Tribesports: Stephen Reid
The co-founder of a new social network for sports enthusiasts, on finding great business partners – and why the customers are the most important members of the team
Tell us what your business does:
Tribesports is a social network for sportspeople – connecting active people everywhere in the world to share their passion, motivation, and advice for their sport.
What LinkedIn does for professionals, Tribesports does for sportspeople.
Where did the idea for your business come from?
The main things we’re trying to achieve with Tribesports are to make sports activity more social, and to help sportspeople get the advice they need for their training and equipment-buying choices. Both were problems I’d experienced – and was driven to solve.
When I did my first Ironman in 2006 I found it hard to get useful, relevant advice about the sports equipment I needed for the event and I found training for events – or even playing a position in a team – could be a lonely affair. Combining the two to create a sophisticated social platform seemed the obvious answer.
How did you know there was a market for it?
The numbers are unquestionable – the sports equipment, apparel and footwear market is worth $300bn a year worldwide and the number of people participating in sport is also off the chart.
For example, four million people in the UK will play golf this year, eight million will go cycling and 12 million will go swimming, either occasionally or regularly. Our issues are never size of market – it’s where to focus our attention next.
Have you always wanted to run your own business?
I don’t think I was born entrepreneurial. I’m naturally inquisitive, but I didn’t always believe that I could disrupt an industry.
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It’s only in the last five years, having been surrounded by start-ups, that I realised: if you have a problem to solve, can build a great team, and have an absolutely unswerving self-belief and drive, then running a business is for you.
Also, if you’re in a role where you’re questioning management all the time, think you could do better (and others agree) then you’re probably ready to run your own business. But don’t underestimate how hard it is!
What planning did you do before you started up?
I did the usual – researched the market, thrashed out a business model, sought advice and so on. I used a checklist of questions to make sure I really knew what I was getting myself in for:
– Are you solving a real problem? – Do you have your family’s support? – Are you in a financial position to not have a salary for as long as it takes? – Are you willing to sacrifice what most people take for granted to make your business a success, putting normal life on hold? – Are you prepared for a lonely journey? – Are you resilient enough to listen to no’s and doubters, but stay headstrong? – Do you care about your users and business so much it is like your baby – you’d do anything for it? – Have you got great co-founders who share your passion?
Answering yes to all of them, I thought it was worth the jump!
How did you raise the money?
We raised $400,000 (aprox £250,000) seed funding in 2010, from angels, friends and family. We then raised $2.8m (£1.73m) from angels and a strategic investor in December 2011.
We have been fortunate to see significant traction off a very basic, yet powerful version of our product.
I’d urge entrepreneurs to get a version working that shows your potential, and only then to go and get funding. You’ll have a better idea of what you’re pitching, but even more importantly, you’ll find the sell more fruitful and get a better price!
What challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?
There are too many to mention in detail. Life in a start-up is a constant source of excitement and passion – but virtually every day you have to take a knock back on the chin.
However, perhaps it’s our sports background, but we pull together as a team and share the highs and lows in an open environment. That definitely helps to overcome the challenges.
Where is your business based?
Tribesports is based in Hoxton, East London – just off the so-called Silicon Roundabout/Tech City.
It’s a great place to find developer and design talent, and there is a great start-up buzz to the area. Oh, and rent is cheap!
How have you promoted your business?
We’re fortunate that our model harnesses users to market and promote our product. We have done some advertising, but ultimately our time is spent making our product great. Something users want to share.
Also, there is a huge amount of content on the site to help sportspeople, and these tend to be the terms people search for on search engines. Therefore we appear high in search results and get a lot of traffic that way.
How much do you charge?
We’re a completely free service and always will be. We don’t believe people should pay to find the motivation to get fit.
Our users profile themselves by the equipment they use in their sports, and as such, we have a huge wealth of information about sports equipment, which is useful to those finding us from Google and other sites.
Retailers therefore love being part of our sophisticated meta-search of over 3 million global sports products, and we earn commissions for referrals of sales (a super-affiliate model). Big brands also love the opportunity to target subtle advertising at sportspeople within relevant sponsorship.
What about staff – how many do you have?
We currently have 14 staff, and we’re expanding quickly – adding to the tech and business team, what feels like, weekly!
It’s fun, and every new person adds weight to a team of vibrant, young and ambitious people, set on disrupting and making a difference to sportspeople across the globe.
What’s the impact on your home life been like?
Massive! I can’t emphasise enough how I underestimated how hard it would be.
I am lucky to have a very supportive wife in a stable job, as I had no salary for virtually a year. Even post-funding , we founders don’t pay ourselves properly – focusing the funding into the product and marketing instead.
I have built up huge amounts of debt and finding time for family and friends has, more often than not, had to come second to the demands and responsibilities of running a start-up. I’ve not switched off properly since we started; but I love Tribesports like a baby. I wouldn’t have it any other way!
What has your growth been like?
The course of growth in online businesses is never straight, but we have been fortunate. The important proof points (that show our potential to scale) have seen double or triple digit growth month-over-month.
The interaction and activation of our community of sports people is just phenomenal. Some of our top users literally spend days on the site a month, and our repeat rates rival the established billion dollar businesses out there.
What would you say the greatest difficulty has been in starting up?
Capital is not readily available in the UK – even for great ideas and businesses – so I think getting the capital to launch our beta was the greatest difficulty we had.
Compared to the US, there are less people willing to take the risk of very early-stage investment. And banks, despite what is written about their targets for lending to small businesses, are next to useless as a source of support.
What was your first big breakthrough?
As a social network, our users are our lifeblood. Great idea or not, we would be nothing without them, so our breakthrough came from finding some exceptional early users, following a private beta phase.
These users provided the member-get-member growth to kickstart the network, and a huge amount of content to make the site active. They also helped set the tone for our brand – one of support, motivation and inspiration.
We’re lucky that pretty much all those early users are still with us. We owe them a lot.
What would you do differently?
I’d skip trying to get early-stage investment, and double down on product earlier.
I’d also have got our social media presence going earlier (pre-launch), and I’d have used a ‘Launchrock‘-style page to get a larger base of private beta testers signed up. Creating that buzz is so important.
What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs?
“Entrepreneurship is living a few years of your life like most people won’t, so that you can spend the rest of your life like most people can’t” – I love this quote.
If you can, where possible, throw yourself into something you love. Solve a problem you personally have. It keeps the motivation and drive going – especially when the nights are late, and the mornings early.
Also, the sharing of ideas and involving others in shaping our direction has transformed the business and created a band of stakeholders that care passionately about what we’re looking to achieve.
Where do you want to be in five years’ time?
In five years’ time I want Tribesports to have achieved 100 million users.
Personally, I’d like to be able to say my marathon PB is sub 3:15. That’s my biggest goal!