Gabe Lozano believes that most people have three very different sides to their lives: social, professional, and recreational. And while the web allows for their social personas to reside on Facebook and professional portfolios on LinkedIn, there’s not been a dedicated place for the gathering and sharing of information about their sportier sides. (And no, fantasy leagues don't count.) So Lozano, who once played baseball at Millikin University in Illinois, created LockerDome.
"The bet we made is that people are more passionate about sports than anything else," Lozano tells Fast Company.
Originally conceived as a social sports community to connect athletes and teams across the country, the platform was particularly focused on teen athletes and youth programs. The premise was that young athletes and local sports organizations needed an online space to showcase their talents. LockerDome’s profile pages were a place to upload and share game dates, stats, photos, and highlight reels. Recruiters could tap into those pages and scout for up-and-coming talent.
That was in 2008. Flash forward through three years of fits, starts, and bootstrapping, and LockerDome’s now ready for the big leagues. Or so it hopes.
With revamped back-end architecture and a growing network of members, youth programs, and professional athletes' pages, LockerDome’s attracted a $750,000 round of angel investing led by Jim McKelvey, a cofounder of Square, and Brian Matthews of Capital Innovators.
Lozano quips that he managed to snag funding for LockerDome "without a formal presentation deck." But the idea for the site did capture the attention of Matthews, who had plenty of sports cred. Lozano affectionately refers to him as the "godfather of fantasy sports," because Matthews founded CDM Fantasy Sports, one of the first and largest of such companies in the U.S.
Matthews in turn, pulled in McKelvey, assuring him that LockerDome was the "one company" investors dream of. Lozano describes it thusly: "There’s the one company that you can [invest in] and sell for $100 million and then there’s the one company that will bring in ‘Monopoly money’ in the billions." Matthews had a hunch that LockerDome could be the latter.
Jim McKelvey didn’t bite immediately for two reasons. One is that as an investor and an entrepreneur he’s not that interested in exits. Rather than throw resources and energy into the "flavor of the week" business that’s bound for sale to generate a pile of cash, McKelvey asserts, "I’ve owned four businesses and I’ve never sold any of them."
The other cause for hesitation was more basic. "Unless you consider glass blowing as a sport, I was out of my league," he confesses. Indeed, before McKelvey started Square with Jack Dorsey of Twitter, he cofounded Third Degree Glass Factory, a public access glass art education center, and Mira, a digital publishing company.
But he started poking around LockerDome (even starting his own profile featuring a photo of himself doing what else— blowing glass) and liked what he saw. For starters, he was sold on Lozano. "Gabe eats the dog food, he’s a sports fanatic. A lot of the guys who are don’t have the tech chops," says McKelvey, so platforms such as GAGA, a heavily analytics-driven service with micro-sites for sports teams and collegiate athletic programs to engage with fans, may be unnecessarily complex. Others, such as Sports Shouting, are simply repositories for the rants and raves of rabid enthusiasts.
With sports, whether in organized youth programs or at a professional level, McKelvey says athletes have a fascination for their stats and need to have a repository for all that basic info that goes beyond a Facebook fan page. "What you really want is a personal history of your athletic career. If you have a site that is specifically geared to individuals’ performance, there’s tremendous passion and it’s extremely sticky."
"Some ideas are bad. They burn through money and don’t get traction," says McKelvey. "These guys were working on a modest bootstrap budget and grew slowly while having technical and management issues and did it without vaporizing millions of dollars. Once they got the implementation right it became interesting to me."
Lozano admits that LockerDome kicked things up a notch in the last few weeks with a rewrite of its system and its app. He’s also refining revenue streams but insists that members will want to buy in. "Facebook is a global system with a little hyperlocal stuff. LockerDome is getting traction [between global and hyperlocal] because it organizes content around a brand in a meaningful way," he explains.
For instance, kids playing college ball or participating in localized athletic programs like the Dallas Texans (one of the top amateur clubs in the country) can set up an entire branded website where users can interact with their content. Highlight reels, championship photos, and schedules invite comments and shares that travel to the "sports feed" on LockerDome’s home page. And it’s all side by side with professional athletes' pages.
Lozano says these groups and professionals pay monthly fees to have their own custom domain on LockerDome. So far more than 400 top amateur teams and leagues have launched their own LockerDome networks and 20 professional players including Barry Enright, pitcher for the Arizona Diamondbacks, are also in the mix.
Lozano says the fees are flexible, which is helpful if a group only wants to showcase one season or if a young athlete leaves a program. To keep users in the network even if they leave a team, LockerDome launched a legacy network so anyone could join as a fan. McKelvey points out, "If you’ve been using it for a year you are in for life. Pros who come up through minor leagues are going to start connecting down and then you will see the entire circle connect."
This is LockerDome’s best chance at getting viral traction, says Lozano, by being a platform that comes full circle to stoke the passions of athletes and fans alike.
Passion’s a word that gets invoked a lot in sports talk. But it wouldn’t mean anything for LockerDome unless the staff was feeling it too, McKelvey says. The last time he visited LockerDome’s offices he noticed mattresses lying around because the team had spent nine straight days entrenched in the new developments. Though he’d already committed to investing, seeing physical evidence of that dedication validated his decision.
"It’s so helpful at a startup to have that passion. It manages for you. People spend time on ways to make things better and celebrate successes instead of backbiting. All that gets washed away by teamwork. Like sports, any group like that is cohesive."
And destined for greatness? Says McKelvey, "The bottom line is that as an athlete you have this brand you manage over time. For kids growing up and tending their stats garden, that has tremendous potential for organic growth."
[Image: Flickr user CaptPiper]