Professional athletes are making moves off the field during and after their athletic careers.
The number of business ventures led by athletes such as Earvin “Magic” Johnson Jr, Lebron James and Serena Williams means fewer people are saying “just shut up and dribble,” says Mike A. Brown, former NFL linebacker and startup founder.
Brown’s tech company, Win-Win, is a “gamified giving” platform where players can compete to win experiences offered by sports and entertainment influencers while contributing to charities and causes.
Despite being a 4.0 GPA student, president of his high school engineering club and graduating early from Duke University, Brown admits he felt intellectually challenged by some people. However, as tenacious as he was on the field, he has been just as driven off the field in his pursuit of learning to run a tech startup.
A top graduate finishing No. 1 at Draper University, Brown has worked hard on Win-Win’s playbook. The gaming platform helps professional athletes who are looking to boost philanthropic efforts and provides them with a platform that helps them to mobilize an audience — their fan base — in support of a cause while providing experiences that they couldn’t normally access. Win-Win was named a company to watch by the 500 Startups accelerator.
Brown recently spoke with Moguldom about being taken seriously as an athlete-turned-entrepreneur, pivoting his company and his fundraising campaign.
You hear people say, “just shut up and dribble.” I had to deal with some of that. I could get a meeting with most any VC or investor but not for the reasons I wanted. It’s getting a lot better now with the awareness of what guys are doing off the field.Mike T. Brown, former NFL player and founder of Win-Win.
Moguldom: Why did you start Win-Win?
Mike Brown: As a former professional athlete and a philanthropist, I recognize how difficult it was for players to leverage their platform to really drive awareness for their philanthropic passions. When I looked at philanthropy in general, as well from a consumer standpoint, I recognized a big problem. Charitable giving in and of itself was not very innovative. People lean towards things like charity raffles, charity auctions or crowdfunding, what I like to call panhandle-style donations — your GoFundMe’s of the world. I recognized an opportunity to leverage something that people are truly engaged in — gaming — sports gaming in particular. At Win-Win, we combine giving with gaming to create a better, more engaging experience for fans and donors to be able to support charitable causes. We line up professional athletes who are looking to boost philanthropic efforts and provide them with a platform that helps them to mobilize an audience, their fan base, in support of a cause while being able to provide experiences that they couldn’t normally access. We recognized there was a huge opportunity in being able to create a better way to give, a big opportunity to increase donor giving while simultaneously solving a problem for athletes, entertainers, artists, influencers, by giving them an easy and efficient way to maximize their philanthropic passions.
Moguldom: You launched the company three years ago. Since then, what have been some of your memorable challenges?
Mike Brown: When you’re building something that has never existed in the world, there are a lot of things that you have to overcome and go through. You don’t even know what those things are and they’re going to be different for every startup. For us, I think a big, big challenge early on was really understanding what the experience was for the fans, the donors. We initially started with a different type of gaming, fantasy sports, right around the time the industry was extremely hot with FanDuel and DraftKings. Customers would join a tournament hosted by an NFL player, and they had to build a fantasy lineup and that’s just very hard to do. Some of our early tests kind of showed that it may work, but then it didn’t. We went into this very intense phase of testing and iterating. The challenge is getting the product-market fit and making sure what you’re putting out there, you’re really understanding the data and looking at the numbers and being realistic about what’s working and what’s not. That’s also part of the challenge because you want to move so fast and do things big, but you really need to understand where you are in the lifecycle of your company before taking those next steps. You don’t want to put the cart before the horse.
To this day I lead my conversations with potential investors or partners with my background outside of sports, from high school National Honor Society to Duke University. I just so happened to know how to tackle people. Don’t let that put me in a box.Mike T. Brown, former NFL linebacker and founder of Win-Win.
Moguldom: Do you find being a former athlete has been helpful for you and your startup journey or do you think you’re probably having the same challenges as everybody else?
Mike Brown: So a little bit of both — certainly, having the same challenges as most founders building something that hasn’t existed yet. That type of adversity you have to figure out and overcome regardless of your background. My background is actually a very strong competitive advantage when it comes to what we do specifically, because we’re building something where we work with a ton of professional athletes and entertainers, and because I come from that world, and I experienced and understand those pain points we’re looking to solve. So, when it came to building out the company and trying to navigate how we get the product market fit, I had a bit of an advantage just through access and understanding of the athletes.
But in terms of those kinds of common things that you have to go through such as raising money, building a team, all of those things are definitely still challenges. My background affords me an understanding and the ability to deal with tough situations and be able to communicate effectively, for example. These are things I’ve really honed in as part of my career. It was helpful in that regard, but it certainly didn’t make me immune to any of the typical startup challenges.
The other thing I’ll mention is the kind of not-so-positive side of being an athlete, a former athlete, was the perception that came with that. You hear people say, “just shut up and dribble” where athletes tend to get put into a box. I think it’s getting a lot better now with the awareness of what guys are doing off the field. I had to deal with some of that perception. I could basically get a meeting with most any VC or investor. But it was typically not for the reasons that I wanted them to be. They mostly wanted to just say, “Oh man, this guy played in the NFL,” or asking me questions about Peyton Manning, stuff like that. There were some perception issues that before all of this, even in school, having to always combat that dumb jock perception. It didn’t deter me or slow me down but it certainly was something that I was aware of and had to overcome.
I learned that not every investor is meant to be your investor. It can be emotionally draining to hear “no” about your baby. It’s like somebody calling your baby ugly over and over and over. You’re just looking for that one person to say, “Oh man, that baby looks really good.”Mike T. Brown, former NFL linebacker and founder of Win-Win.
Moguldom: Since we’re talking about perception, many could see you as only being an athlete. You’ve gone through Draper University and 500 Startups. Did those program shape how you do business and how you’re perceived as a serious entrepreneur?
Mike Brown: Yeah, I mean 100 percent they were definitely helpful. Draper University, in particular, was the first time I had ever experienced anything in tech. When I finished up my professional athletic career, I was really interested in business. At the time in 2012, all I knew was you go get an MBA and then figure it out from there. I was on that track and through a series of events, a friend of mine told me about Draper University and I looked into it. I didn’t know anything about it or what Silicon Valley was and got accepted into that program on a full scholarship.
Over the nine weeks, I just soaked up so much. It was supremely helpful in igniting that fire. Then, having finished No. 1 in that program with Tim Draper certainly increased the level of respect, if you will, from folks I was having early conversations with. I was still very green in terms of wanting to get into tech. I spent the next year teaching myself to code, design and then moved to the Bay. I think as each of these moves started to happen it kind of started decreasing this misconception or misperceived thought about me. I’ll be honest, even to this day I lead my conversations with potential investors or partners with my background outside of sports. Going in from high school where I had a 4.0, was president of the engineering club, National Honor Society, and then took those talents to Duke University where I graduated early. I remind folks of those things as I’m having those conversations in the very beginning so that they understand that I just so happened to know how to tackle people, so don’t let that put me in a box because I’m certainly a lot more than that and always have been.
Moguldom: What have been some notable wins since launching your company?
Mike Brown: One of the things I was really, really proud of is that as a former athlete, first time founder, a Black founder, all these things that kind of potentially could stack up against you in the fundraising world, I was able to secure just under $1 million in our first round in 2016, before we even launched, before we even really had the product ready, which typically doesn’t happen. Because technology is so democratized and is much easier to build out things, we were able to secure quite a bit of money, around $925,000 from early angel investors. I started the company in February 2016 and as a solo founder just hit the ground and was hustling. I started taking capital in April, May. By early August we had closed out $925,000 from the likes of Sand Hill Angels, which is a prominent angel group here in Silicon Valley, Duke University, my alma mater, and we had a few professional athletes. We had a really good mix of investors and I just was really fortunate to be able to get early believers in what I’m doing and what we were planning to do. That was definitely one of the big kinds of notable wins. Then I’d say just from a functioning standpoint, just being able to survive. We went through 500 Startups in the spring of 2017. We did very well, (among) top companies as named by TechCrunch. You look at the companies now and half of them aren’t even operating. That’s just kind of the realities of startups. I think a win for us was being able to overcome tough situations where capital was starting to get low or still needing to figure out our business model. I think that is notable in and of itself.
In terms of our recent fundraising on Republic, I’m just really honored and thrilled to be able to have my people, folks I know, or who found out about us, who would never have access to a deal like this because they don’t live in Silicon Valley or they’re not an old white guy, be able to participate.Mike T. Brown, former NFL linebacker and founder of Win-Win.
Moguldom: You mentioned the $925,000 . CrunchBase lists another $150,000 you raised and you’re in the process of raising right now with a campaign on the Republic platform. Most founders say they hate fundraising. Some founders say they love it. How do you feel?
Mike Brown: I guess for lack of a better term, it’s a necessary evil. The process of raising is just very exhausting and you’ve got to knock down a lot of doors. You’re going to get a lot of no’s and you know that going in. But now that we’ve actually got traction and things are moving and we’re not in the concept phase, we’re in the operating phase and trying to grow now, that process has been actually really good, just in terms of connecting with the right folks. I think my strategy has changed as well. I learned that not every investor is meant to be your investor. Even if they are interested in investing, are we going to invest the time to go through all that diligence? Sometimes you go through that diligence, and it still results in a no. It can be emotionally draining to hear no about your baby. It’s like somebody calling your baby ugly over and over and over. You’re just looking for that one person to say, “Oh man, that baby looks really good.”
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So, going through that process and having the efficiency around it and not getting emotionally drained by it makes the process relatively easier or better to manage. But I think one thing that I’m always big on is relationship building. I’ve built some great relationships with folks who may end up being our investors in the future. Being able to have great relationships with them and they be able to track our progress and see what’s going on, I think ends up making that process down the line a bit easier. But in terms of our recent fundraising on Republic, I’m just really honored and thrilled to be able to have my people, folks I know, or who found out about us, who would never have access to a deal like this because they don’t live in Silicon Valley or they’re not an old white guy, be able to participate in our recent fundraising. I guess kind of I’m in the middle of that spectrum. I don’t hate fundraising. I love the grind, I love the hustle, but not necessarily in love with it either just because there’s so much more I need to be doing when I’m out fundraising.
Moguldom: What do the next five years look like?
Mike Brown: Next five years, if I had to sum it up would a would be growth. We’ve been basically under the radar for the last two-and-a-half, three years, and really just putting in the work, focusing on the metrics that matter through our beta and really getting to this point of product market fit. I’m proud to be where we are right now. We’re going to start our initial growth phase here shortly with the launch of our full-scale platform this NFL season, and are raising some capital with our Republic campaign and growing our team out a bit. I’m excited about the fundraising with the public right now. I love the ability to give our people a chance to invest that they may not have had before President Obama’s JOBS Act. Over the next year or two, you’ll start to see big expansion across our partnerships because we’ve been working with NFL and NBA players and now we’re going to continue to scale up across other sports and then start to go vertically into entertainers, artists, influencers, professional teams, and even universities.
We built the platform to help any entity of influence mobilize an audience and support a cause. We leverage gaming to do that very effectively. Over the next few years that’s where you’ll start to see big growth and expansion of not only the partnership and the offering, but our team, and as our investors are excited, the revenue as well. Right now, we’re laser-focused on growing and continuing to survive the startup journey and getting to a place of significance in the marketplace.