Every business is about solving other people’s problems. If you want to solve your own problem, focus on solving theirs first.
There’s a story I love to share, which I think is emblematic of what it means to be entrepreneurial. It’s one of the things that I think about most when evaluating a founder’s ability to grow their business.
Early in my career at a startup called Proteus, we had created a simple polling application that allowed people to vote via their mobile phones. It was a simple app. But this was 2001, and very few people were using their mobile phones for anything but making phone calls at that time. So we thought, “How can we reach millions of people who want to vote on something?”
Growing up outside of Washington D.C. and watching my father and cousins yell at the TV during Redskins games, I immediately thought sports would be a compelling use case.
So I decided to cold call FOX Sports. I thought about what it is that FOX Sports wants in this world. What makes their business tick? Ad dollars. They want to sell commercials.
So I called FOX Sports. I called information to get their main number, and I just said, “I need to talk to somebody in sales. I’m interested in buying advertising.”
Which wasn’t true, but it gets you to an actual person.
“Hold one second,” they said. Boom, I get connected to this woman named Kim Brown.
I said, “Hi Kim. I’m Craig Shapiro. I work for a company called Proteus. We have a client, big handset manufacturer, and we have an application that allows for voting tied to live broadcasts. So during college basketball games, we want you to promote on TV, ‘You can vote. Who do you think is the MVP?’ Or ‘Who do you think is going to win the game? Text message to this short code.’ In exchange for you promoting our application, our client will buy ads. They’ll buy 30-second spots during the broadcast.”
Kim said, “Well who’s your client?”
“Motorola” I said.
“Yeah. How much do the ads cost?” I said.
“The ads cost $100,000 a pop.”
“Great. How many do we need to buy in order for you to promote our voting application?” I asked.
“Well I don’t know, we’ve never done anything like that. Let me look into it. I’ll get back to you.”
She comes back say a week later and says, “For $300,000, we’ll promote your silly application, that, by the way Craig, nobody’s going to use. We’ve talked about it as a team. We think it’s the most ridiculous idea – why would anybody want to send a text message? Not many people text message in general, but the few people that are are just text messaging their friends and family. Who’s going to text message the TV? But, if you can get Motorola to cough up $300,000, we’ll do it anyways. It’s relatively simple. We create a chyron graphic, it runs along the bottom of the screen. You’ll be happy, I’ll be happy.”
Then I called our lead partner at Motorola (which was a client of Proteus). His name was Bo.
“Bo, I’ve got a deal for you. I can get the people at FOX Sports to promote Motorola phones during the broadcast. They’re going to have their broadcast announcer hold up a Motorola phone and say, ‘You can vote now on your Motorola phone during live broadcasts.’ All you need to do is buy $300,000 worth of ads.”
Bo, who was actually fairly entrepreneurial, even though he’s working in a massive Fortune 100 company, said, “Huh, that’s really interesting. Let me think about that.”
He calls me back two days later and says, “I can do you one better. Motorola just coughed up millions of dollars to became the official telecommunications sponsor to the NFL and FOX Sports happens to have the Super Bowl rights this year. Can you get them to promote our phones during the Super Bowl?”
So I brokered this meeting in Los Angeles where Motorola flew in to meet with FOX Sports. It was a big conference room. I’m 24 years old, talking out of nowhere.
Lo and behold, the deal got done, and it was a success. It was the first truly mobile interactive television initiative in the U.S. It was done on a massive scale. FOX Sports made a ton of money from advertising revenue. Motorola got in-broadcast advertising for the first time I think ever. They’d never done something like that before. And Proteus’ technology was catapulted into being in the big leagues. I went to New Orleans for the Super Bowl that year. The Rams were playing, which meant a lot to me, since I went to Wash U in St. Louis. It was kismet. It was meant to be.
The moral of this story is that everyone has an itch. Figuring out how to align others’ interests with the success of yours is a glide path to success.