Fannect in The Pitch - Fannect goes live and waits for the big nod from Bill Self
It’s game day for Fannect.
Inside a space on Grand last occupied by the clothing boutique Method, Hunter Browning, Will Coatney and their team wait for an e-mail from Apple. Six days ago, they submitted their sports app for approval.
“We’re on edge,” Browning says. “I’ve got push notifications on every e-mail. I really wish people wouldn’t e-mail me today.”
“Ninety-five percent of the apps get approved within six days,” Coatney says, “and today [February 13] is the sixth day.”
Apple receives 26,000 submissions a week from developers hoping to be added to the more than 700,000 apps in the giant company’s store. Free apps, such as Fannect, often get discarded.
“You have to be cool to get noticed,” Browning says. “And if you don’t do being cool right the first time, you’re never going to be cool.”
The Fannect team isn’t afraid of a little competition. That’s the heart of its app, which is meant to rank the most passionate fanbases in college and professional sports. Is Mizzou more devoted than KU? Who would win a street fight between Ohio State fans and the Michigan devout? And who exactly is the No. 1 Notre Dame fan? Fannect’s creators say they can provide the answers.
When The Pitch last wrote about Fannect, in November, Browning and Coatney were poised to go live with Fannect. But the app never launched.
“We really wanted to make sure the launch went off without a problem,” Browning says. “We didn’t want to launch something that would look cool but didn’t function well or crashed or had bugs and stuff.”
Instead of launching, Browning, Coatney and Chris Anning went to Silicon Valley in mid-January to test the concept in the tech mecca.
“That was an unbelievable experience,” Coatney says.
It started when Coatney boarded a plane from Phoenix to San Francisco. A sharply dressed bald man sitting next to him struck up a conversation after spotting a book on top of Coatney’s briefcase. “Your book, The Founder’s Dilemma. Let me guess, you’re flying out to Silicon Valley to raise money from venture capitalists?”
The man happened to be an operator, someone who connects startups with venture capitalists. He told Coatney to pull out his pitch deck. Ninety minutes later, they were on the ground, and the man had scheduled five meetings for the Fannect team with potential investors.
“People connect with this concept,” Coatney says. “Everyone’s a sports fan, and they relate to it. It’s new and unique. There’s so much pent-up demand for a product like this that it’s just going to be unreal.”
There were still cold calls to make, including a visit with a secretary at Sequoia Capital – which has funded Google, Instagram, PayPal, Cisco and others – that resulted in a last-minute meeting for Fannect’s hunting party.
“We were with about five of the biggest names in venture capital in a half-week period, from a Wednesday to a Saturday,” Coatney says. “And we got unbelievable responses from them.”
The checkbooks didn’t open in Silicon Valley, but the message was clear: Launch the app, show some growth, then talk to us again.
Since that trip, Fannect has added to its roster. Among the new hires is 20-year-old Blake VanLandingham, a Kansas State University student whose title is intern and chief technology officer.
“We got him to drop out of school,” Coatney says.
“Technically, I’m still enrolled,” VanLandingham says. “I’m doing an internship this semester. I happen to be a CTO intern. On my application, it’s like, ‘What’s your position at your new job?’ I put CTO.”
The designation confused his adviser, who asked if he was returning to Manhattan. VanLandingham doesn’t know, but he’s busy, having easily exceeded his internship’s credit hours in just three weeks.
“He’s revamped quite a bit since he’s been here,” Browning says. “Probably about 300 hours in that three weeks.”
“Everything that we’re using, I’ve written,” VanLandingham says. “The last three weeks, I’ve re-created the whole product.”
“It’s much sturdier,” Browning says.
Browning shows his Fannect KU profile on a flat-screen monitor. Each fan is ranked on three criteria: passion, dedication and knowledge. Users earn points by checking into games with “Attendance Streak” (and double points for away games), playing “Guess the Score” and turning on their “Game Faces.” And just as any social network does, Fannect connects fans with other fans. (In this case, a user builds a “Roster” of friends.)
Future features include “Watch Party,” “Gameday Pics,” “Impact Players,” “Team Trivia,” “Tailgate King” and “Spirit Wear,” which can be unlocked as more users sign up.
“We’re not asking sports fans to do anything that they aren’t already doing,” Coatney says. “All we’re doing is giving you a medium toward where you can get credit as a fan for doing that stuff.”
A pizza-delivery man interrupts the presentation and takes notice of the app. Coatney asks the guy to name his favorite college team. “Kansas State,” the driver says. Coatney tells him to check out the app once it goes live.
Browning discusses a new feature that he’s excited about: Tailgate King. Fans can geocache their tailgate. As people check in, Fannect will be able to show a heat map of the hottest tailgates in the parking lots across the country. It’s all part of capturing the experience of being a fan and making the app accessible to everyone.
“We don’t really want it to be like fantasy football where it’s only for statistic junkies and die-hard fans,” Browning says.
A yet-to-be unveiled update of Fannect includes a feature called “Huddle.” Browning and Coatney see that as the future of team discussion and message boards. They dismiss the websites that fans rely on now for these functions as “very 1990.”
“Unfortunately, they have a huge following,” Browning says of boards, “but they suck, and they’re just gross.”
“They’re really hard to use on your mobile phone,” Coatney says. “Obviously, the goal is to replace those. And they’re all of our users, right? So why not go to a place where you’re proving your fandom, and you can do the same things you’re doing on the message boards.”
Then Browning casually drops a bomb.
“Coach Self is going to endorse it,” he says. “That’s pretty cool.”
Bill Self? For real?
“He’ll be tweeting it out to his followers,” Browning says.
The Self endorsement is part of another major development for Fannect: a budding relationship with IMG Worldwide, which manages KU’s media rights. The IMG connection put Fannect inside Allen Fieldhouse last Saturday for ESPN’s College GameDay and KU’s game against the Texas Longhorns. They handed out swag to students and pitched the idea to player-turned-analyst Jalen Rose; ESPN reporter Holly Rowe; and former Jayhawk stars Thomas Robinson, the Morris twins and Greg Gurley.
That relationship will also lead to a PA takeover of Allen Fieldhouse during a future game, Browning and Coatney say. (A Fannect video will play on the jumbotron, and its logo will be featured on the signage.)
“That relationship with IMG could be one of the pivotal points of this company because IMG sells advertising,” Coatney says. “Fannect is a customer of IMG right now. When we see user growth, then all of a sudden IMG becomes a customer of ours, and then they can buy a license to Fannect and sell our sponsorships as another medium. We would be piggybacking off IMG’s sales force and infrastructure.”
Fannect is also trying to build a relationship with the other juggernaut of college-sports media rights: Learfield Sports.
First, Fannect has to launch and grow. The app has already received requests from fans of 70 teams.
“We haven’t marketed it,” Browning says. “We didn’t want to hype it too much [without a live product].”
February 13 ends without a peep from Apple. But 24 hours later, word comes that Apple’s testers are playing with Fannect. By Friday, February 15, Fannect is downloadable from the App Store.
“This app today is going to be so different a month from now,” Browning says. “We’re going to take it a million different directions, and it’s going to be cool to see the final product.”