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Tiki Barber: How a Former NFL Player Decided To Launch a Startup

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 Tiki-Barber

What do football players do after retiring from the NFL? If you’re the New York Giant’s former running back Tiki Barber, you go out and start a company. After retiring from the NFL in 2007, followed by a stint as a television host, Barber launched Thuzio, an online site that allows you to rent out athletes for experiences including playing a game of flag football, a personal video shout-out, and an appearance at a social or company event.

Over time, the team at Thuzio noticed that their services were more popular in the corporate space. Companies like PepsiCo, Morgan Stanley, Yahoo, and Bank of America were regularly booking their athletes to appear at their events and impress clients. Because of that, the company has recently shifted their focus towards a B2B service.

To give you an idea of pricing and costs, check out basketball legend Dominique Wilkins current rates:

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Barber is mostly known for his career in the NFL, but few know that he was also academically trained in management information systems at UVA. He never put this experience to good use until he began conceptualizing the idea of his startup.

We recently had the chance to catch up with Tiki Barber over the phone. In this interview we discuss his shift from sports to entrepreneurship, the most important startup lessons he’s learned so far, and whether building a company is harder than playing in the NFL.

Walk us through how Thuzio was born.

“…After my stint in television stopped, I was kind of lost. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Then a friend of mine connected me with his brother, who is now my business partner. We conceptualized this idea to bring his expertise in the entrepreneurial field and my knowledge of the tech world and obviously my passion in sports to build something around the need that we saw both from our talents perspective and also from our potential consumer perspective. From there, Thuzio was born, its been growing ever since.”

Can you relate anything from your experience in the NFL back to building your startup?

“…Team sports like basketball kind of gets individual at times and baseball also. But in the NFL you are so dependent upon literally the guy next to you to do his job so that you can do yours. So I think one of the great lessons is one, finding the best talents that you can, like in the NFL you want a great left tackle or you want a fullback, great quarterback and in our business we need great minds like [our Director of Marketing] who can think of creative ways to earn media doing things like this… We also needed a great CEO and development folks who know how to reach out into Corporate America. So we built that right team so that we all support each other and move in the right direction at the same time, which is exactly what it takes to be successful for an NFL team.”

What are some things you look for when choosing team members?

“The most important thing is someone who is entrepreneurial. It’s so easy in Corporate America to just get caught doing your job like ‘this is what I’m suppose to do and this is exactly what I’m going to do’ and not try to think outside the box and think about different ways to attack a problem. So we’ve been very good at bringing in people who aren’t going to do what they’re comfortable with, who will try something new, who will think about solving a problem in a different way. This has allowed us to come up with different products and different ways to promote ourselves. For instance, when we first started, we were just thinking about doing things like lunches or dinners or a corporate event — whatever you would typically do for an event with an athlete. But quickly, because of Jarrod Jordan, who is our VP of Business Development — he is on the board of New York Needs You and they wanted to auction something off — and lunches or dinners were kind of, I don’t want to say boring, but he said, “Lets do a flag football game! Something that no one has ever thought about doing with a professional athlete before,” and we auctioned it off. It raised $6,000 for the charity. Then all of a sudden, we had created a new product, which before Thuzio existed you’d never have googled “flag football” with “name the athlete.” Now because we’ve created that product, it exists. That’s just one of the examples of the things we do that differentiate who we are.”

What is an important lesson you’ve learned so far from this experience?

“…A lot of people who have good ideas often take too much pride in ownership. They want to do it themselves, they want to be able to make every decision and not let it go astray, which sometimes lead to pitfalls because they don’t have the business expertise. I fell into that category. My professional career was an athlete and not as a businessman, but I partnered with the perfect businessman named Mark [Gerson] who had done these things before, who had built a couple of businesses, who had engaged with investors, who knew a side that I wasn’t familiar with, so the partnership worked, because we both brought something very unique towards helping our product grow… That was the best thing that I learned, that I don’t have to do everything, I shouldn’t want to do everything…”

What’s harder? Playing in the NFL or building a company?

“…I would definitely say getting this company up and running because as an athlete, you’re given a god-given talent that if you really focus on it, you’re going to be successful… In business, you can have all of those things lined up, and it still won’t work. So it’s about adjusting, whereas as an athlete, you know the path and you know exactly how to get there. In business, you have to walk a serpentine path sometimes to find the right one.”

Based on your experience, what qualities make a successful entrepreneur?

“Number one, you got to have a great idea. Two, you got to find the right people who believe in you and your idea because as much as we knew that this market existed, there was no marketplace. We created the marketplace, as much as we believed that it would work; convincing those that would back us was difficult. So being able to articulate the message and getting people excited about it is important. Number three, you constantly got to innovate… Whoever innovates last, wins. Whoever innovates first, gets the attention… You constantly got to be innovating so that you find what people want and need as you try to do business with them.”

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Tell us the most interesting gig you or an athlete on Thuzio has been booked for.

“…One in particular. It was a promotional that we did with Urban Daddy around Father’s Day, and a mother bought it for her son and her husband who was the kids father to play flag football. I thought it was a twelve year old kid and they were just going to throw the ball around with some friends. It turns out the kid was eighteen soon to be nineteen, the father was forty-something and they played in these leagues every weekend. It was twenty to forty year olds who were dead-ass serious about playing flag football and I was kind of like a ringer. So I show up and I’m like, “Where are we going to play?” and they’re like “Oh, we’re going over to the high school field.” When I get there, they all have cleats, they all have gloves, they’re all like taped up, and I’m realizing that this is a serious game, but I had so much fun. It was suppose to be an hour and I ended up being there for three hours playing flag football with these guys and when I was done I felt like I had played a regular season football game. But it was awesome! It was memorable because it brought that competitive juice that I hadn’t felt in a long time playing really aggressive and competitive football, I hadn’t done it in a long time.”

I’m assuming you kicked everyone’s ass?

“No! We actually lost. I had a couple big plays, but I’m playing both ways right? I got to play offense and I got to play defense. I don’t know how to play defense! These guys were running slants, I mean the quarterback was actually really good, so it’s not like he was just lofting the ball up. We ended up losing by a touchdown, but it was a ton of fun, it was awesome.”

Lastly, what are some cool new things that we can expect from Thuzio in the future?

“Absolutely, we are constantly bringing in new products. The latest one is a video messaging product thats $99 for about six-hundred of our thirteen-hundred athletes that have opted in. You can get a birthday message or a trash talk flag football message for $99. But the really exciting thing that we know expands our total accessible market is that this applies to every industry. Anybody who has had success in a field and has fans that want to engage with them, we believe, fit on Thuzio. We’ve already started in Broadway. We have about thirty Broadway actors, which is obviously concentrated in New York where Broadway is biggest, but we’re moving to chefs, authors, eventually actors, and musicians to do these similar types of events.”

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