Startup Spotlight: Ex-Amazon, Microsoft workers create a social network for sports nuts

The Sidelines team at work on their sports social network

Startups face all sorts of complex challenges.

For Sidelines founders Vinay Kuruvila, Arka Ray and Marios Assiotis, the biggest hurdle was whether they could actually build their startup in the U.S. Two of the three co-founders, though previously working in various roles at Amazon.com and Microsoft, didn’t have work visas when they started kicking around the idea for their sports social network.

With help from a lawyer and support from venture capital firms, the team made their case to immigration officials.  And now they are running full steam ahead with Sidelines.

“We’re hoping that our story will inspire other foreign entrepreneurs who want to start companies and create jobs for the U.S., but are daunted by the hurdles presented by archaic U.S. immigration policies for skilled foreign workers,” notes Kuruvila, a 28-year-old former software development manager at Amazon.

Here’s more from our chat with Kuruvila for our latest Startup Spotlight. Enjoy!

Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: Sidelines is a social network for sports fans, that lets users share sports-related opinions, photos, videos and articles with their friends and other fans.”

Inspiration hit us when: “As sports nuts ourselves, we realized that all sports fans have a real-world network of friends around each of the teams or players they follow. They regularly share opinions, articles, videos and photos with this specific set of friends, usually over email, Facebook or Twitter. The problem with long email threads is that it it’s a poor user experience. Facebook and Twitter on the other hand are very noisy, so thoughtful insights about sports get mixed with cat photos and parody videos, and are often missed by the people who may be most interested in them.

We also noticed that many sports fans are looking to connect to the broader community around their teams, because we see so much activity on game threads and team forums. Yet, again the user experience for these game threads and forums look like something from 1999, and we felt we had a big opportunity to make these scenarios better.

Finally, we saw the rise of many vertical social networks in the past two years: Pinterest for (primarily) fashion, Instagram for photos, Foodspotting for food, Fitocracy for fitness, LinkedIn for business, and so on. Most of these networks are succeeding because their focus on a specific vertical enables them to tailor the user experience around that vertical, and eliminate the noise that’s present on Facebook and Twitter. Looking at this landscape, we felt strongly that we had a similar massive opportunity to create a vibrant social community around sports that connect fans to each other around their favorite teams and players.”

VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “We’re bootstrapped and that has enabled us to stay heads-down focused on our product, user acquisition and engagement, without being distracted by fund-raising. We received two angel investment offers from some well-known investors in the Valley a few of months ago, but turned those offers down because we weren’t raising money at that time. We will be looking to raise a seed round very soon, so we can grow the team and accelerate our growth.”

The smartest move we’ve made so far: “We see a lot of consumer startups going mobile-first with their products because mobile is an exploding platform, and there is a lot of investor interest in mobile products. However, we deliberately took the opposite approach. We launched on the web first, and this has worked out really well for us. It’s much faster to iterate on the web because there isn’t an App Store approval process, users don’t have to download the update, and we can push out new changes and experiment rapidly. Finally, user acquisition on the web is easier than on mobile where you have to rely on getting featured on the App Store or getting press. We’re going to keep adding features to our web app until the end of the year, but will release mobile apps on all major devices starting early next year.”

The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “When we launched Sidelines, we first tried marketing the product on various fan forums. We spent some time commenting on these forums with relevant links back to Sidelines, and we were generating a fair amount of traffic back to the site. However, we realized that this was extremely time-consuming and didn’t scale well. So, we shifted our focus to optimizing the virality in our product and encouraging our users to invite their friends. These experiments turned out to be extremely successful and we now have each user inviting an average of 30 friends to the site.”

Mark Zuckerberg. (Photo by Robert Scoble via Flickr.)

Would you rather have Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “Since Sidelines is fundamentally a social product, we’d rather have Mark Zuckerberg in our corner. Mark gets social and sharing more than anyone else, and his insights/advice would be invaluable for Sidelines. Sidelines also leverages the Facebook platform in a big way and Facebook is our primary means of user acquisition, so picking Mark is a no-brainer.”

Our world domination strategy starts when: “Sidelines is well-known as the best place to share sports opinions or content. Our goal is to eventually have a “Share on Sidelines” button on the front page of ESPN….We also think Sidelines would be a perfect channel for teams, players, sportswriters and brands to reach out to their fans.”

Rivals should fear us because: “Most sports sites today are entirely focused on content or the latest news. Sidelines puts the focus squarely on the sports fan, and what he has to say about the content, and the conversations that can spark amongst his group of friends and the broader community. This social aspect of sports is much more engaging for users than the content itself. Our goal is to capture all of the rich passions, emotions and opinions that fans have around their favorite teams and players.”

We are truly unique because: “We seed our ecosystem with great sports content (articles, blog posts, videos etc.) which users can then re-share with their own opinions. We’ve built a crawler which crawls over 5000 sports sites, and finds the most popular sports content. The crawler then ranks and prioritizes that content and associates it with the right teams and players. We pull all of that content into Sidelines and surface it to our users based on what teams they are interested in (like the Seahawks). We’re seeing this resonate well with our users as a lot of them are re-sharing that content to their followers with their own opinions. This is a very different model from sites like Pinterest where users have to go outside the Pinterest ecosystem to bring in new content.”

The biggest hurdle we’ve overcome is: “We had to secure work visas for two of the co-founders since they are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents. This was a major hurdle for us because the U.S, Citizenship and Immigration Services has very stringent regulations around granting visa applications from early-stage start-ups. However, we had a great lawyer who prepared a strong case on our behalf. We also got a couple of partners at venture capital firms, including Voyager in Seattle, to write letters to the USCIS urging them to approve our petitions. All this effort was worth it because our petitions were approved much earlier than we expected, enabling us to get back to focusing 100 percent on our product.”

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “Shorten your timeframes until you start seeing two weeks as an eternity. Have a clear set of metrics that you’re using to measure the success of your product either around user acquisition, engagement or monetization. Regularly push out new features and tweaks to existing features, and look at your metrics to see what works and what doesn’t.”

Startup Spotlight is an occasional look at a Seattle area startup company. Have an interesting new venture you want spotlighted in GeekWire? Fill out the questions above, send  photos of the founder(s) and company logo to tips@geekwire.com. Past profiles can be found here.

  • Ben

    Great interview guys! Really like the new approach.

  • Mark D. Walters – GC To Go

    “With help from a lawyer . . . And now they are running full steam ahead with Sidelines.”

    “. . . we had a great lawyer who prepared a strong case on our behalf.”

    You have to love these quotes!

    Good luck, Sidelines!