This interview is presented to you by the University of Nebraska - Lincoln Master of Arts in Business with a Specialization in Intercollegiate Athletics Administration
By: Joe Londergan, @joehio_
Technology has not only changed the business of sports positively, it has created new opportunities for sport professionals to share information and ideas, as well as provided exponentially more chances to launch a career or even a whole new company. Former NFL kicker and current web developer John Potter graciously agreed to share his insight into the world of sports tech and startups with Front Office Sports.
John is the founder of Sportd.com and co-creator of Starters, an emerging collaborative community of innovators and influencers from the worlds of sports and technology (two worlds that continue to rapidly intersect). With John’s help, Starters will be launching their own site later this month.
A native of Grand Haven, Michigan, John played a variety of sports growing up, but became quickly infatuated with football.
“I grew up a huge football fan, I didn’t care who it was. Michigan, Michigan State, Lions, any football [team] I was watching it. But when I’d watch games, I’d get to about 10 minutes in and want to go outside and play. So sports has always been more about doing it, playing and being a part of a team than it has been watching it.”
This ambitious and collaborative attitude would later serve him well in the world of startups. After developing his skill as a kicking specialist, John earned a football scholarship to Western Michigan University, where he graduated with a degree in finance. The transition into a collegiate student-athlete at WMU, while pursuing business interests, was enjoyable for John, but not always easy.
“I think college athletics is kind of a shock to anybody when you compare it to high school sports. It goes from being something you do for fun to what really amounts to a job. The other transition for me was going from playing wide receiver, free safety and kicker in high school to just being a kicker. Removing the other two positions and just giving me the one job where there is an awful lot of pressure and people only really care if you mess up was an interesting transition. But it was fun and I lucked out having received a scholarship to play at Western, so I made the most of it athletically and academically. My real passion has always been startups and business and unfortunately they didn’t have an entrepreneurship program there or a web development program. I realized pretty quickly that finance wasn’t what I wanted to do and I ended up teaching myself how to build websites.”
John’s football ability earned him the opportunity to play at the professional level after graduation. After being drafted in 2012 by the Buffalo Bills, his career also included stints with Washington, Detroit and Miami. The life of an NFL kicker would provide some insight into the ways of the business world.
“The NFL is a cutthroat business. You really have to go in and perform every single day because at any point the coaches and the GM could call you into their office and cut you, which happened a few times with me. So you need to have thick skin and not get down on yourself and just keep going at it. That’s something that I learned the hard way my rookie year. I was lucky enough to get drafted by the Buffalo in the last round of the draft. Because of that, I thought that I would be with that team for a while, and then halfway through the season I get a phone call from the bills saying they’re releasing me. It was eye opening. That feeling of uncertainty is the way it is in startups as well. You have to earn everything and that comes from a lot of hard work.”
That disappointment in his football career is part of what eventually pushed him to pursue his tech interests as more than a side project.
“My rookie year, after I got released, I had a lot of free time on my hands. I’ve always wanted to build companies and I had worked on a few websites and done a few little things throughout college. I realized that I should probably teach myself how to code. The first thing I built was Sportd, which is a site that helps athletes find sports camps and private lessons. That’s kind of been evolving over the past two and a half years and now turning into more of a community. The goal is to be a Yelp for youth sports.”
The idea for Sportd came to John partially as a result of his own experiences developing his skills as a football player seeking a college scholarship.
“When I was a freshman in high school, my coach told me that he thought I could earn a scholarship as a kicker. He didn’t really have any other guidance for me. A lot of coaches don’t know what to tell a kicker or how to help them. So I just set about trying to find camps, trying to find coaches, doing whatever I could to get better as a kicker so I could earn that scholarship to college. A lot of that is searching on google and going through brochures that you get in the mail. It’s a really tough process to know what camps to go to or how to know what the next step is. The closer you get to your senior year, the more important each of those steps are. There are recruiting camps you can’t miss or else you’re going to miss out on a scholarship. The only ones that know what the right answers are the ones that have gone through it. Everyone who has made it through and succeeded, got to college and the professional level and has this knowledge and can give guidance to the athletes currently going through this.”
Along with providing an idea for a business venture, the recruiting process was also John’s first introduction to professional networking.
“A lot of the coaches that I worked with in high school asked me back to work their camps when I got into college and the NFL. Over the years, I continued working with them and I developed this network. It really helps you when you’re trying to get companies off the ground. An idea isn’t that valuable. Even a platform isn’t that valuable. It’s really the network behind the platform that makes it something special.”
That statement can easily be applied to John’s latest project by the name of Starters.
“I don’t think there’s been something like it in the sports world yet. At the beginning of this year, Troy Ruediger, the creator of Starters, just wanted a platform where he could meet other sports technology people and just talk about where sports and tech intersect. So he built this Slack group and started inviting people. I was one of the first people to join and just got super involved in the community. There was a lot of value to it from day one. You go in and introduce yourself and people tell you who you should connect with. It’s an amazing community with innovators and influencers in sports technology. People who are running these amazing companies trying to change the future of sports, all coming together in this one place. If you’re trying to break into sports and tech, it’s where you need to be. ”
Starters has also acted as a great example of the effectiveness of the rising trend of influencer marketing.
“With any startup, (influencer marketing) is super valuable. Especially when you’re bootstrapping, it is really important to be able to reach your target audience. Nobody does it more effectively than these influencers who can say something and their audience actually listens and engages with it as opposed to seeing it as just selling something.”
One of the things that Starters has utilized to allow it’s community members to learn from each other in an insightful and entertaining way is through Snapchat takeovers (@StartersTV). Starters brings in a variety of figures and groups to show what they are doing and how they are integrating new ideas and new tech into their work. Past hosts of these takeovers include RGA Ventures and the NFL Players Association.
“It’s been cool to be able to bring in these influencers and industry figures who know what they’re talking about while they’re building these companies and doing these awesome things. We put them in front of the camera and have them lead these Snapchat takeovers and give a behind the scenes look at the sports tech landscape. Honestly, we’ve been completely surprised how amazing it has done. The people running these takeovers just do an insanely good job and put a lot of effort into providing this amazing content.”
Recently, Troy and John have been working on a platform to compliment what is happening in the Starters community that had been built through Slack, Twitter and Medium. The platform is set to feature companies and industry figures making waves in the sports tech world along with aggregating articles and news links highlighting industry trends. It will launch July 18th at Starters.co.
Through his work with Sportd and Starters, along with his past ventures in college and as an athlete, John has learned that for him, succeeding with multiple simultaneous projects is a matter of managing time and focus.
“I can only really focus on one thing at a time. So it’s a matter of being able to break up my time in to chunks and focus on one specific thing during that chunk of time. The more your brain is switching between these different contexts, the harder it is to actually get stuff done. So instead of doing everything at once, I break it up and say ‘right now I’m just going to do web development’. Or, ‘right now, I’m just going to do design’. It is kind of tough working on a slack community because you’re always getting pinged, you always want to jump in there and chat. But just cutting yourself off and just sitting in front of a computer and getting things done is what you have to do sometimes.”
Cutting yourself off from the constant emails, phone calls and notifications that come from working in both sports and tech is easier said than done. However, as many in the business like John can attest, it becomes essential from a professional and personal health perspective.
“There are a couple different things that I think are important. One is when you’re trying to get work done, whether it’s trying to write an article or writing code, just cutting off. Turn slack off, turn Twitter notifications off, just lock in and get it done. Then you can go back to the other stuff. The other thing is cutting off when you have free time and spending it with your family, kids, significant other, close friends, those types of people. You can do the same thing with an activity you really love like exercising. Take some time to focus on that and let your body and brain recharge. That way, you’re more efficient and effective when you actually are working.”
John’s personal triumphs have taught him the value of perseverance: a trait he believes to be quintessential to surviving in the sport industry.
“Just keep going. There are a lot of times where it can get depressing. For example, if you don’t see any traction or people aren’t responding well. You just keep going and keep going and keep going. Then, eventually, cool things happen.”
Front Office Sports would like to thank John for sharing his story and wish him and the Starters team well in their future endeavors.
Follow John on Twitter here.
Follow Starters here.
Connect with John on LinkedIn here.
This interview was presented to you by the University of Nebraska - Lincoln Master of Arts in Business with a Specialization in Intercollegiate Athletics Administration