The LinkedIn of football players
Arguably the most popular sport in Europe, football has the power to bring people together, create friendships for life and stir up feuds for eternity. It is also a multi-billion business, which, amazingly, still offers plenty of opportunities for innovative and smart solutions. Meet Bulgarians Stilian Shishkov and Martin Petrov, the dynamic duo who took advantage of one such opportunity to create the platform Footballscout.com, which now boasts over 450.000 members worldwide.
A business culture nurtured by athletic discipline
Brought together by their passion for football and maybe a bit of nostalgia for theirhome country, Stilian and Martin met in the US over eight years ago. Stilian had a software company and was managing a football team on the side, while Martin had gone abroad with the hopes of becoming a successful football player, only to find out that the competition there is fierce not just in sports, and that even a business career can offer the same thrills. Today, they find it hard to recall how they met, but their friendship is evident – not only do they share responsibilities in several businesses, they also share an office and even team up in the eveningsto play football with colleagues and clients.
In what seems almost like a chance beginning, they started by making a single sports news website, because several good journalists were looking for a new opportunity. Eight years down the road, Sportal Media Group manages a vast international network of Facebook fan pages, news and e-commerce websites and an HD TV channel. It is also the exclusive representative of Skype for Bulgaria, no doubt a factor in their registered revenue of 3,7 million euros in 2012. But more than just the monetary value, they have created a highly recognisable brand and a tight team, made up of many former players. Translating the on-field discipline and adrenaline rush into the business, they admit that theirs is quite a competitive family. “Despite operating on a small market, we are all fiercely ambitious, and always aim to be the best,” says Martin.
When starting their first project, Sportal.bg, Stilian and Martin didn’t realise they were going down the startup road, and “knocked on many locked doors”, as Stilian put it, experiencing many growing pains. This is why, when they finally decided that the time was right to turn their shelved Footballscout idea into a real project, even though they already had a successful project behind them they decided to follow what is increasingly becoming a traditional path in Bulgaria – joining an accelerator and benefiting from the structure and network that goes with it. “We didn’t do this out of financial need, we tend to finance our own projects, but for the opportunity to meet people, create a good network of professionals, which Eleven were very good at providing from the start,” says Stilian. Completing each other’s sentences, he and Martin explained the huge difference that the added structure of startup funds creates for the companies, as seen from their unique perspective. “The initial funding offered nowadays is far from sufficient,” they agree, “but the networking and know-how are by far the most valuable about the accelerator experience.”
One platform to serve them all
Despite being essentially a startup company, Footballscout.bg actually differs from many of the startups in the country. For starters, its co-founders are serial entrepreneurs with several successful businesses behind them. They have more than a decade of experience over other accelerator graduates, did not join the Eleven accelerator fund out of financial need, and have quickly transitioned into mentors for new startups.
Stilian and Martin’s relaxed manner and easy banter almost make it easy to forget that they are accomplished businessmen, and the simplicity of their idea is almost beautiful – theyhope to one day be the LinkedIn of football. “It all started in the US when I was managing the Atlanta Silverbacks team, and was in charge of transfers and recruitment,” Stilian recalls. “Back in the time of VHS, comparing two players was a massive task, because there never was a standard, everyone sent different CVs, everyone described themselves in a different manner.” The two partners discussed the need for a standardised system, but shelved the idea, focusing on their news site business.
Now that they feel the time is right, they have spent two years perfecting the platform, focusing on offering tailor-made functionalitiesfor the different type of users. “While in the beginning we started with the idea of offering a catalogue of players, now, although the project is much more complicated, the best part about it is that everyone can find value for themselves,” Martin explains. “functionalities that answer directly to their needs.”
Their project, initially then called Soccerscout, went through two rounds of Eleven funding, starting with the standard package of 25.000 euros in exchange for eight percent of the company and a three-month acceleration programme, followed by another 25.000 euros. Later on, Eleven also joined in their funding round, when they attracted some business angels, who offered more than just financial support.
One of Bulgaria’s most successful players, Dimitar Berbatov, became the godfather of the project. “We were having dinner in London with him when we told him of the Soccerscout project. We had already purchased the domain, and he told us to drop the soccer, this was football, pure and simple,” Stilian recalls. Thus, with Footballscout now the new name, Berbatov joined other business angels as a shareholder in the joint-stock company with a current total capital of 30.000 euros.
Stilian Shishkov, Photo credit: FootballscoutOut of the sandbox and onto the global pitch
The official launch of the website was on 1 March, 2014, even though it had functioned as a beta for a while. The plan is to rely on a freemium pricing model and charge for additional functionalities and analysis of video and statistics for the professional players. The latter is quite interesting, as they plan on analysing the minute details of each player’s performance, listing their number of passes per game, the distance ran, etc.
Stilian and Martin both admit that Bulgaria is a great sandbox for testing ideas before they go global, but it is too small a market to sustain a great business. “The fact that there are startup funds here is great,” Stilian says, “but let’s face it, the whole of Bulgaria is the size of a New York borough.” Despite all the positives of operating out of Sofia, their primary efforts during the beta stage were aimed at recruiting users from Africa. “There are great players in Africa and people are actively looking for a solution. That is why we decided to start there, they are not as used to professional networks, so we wanted to test our concept there, rather than in a mature market that will immediately compare us to LinkedIn and other professional networks.” As a result, they have many Nigerian players, but many other nationalities are present, too.
The project has been well accepted worldwide, as seen by the thousands of signed up users. In this sense, Footballscout is already a success, but its co-founders are already looking ahead. “We want to grow the user base to several million, and take it to a next level financially,” Stilian explains, but is interrupted by Martin, who says that numbers are not the only way to measure success. “I would feel great if in, say five years, we read somewhere that the next Gareth Bale says his mom once signed him up for Footballscout and that is how his rise to fame begun.”
Finally settling on the key indicator of success, both agree that it would be managing to create a tool that changes fates. And their ideas don’t stop with football either, with many other plans on the table. “That’s what will complete our hat-trick,” Martin adds, “To create something that is successful worldwide.”