In Brad Stone’s book, The Upstarts, he recounts a story about the founders of AirBnB and their interview at Y Combinator. AirBnB did not start well and was a long way from the success story of today, it nearly fell apart on numerous occasions. At the end of the meeting, Paul Graham, the co-founder of Y-Combinator said “wow, you guys are like cockroaches, you just won’t die”. According to the book, being a “cockroach” was one of the highest compliments that Graham could pay to a founder. It meant that they had the mental toughness to overcome the hurdles, the negativity and the constant setbacks of doing something new. Let's face it, with COVID and the sports industry, there have been quite enough headwinds for any startup founder in 2020.

That got me thinking, if being a cockroach is important, what are the other personality traits that we should value in startup teams? I’ve recently written about how we look at a company’s “traction” and explained the seven focus areas in the sports industry that we believe will experience significant adoption of new technologies. However, if the adage of “invest in the people” is true, then we also need to be clear about the characteristics that we want to see in the teams at Sports Loft. We work with multiple founders and their teams every day, so we’ve been able to build up some great insight about what traits make a really positive difference to a startup’s growth. Here I set out the five characteristics that we look for in the teams at Sports Loft. There are others, but we are seeing these five make the most difference on a daily basis.

The first is the ability to sell. That’s not just the sales team, but everyone. The reality is that in a startup, you are always selling. Whether it’s selling the idea to an investor, the product to a potential client or the vision for the company to a prospective hire. The team has to be able to sell. The team at Fevo can sell, if you don’t believe me, watch this video with the CEO, Ari. But equally if you’ve been on one of our “office hours” sessions with Josh or Colin, you will know that they are some of the most effective impressive sales presentations that you will see. Donny White at Satisfi can sell. He is able to tell the story of Satisfi in an incredibly impressive way, whether on a stage or on a zoom call. Telling the story in a way that people can relate to is a skill that many startup founders don’t have as they are archetypal product or technical people, not storytellers. So whether it’s how the company was founded, how the customers use the product or how the first hires were made, storytelling is such an important part of selling. Listen to how he does it on the Sports Loft podcast. Andrew at Formalytics is another example of a CEO being able to tell a great story around their business and his background as a VC makes this very effective when talking with potential investors as he showed on our podcast.

The next is just being “up for it”. Running a startup is hard – so you have to enjoy it and you need to be enthusiastic about it. There are plenty of easier things to do with your life, so if you are not “up for it”, then don’t bother. The team at Slate have only been with Sports Loft for two months, but oh my, are they “up for it”. Every idea comes back brimming with enthusiasm, the starting point is always “how do we make that happen?” not “it’s too hard” and they are always one of the first to put their hand up for opportunities that we’ve put in front of them. It’s not a surprise that they are making such progress. Yes, the product meets a clear need in the market, but their attitude is so positive.

Next up is knowing your market and expertise. Certain politicians might not like experts but I do. If you don’t know your market, your customers and the challenges they are facing then how are people supposed to buy the vision that you are selling to them? Every time that you talk to them, you can tell that the team at Greenfly such as Daniel, Andrew and Peter genuinely know their stuff. They understand what is happening with athlete created content, they are clear about how the social channels have in many cases given the athletes greater reach than the teams and they understand the challenges that the team’s social media teams fans. Equally, listen to Nick at PumpJack on our recent podcast. Nick was one of the first to think about how sports teams could use Facebook data to sell more tickets, he has long advocated the economic value of using data and this expertise is evident in what they are building at PumpJack.

The fourth trait is the willingness to listen. Many startup founders are not good at that – they are confident, they know what they want and often they just won’t listen to the advice available to them. Nick at Covatic is one of the best startup CEOs when it comes to listening. He has probably learnt more about the sports market in the last few months than he would have ever expected. Covatic has just started with the Comcast Lift Labs programme run by Techstars, so their opportunity to listen and learn over the next few months from some leading thinkers is going to be huge. It is one thing to listen and then another to act on it and make changes, something that Nick has shown that he is very capable of doing.

Fifth is the ability to get “stuff” done. Whether it is getting the meeting with the investor, shipping new product functionality or getting a sale, the ability to make stuff happen is huge. At the risk of generalising hugely, people with sports or military backgrounds are often very good at getting stuff done. It’s really easy for founders to have great ideas and create powerpoint presentations, but it’s only when you get a product into the market and start to get feedback that you really begin to learn. The world is full of potential founders who have a great idea but then six or twelve months later have not been able to get something done. Those who will succeed will have found some way of making it happen. The Zone7 team is a great example of that. They always seem to have something that they are delivering or moving forward, whether a client conversation, a product feature or a piece of marketing. This creates momentum which is a huge factor in a startup. Equally, the team at Spalk are always developing new ideas and have an incredible work ethic. During Covid they have added new functionality, sold to different types of clients and created new business lines by brokering deals, a great example of being able to get stuff done in a challenging environment and as a result, they have been able to unearth new opportunities.

Those are the five characteristics that we see on a daily basis that we think make the most difference. When we talk about the companies that we would invest in ourselves, these are the things we immediately look for. However, if you think we’ve missed something let us know and if you’re a founder in the sports or media sector that has these characteristics, then get in touch!

In the past few months the idea of “community” based companies driving value seems to have caught the imagination of various investors and commentators, not just in sport but in the wider economy. It is an area that we have always been bullish on, calling out “technologies that can bring people together around their shared sports and media passions” as one of our key focus areas at Sports Loft.

The buzz around “community” has also been re-enforced by the performance of companies such as Zoom, where revenues have leaped 355% in Q2 compared to last year, articles such as this one by Sarah Drinkwater from Atomico (shared recently by both Mike Broughton of Acceleration Equity and James Emmett at Leaders) and the excitement is furthered by tweets such as this from D’Arcy Coolican, an investment partner at VC firm Andreesen Horowitz.

However, the notion of building successful products and businesses around community is not new. I was working at Reuters in the late ‘90s, and the company had already built a very significant business around providing trading terminals to foreign exchange traders at the different investment banks. No-one would cancel because they were too scared of missing out on the best deals, the ultimate retention mechanism of a community based business. In 2007, I was at Nike when Nike+ was launched, initially billed as “running with music” (which led us to mistakenly position bands all around the course at the Great North Run- whoops!) the real power came when different groups would compete against each other, creating mini-communities that individual runners were part of. Then look at the likes of Ebay, Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and Etsy – all of which are highly successful and fundamentally based on ‘community”. Add to that companies such as Uber and Airbnb who use the ratings of other people in the community as a way to police their services.

So, why now and why sports? Why now? There’s a natural reaction to value things that we are deprived of – ie if you can’t see your friends, work in person with other people or go to events during lockdown (all of which are clear examples of “community” behaviour), then you are going to value those things even more. But whilst COVID has reminded people how much they value community experiences, there was already a powerful trend developing towards more authentic communities that revolve around very specific ideas, personalities or common interests. For example, look at the communities that have developed around email newsletters such as Morning Brew (and pretty well any subject matter will have their own equivalents), the way that virtual event platforms such as hopin have grown as a result of the pandemic, how apps such as Upstream (an invite only networking app) have attracted early adopters or the communities of subscribers that are building around specific writers on platforms such as Substack. Now, whilst these communities might be small in comparison to the big social platforms, they are very authentic – and their strength lies in their authenticity. They need to remain small in order to maintain their authenticity. If Upstream got too big then the quality of the interactions would surely fall.

Why sports? As an industry, sport should be inherently community driven. For example, communities form around the shared identity of supporting a particular football club, they form around playing for a team or taking part in a specific fitness class. However, community driven business models have been more readily adopted in areas such as individual participation sports and fan content as opposed to the highly commercial areas of professional sport which have retained much more linear models. For example, in cycling, communities of riders have developed around specific routes on Strava and, on products such as Team Snap or Pitchero, communities immediately form around the team you play in or your role at the club. Equally, you can see how clear communities based on strong fandom have developed around unofficial fan related content such as the community that exists around things such as Arsenal Fan TV or the “Stoolies” that come together around specific personalities on Barstool. Despite this, most elite sports leagues and teams have stuck to a broadcast one-to-many model of communication with fans, perhaps driven by their reliance on the TV rights fees. This has left communities to form on other platforms like Whatsapp or fan blogs that they can’t monetise.

I also think that broader technology trends are set to open up new community driven opportunities in sport. We’ve been repeatedly pitched the idea of “Facebook for sport” or “twitter for sport” and my response has always been “we have Facebook or Twitter for that”, but is there more of an opportunity now, given the shifts towards authentic micro communities in other industries, for highly authentic and engaged communities around specific teams or sports? Twitch has shown the way around building and serving communities in gaming and the widespread launch of their Watch Parties functionality could have a significant impact in building micro-communities around content - including specific sports teams and matches.

Hence why at Sports Loft, we’re so positive about the community driven model in sport – the opportunity is largely untapped and the broader technology trends are only moving one way. At the participation level the industry has still barely scratched the surface and the fan content model is still developing (what if you combined models such as Substack with really strong fan writing?). At the supporter level, the pandemic showed how fans can be brought together virtually to watch games and I don’t think that use case is going to go away now that fans have experienced it (even if the user experience can still be improved considerably - back to Twitch again). Equally, what if you started to inject genuine community models in the way that clubs and teams interact with their fans, whether in terms of ticketing, fan engagement and soccer schools? And, what if you could apply community tools to elite training and you could 'gamify' drills and practices amongst highly competitive athletes - whether in schools, colleges or professional teams? Whether football, rugby, cricket, baseball and the list goes on, the data already exists to do it, then it becomes a question of developing the right user experience and how the data is delivered in the best way to the athletes.

At Sports Loft, a number of our member companies have very strong community principles and thinking built into their products. For example, in making group ticketing easier and rewarding the people who organise their friends, Fevo is the epitome of using social connections in the ticketing process. Spalk is bringing fans together around specific commentary feeds – whether they are based upon language or the personalities of individual commentators. Greenfly is helping teams and leagues create and distribute content via their communities of players and fans. Formalytics is helping players build their own “player card” so that their performance can be compared with their friends and teammates. PumpJack is helping clubs identify unifying traits (whether they be demographic, interest based or purchase related) amongst sub-communities of their fanbase.

We’re always looking for companies that can “bring people together around their shared sports passions”, so if you work at such a company, or you know of one, then please do get in touch.

The Sports Loft podcast brings industry leaders together with senior leaders from the Sports Loft member companies to discuss the topical issues in sport, entertainment, tech and investment.

In the latest episode of the Sports Loft podcast we get to know our tenth and newest member, Slate, by chatting to their co-founder and COO, Eric Stark. In conversation with our Yanni Andreopoulos, he discusses the company’s founding and how it arose from Eric’s background in running social media for the NFL.

Slate works with an impressive range of teams across the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, MLS and Premier League to seamlessly integrate brand assets and maintain brand consistency across social channels. From experience Eric knows that "social media managers need to be copywriters, video producers, graphic designers and a PR person all in one. And they need the tools to be able to do that really quickly."

If teams embrace the change accelerated by covid they should expect to increasingly monetise social media by integrating sponsors into content and proving the value to them. Eric has seen “investment in social media increase in the last five years, but not (yet) to where it needs to be to make money.” Though that may be changing now.

“Teams were forced to see the importance of social media over the last five months because it was the only touchpoint they had to fans without games.” This has also changed sponsor relationships because teams have needed to offer different inventory as stadium signage wasn’t available. Eric thinks “sales teams will see how social is a valuable asset of itself and not just an add on.”

Listen to the full episode or subscribe on Apple, Google or Spotify. All previous episodes are available on our site.

  • Grey LinkedIn Icon
  • Grey Twitter Icon