What it takes to become a Successful Entrepreneur: DukeGEN sits down with Ted Sullivan of Fungo Media

By Tom Powell '09; Published August 2, 2010

Ted S
ullivan's passion for youth coaching and entrepreneurship inspired him to start Fungo Media, Inc and build the GameChanger (http://www.gamechanger.io) technology.  GameChanger provides free iPhone scorekeeping and statistics management tools for youth, high school, and college baseball and softball teams. They deliver live streaming play-by-play updates and stats to team websites, fans, and local media partners. The business generates revenue through fan subscriptions.  

Prior to founding Fungo, he pitched for Duke University and played in the minor leagues for the Cleveland Indians.  He also co-founded Headfirst Baseball, which runs camps, sports programs & college advisory services for children and student-athletes with his brother in Washington, D.C. before receiving his MBA from Harvard Business School and working at Rave Wireless as Director of Consumer Marketing.

Right after college you started your first company with your brother, Headfirst Baseball.  Had you always pursued entrepreneurial ventures?

I was always around baseball camps growing up, busy spending all my summers at baseball camps, and then I went through the typical progression from a Junior Counselor, to Counselor, to Head Counselor. And then all of a sudden I was essentially running whole camps for other coaches in our area.  I think I developed a level of confidence managing sports camps at such a young age – but I never necessarily looked at that as entrepreneurship.

In some sense I was being an entrepreneur without even really realizing it.  When my brother and I decided we were going go out on our own, I never had a doubt about the execution of the product.  I think one of the keys is that I'm very confident in my understanding of the market -- this ecosystem of youth sports and parents. It's something I've spent so much of my life in that even as a young guy I feel like I had as much experience as anyone. With confidence you can trust your gut. You can make a lot of gut decisions and feel strongly about them without having to do a ton of analysis.

So it seems like it was more of an organic process through involvement in those camps and sports as opposed to an explicit desire to be an entrepreneur.

Yes, but I think if I was going to start a business outside of sports I would’ve felt far less confident.  Thus I probably would’ve considered it more of a risk.  Everyone always talks about entrepreneurship being very risky. I think it's true in some sense, but when you have a deep knowledge within a market, it's a much more calculated risk than people think.  So if I were to go and start a restaurant today that'd be a huge risk because my gut instincts in that market don’t work in my favor. Therefore, that would really be rolling the dice. It’s critical to start a business in a market where you feel really comfortable, -- where you know you have the capability to deliver a good product.  That is because there are all kinds of other things that can go wrong. But if the product's good, that limits your risk an enormous amount. I was pretty darn confident that I could deliver a quality product field as far as coaching kids and giving them a fun time, a safe experience, and all of those things that are important for a sports camp.

Did Duke have any influence on you in terms of helping start up your first company?

It did. I think it did not as much around teaching me about entrepreneurship, although I took accounting, entrepreneurial classes, and the other basics you learn.  But I think the biggest impact was the Duke name.  When it comes to sports, it carries so much brand value. 

When I started the camp business with my brother, he was at Stanford, and I was at Duke.  So to the kids and families in DC, that was an immediate stamp of approval.  And I credit the basketball program with a lot of that.

Duke also gave me the opportunity to play professional baseball – which has been critical to my success.

In the fall of my senior year, I followed all of the other Econ majors down the path of investment banking and consulting.  I think like most people I had no idea what those jobs meant.

I ended up getting an offer and took a job with Morgan Stanley to be a telecom Investment Banking Analyst in 1999 – an insane time in telecom, and technology.

I had been a very marginal pitcher my first three years at Duke but had continued to work hard, making technical adjustments to my pitching that resulted in significant improvements during my senior year.  I ended up having a pretty good year.  That success, combined with the fact that there were two pitchers on my team at the time that were pro prospects: Chris Capuano --who's in the big leagues right now with the Milwaukee Brewers -- and Steve Cowie.  Those two guys ended up being top 10 or 15 round picks -- and as a result there were a lot of pitching scouts at our games.

So, a week after graduation, instead of wearing a business suit in Midtown Manhattan, I was in a baseball uniform in Niles, Ohio.  Just like that. I called Morgan Stanley and said, "I'm not coming and I've already spent the signing bonus."  It was 5,000 bucks – a heck of a lot of money for a college senior.

That was the fork in the road that took me on the entrepreneurial path.

Now my brother and I had six-month off-seasons where we had to make money to pay rent, and so we turned our little summer camps into an off-season business: after-school programs and clinics for off-season baseball players. That's when I got bitten by the entrepreneurial bug.

I managed our website development and loved thinking about online product extensions to our camp business.  And that’s really where I got sent on that path to consumer technology.

So in that way Duke had a huge impact – it gave me the opportunity and credibility to go and do what I really wanted to do.

How did Fungo Media and GameChanger come about and what were the first few months of the startup process like?  I saw that you raised a $250,000 round initially from friends, family, angels that you conducted interviews with 125 parents and 25 news outlets to research the market. 

Our product, GameChanger, came about from a number of different things all happening at the same time, but it was all grounded in this understanding of the youth and high school sports ecosystem.

I had left Headfirst because I wanted to go do other things and broaden my experience.  I went to work at a denim apparel company, got my MBA and then got a job in New York working for a mobile apps company called Rave.  I was also coaching a little league team in Manhattan.

As a Little League coach, I was experiencing the challenges of time-strapped volunteers that coach at that level. I had an iPhone and I watched our volunteer scorekeeper struggle with paper and pencil scorekeeping. I came up with this idea to use mobile apps to replace the archaic scorekeeping process.

I had no idea whether it was a legitimate business, so I just started talking to a lot of people, investors, entrepreneurs and executives at sports and media companies.  I surveyed a number of the parents from our Headfirst customer family about my concept.  I also found my partner and CTO, Kiril Savino and we agreed to try to make this a business.

Then I got laid off from Rave in October of 2008.  That was the real kind of kick in the butt to go do this thing.  So I raised some money to get us started.

What has been the most challenging thing over the last year and a half?

The biggest challenge is creating technology that changes behavior, to convince someone to ditch the paper and pencil and move to an online or mobile app.  While it's happened plenty of times, it's hard to do.  It's hard to get people to change their behavior, to change what they're used to.  In general your average baseball coach isn’t on the cutting edge of technology, so we work really, really hard to make it super simple for him.

I assume you did a lot of usability testing?

Tons of usability testing.  Our philosophy, and I credit my partner Kiril for this: make lots of small improvements, then push those improvements to customers – and let them tell you what’s wrong.  We don't believe in a long product cycle -- every day we throw a few little enhancements out there that might be broken.  But the changes come in such little increments that it's not going to have a huge impact on the user experience.

We’re very encouraging of users to give us feedback and tell us what they want.  It's kind of a culture around our product to tell us when it's not right. And then we respond to it, and we thank them for it. It starts a wonderful cycle.

What competitors and other players are out there?  ESPN has a scorekeeping app with a different model in which the user pays $10 up front?

It's a very different business model.  But I think our biggest competition is paper and pencil scorekeeping.  In some ways it's crazy to call these other players competitors.  We think it helps the market to have other players because it adds visibility to the concept of keeping stats, and keeping score with a mobile device.

So, in a way, they're partners in educating the market?

Exactly.  We're confident that we’re going to have the best product out there – we have to be. Consumers are smart enough, especially iPhone consumers, that they're going to test a few different products before they make a big commitment to one. And the iTunes app store makes it very easy to see what other products are out there. If you go to our iTunes page, it says, "people who downloaded this product also downloaded x, y, and z." and it lists all our competitors there. We’re happy to be compared to other products.

But I would say all of the digital competitors (including us) have less than one percent, of the total market -- when you factor in pencil and paper. We’re all pushing for a behavioral change.

Do you have any overall advice that you might give to aspiring entrepreneurs at Duke specifically?  Or in general?

Be present.

A coach and mentor gave me that advice.  He saw me starting this business and how much it consumed me. I also got married in January of this year. So the need to “be present” is important at work and at home.  There is so much going on with a startup - it never stops. But you have to make time for everything, and when you do make that time for something – a meeting, an interview, a conversation with your wife, be present with that moment. Lock in.

I haven’t always been great at that but I've really tried hard to get better.  It’s critical.

Another piece of advice for founders of consumer-based businesses is to become the single point of contact for customer service for as long as is reasonably possible.  Then do it for another six months longer.

A lot of investors would probably argue against CEOs spending their time that way.  We’ve been in the market for 18 months and I still respond to every customer service request that comes in.  But I can also honestly say that nobody on this planet has a better understanding of the way our customers are interacting with our product than I do and there's value to that.

Where do you see the company going in three years?  How would you define having succeeded in that time?

We’re building the real-time hyper-local sports page of the future.  In three years we’ll have tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of teams across multiple sports using our application for scorekeeping and generating a tremendous amount of valuable content and data in real-time.

Using that user-generated data, we’ll create real-time hyper-local sports pages for big media partners with a local focus.

Have you talked to some of the hyper-local news companies like Patch, for example?

Yes, we have. But their challenge is the same challenge that we have. All of these companies that are in this hyper-local space are new enough that they are just kind of totally blinders-on, building their core set of features and penetrating their market. Most feel like we're potentially a great partner but it's like, "Come talk to us in six or 12 months."

We feel the same way: we need to nail our core functionality for our core customer.  There are a number of great partners out there for us – both new and old media.  Most high school sports news is still consumed via the local sports page online or actual paper sports page. We see lots of potential there.

Do you have any books, blogs, or resources that have really impacted you, or that you follow on a regular basis in terms of entrepreneurship?

I'm a big fan of Good to Great, which is almost clichéd now, but I do think that book is outstanding.

I also love a book called It's Your Ship by D. Michael Abrashoff – it’s written by an Admiral in the Navy who ran the best ship in the Persian Gulf.  It's about giving people that work for and with you a lot of responsibility, entrusting them to get things done. It’s a really good book for anyone who is leading people in any organization. I also read Fred Wilson’s blog, Seth Godin, TechCrunch, and Silicon Alley Insider.


Read more profiles of Duke alumni entrepreneurs