Start-up Success in Sports: An Interview with opendorse CEO Blake Lawrence

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By: Justin Mears, @jmears26

Blake Lawrence, co-founder and CEO of opendorse.

Front Office Sports is proud to have sat down with Blake Lawrence, co-founder and CEO of opendorse. A standout linebacker at the University of Nebraska from 2007–2009, Blake’s football career was cut short due to repeated concussions. After finishing his football career, Blake transitioned to the world of entrepreneurship, finishing his marketing degree at Nebraska in 2009 and receiving his MBA from Nebraska in 2011.

While working on his MBA, Blake co-founded Hurrdat, a social media agency that helped businesses and brands in the Midwest build their own network of customers and potential customers through social media. As Hurrdat began to include professional athlete clients in an attempt to help them connect with their fans through social media, Blake and his team realized that there was a potential niche available for helping marketers connect with professional athletes to endorse their products through social media. By leveraging athlete influence among their fans to market their brand clients, they were able to help athletes monetize their social media while helping brands grow. While this was an effective way to market and helped increase engagement and return on investment, the process was inefficient.

Enter opendorse, a software platform that provides direct access to the social media accounts of professional athletes and allows brands of any size to send a piece of social media content over to any athlete with a dollar amount attached to it. The athlete has the option of accepting the request and then opendorse does the rest. Since its inception in 2013, opendorse has grown rapidly through partnerships with the NFLPA, UFC, and others. They now have over 3,500 athletes, 600 sports agents, and 1,200 sports marketers in their network.

In talking with Blake, it was clear from the beginning the impact that being a student-athlete has had on his development as an entrepreneur in the sports business industry. He described this perfectly by emphasizing that, “being a student-athlete at any level in any sport teaches you so many lessons that translate into the business world. I think they translate even better into the world of entrepreneurship. While at Nebraska and throughout my life as an athlete, I learned the importance of teamwork, of discipline, and of accountability. To perform at the highest level as an individual, you have to truly understand your particular skillset and how it fits within the needs of the team, and that’s something that any employee or any team member in the corporate world or in the business world could benefit from knowing.”

It is not just the qualities of teamwork, discipline, and accountability that he learned as a student-athlete, but also an inner drive and competitiveness that continues to motivate him today. Blake continued to say that, “The part that I think translates very well into the startup world is competition. It’s the ability to try at every point to outwork your opponents and find opportunities that others do not see that are going to help you win the game. I think that is a key component to the startup mentality is seeing things that others don’t and working harder than your competition to win those opportunities.”

There are now 20 people on the opendorse team, operating out of Lincoln, Nebraska, and it is some of the same qualities above that Blake says he is looking for when bringing in young sports industry professionals to be a part of his team.

“The first thing we look for is an individual’s ability to think outside the box and to react quickly to change. The only constant in the startup world is change. Our purpose is to build something great with people we care about, and so if someone fits our core values, which are passion, energy, reliability, thinking outside the box, and problem solving and are willing to build something great with people they care about, then they are going to fit our team very well. An untiring work ethic is something we look for with any young professional looking to join our team. We look for the willingness to stay late, work hard, and have fun along the way.”

As we all know, the sports business industry can be difficult to tap into. For anyone looking to break through, there are a lot of different paths to take and it takes a long time to earn respect and keep that respect in sports.

For opendorse, building a partnership almost overnight with the NFLPA allowed them to bypass some of the standard start-up struggles and gave them instant credibility and validation. “We were able to prove that our solution was solving a real problem in the market and partner with the largest association within sports, and it removed a lot of hurdles that most startups would face with sports, because it gave us instant credibility and gave us a partner who could introduce us to many of the large decision makers in sports. Without the NFLPA, I’m not sure what path we would be on, but we know that with their help and with that relationship, we’ve been able to get where we want to go faster. Something anyone should hope for is to have a great partner to help you break into the industry.”

While the hope of any startup would be to quickly partner with the largest association within their industry, the serendipitous nature of how situations like this develop was not lost on Blake as he recounted just how this relationship came to be.

“I’ve told this story a few different times with different media outlets, but there’s one part of the story I’ve never told. How that relationship came about is one of my favorite stories. At Nebraska, one of my favorite teammates and now best friends is Prince Amukamara who plays for the New York Giants. When we were looking to launch opendorse, it was the first week we had it out there, and Prince was in the office, and he asked me, ‘What is opendorse? What is this thing?’”

“I said ‘It’s the same thing we’ve been doing but we automated it and made it very easy.’ He said, ‘Let me see how it works.’ So, I pulled out ten dollars from my pocket and I said ‘Prince, I’ll send you a deal through opendorse. You’re going to get a text message, you hit accept, and I’ll give you this ten dollars. He said ‘Ten bucks? Come on man!’”

“I said, ‘It’s just a test. I’ll give you the ten bucks right here.’ I sent him a deal through opendorse that simply said, ‘Just got signed up with opendorse! It’s a Nebraska company doing awesome things, check em out.’ He hits accept, reluctantly grabs the ten dollars from my hand, and says, ‘Man, you got a deal!’ Less than an hour after that message was out, the NFLPA had signed up on opendorse, and in less than a day we were on the phone with the NFLPA discussing a trip to D.C. to negotiate a partnership.”

“It’s serendipitous, so many things in life are beyond your control and you don’t quite know how they come about, but that’s a moment I’ll never forget, because it was the right place at the right time and it provided an opportunity for us that not many startups get to have, which is to have our first partner be the largest association in the industry that we are looking to tap into. It was an incredibly powerful moment in our journey.”

When asked what keeps him motivated and striving for success in 2016 and beyond, Blake elaborated on the influence athletes have through their personal brands on social media and how opendorse is in position to help them capitalize on this influence.

“I think when we told the world in 2013 that professional athletes are turning into their own sports media companies, and that they need to operate like a sports media company with intentional strategies to grow their social audience, to engage their social audience, and to sell access to that audience to interested marketers, that was a novel concept. Now it is three years later and the big names in the industry are starting to call athletes the sports media company of the future.”

“The data shows that 10,000 athletes worldwide influence nearly 3 billion sports fans on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook on any day. That is double the size of the audience that pro sports teams influence, it is 15 times the size of the audience that pro sports leagues influence, and so there is no arguing that right now, there’s never been a better time for professional athletes to start to think of themselves as a valuable media outlet in the world of sports.”

“So, what I get excited about in 2016 is that a lot of the groundwork has been laid in the industry on our part and we have a lot of great relationships. I think that the industry is just now realizing that this is possible and this is valuable and so I am excited to see what happens when the narrative changes from opendorse pushing that this is the future to the industry accepting that this is the future and looking at opendorse as the solution.”

Blake concluded by pointing out some of the reasons why students should consider looking to smaller sports start-ups such as opendorse for internships. Opendorse has several internships available for the summer of 2016, and Blake pointed out that, “Interning at a startup, you are quickly treated like a full-time employee. You are given a lot of responsibility, and so for anyone looking to break into sports, in the startup world, you are going to accelerate your learning and probably be given more opportunities to do some things that you probably would notat a more well established company. For example, last summer, we had college interns calling sports agents, talking to professional athletes, and putting together pitch decks for some of the world’s largest brands.”

In his parting advice, Blake emphasized the role that young sports industry professionals have available to them in the digital age and how they should be confident in what they bring to the table.

“In the digital world, youth is an asset. The individuals leaving sports management programs that are young in their careers know more about the technology that is changing the world of sports business than the decision makers at the sports properties, teams, leagues, associations and media outlets that are paying for that technology,” Lawrence said. “So those young graduates can instantly provide credibility or critical information about the adoption of digital tools and the impact on the sports fan, and because of that, they should not be afraid to enter into the sports business world knowing that they can impact an organization of any size right away by discussing how the digital world is transcending and changing the way that young sports fans are engaging with properties around the world.”

We appreciate Blake taking the time to sit down with us and share some of his insight as a young sports industry entrepreneur, and we look forward to more great things coming from opendorse in 2016!

Blake can be reached on Twitter here or on LinkedIn here!