On October 1st, 2013, I gave my employer 10 months’ notice that I would be leaving my job. I was working as the Executive Director of a summer camp, and while I loved the place and the people, the demands of the job and the location of the facility made it a poor fit for our young family’s forever-home.
Note from Barrett: This article is a Fizzler business case study, written by James Davis. James is the CEO of DailyFantasySportsRankings.com. He and his business partner build the site into a sustainable business in just two years. This is their story.
The big question, of course, was “Well what the Hell am I supposed to do next?” I had a bunch of things I was pretty good at, but a lot of those skills would likely require another job where I’d have to work similarly demanding hours and continue to miss out on time with my young family.
So, my loving wife and I had a discussion about it, and we decided to give the online business thing a shot. We had a definitive runway – we needed to be what the Fizzle team calls “ramen profitable,” that is, not starving to death, but not getting rich, by September 2015.
This is the story of how we used the Fizzle Roadmap to get from where we were, to where we are now – a family with a six figure income, with two adults who split time working and raising our kids.
How on Earth do you choose a topic and audience from scratch?
I was good at a handful of things – mostly those I had done professionally. I was a great summer camp director, formerly a great gambler (I played poker professionally for 7 years), and I knew a lot about sports. I was very passionate about working with camp & kids, and still dabbled in both gambling and fantasy sports.
So, I launched two businesses. One was the business I wanted to run – loosely described as “Fizzle for Summer Camp Directors.” My partners and I help people be better at camp, and I do some speaking & consulting work as a part of it as well. It still exists, and I’m excited about the project and the people we’re helping – but almost two years later has made me less than $20,000, even though I’ve worked harder on that business than my others. This post isn’t about that business.
This is a post about how my best friend and I found a single problem that people had and that they were willing to pay for, and turned it into a lifestyle business.
Mixing passion and skills
Enter my best friend, Doug. As long as I’ve known him, he’s been a sports fan’s sports fan. I’d gone through stages of being an absolute die-hard, and being generally indifferent. When this business was born, I was generally indifferent. But he had a new passion – something called “Daily Fantasy Sports.”
He also had a business pitch – While there were tons of sites out there talking generally about fantasy sports, there was only one prominent business at the time that was providing consistent information on this specific niche of fantasy sports, and they were often putting out rather time sensitive information later than he, as a daily user, wanted it.
You see, daily fantasy sports means that every single day is another fantasy draft, and pre-season evaluations wind up being useless almost as soon as the season begins. Without expert advice or a statistical model, the average user is absolutely sunk. At the time – we were those average users, floating along and having not so great results.
Light bulb time! I had been binge-listening to the entire Fizzle Show discography (podography?), and Doug’s description of the state of that industry reminded me precisely of something I had heard Corbett say: If you come across a problem that no one else can solve for you, you might have a business idea on your hands.
So, we had a business hypothesis. If we could actually figure out how to do this well, and then create a site that got this time-sensitive information earlier than every other site in existence, people would want to read it. We didn’t know how we were going to monetize the thing, or even how to get people to show up. But we had a place to start.
“If you come across a problem no one else can solve for you, you might have a business idea on your hands”
Vetting our business idea
Confession time – Doug and I both had serious doubts and worries early on in the planning process. I didn’t know if I loved sports enough to make this my profession, and Doug didn’t have the technical chops to get the thing off the ground. At this time, having a roadmap and an accompanying check-list for vetting our business idea gave us an incredible sense of clarity and confidence.
We came to the checklist Corbett developed for episode 8 of the Fizzle Show , and realized that we could answer in the affirmative to 8 of his 9 qualifications. Here are our answers:
Demand — is it something people want?
A. People definitely wanted this information – tons of people were talking
about who to play on which night on twitter.
Competition — who else is doing it? Are they successful?
A. Other people were trying to provide this information, but at the time,
there was only one other site that could show up and do it every single day.
Care — how much personal interest do you have in this topic?
A. Doug was a 10, I was like an 8. But while I didn’t love the games, per se, I
did (and do) love trying to figure out how to project what would happen in
Expertise — how much do you know about this topic?
A. 12 years of playing fantasy sports had made us expert enough.
Specificity — how broad or narrow will your lens on this topic be?
A. Daily fantasy sports was niched down enough that the big boys in sports
media weren’t covering it yet.
Differentiation — how will you differentiate yourself from others in this market?
A. We felt that, by showing up every day before everyone else, and by
working on getting better information, we’d separate ourselves from the
Likability of Customers — do you like them now? Will you like them later?
A. The one rub was the likability of customers. I can’t say that, particularly,
people looking for fantasy sports advice are the most likeable lot. Some of
them are fantastic, earnest folks who are trying to figure out how to have
more fun and make some money at their hobby. Some are total dicks, who
just want to ruin your day if you can’t perfectly predict the future. While I’d
say we like our users overall, the main thing that gets us up every day is
being driven to keep trying to solve the problem for our users that we set
out to solve. And that whole lifestyle thing – both Doug and I have been
able to leave our day jobs and spend about half of our working time raising
our young kids instead. It’s proven a plenty strong motivation.
Can/Will They Pay — do they have moneys and will they share those moneys with you to solve this problem you’re helping them with?
A. When people are putting their money into something, they are
absolutely willing to pay to be better.
Lifestyle — if this became successful, what would your life look like? Would this be a 200 person company? A single laptop on a beach? Does that fit with your personal goals?
A. If this thing took off, it would definitely lead to a lifestyle we liked. A small,
agile company where we’d be our own bosses.
A Business Archetype
In our mind, we had identified the problem we were solving: There were thousands of people out there playing daily fantasy sports and losing because they either A) couldn’t find accurate information on projecting player performance or B) couldn’t find the information they needed at the time they needed it. But what kind of business would we be?
In our planning stages, we decided we’d be Mediapreneurs. We’d offer this great advice every single day, and then we’d work with the sites where people were actually playing to drive them more customers. These sites had great revenue sharing agreements and robust existing affiliate programs, so this felt like a no-brainer. We could also include advertising, because hey – isn’t that how blogs make money? We had another hypothesis, which looked something like this:
“We write good, consistent, and timely articles with player picks each day. People show up. We sell them on some other site to play on. We make tons of money.”
Building and Designing the Site
Now that we had a nebulous concept burbling about in our minds, we had to actually make the thing come to life. I have to say – this part in particular delayed the launch of our business by almost two months. 2 months!
First of all, we had no idea what to name our new business. We had non-stop conversations about whether we wanted to make a well-branded name, and make it mean something (a la Fizzle, or Apple, or Google), or just name it something descriptive, like “Smart Passive Income.”
As a tiebreaker, we turned to one of our major criticisms of our then competitor – when you visited their site looking for picks for that night’s games, it was often very tough to actually find the picks you were looking for.
Their name (while cool) wouldn’t have meant anything to a brand new, fresh off the boat user in the space, so we wanted to be totally different. We went with the most generic name ever: Daily Fantasy Sports Rankings.
Our thought was – if people show up to the site and see those words, then they’ll know exactly what they are getting. We won’t spam them with a bunch of information they don’t want – we’ll just say, “Hey, if you want daily fantasy sports rankings, you’re in the right place.”
Interestingly, this wound up being one of the most significant decisions in the history of our business. It wound up being great for search engines, and not only because it had keywords in the URL.
We consistently got more clicks than we should have for where we were ranked for certain keywords because it was just so obvious what we were. It was like searching for “hemorrhoid cures” and seeing “hemorrhoidcures.com” come up. As a result, we steadily climbed in search almost from the outset – more on that later.
We had a few more setup details to work out. There was the legal and financial structure – an easy call, at splitting things 50/50. And then there was the website itself.
Paralysis time, once again. I had fiddled with WordPress, but neither of us was anything close to what you’d call a designer. So, we did two things. First, I watched Chase’s course on website design.
What I gleaned there (and still hold dear) was that the most important aspect of our site was going to be that it quickly and effectively communicated what we were all about. We decided on a very minimalist theme that would just display our main value-add for people: our picks. At the time, we just wanted it to look like the front of the sports page of a newspaper.
Here’s a picture from our first media kit, since I can’t find another one anywhere!
To be honest, we didn’t really like the design, and we didn’t even really love the name. I always called it “DSFR” when speaking aloud, instead of DFSR. Nonetheless, we had a site, we had a rough business plan, and a desire to make it work.
And then we wrote for no one, for what felt like forever.
Finding that pesky audience
It turns out that just showing up and writing on some random spot of the internet doesn’t really do anything unless you actively start tracking people down. We had one fairly tremendous barrier to that – I was the face of the non-profit summer camp I was working for, and telling our potential camp families that I was moonlighting as a guy who gives out what amounts to gambling advice on fantasy sports felt like it would hurt the business with whom I was under contract.
So we had to build our audience anonymously. We invoked our inner-Chase:
“Show up where that crew hangs out, and just start talking to them.”
We went over to Twitter, and started engaging with people. Some of our initial tweets are just embarrassing in retrospect. I would ham-fistedly try to ride whatever was trending, or reach out to and be ignored by A-listers in our space. But then, we had another little revelation.
We didn’t need to connect with big names in fantasy sports, we needed to start by helping the people looking for help. Twitter is absolutely riddled with people seeking help in this area (and, as an aside, I’d guess that many good business ideas can be found by combing twitter for the types of questions people ask that are going unanswered), so we started answering them 1 by 1.
“We like Peyton Manning over Tom Brady this week,” we’d say. “No, I wouldn’t play LeSean McCoy for $9,100. If you want a more detailed take, go check out the article we wrote on this,” we’d offer.
A trickle of traffic started coming in. I wish I had a copy of the excited text I sent Doug when I saw the first little bump in our users and page views inside analytics.
Once we got people to our site, the first little bit of our hypothesis was tested. We could answer in the affirmative to the question, “Do people want more of this information, and does it matter to them that we have it out first?”
Users who found us kept coming back, and qualitative feedback on our content was great. On January 18th, 2014, exactly one month after launching, we had a 300 page-view day, and we were feeling pretty darned good about ourselves.
There was only one little problem. The industry we are in requires writing every single day, without fail, during a very specific time frame (from 7pm EST on each night). Both Doug and I worked more than full time already, and splitting all of this content creation on top of trying to actually move the business forward was grueling.
But the page views were up, right? So we must have been feeling great in spite of all of this, right? Nope.
You see, our business model – the Mediapreneur – was completely failing. We hadn’t referred a single affiliate, or earned a single dollar in advertising. In fact, this would also be the case three weeks later, when we were doing more than double the page-views we had been doing at the end of the first month.
Most of the people finding us were already members of the sites we were trying to sell them on, and we were not nearly big enough to secure flat-rate advertising from someone outside of our space.
In some ways, getting a fair amount of traffic while making zero money was even more depressing than when we were writing for no one. At least we had an excuse at that point.
As traffic grew and revenues didn’t, this was feeling a lot more like a hobby than a business. And hobbies that require one of the two of you to write every single night regardless of how tired you are aren’t exactly sustainable in the long term.
It was time for a new hypothesis. Exit the Mediapreneurs, enter the Engineers.
Rethinking who our customers were
I think the Mediapreneur model is one of the more misunderstood business models out there for one main reason: in many cases, you’re trying to commoditize your audience, rather than trying to serve them.
We were spending a lot of time trying to get our users to try this or that new product or site, and thinking a lot less about how to actually help them with the problem they so desperately wanted help with – being better at daily fantasy sports.
It was time to make something they actually wanted. Something that would actually help them. It was time for the next step of Phase 2 of the Fizzle Roadmap: building a minimum viable product.
How do you actually build a product that’s useful?
We weren’t exactly sure what people would want to buy. We had our free eBook, which we were using as a lead magnet for our email list (at least we listened to one piece of advice – “the list” is now almost to 9,000, and here we followed almost to the letter Corbett’s “Build your e-mail list to 10,000 Subscribers and Beyond” course).
We had our daily picks columns, which helped our users play in their games from night to night. Consulting with people seemed like an absurd option that would never scale. We weren’t programmers, so building software seemed off the table. Really, the only thing we had that we weren’t already giving away for free was our projection system and algorithms, but it felt a little TOO minimum to sell people a link to a shared Google Doc.
The more we talked about it, though, the more we realized that the Google Doc actually would be a big value-add. While we were writing up a bunch of players every night, we could never hit on every good move.
Our spreadsheets were calculating all of this stuff automatically, and would almost certainly be really useful to folks – especially beginners who might not have even heard of some of the guys who would make good plays. But again, we couldn’t sell people access to a Google Doc, right? RIGHT!?
This is where it helped to have a little luck on our side. My Dad has been a programmer for 30+ years, and was able to help us basically make a little replica of our Google Doc behind a paywall for potential users. We got some recommendations for setting up a membership site from inside the Fizzle forums (connection is another key aspect of the Fizzle roadmap), and hung out our shingle. If you want to know what “minimum” looks like, by the way, here you go:
Is that a minimum viable product, or what? While it worked quite well, it wasn’t going to win any design awards. Using the code my dad wrote and a free WordPress plug-in (Tablepress – a lifesaver!) we were able to give our users access to the numbers our system was spitting out every night, instead of just telling them who to play. Within a week of launching this product, I exchanged this adorable email with Chase:
“Do things that don’t scale.” What an important nugget to have shared with us at this stage.
Instead of patting ourselves on the back, we reached out to our customers, surveyed them (informally) on what they liked and didn’t like, added little tweaks and features based on their recommendations, and asked the cancelers why they were canceling. We got used to the rather extensive workload, and it all sort of felt worth it because were getting paid to figure out how sports work.
And then I tried to quit the business again
It occurs to me that to this point I’ve omitted all of the times I talked to Doug on the phone and tried to get him to give us permission to quit. “I don’t know if I can keep spending all of this time on something that’s not working,” I’d say. Or, when we started making a trickle of money, I’d make jokes like, “Hey – we’re making 20 cents an hour on this – not bad!”
Then April of 2014 came around, and I really tried to quit. Up until that point we had been covering just one sport – basketball – but April brought two and a half weeks of overlap between baseball and basketball season. This meant we’d need to put out articles every night for both sports. This meant 3 hours of work every night for about 15 days.
Halfway through I called Doug and broke the news: “I can’t do this anymore.”
“I’ll take on more of the work. Just make it through this two week stint and let’s see how it feels when we’re doing baseball only,” he urged me, even though he had already been writing more content than I was.
Reluctantly, I agreed. My work slipped, though – users would complain about thoughtless errors (like getting a pitcher’s handedness or match-up wrong). While we were growing, we still had fewer than 50 subscribers total, which meant that something like 200 hours of work per month was going in for $750.
Our first big break – accidental SEO work
Let’s take a quick jump back to the beginning of our business story. If you’ll recall, I was going to be leaving my job in September of 2014, and from there, I’d have exactly a year to make a full time income before plying my trade for someone else again. In April of 2014, this business was making me $375 per month, and while that’s not bad for a side income, it obviously isn’t nearly enough to be even “ramen profitable.”
I was getting a little bit of traction from my camp-related work that put me somewhat at ease – I had booked a few speaking engagements for the fall – so I knew I wouldn’t be totally broke. But I was starting to sweat the money stuff pretty hard. I had 2 kids I was trying to feed, and I was throwing away total job security and a very nice lifestyle. Then, the aforementioned break.
While SEO was something we knew existed, we never tried to go all out with external SEO strategies. I mean, a fair amount of keyword research went into how we were titling and structuring our articles, and obviously we had a keyword rich domain name, but by June of 2014 we had fewer than 10 backlinks. The backlinks we did have came from podcasts Doug appeared on, or from mutually beneficial content exchanges with D-list fantasy sites like ours. I guess we never anticipated competing with the top players in our field, at least not that early, so we didn’t totally bother.
All of a sudden, though, our organic search related traffic started climbing at an incredible rate. Here’s a graph of sessions started from organic search per week from April 2014 to August 2014, a time where total traffic in our space was actually on the decline:
We were starting to rank in the top 5 for some very competitive key words, and we honestly didn’t totally know why. Well, it turns out that we had done the whitest-hat-SEO possible: writing good content for exactly the people who want to find it.
It turns out that Google cares not just about who links to your stuff, but what people do when they show up to your site. Bounce rate matters.
Time spent on the page matters. In other words, people being able to find what they are looking for right when they show up really matters.
When people showed up to our site, as basic and minimal as it was, users were finding exactly what they were looking for. No spammy affiliate bullshit, no self-aggrandizing windbags, no pop-ups – just well-reasoned articles that helped them get better at fantasy sports.
Much to our delight, Google was happy to serve their users our content, and before long we were (and still are) the top ranking site for many of the keywords that are most important to building traffic in our space.
We continued to add email subscribers, product users, and monthly revenue, and by the time I left my job in September of 2014, we had just about reached ramen profitability.
The multi-pronged attack on the Growth stage
From there, we did a bunch of rather unexciting work that you can probably imagine:
- We brought in some writers to cover things we didn’t know much about (Golf, MMA, Nascar, College Football).
- We hired people to work part time to do things we hate, like accounting work, or technical support.
- We paid money to automate some particularly time consuming processes (like updating our product every night, which we had been doing manually for about 30 minutes a night for the first 400 days of its existence)
… and so on.
Our good relationship with Google allowed us to focus more on honing our projection system and producing our content while the business continued to grow…
Until it stopped. Here’s our page views graph from December of 2014 to August of 2015.
Our users and subscribers were growing, but only by bits and pieces, rather than the exponential growth we were seeing early on. Even worse, a lot of these new users were dissatisfied with the product. They didn’t like the way it looked, it was a little bit buggy sometimes (due to the automation we had installed, ironically), and it was kind of hard to use.
Some of our competitors were now offering similar products that worked better, and it was clear that we had reached a pretty significant plateau. We had grown to the point where our skills alone wouldn’t cut it, so we turned back to the Fizzle roadmap. We hadn’t updated our product or site since its inception. We needed to make our first big business purchase: a product and website overhaul
Admitting what we can’t do
Thankfully, I was finally able to admit to myself that we just weren’t keeping up in July of 2015. We reached out to the Philly based design and development firm Think It First, and explained our situation.
Before moving on, I want to say why we chose them in particular. First of all, we loved their Fizzle-esque about page:
Our mission is to see smart ideas take up more of the popular cultural space. We believe in the power of a good strategy and see your project not as a job that needs to be done, but as a cause we’ll invest in. We believe in your ideas, understand your issues, and work to provide a level of service that meaningfully addresses each project you entrust to our care.
Perhaps more importantly, I actually knew their head designer. He was an honest, hard-working guy I went to high-school with. I figured that, even if they couldn’t do what we wanted, they’d at least be honest with us. When they said they could do it, we shipped them a 50% deposit, and were off. We went back and forth on designs and tweaks for about two months, and then launched DFSR version 2.0:
They gave us some really valuable feedback, like, “You know that it’s impossible to tell you have anything for sale, right?”
They chose some nice colors and fonts and whatever, but they also made everything work like it should. We stopped having technical issues right away, people understood what our product did before they bought it (which killed most customer complaints), and the product itself was just hot:
We relaunched our product to our old users and our email list, and, thankfully, they responded. In the 3 weeks since relaunch (at the time of this writing), our user-base has grown by almost 50%. Here’s some Stripe “customers created” porn for you:
Now, not all of those are subscribers – we actually added a little $5 side product that throws it off a little bit. But needless to say, the new site is converting approximately a million times better (okay, according to analytics, just 3–5 times better). Not surprisingly, revenues are following.
We’re now at around 1,500 monthly subscribers paying $15 a month, and a few decent side revenue streams as well (those advertisers and affiliates started showing up when the users started coming in droves… go figure).
The fancy designed helped, but the solid business foundation helped more
I know not everyone can put down 5 figures for a new site design. I don’t want the finale of this post to be the major take-away. You may have done the math by now, but…
At 50% growth after the redesign and 1,500 current users, we built a 1,000 subscriber business with an out-of-the-box WordPress theme and a basic data look-up table that we built for free with help from my awesome dad.
Beyond ramen profitability… And on to a thriving business?
To date, we’ve published at least one new piece of content every single day since we started the company. Either my business partner or I wrote and published more than 99% of that content.
In other words, building this business has been really hard, and it has taken a ton of work.
But I’m here to tell you that that Fizzle roadmap thing? It works.
Our growth has come from showing up every single day, continuing to solve a problem that people are willing to pay for, and taking the concerns and complaints of our users very seriously. We focus on making progress on our business week after week.
As a result, Doug and I have now both left our day jobs to do work that doesn’t exactly feel like work. We both spend half of our “work week” as stay at home dads, supporting our wives in running their own online businesses. And it’s pretty damned sweet.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Derek Halpern: “By not starting today, you’re just delaying your good years.”
If two guys with no technical chops and a passion for fantasy sports can make a full time income in the online business world, there’s a great chance you can too. But it all has to start with that first step. What are you waiting for?