Venture Corner: HBS students launch fantasy basketball site Draft the Madness

The Harbus sat down with Jim Hong (OG) and Dan Braus (OG Partner) to discuss their new fantasy sports start-up, Draft the Madness.

The Harbus: So… what is Draft the Madness?

Dan: DTM is a new take on March Madness bracket pools that brings fantasy sports to the NCAA tournament.

Harbus: That’s a very polished elevator pitch. Tell us more.

Dan: This is a game that I’ve been playing with friends and coworkers for about seven years. My buddies and I came up with the rules in high school, and we’ve been playing ever since. Whether you’re a hardcore basketball fan or don’t even pay attention to the sport, you’ll love it.

Harbus: How did this go from a game with friends to a fully-functioning website?

Dan: Well last year, I played the game online with some friends using Google Docs and it worked okay, but then I started thinking, “This would work really well with an online platform.” Jim and I were sitting next to each other at Newport Ball and started talking.

Jim: I’ve always been interested in startups and I love sharing ideas. We were talking about things we thought were missing that would be great for the consumers. I pitched him an idea about a chicken wing dipping sauce container, and Dan pitched me his idea for… what did you call it?

Dan: I didn’t really have a name.

Jim: But we both had ideas, and we were both going to be in Boston over the summer, so it was a good time to collaborate on something, whether it was a chicken wing dipper or a fantasy sports game. I felt like, pun intended, the March Madness idea had better wings for flight. I’m usually not into March Madness because I don’t like all the work that you have to do for the brackets, so this game was more my speed. We decided to commit the summer to developing this with the intent that, at the very minimum, we would at least have a tool that we could play the game with. We didn’t have to deal with all the scaling issues that we talk about in TEM because we’re not trying to be the next Facebook.

Dan: We just want to enable people to have fun with their friends and enjoy the March Madness tournament. Draft the Madness is similar to fantasy sports, except its highly simplified because you’re not picking between thousands or hundreds of players, just teams. You don’t need to have this vast sports knowledge to feel comfortable playing.

Jim: Since Dan’s not a student, he wasn’t able to be a part of FIELD 3, so this is my way of bringing him that special experience. Although, he did visit every RC class last year, so he’s basically a student.

Harbus: And a key player on OG’s many victorious sports teams – we couldn’t have won the SA Cup without him! So I’ve heard that you coded the entire website yourselves. Very un-FIELD 3 of you. Is that true?

Dan: Yes. I really have appreciated us doing the building and recognize why it can be such a big problem to outsource the coding of your website to some online coding resource where you don’t ever get facetime with the guy writing the code. At the beginning, I thought I knew the game inside out. I drew out all the pages what they needed and where the buttons should be. But getting into actually building the site, you realize how much you didn’t think of in the beginning, like user flow, what happens if the user hits the back button at the wrong time or inputs the wrong value. So many little details like that are really hard to think about upfront.

Jim: I did study Computer Science in undergrad, but they don’t teach you how to code, they teach you concepts. And Dan had zero coding experience. When you actually have to put your fingers to the keyboard, it’s a whole different story. I think the biggest challenge was making things foolproof. We just don’t know what the user are going to try to do. That’s where most of the work comes from. We thought we could get a product out by the end of summer, but… we didn’t. It’s a classic story of missing deadlines! Harbus: It sounds like you’ve both risen to the challenge.

Jim: Because it’s just the two of us, it’s amazing how excited about we get about the little victories. Once we get one page up or figure one widget out, we’d be high fiving like, “Oh yeah! Nailed it!” As we’re approaching launch, what’s exciting is all the marketing that we’re doing. When we see that we’re getting hits on Google Analytics or more Facebook likes, it’s great. It’s awesome. We have great support from the section, too.

Harbus: In order to give Dan the full FIELD 3 experience, we must ask: is this business viable? Where’s the money going to come from? Dan: Once we build up a user base, it will most likely be an ad revenue site. This year, to break even, we’re charging transaction fees if users choose to have a buy-in for their pool. At the end, we’ll distribute the pools to the winners minus about 10% just to cover our fees for credit card processing, etc. This was actually something we struggled with deciding; do we want to charge people to start pools? Or have it be a free site with ad revenue?

Jim: We talked to some college basketball enthusiasts and it seems like those people that are into it like to put a little bit of money on the table. If you’re not in one location with your friends, it’s hard to run a pool like this because its hard to collect money and redistribute it, so it was important to us to make that part of our system because it’s a real pain point.

Harbus: Before we wrap up, I’m sure you guys have had a stressful few weeks preparing for launch. Dan, tell me, what’s the best part about co-founding a business with Jim?

Dan: I really appreciate that he is able to excel, not just be competent, in everything that it takes to start a venture from the technical side of creating the product to the marketing side to the back-end data analysis side and customer interactions. He’s got it all! We’ve had some long working sessions and we have a good time while we do it.

Harbus: Jim, do we have a little reciprocal love for Dan?

Jim: Dan is an honorary member of our class. Everybody says that you shouldn’t found with friends and this experience, to date, has been pretty enjoyable. I appreciate Dan’s ability to discuss issues and talk through decisions in a collegial way. I love that he’s so enthusiastic and says, “Nailed it!” every time I do one little thing right. It definitely boosts my ego.

Dan: Good! That’s what I’m going for. Before we let Jim and Dan go, we subjected them to a little game of How Well Do You Know Your Co-founder?

Harbus: What is your co-founder’s must-have fuel for a late-night coding session?

Jim: No question, Domino’s Pizza. With pepperoni.

Dan: That’s right. Jim, too. He once ate a whole Domino’s pizza.

Jim: I was so hungry.

Harbus: One point each. How many hours of sleep do you each need to be functional?

Jim: I think Dan needs five hours.

Dan: To be functional? No, seven. You only need like four, though.

Jim: Last night I had three. I’ll be functional for about the next 20 minutes.

Harbus: We’ll give one more point to Dan. Final question: how frequently does your co-founder’s significant other text, call or e-mail him?

Jim: Is it hourly? It feels hourly.

Dan: Yeah, it’s hourly…

Jim: There’s a lot of communication between Jenn [Braus, NG] and Dan. The flow of communication is strong.

Harbus: And how often does Sheau Chin contact Jim?

Dan: Not as often as Jenn contacts me! I’d say once every three hours.

Jim: Yup, that’s right.

Harbus: Congrats, guys. That’s impressive. One final product pitch?

Dan: Visit to start your pools, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @DraftTheMadness!