There’s No ‘I’ in Team: Lessons from the Sports Startup World

November 24, 2020 | Colleen O’ Connell-Campbell


Small businesses are no joke. We all know that. But when you look at the impact they have on a country like Canada, the real statistics, it’s pretty amazing just how much they contribute to the fabric of our economy.

  • There are approximately 1.18 million small businesses in Canada (1-99 employees).
  • Ontario ranks first in number, with Quebec and B.C. following its lead.
  • Many small businesses are really small – nearly 75 percent have fewer than ten employees.

Canada’s tech startup scene is thriving as well. And might be the boost this country needs to help it bounce back from the Covid-19 economic squeeze.

In fact, a recent report from the Innovation Economy Council found, “The pandemic has accelerated the pace of transformation in the workplace, in many cases from years to months or even weeks. It’s speeding up demand for new tools to help people and businesses work, bank, shop, learn and interact online — while keeping hackers at bay. As this new world of work evolves and shapes the post-pandemic economy, technology will become even more important than it is today. The tech companies that provide these tools are already deeply entwined in every facet of the Canadian economy. Our supply chains, our just-in-time manufacturers, our retail sector and our energy sector are already highly dependent on innovative, essential and enabling tech companies… For the Canadian economy to survive, these essential companies need to survive.”

I couldn’t agree more. Which is why I spend so much time and energy getting to know innovative small business owners and startup founders, and subsequently introducing them to you – the Self Made Nation!

The Canadian startup scene is thriving, and the tech side of that scene especially so, leading the country in job creation and economic growth, pre-Covid-19. And I think if there’s one thing this pandemic, and the resultant shift to “all things digital” has taught us, it’s that being able to do and/or access *anything and (practically) everything* digitally is fast becoming the accepted norm.

The Great Pivot

Which brings me to my guest from this week’s episode of “I’m a Millionaire. So Now What?” Many of you pivoted HARD when Covid-19 hit in March, adapting to new ways of working and taking companies online. Kris McCarthy, Co-Founder and COO of FanSaves, pivoted pre-Covid – but it was just as sudden.

A former professional hockey player, his life-change happened because of an injury, an all too familiar occurrence in the sports world, unfortunately. So, the Prince Edward Island born, Ottawa raised McCarthy channeled his passion for sports paired with a business degree from SUNY Potsdam into the world of Sports Marketing.

While selling sponsorship for two minor professional hockey teams he and his co-founder were managing in 2017, they quickly realized there was a “hole” in the sports marketing/sponsorship world – and set out to fill it! Business owners wanted to be able to reach their target market digitally while being able to measure their return on investment with data. And voila! FanSaves was born. A sports-focused, mobile couponing platform that features discounts and deals from sponsors and affiliates brands of organizations, teams, events, chambers, influencers and more, it’s sort of a mobile couponing platform, allowing brands and partners to digitally track customer needs, and gain valuable consumer insights.

Kris and his partner bootstrapped their butts off – and no, everything didn’t always go swimmingly! But today, they’ve built a solid team, and a thriving startup.

Here’s a bit of what he shared about his journey!

Hedge Your Bets Before You Start Hiring

“If you're a founder, or you have a co-founder, do as much as you can, for as long as you can, before you hire anybody, you'll save a lot of money. Luckily for Shannon and I, we don't have any kids - our business is our baby. We've been together for over three years. We go to bed talking about our business, we wake up talking about our business, and, you know, we're always kind of on, which is great. But when you start getting into employees, yes, they can help you. But that also takes some of the attention away from other aspects of the business, because you need to train that employee, you need to make sure every day that they know what they're doing, and they have responsibilities that they're looking after. And, you know, at an early stage, they might not be so necessary. I would say if you are going to hire look for internships or subsidies, there's a lot of organizations out there that provide subsidies for employees. So that's really helped us. But you know, we did make a couple mistakes. Basically, we had hired the employees before the development was finished. And when the development wasn't finished on time, and actually went a couple months later than I was supposed to, we were basically paying these employees before we should have hired them. So that was a big learning lesson for us.”

Leave Fear at the Door

“We didn't know anything about app development!! But we jumped right in, and we learned along the way, and now we're so much more knowledgeable in the space, and we're able to, you know, provide our experience to other founders who are just starting. And we didn't lose our IP or spend all kinds of money that [ended up] lost. We've heard horror stories from other founders, and we think we've made out okay, but definitely a big learning curve, for sure. A lesson, to anyone out there who might be sitting on an idea, even though you may not have the tech background, there are ways to bring that idea forward. Don't be afraid, there are resources, and it might take you a bit of time to land on precisely what's going to work for you, but it's out there! You're not going to be an expert in every aspect of the business. There's going to be growing pains, there's going to be lessons learned. Outsource to professionals as much as you can. But also, you have to be scrappy, on the other side of the entrepreneurial scale, where you have to find deals, what you can afford at that stage in your business. I [also] think new entrepreneurs, they have this mentality that they need to have, you know, $50,000 saved up in the bank to start a business, to really do it right. And that could not be further from the truth. I know, in our example, we started our business with, like, pennies in our bank account, we weren't in like a really great financial position. But, you know, we knew that we had an idea, we had had it validated. And so, we were really resourceful and scrappy is the word that I like to use.”

Build an Advisory Board – and Don’t Be Afraid to Namedrop!

“We've built an advisory board of 10 incredible, well rounded people, really respectable people in their own industry. For example, we have the founder of the Ottawa Senators, Bruce Firestone. My aunt is actually the VP of HR for a global company. And she's one of our advisors who's really been able to help us on the HR side of things and make sure that we're doing things properly, and by the book. We've got some technical advisors, we've got some in sports, we have the former VP of corporate sales from the Golden State Warriors in the NBA. Having her insights and her 10 years of knowledge, working at the highest level of professional basketball, that's really helping us break into that market. It doesn't hurt to name drop here and there! It's often who we know that gets us through life, what gets us the next door opening. They're on our website, they're in every pitch deck, we have monthly meetings with them, we send out reports, we lean on them to avoid mistakes, use their expertise that we might not know otherwise. So, a big lesson here for entrepreneurs that might be listening or founders that don't have an advisory board, build an advisory board! You don't have to pay them shares, you don't have to pay them money. If they really like you, as a founder, and like the vision for your company, nine times out of 10, they'll be a part of your advisory board for the prestige of being on that board. More times than not these people will just come on to help you and lend their advice.”

If you’re an entrepreneur looking to exit, or you’re at the helm of a thriving business or startup, I would love to talk with you about your stories! You can drop me a line here.

Plus, if you are craving like-minded conversation with growth-oriented business owners, consider joining me and eight other business owners, investors and entrepreneurs for our next two editions of Elevated Conversations - watch this space for more details!