On Starting A Business Helping Student Athletes Monetize Their Personal Brand
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Jay Fuller, I’m one of three co-founders of athlo agncy. – a personal branding startup for the anonymous college athlete navigating NIL (Name, Image, and Likeness). Our flagship product is a personal branding workshop, pre-recorded in a MasterClass-like format. Facilitated by my other two co-founders – Aly and Isaac Nauta (brother and sister).
Our core customers are individual college athletes and university athletic departments. Additionally, players associations, semi-professional athletes, and professional athletes fall under our customer profile umbrella.
The “Brand on Purpose” workshop and core product that we’re offering, officially launches this summer. Leading up to the launch, we’ve done a few one-off branding projects to cover costs; while forming alliances with strategic partners in the NIL space, creating a college athlete ambassador team, and focusing on grassroots marketing initiatives such as podcasts and free experiences for student-athlete teams to generate brand awareness.
We’ve been able to add athlo ambassadors, participate in an event with UGA baseball and a sports accelerator, and have two on-campus workshops scheduled this summer with two different universities.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I majored in Sports Management in college, but never actually worked in the industry. For the last five years, I’ve been working for myself. With an area of focus on partnerships, biz dev, and marketing for startups to medium-sized businesses.
As a fellow entrepreneur, I’ve known Aly for 4 years. She has been very successful with her creative agency, with expertise in personal branding. More specifically, she created our core product and previously rolled it out to sales teams for Nordstrom, Jameson Sotheby, and Tony Robbins. While also working with a few individual professional athletes as well under the same core branding product.
Rounding out our team is her brother Isaac. He was an Under Armour All-American coming out of high school and playing football at the University of Georgia. Isaac was later drafted by the Detroit Lions. Back in September of 2021, I had a mom of a Fencer from Northwestern (I live in Chicago) reach out to me about helping her daughter out with NIL.
For those unfamiliar with NIL, it stands for Name, Image, and Likeness. College athletes can monetize themselves without penalty. Which wasn’t something they’ve ever been able to do before July of 2021.
I knew Aly was a personal branding guru, so I immediately reached out to her to gauge her interest. Without much hesitation, she was in and eventually looped in Isaac to tweak our core product with the mind of a recent college athlete. Between our experiences and networks, we felt confident enough in our nucleus to leap into college athletics.
The gap and what we’re filling is; tapping into student-athletes “authentic likability”. Meaning, helping them identify what their brand offers in alignment with NIL opportunities. We guide how to say no to the wrong ones and create the right ones. NIL is the wild west right now and too many college athletes are taking whatever they can get, from whoever they can get. We’re an advocate for the athletes and positioning them with more authenticity and meaningful partnerships are our goal.
The lows are low, but the highs are stimulation that makes it addicting because you get to sit back and say “I did that on my own”.
We’re excited about our traction to date – even in pre-launch mode. Through networking, our strategic partnerships, and organic grassroots, we’ve been able to carve out a niche in the space.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Our core product is pre-recorded and will be in a similar format to a MasterClass workshop. It’s going to be facilitated by Aly (branding expert) and Isaac (athlete) in 15 minutes modules. The continuation of our business includes connection to strategic partners that are brands, ongoing learning (e.g. financial literacy), and marketplaces.
Based on feedback from compliance directors from various athletic departments and SAACs (Student-Athlete Advisory Committees), we learned the pre-recorded format was an easily digestible format for student-athletes that didn’t feel like more “work”. The process of getting this feedback consisted of a lot of cold outreach. The nice thing about university-level athletic sites is, that contact info for both is readily available. It also allows student-athletes to start and stop at their own pace and according to their schedules.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Athlo agency is my fourth business launched and Aly’s second. I’ve fallen flat on my face multiple times in the past, so I felt comfortable about knowing what to do and what not to do this time around. Aly’s experience, which is different from mine, has created a confident dynamic in launching athlo.
We both had more answers than questions, knew how to get started, and know where we want to go with this. While Isaac has been eating, sleeping, and breathing football his entire life; he’s provided a new set of eyes, network, and strategic level of thinking that’s contributed significantly to pre-launch brand awareness.
Our strategy has been grassroots and getting in front of as many people as possible as we build up to launch the core product. This includes college-athlete ambassadors (who go through the course 1 on 1), strategic partnerships, podcasts/IG lives, and experiences (we try to avoid saying workshops). The latter entails a condensed format of our core product for a select group of athletes.
This strategy is actually how we’ve been able to get our foot in the door at the university level. The NIL space is so crowded right now that instead of filling sales calls with a bunch of fluff, we just decided to throw out “how about we show you for free why you should partner with us?”. It worked. Our experiences coming up are both in-person, but we can do them virtually as well.
These marketing initiatives have kept our costs low on this front since the product itself to record, edit, and build out is pretty substantial (around $20K). Our strategy has also put us in a position to have potential customers before launch.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Grassroots marketing has worked well for us. In a world where everyone is trying to play in the social media/paid ad space, we’re going against the grain a bit. Content is still king and we’ve built that organically with IG lives and podcasts. Outside of that, we’ve had sports tech and high school/college events, formed partnerships with brands, and marketplaces, and continued learning (e.g. financial literacy); and done A LOT of cold outreach to develop relationships across the sports landscape.
I like to describe the process of partnership development as parallel to dating. It’s a lot of convos and meetings that go nowhere until you land on the right ones where synergy exists. Our process consisted of identifying other businesses in the space that we felt were aligned and then reaching out to see how we can align.
For our ambassadors at the university level, each is going through our brand experience 1 on 1 and then advocating for us among their teammates and athletic departments. The benefit for the athlete is learning how to position themselves and create opportunities for themselves instead of blindly reaching out to whomever and accepting whatever. Look at it like this, you can give an athlete a hoop and a basketball, but if you don’t teach them fundamentals they’re not going to be successful when it matters.
It’s been cool, to not only see them enjoy the takeaways and be successful (forming brand partnerships), but also enough to create some buzz within their athletic circle. We also send them athlo-branded hoodies.
We’ve benefited from this strategy to date, as it’s just led to more organic introductions and increased brand awareness.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We’re excited about the next six months and feel we’re well-positioned. Since October, we’ve built a team of student-athlete ambassadors, are building out experiences for 4 universities, and have aligned ourselves with 6 strategic partners in the NIL space.
Simultaneously, we’ve been able to cover most of our startup costs with branding projects while padding our portfolio of work. Additionally, we’ve added an operations intern to the team and he’s been a great addition to our team.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
We all agree that as badly as you want to launch and be in full operation, it’s a marathon and not a sprint; as they say. I think that holds in what we’re doing specifically. As I previously mentioned, the NIL landscape is the wild west right now.
The dust has far from settled and we think it’s more advantageous to move strategically slower so we can be still standing 6 months from now, rather than being one of the first companies to enter this space.
I think relationship building is important in business. Don’t always try to sell someone and avoid the mindset of “what do I/will I get out of this?”. Never turn down an opportunity or conversation unless you have to. The direct door opening in that situation might not be what you’re looking for, but what opportunities/introductions stem from that could be exactly what you need.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We use HubSpot to track the success of outreach messaging and open rates. Outside of that, we’re mostly archaic in our ways and have focused more on relationship building/nurturing.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Before you launch, ask yourself how badly you want it (whatever that might be). I think that’s where it all starts. Everyone loves the idea of having their own thing/business until they shortly realize it’s not just doing what they like as it relates to business – it’s doing just about everything for the business. Make sure you want it. I think it’s a lot worse to start and stop rather than not start at all.
Outside of that, I always encourage anyone to just go for it but be strategic and have a plan mapped out. Seriously, though. I’ve made many mistakes not taking my time, lacking patience, and not even knowing my costs. Only to have wasted time and money that could have been avoided if I had just taken the time to plan.
Finally, enjoy the ride. The lows are low, but the highs are stimulation that makes it addicting because you get to sit back and say “I did that on my own”.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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