During and after college, I managed to burn down 3 basketball start-up ideas. Overall, I think they were a lot of fun and I learned a lot about basketball, people and the internet. If it wasn’t for these experiences, I probably wouldn’t have switched professional paths from finance to digital marketing & entrepreneurship. I’m going to share exactly what we did right and where we went wrong to inspire ideas and conversation with those looking to help grow the game of basketball, locally or globally.
Creative Basketball Events with Cash Prizes, Trophies and profit-sharing with local youth organizations
During college, I played ball in local tournaments, leagues and intramurals. Along the way, a friend – UK – and I saw opportunity to make money organizing basketball games and events in a way no other park district, school or health club did.
Some local amateur leagues made thousands per ‘season’ so we thought, ‘why not replicate, brand it better and share the wealth with local charities and youth organizations?’
When we inquired about rentals, we had solid responses from local gyms. **Instead of charging us the normal hourly rates, they cut them by almost half because we promised to give back to charities.** If we had to pay normal rates, this whole project would be a bust.
In tough times, public parks hurt so the residual income from each event meant they got to earn more while doing less marketing. We also promised to keep the gyms neat, keep the games civil and eliminate almost all liability.
Park facility managers loved the ideas and gave us the green light. We contacted several youth non-profits to let them know we intended to help them, no strings attached.
They were thrilled too.
Lesson: Identify win-win-win opportunities, communicate them clearly and you can win people over. Partnerships with people and organizations go a long way. It wasn’t just about money, it was about more basketball and more community support.
Looking at our basic projections, we were also thrilled because well, kachinggg. We were also thrilled about our branding of the events. We’d rent out speakers and play music sparingly like in NBA games. We’d give out custom jerseys. The winners would receive $3k-5k in cash prizes and get legit trophies. We’d also host 3-point shootouts in between games that even spectators could join for a small fee. All at the same price that similar events charged. With all these unique selling points, we figured the sign-ups would come easy.
I assumed wrong. We struggled with marketing and operations. We failed to get firm commitments from players and referees.
We wrongly thought we could just hit up friends from previous leagues/tourneys and let the word spread. We set up a FB group, FB events and blasted invites. The word spread and players expressed a ton of interest but we failed to collect signed checks and waiver forms. We also had trouble finding legit referees who fit our budget.
The first day of the tournament neared and we only had 5 committed teams. One more and we would’ve broke even. As it turned out, teams started asking for refunds. We cancelled the whole thing and upset a lot of people. They had every right to be pissed off.
Lesson learned: Get firm commitments upfront not only from partners and vendors, but especially the customer/users.
That’s the truest way to validate market potential for a new idea. And don’t get excited to a point where you begin to overlook the necessary work. Gotta keep composure at all times.
Our excuse for not doing enough to close teams and collect checks is we focused too much on creating a fucking business plan. Pardon the language but your whole life in business school and the real world, people tell you to create solid business plans and forecasts. We wasted so much time putting together these 50 page documents that we’d never refer to because of the constant change in reality.
Lesson: Planning is absolutely critical, but plans are bullshit. Stop wasting time, energy and paper. Do the things that add value like listening to potential customers, closing deals and building stronger partnerships. Envision the future, but stop predicting it. It’s not in your control.
So that was the end of that.
A Derrick Rose/Chicago Bulls online community in his MVP year
In Dec 2010, Derrick Rose and the Bulls were gaining traction and Rose himself looked like he was in full bloom mode in his 3rd year. His MVP prediction was starting to materialize. I sensed the momentum about 30 games in and started a ‘Drose4mvp’ fanpage to build support among fans.
Initially, I reached out to FB friends and they also spread word about the page. We had a 1000 organic ‘liked’ in a week. I then tested Facebook ads to target 18-30 year old Chicagoans who were interested in Chicago Bulls. Approximately $500 of ad spend later, we had 15k passionate Bulls fans.
The plan now was to push the traffic to a site/blog. So I put together a basic WordPress site. A friend – HN – and I wrote posts on drose4mvp.com with game-by-game analysis, in a pretty creative format, which we promoted on the fan page.
We attracted ~3-5k monthly visitors who read and shared content. We wanted to continue the aggressive growth but also improve site design, content, usability, user participation and monetization tactics.
Unfortunately, we worked full time jobs, we had too many ideas in the pipeline and no business model. It became difficult to keep up. Eventually, we burned out, stopped writing content and lost all traction. The fan page still exists today, the site’s dead with little to no remaining imprints on the web.
Looking back, I realize we lacked actionable purpose in this project and ultimately, that’s the reason it failed. When a project holds meaning, there’s real motivation to make things happen regardless of the difficulties.
We had the right ingredients: an engaged audience, a reader-focused site and a passionate topic. However, we lacked a clear vision and a viable business model.
Lesson learned: The internet makes it unbelievably easy for anyone to start and test a startup/project without significant investment. You just need a basic WordPress site, a Facebook fan page to test (and potentially build) your target audience and a clear idea of where you want to go. It especially helps if your subject matter is something you’re incredibly passionate about.
Months after that project died, I felt compelled to try again. This time, I wanted to test out the Indian market because of NBA’s increased attention in recent years.
BasketballinIndia.com: An online community of basketball and NBA enthusiasts in India
Ever since Yao Ming put China on the NBA global map, David Stern, his corporate people, global brands like Nike/Adidas/Li Ning and even NBA players have looked to repeat in India.
The question that came to mind was:
How open are kids and young adults to basketball in a country that’s dominated by cricket? How accessible are indoor and outdoor courts in both rural and urban areas? How much interest do Indians in India have in the NBA and how does their basketball knowledge compare?
Again, I went back to the FB fan page and WordPress to find answers. I tested a lot of different ‘interests’ and thankfully, the FB targeting tool shows you numbers in real-time. Within minutes, I found out there are hundreds of thousands of people (male and female, kids and young adults, all throughout India). I found out that they love (or at least interested by) Kobe Bryant more than any other active/inactive NBA athlete.
I also looked at the web landscape to determine areas of opportunity. I was pretty encouraged by the lack of NBA/basketball site results presented by Google.in. There weren’t any websites personalized to Indian fans/players so me and UK teamed up again to launch basketballinindia.com
This time around, there was a clear vision, a scalable business model, a passionate topic and a connected audience through Facebook and the website.
In comparison to the DRose4MVP project, we learned enough from our mistakes/achievements to earn more success…just until our site got wiped out overnight.
See, for this project, we wanted to stay away from the standard hosting providers like Godaddy. So I picked a managed WP host called Hostguts and signed up a 1-year contract. Along the way, I did all the basic design and development work in WordPress.
While I understood the basics, I didn’t invest enough time in maintenance and security. This would come back to bite us in the ass.
We received a notice in the 11th month about renewing our domain name and host plan. When I tried to contact HG however to update my credit card information and to renew, they were unresponsive. Apparently, they closed up shop but their website still showed active. I couldn’t get a hold of anyone or do anything thru the host dashboard to extend the hosting services.
For weeks, I carelessly assumed everything would be fine. I didn’t back up the files correctly. Then the deadline hit and shit hit the fan. I was unable to salvage the domain name and the site as a whole.
Basketballinindia.com fell off the face of the web overnight. If I were more diligent and didn’t take this issue so lightly, we could have easily transferred the site to my current favorite WP hosting provider, WPEngine.
Lesson learned: You don’t have to be overseas to try an international project. The world is flatter thanks to Facebook, Google’s international search engines, readily available keyword research data and India’s increased accessibility to the Internet. Managing overseas relationships though is difficult. We reached out to several folks who were interested in helping write content for the site as well as coordinating local basketball events for us, earning sponsors and even building basketball training aid equipment prototypes. Due to the large gaps in American and Indian basketball cultures, time zones and knowledge transfer, it was almost counterproductive. Some things you just can’t do over the phone or the web. Face to face time has no viable alternative.
The internet makes it easy for anyone to test and validate new ideas with little cost and little skill. Taking the next step from the infancy stages is the real challenge. There are no shortcuts and there is no overnight success. The details matter greatly, pay attention and take nothing for granted.
Don’t take human relationships lightly. If you meet great people along the way as you validate an idea, don’t cut ties when you kill the project(s). They might need you in the future and you might need them. Weak ties are better than no ties.
Above all, don’t be afraid to use your instincts and common sense. To hell with the textbook education, the business plans, the formal processes. Sometimes. These abstracts won’t make or break your business. Ultimately it comes down to you, the people you work with, and the decisions you make and live with.
While all 3 of these projects were ‘failures’, I never felt regret. It’s not even about ‘learning from mistakes’. It’s about the experiences and surprises that keep work and life interesting.
The irony is not lost on me. Basketball helped me grow as a professional and a person and now I find myself, in one way or another, passionate enough to help grow the game itself.
I’m not alone. There are others – writers, coaches, players, parents, marketers, business people – who are playing a key role in expanding the game on micro and macro levels.
If this sounds like you, feel free to reach out with ideas for collaboration.
And be sure to check out our complete guide on learning to shoot basketball like a pro.