Ballers Bridge is not your average startup; it's unusual on many levels. First, its co-founders Armand Brown and Gerald Cannon are former basketball players and employees of professional basketball teams. They are also African Americans–a group under-represented in the tech sector.
Finally, their target demographics–young athletes who are not in the top-tier, and coaches at smaller colleges who don't have the resources to recruit athletes–fall well outside the norm in an industry geared more to upscale Millennials than those on the other side of digital divide.
I caught up with Brown and Cannon just as they were launching Ballers Bridge at a series of high school basketball tournaments in Las Vegas this past weekend. Here is our interview.
First, please tell us a bit of background about yourselves as basketball players and people involved in the sport and how that informs this project.
GC: I was fortunate enough to play basketball at the high school, college, and professional level. At no level was I ever considered one of the top-tier guys, but the tough route was good for me. Every obstacle that I faced trying to advance contributed to the inspiration and mission behind Ballers Bridge. After I finished playing, I was fortunate enough to learn the business side of basketball during one of the hottest time in sports when I worked for the Cleveland Cavaliers during the LeBron James era. It was an eye opening experience to see how the engine actually worked. I’ve used a lot of things that I learned from the Cleveland Cavaliers to help build our business.
AB: Basketball has always been a huge part of my life. I have followed hoops recruiting since I was in elementary school. I was that kid who would run home after school and read all of the different blogs and websites that covered recruiting. I have played basketball my whole life too. I played high school basketball in North Carolina and had opportunities to play at some of the Division III schools in the area, but I chose to go to NC State. I would eventually move to Cleveland to work for the Cavaliers post-college, and this is where I met Gerald. During the very early idea stage of Ballers Bridge, I was an assistant varsity coach at Providence Day High School, which is located in Charlotte, NC–this experience was big for me as it helped me learn about the game from a totally different perspective.
Can you describe what Baller’s Bridge does – how does it work exactly?
GC: Essentially, Ballers Bridge is LinkedIn for high school basketball players. We took a direct approach to correct a clear pain point. Players who aren’t considered to be in the top tier in the country can use their Ballers Bridge profile to gain more exposure and opportunities for a collegiate scholarship. Ballers Bridge provides athletes a simple platform for showcasing their talents through a web-based sports community. Now, athletes anywhere can create a professional profile with full-game video, highlights, statistics and action photos, searchable by coaches, fans, and others in the sports community at any time. Ballers Bridge provides athletes the tool for professionally marketing themselves and provides coaches and scouts with a searchable database for talent discovery.
What specific problems and whose needs is it meant to address?
GC: All players, regardless of talent level, financial situation, or location, can use Ballers Bridge to help generate more exposure to college coaches. Players can create a professional and individualized profile that serves as a ‘resume’ able to be shared easily and available at all times to college coaches in a professional manner.
Coaches from any school can now see players that may not have been on their radar before. It also expands the reach of smaller programs, helping them to recruit more efficiently when they don’t have the budgets and resources like some of the larger programs.
Armand Brown and Gerald Cannon, co-founders of Ballers Bridge
Do kids need to have strong technology skills to use the service?
GC: No, kids don’t have to be very tech savvy to utilize Ballers Bridge. We wanted [the act of] creating a profile to be simple for our players. Creating a Ballers Bridge profile is as easy as using FB, Twitter, or Instagram.
When and how did you start and at what point did you come to California to build out the company?
GC: We started Ballers Bridge shortly after meeting our COO Aaron Cavano. Once Aaron added the technical component, we were able to turn the idea into a business. As soon as we were accepted into the Stanford student-run incubator, StartX, during the Summer 2012 session, we immediately sold all of our belongings, moved to California and never looked back.
As the first non-Stanford students to take part in StartX, how helpful was that organization over the past year?
GC: We’re a different company because of StartX. We’re constantly leaning on the community as we continue to build our business. StartX has helped in every aspect of our business. We’re very grateful to be associated with and be a part of such a special community.
AB: It’s like being a part of elite fraternity of entrepreneurs. It was a special experience that neither Gerald nor I will ever forget.
During your beta testing period, what did you find out? Any surprises?
GC: No surprises – we really learned the value of user feedback and how important it’s going to be as we continue to build our community. Even though we’ve all been heavily involved in basketball, it will be so important for us to always be in front of our users to make sure we’re providing both sides with something that’s mutually beneficial.
How important is the community element to the site for the players and coaches who join?
GC: The community aspect of Ballers Bridge is everything. It’s long overdue. We’re excited everyday as we watch the community continuously evolve.
AB: We feel that it is important for our users to be able to have a place where they can learn from others experiences and some of the best basketball minds, e.g., Alan Stein.
So how did your public launch at the Las Vegas tournaments last weekend go?
GC: Our public launch was great. We were able to see so many of our players, teams, coaches and affiliates that we’ve been working with in action. It felt like a homecoming of sorts. We were also able to see and learn other ways that our community can help the sport. We have a lot of work to do, but it was an eye-opening experience for sure.
What’s next on your radar as you develop the company?
GC: We’re constantly looking at how we can get better. I think it’s the athlete in all of us that constantly wants to work to be the best at what we do. We’re looking to expand our team, our reach and our community.
Any thoughts about adding in other sports in the future?
GC: It’s something that we talk about all the time. It’s clear that recruitment obstacles aren’t just limited to basketball, and we’re confident that a community built for any sport would be valuable for all involved. We’re just laser focused on basketball right now to correct the pain points here first.
Do you have a business model in mind or under development?
GC: We see multiple revenue streams for Ballers Bridge. Fortunately we’re able to lean on our advisors around Silicon Valley and the StartX community to make sure we have a monetization strategy that’s going to allow us to scale Ballers Bridge the correct way.
Is the company boot-strapped or funded?
GC: We’ve recently closed a seed-round from investors in Silicon Valley. We will look to raise a Series A round soon.