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San Diego Sport Innovators
Turning Ideas Into Enterprisesby Drew Beal, MBA '13 and Barrett Fisher, MBA '13
San Diego Sport Innovators (SDSI) may sound like they're investigating new ways to play old games, but their real goal is to help entrepreneurs turn their ideas into enterprises. SDSI is a rapidly growing trade organization that aims to grow Southern California's business community by inspiring sports innovation.
To that end, they recruited former basketball superstar and San Diego, California, native Bill Walton to lead the organization as executive chairman. In conjunction with a dedicated support staff, Walton helped the organization's network grow from four to 44 companies in its first 18 months.
The most significant indicator of SDSI's staying power may be that the organization is being fostered by CONNECT, a regional program that catalyzes the creation of innovative technology and life sciences products in San Diego County by linking inventors and entrepreneurs with the resources they need for success. Since 1985, CONNECT has helped develop more than 3,000 companies; and several industry-specific business accelerators have spun out of CONNECT to become stand-alone entities, including BIOCOM, CommNexus and CleanTECH San Diego. SDSI plans to add their name to that list. CONNECT has agreed to incubate SDSI as an action and sports trade organization, which speaks volumes about where the sports industry is headed in Southern California. The argument can be made that SDSI is itself a startup success story. Having proven to the sports business community that there is enough activity in the industry to have a dedicated trade organization, SDSI seeks to help others find their own path to success.
In a recent presentation at the Rady School of Management, Walton explained the ideals of the SDSI by saying, "It saddens me in a world driven by greed and selfishness, that when people make it to the promised land... far too often they turn right around and pull the ladder up behind them — as opposed to turning around and putting that hand down and out, extended, and helping up the next guy and saying, 'come on, you're with us, let's go!' And that's the beauty of what we do at SDSI. We help the next generation, we help our current teammates and we help the service providers who make the deals possible."
If individuals have viable sports business ideas, their acceptance into the SDSI program hinges upon three variables: is there a market for the product/service, is there a mentor available that fits a particular need and are the individuals coachable? Modeled after CONNECT's proven structure, the SDSI Springboard program is available to companies of all sizes. The first step? Individuals make a 15-minute pitch to a team of Entrepreneurs in Residence (EIRs) about their business, attempting to convince them of the potential that is waiting to be unlocked.
"The principal criterion is, are they coachable?" said Rob Logan, technology executive and current EIR. "Because if they're not, then we're all wasting our time. It's not going to work." If people have terrific business ideas, but are unwilling to accept productive criticism, they're unlikely to find mentors willing to show them the way. On the other hand, passion for an idea or concept can go a long way toward developing an untapped market — even if one isn't immediately apparent. Once accepted into the Springboard Program, businesses begin the process of polishing their business plan while receiving tools and resources that touch upon areas such as finance, marketing and branding.
SDSI Chalk Talk
Frameworks are a major component of the SDSI package. These are business-oriented educational seminars put on by business leaders, for business leaders. They're like crash courses in entrepreneurship, without the bankruptcy.
Brad Beren, co-founder of Boostamonte Mountainboarding, found the Chalk Talk Frameworks very helpful. "The presenters all brought a different subject matter and a different flair, and I learned a lot from each."
Time-Outs with SDSI
Another innovative element of the SDSI is its relaxed approach to networking events. In contrast to the atmosphere at a CONNECT soiré (think business suits and political correctness), SDSI networking events (known as Time-outs) tend to be looser in nature (think sandals and beer). Beren said he was introduced to Craig Dawson of Sports Insurance Solutions at a Time-out, and the two companies initiated a business partnership in late 2011.
The goal of companies that go through SDSI Springboard is to refine their business plans to the point where they feel comfortable pitching for capital funding. Graduating from SDSI Springboard makes a company eligible to present their business at a funding event. SDSI Capital Forum is a yearly event that allows five to seven polished sports companies to make presentations to venture capitalists and private investors.
In addition to serving in his role as an EIR, Rob Logan is also CEO of startup HumanCentric Performance, and has brought that company through SDSI's Springboard process. Upon graduating from the program, HumanCentric gained exposure to the broader business community through a number of vehicles — including free tables at networking events and meeting investors at an event hosted at Walton's home. But even if the limelight doesn't lead to new investors, the help from SDSI is tangible. The feeling, Logan remarked, is that he has a "band of brothers" promoting his company. "It's invaluable."
How Membership Works
All members have different goals and demands. To accommodate, SDSI offers memberships geared toward individuals, early-stage companies and corporate/service providers. At the base membership, individual members get access to SDSI's database of industry and professional contacts, as well as access and/or discounts to SDSI and CONNECT events. A step above the individual membership, early-stage companies get this access plus exposure on SDSI's website, the newsletter and opportunities to participate in SDSI funding events. Finally, established companies and service providers are the members who sponsor events, sit on the advisory board and provide a major source of SDSI's funding. In return, these corporate/service provider members gain access to new technologies, potential customers and employee talent, along with all the benefits of the other memberships.
A membership with SDSI is a lot like many other relationships: what you get is in proportion to what you give. After four months of membership, Samuel Johnson, CEO of My-GoalMine.com, came to the conclusion: "I don't believe we are a good fit for SDSI," and does not plan on renewing his firm's membership. On the other hand, Scott Tilton, CEO of Hookit.com and four years into his membership, explained that SDSI is ideal for "surrounding yourself with successful people who understand your business. If you take advantage of the sessions and people involved, you get valuable insight that can support and help grow your business."
Is SDSI for You?
In talking to representatives from the SDSI and the entrepreneurs who have worked with the organization, it seems clear that the SDSI brings credibility to new ventures. Or to put it another way, when Bill Walton speaks up on behalf of your company, people listen. And in this recovering economy, entrepreneurs can use all the help they can get. As Walton put it, "There's nothing in life like beating the big guys." It's easy to imagine that just a few years in the future, with a guy like Walton on their side, we'll be referring to one of SDSI's early-stage CEOs as a success story. And if the story comes full circle, that CEO will show others how to climb the ladder to success.
Who Makes Up SDSI?
After successful careers in both basketball and broadcasting, Walton now serves as the executive chairman of SDSI. Born and raised in San Diego, Walton has a deep investment in the future of the town's thriving sports community. Stop by an SDSI event to catch one of his trademark motivational speeches, where he is likely to encourage you to "quit your job and follow your dream!"
With experience organizing large-scale sporting events such as the Super Bowl and the Olympics, Freedman brings an invaluable set of skills to the SDSI family. As SDSI's executive director, Freedman is responsible for dealing with the broad sports community, event planning and general strategy. It's significant that given Freedman's extensive experience, she makes the claim that there is "no other trade organization in the United States focusing specifically on the sports community."
Hale gained his management experience in the San Diego community, so he is quite familiar with the local business environment. Now serving as program manager and assistant to the executive chairman at SDSI, Hale has played a huge role in developing SDSI's relationship with the action sports community. According to Hale, "SDSI serves to marry the traditional CONNECT community to the local sports community."
Having transplanted to San Diego from New York, Catalano is now immersed in the heart of the SDSI community. She runs the SDSI Springboard program, maintains the membership and also serves as the SDSI senior program coordinator. She recently mentioned how inspirational it is to work with the entrepreneurs. "It's contagious. I love that part of my job."
Could You Be an EIR?
The majority of Entrepreneurs-in-Residence are ex-CEOs or executive-level industry veterans. Many of these individuals have experience in growing and/or founding a company and have successfully prepared companies to pitch for capital. The success of SDSI hinges upon having available resources to help startups and midsize organizations, and the organization is actively seeking to grow their pool of mentors.
Having achieved success in their former positions, the most eligible EIRs are either retired or between jobs. They are passionate about mentoring a startup and providing advice on a company's business model. Rob Logan explored several ways to integrate himself into the San Diego business community, and felt strongly about the positive work being done at SDSI. "It's one thing to network and glad-hand people," Logan said. "It's another thing to sit across the table and do real work." It's the abundance of opportunities to do such real work that makes getting involved with the SDSI so rewarding.