Fangage's CEO On Celebrity Engagement, Inspiring New Generation Of Black Founders

Fangage's CEO On Celebrity Engagement, Inspiring New Generation Of Black Founders

Just let it fly.

That’s the advice Fangage CEO Josh Bryant suggests for young founders struggling with their proof of concept. 

“Does it work and will people care about it? If you can answer those questions, you’ll know if it’s a ride worth taking or if you need to get off at the next stop and figure something else out.”

Bryant’s advice is worth taking. The Michigan-based, Southern Methodist University alumnus is a lifelong entrepreneur and sports marketing aficionado.

Though his passion for sports began at a young age, he did not start building in the space until college.

“My cousin and then college roommate Emmanuel Sanders, who is in the NFL, was the first person to pay me to build anything,” he said of building a website for Sanders to market, feature and sell signed memorabilia.

Sanders, at the time, like many others, was frustrated to see his autographs sold on sites like eBay Inc EBAY; middlemen were removing value from the fan experience.

“At that point, you’d have to buy inventory, sign, and then sell,” Bryant added. “That’s when we were at the airport in Denver and a teenager came up to [Sanders], took a selfie, and asked him to sign the selfie with his finger in Snap Inc SNAP's Snapchat.”

The fan gave Bryant an idea: “Do we think people will pay for signed photos they took with him in public?”

This idea ultimately fed into a proof of concept, the E. Sanders app, a tool for Sanders’ fans to pay for digital signatures of photos they took with him in public.

“It was really easy and there was no overhead,” Bryant added. “We expanded the concept so we could include more celebrities but we ran into issues.”

The first problem was disengagement by celebrities. The second involved issues with the development team, he said. 

In search of a solution — a new iteration — Bryant moved his team to Colorado and raised $250,000 for Fangage. They then built Fangage’s business-to-business strategy catering to the likes of professional teams and brands with large sports activation spends.

Fast forward to 2020, when there were no more in-person fan engagements, brands like PepsiCo Inc-owned PEP Gatorade, and CarMax Inc KMX, which usually have their brand ambassadors doing commercials or in-person training, turned to Fangage for virtual autograph sessions.

Fans of top talents in the NFL and NBA could now get into Zoom Video Communications Inc ZM video chats with their favorite celebrities.

"They can upload a photo. When their photo shows up, that’s their opportunity to unmute themselves, ask questions, and get photos signed in real-time," Bryant said. 

“In 2020 and 2021, things took off.”

The Nitty Gritty: Benzinga asked Bryant to talk more about the hardships he encountered as a founder of color in a relatively nascent space.

That success is recent and hardly reflects the hills Bryant's team traversed to get to market, he said. 

“March and April of 2020, we were close to giving up. We gave it a good run, but the bills were piling up and I had a family to feed.”

Despite “hitting the cousin lottery” and having professional athletes as Fangage team members, digital fan engagements were an incredibly difficult area in which to be a to pioneer, Bryant said: high development costs and know-how were challenging factors.

“Eight months or so after the E. Sanders app, I pitched different developers and tried to find a CTO who could come in and believe in the process because, at the time, developers were really hot and expensive.

“Thankfully, I was able to find a connection. He believed in my vision, my passion, and he built out the tech.”

Helping overcome the challenge of development came down to what Bryant explained was asking for help.

“Growing up, I never asked for anything. Truth be told, I needed a complete brainwashing because, in order to be a successful CEO, you have to be the best at asking.”

Evolution: Fangage recently launched new campaigns with such brands as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, General Motors Company-owned GM Chevrolet, Spain national football team and Major League Baseball.

“It comes down to persistence,” Bryant said with a chuckle in a discussion on leveling the playing field and allowing global fans better access to their celebrities.

“We’re headquartered in Detroit, the automotive capital of the world, and, if we were ever going to validate our enterprise model, we would have to convince one of The Big Three that they should be using us,” he added.

Going forward, over the next years, the Fangage team sees major opportunities for growth in working with larger events like the Olympics and The FIFA World Cup, allowing celebrities to engage with fans wherever they are, in the air or on the ground, riding with Uber Technologies Inc UBER.

The Ultimate Goal: One million autographs.

What are the ways to achieve higher levels of engagement? NFTs are one solution, Bryant said. 

“We’re going to see if we can create a NFT market. So, you’ll be able to get a photo of your child that you got signed minted for a low price where you can always have it in a digital wallet, and pass it on.”

Parting Words: Benzinga’s conversation with Fangage comes in light of Black History Month, a period of awareness, remembrance and honor.

Bryant ended the conversation by stressing progress over motion and the importance of leaving a legacy that inspires the next generation of Black entrepreneurs.

“It’s about doing something special. The Black community can look up and know … that you can make money doing something unconventional.”

Click here to watch a video about Fangage.

Posted In: Black History MonthCarmaxChevroletE SandersEmmanuel SandersFangageFIFA World CupJosh BryantMajor LEague BaseballNational Football LeagueOlympicsSouthern Methodist UniversitySpain national football teamSportsStartupsInterviewGeneral