruybalid, with his vast experience, could teach any of GCU’s entrepreneurship classes — and it’s clear students think so.
GCU junior Breanna Alverson said Ruybalid has good real-life and case-law examples to explain concepts in her business law class.
“It’s really a fun class,” she said. “I think everyone would tell you that.”
On a recent morning, Ruybalid arrived at his classroom and parked his longboard with a half-dozen other skateboards at the back of the classroom.
He played a music video of Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors, a Tennessee folk-rock band, on an overhead screen for a few minutes while the students filled out some paperwork.
Then Ruybalid got down to business. Over the hour, he explained different types of business entities — sole proprietorships, partnerships, corporations and limited liability companies — and how each is taxed.
“If you know tax law, you will be invaluable to your company,” he said, adding that students should not shy away from tax courses. “I so wish I had taken those tax classes in law school.”
Ruybalid said he is pleased with teaching and the entrepreneurial focus of GCU.
“The spirit is, ‘Let’s build this, let’s make this happen … let’s do the hard thinking to solve a problem,’” he said.
GCU President Brian Mueller and Dr. Randy Gibb, the CCOB dean, have put together a good entrepreneurial team, including Kelley and Paul Waterman, that makes academic sense, Ruybalid said.
“I’m coming back next year,” he said. “I enjoy contributing, and I’m enjoying Grand Canyon.”