COO, SYDE Fantasy Sports
Tell us a bit about what it was like working for a startup turned public that reached #4 in the Inc. 500.
Working for a startup in the early stages of growth gave me exposure to every aspect of what it takes to run a business and make it grow. It was like gaining six years of experience in less than three. Every employee’s job title might suggest what their primary role is, but it is not all they are doing. Everyone is lending a hand wherever it is needed, because, in the end, making a business a success requires a lot of hard work -- and you will never get there on your own.
A great service or product can only get you so far, it is the company culture that can really shape its success. Great culture attracts the right people, makes them better, and empowers them to execute to the best of their ability. Leadership sets the tone for that culture and work ethic that makes the business run. It was very exciting to be a part of a company that was growing so quickly, and it firmly cemented in me the urge to start a company of my own. I haven’t been able to let it go since.
What trends do you see in your industry and how does SYDE plan to stay ahead?
When you get past all of the headline buzz about whether fantasy sports are legal or not, you get down to the reality that fantasy sports are here to stay. Americans love sports and that isn’t changing any time soon, and neither is the urge to wager on them. With ~$400B illegally wagered on sports every year in America, compared to $10B wagered on fantasy sports, it is more likely that gambling becomes legal than fantasy sports illegal. At SYDE, we are changing how casual sports fans interact on a monetary level with fantasy sports by making it easier to understand and quicker to engage with. There are currently only two primary flavors of fantasy sports, season-long and daily fantasy sports (DFS), which leaves the casual sports fan without a product that suits them well. I see the industry evolving from DFS to DFS 2.0 over the next few years, which will see a number of innovative companies introducing new gaming formats that are easier to win, more engaging, and provide a diversity of gaming formats for the various levels of sports fans out there.
What do you believe are the key ingredients for making a startup successful?
Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, defines a startup as "a human institution designed to create a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty.” Startups are statistically destined to fail, especially if the strategy and the execution of that strategy are not the top priorities of leadership. We have always had a strong vision for what we think the future of the industry will look like, which has helped us come up with many innovative product ideas (aside from SYDE) that we hope to launch in the coming years. However, our success to date has been due to putting in place a plan that is focused on making a great product that users want, and doing whatever it takes to execute that plan, with the ultimate goal of achieving Product/Market/Fit.
Why did you choose to use the Lean Startup approach when launching SYDE?
From the very beginning, we knew that the legal landscape of the industry was bound to shift given the increasing scrutiny placed on the top two players in the (DFS) space. So when we asked ourselves the core lean startup questions of “Should this product be built?" and "Can we build a sustainable business around this set of products and services?” we of course answered “Yes” to both. However, we knew that there was regulatory risk that would need to be managed on a continual basis.
We needed to enter the market intelligently and as bootstrapped as possible for the following reasons. 1) The binary risk of the entire industry being shutdown overnight was great enough that we would probably have to keep our day jobs and launch SYDE on the side. This approach not only kept costs down, but also slowed our progress, allowing ample time for the legal issues in the industry to be ironed out. 2) We developed SYDE to be sufficiently differentiated from all other fantasy sports games in the market, but as with any innovative new product, it was initially unknown how well it would be received by sports fans, no matter how convinced we were of its merits. The only way to validate this was to develop a minimum viable product (MVP), get it into the hands of users and iterate on it based on user feedback. So that is what we did. We launched our 1.0 product in September 2015, several enhancements of 1.0 over the next few months, then launched our 2.0 in March 2016 and have released several iterations until now. We are in the process of raising funding via an equity crowdfunding campaign (link here) to produce the full-featured 3.0 commercial version that will be the culmination of all of our validated learnings over the past year. 3) The strongly negative headlines in the industry created a lot of headwinds with investors, causing many of them to sit on the sidelines until the legal issues were worked out. This was ultimately a good thing, as it forced us to continue taking our time and keep costs low, but there are several other activities we could’ve been doing with a little more money that would’ve helped us iterate faster and arrive at a 3.0 version sooner. In the end, we are still in a very solid position with a product that is unique, validated by users as something they want, and we have gathered tons of market and product intelligence that will inform future decisions. We are only in this position today because we launched a product, got it into the hands of users, and started engaging with them on a daily basis.
If you were going to change direction now, where would you go? How would you do it?
I would seek to launch a company in the food industry aimed at making high quality superfoods cheaper and more convenient. There are myriad diet protocols and superfood products out there, but as busy Americans, we can’t find the time to buy, cook, and consume them. Also, there are still many superfoods and supplements that most Americans are unaware of that, if consumed regularly, could significantly enhance their health. This lack of awareness is an opportunity to build a product that becomes a staple household item, while enhancing the health of millions of Americans. I would begin by producing a single product, perfecting it to build a following and brand, and use that as my foundation for creating other great products. Examples of some of these foods and supplements, bone broth, kombucha, turmeric, magnesium, kefir, grass-fed meat, coconut oil, and many combinations thereof.
How has Georgetown helped shape your values, both personally and professionally?
Being exposed to the sheer magnitude of sophistication of the student body elevated every aspect of my professional being. My time at Georgetown greatly enhanced my self-confidence and elevated my aspirations immeasurably. It made me realize that my education and the opportunity to earn a degree from Georgetown was a privilege, and it inspired me to take my professional endeavors more seriously. Of all my networks, my Georgetown network has far exceeded any other in professional achievement and global impact, and I am honored to be associated with all of my Georgetown colleagues.
Name three things that you couldn’t live without in your workspace.
1) A pair of headphones to listen to music. It doesn’t really matter what it is, as long as it is energetic and inspiring. If I need to get work done, I need to go head down with headphones on.
2) Natural light…because we’re human.
3) A chair that provides proper support and a standing/leaning desk arrangement that allows me to stretch out. I can’t accept that while I’m “accomplishing” something professionally, my body is taking a beating that will be impossible to reverse in the future.