Why the plug was pulled on fantasy football start-up
Pádraig Doolan on his entrepreneurial journey with Beat Your Manager
Pádraig Doolan: “If I got involved with another start-up it wouldn’t be at the very early stage because I’d need a salary.”
It’s an Irish thing. We don’t handle business failure well. Unlike the US where the effervescent start-up culture accepts failure and urges people to try again, Irish entrepreneurs tend to go quiet when an idea doesn’t work out.
Pádraig Doolan is an exception. He is frank about why he pulled the plug on his fantasy football start-up, Beat Your Manager, after two years of intense effort.
“I struggled to find paying customers for the game and without a defined income, I didn’t feel I could reasonably approach VCs for investment to move forward,” he says. “I also assumed, very naively, that because the idea was good I’d have no problem finding people to join me. I’m a scientist by profession and I knew I needed to hire gaming, business development and marketing skills. But I underestimated how difficult that would be. I eventually found a brilliant CTO [chief technology officer], but regrettably we still had to make the tough decision to close the business.”
On paper, Doolan’s idea should have worked. He had a robust product underpinned by strong scientific rigour, the backing of the Invent Centre at DCU, Enterprise Ireland, Fingal Country Enterprise Board and the Dublin Business Innovation Centre.
He also had an experienced team of advisers including ex-Ireland rugby coach Eddie O’Sullivan. The game had been well-received by the market and the company was runner-up in three highly regarded start-up awards. Doolan had given up his job with the National Institute for Cellular Biotechnology (NICB) to focus full-time on the business and he had a clearly defined target market: gamers aged 16-55 with the majority of users (75 per cent) coming from the 18-35 age bracket.
Beat Your Manager is a smartphone app that also includes a dashboard for analysing live fan behavioural data – also known as fanalytics. “I hired a fantastic software company called NearForm and they built the MVP [minimum viable product] that helped me get competitive start-up funding from Enterprise Ireland,” Doolan says. “NearForm was also instrumental in the development of Version 1.0 for iPhone, Android and web and for an updated dashboard for the 2013/2014 English Premier League season. With the game operational I quickly signed up over 15,000 players, attracted a national broadcast partner and 14 fan websites with a combined total of one million monthly website visitors.”
Doolan got the idea for Beat Your Manager while working at the NICB. He had started his career in cancer research before moving on to biopharmaceutical research. He was working on a project for Pfizer when inspiration struck.
“We were developing a predictive model of productivity and, while it was early-stage stuff, it provided some proof of an important concept – that we could predict, at an early point, which individual cells were likely to exhibit the desired characteristics for a good-quality bioprocess,” Doolan says.
“This predictive-productivity study got me thinking. What other things could this type of ‘big data-small predictions’ be used for? I had my eureka moment when I realised I could use my bioinformatics skills to build a predictive model for a football game.”
Beat Your Manager had a soft release at the end of April 2013 with the proven product launched in August for the start of the 2013/2014 English Premier League. It was free to use and Doolan was planning on making money from selling the accumulated fanalytics data to broadcasters (who would use it to create content for their sports shows/commentators) and other sports industry stakeholders such as betting companies, clubs/franchises, sporting associations, sportswear companies and drinks companies.
Unwilling to pay
When one national radio station decided to use the product Doolan was elated, assuming this was his big breakthrough. In reality he quickly discovered that while broadcasters were very enthusiastic about the product, they were not willing to pay for it.
“This is where my lack of domain knowledge and the fact that I didn’t come from the world I had developed the product for caused me problems, “ he says. “I was a scientist and could build the model. I was not a media professional or a marketeer. The answer to the fundamental question ‘will broadcasters buy it?’ turned out to be a resounding no.”
Doolan says one of the big obstacles he faced when trying to determine the saleability of his product was access. “I am willing to admit I got my business model wrong. But it was almost impossible to test the waters beforehand because I couldn’t get at the people I really needed to speak to,” he says.
Another thing Doolan would change if starting over would be his approach to product development. “A huge amount of effort and 80 per cent of the costs were incurred ‘under the hood’ developing a fully functional game with a complex back end,” he says. “Next time I’d produce a much simpler version, almost like a marketing tool to prove the hypothesis worked, and that’s what I’d present to potential investors. I’d also probably charge people to play or to customise the game.”
The other very tough challenge Doolan faced was money. He had been accepted on to the Enterprise Ireland New Frontiers programme which provided a stipend of €15,000 but that ran out pretty quickly. He was also able to claim back tax under an R&D heading and to draw on some personal savings. But financially it was a lean three years for his family.
“The cash investment including State aid was just over €80,000 and I got into debt to meet my commitments and I’m still carrying some of that debt which has been stressful,” Doolan says. “The other stressful part was being on my own. It’s one thing having good advisers, but that’s all they are. You need others around you to offer complementary skills and active support. I can understand now why VCs typically like to see at least two main people in a start-up.”
Doolan has emerged from the start-up process bloodied but not bowed not least because this is a story with a happy ending. He was rehired by NICB and is now working in a more commercially facing role which he is really enjoying. Earlier this year, the Kilkenny-based sports marketing company, Sportego, licensed Beat Your Manager and will relaunch it in time for the 2017/2018 English Premier League season.
“Would I do it all again? Yes. It’s fantastic, heartbreaking and lonely in equal measure. Would I do things differently? Definitely. Would I do it on my own again? No. It’s an exciting and intoxicating world to be in, but if I got involved with another start-up it wouldn’t be at the very early stage because I’d need a salary. I wouldn’t take the financial risk again. My family, and especially my unbelievably supportive wife, have been through enough.”