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When professional athletes end their career, many don't have a new game plan and wind up in financial trouble. For example, within two years of leaving sports, nearly 80 percent of retired NFL players face financial stress and even bankruptcy because of joblessness or divorce.
Former New York Giants running back Tiki Barber thinks he can help. After retiring from the NFL at the end of the 2006 season, Barber began his second career as a television broadcaster, actor and entrepreneur. Barber has co-founded a startup called Thuzio, an online marketplace that connects current and former athletes with companies, sports fans and charities that would like to hire them. The other co-founder is Mark Gerson, chairman of Gerson Lehrman Group, a New York firm that connects its clients with subject matter experts.
Thuzio provides its sports talent with online marketing services, event booking, payment fulfillment, event communications and customer service. Thuzio pays the athlete 80 percent of the fees collected and retains the rest.
Working with nearly 400 athletes, Thuzio reports growing traffic to its site, passing 80,000 visits last month. The average price for "an experience" with an athlete is $1,700 -- ranging from a $149 phone call with former Miami Heat star Tim Hardaway to $12,500 to hire NFL Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson for a corporate event.
We spoke with Barber about his vision for Thuzio, and how his time as a professional athlete prepared him to become an entrepreneur. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.
Entrepreneur: How did you become involved in Thuzio?
Barber: A year and a half ago, I was literally doing nothing. I had stopped working at NBC, and I was looking for a way to make a living. During this time, I identified an issue that arises with many former athletes. They have a brand and an expertise that they spend their entire lives developing as professional athletes that they can no longer monetize because the Giants, Knicks or Lakers are not willing to pay for that expertise anymore. When his career is over, an athlete is replaced on the field immediately, and soon after, he is forgotten by the fans unless he stays current.
What we've seen is that social networking has created this "social currency" for former athletes to stay top of mind. So, that desire to interact is there, but the actual way to monetize it, unless you know someone, didn't exist. That's how we came up with the concept.
Entrepreneur: How did your time as a professional athlete prepare you to become an entrepreneur?
Barber: Firstly, many of the friends that I have met in New York City over the last 15 years have been entrepreneurs, business owners and influential folks who also have reach across the country and internationally. So, that business expertise that you can borrow has been valuable.
Secondly, it is obviously the lessons that I've learned in sports. People see the successes and failures on a Sunday afternoon. And figuring out how to deal with those setbacks and successes and learning how to grow from them has been hugely valuable to me. Those are lessons that I am able to pass along to our team.
Entrepreneur: What has been your biggest challenge in launching Thuzio?
Barber: We had two challenges in starting this business. One was in finding our athletes and talent. To find current information on the people we wanted to approach was difficult. Now that we are more established and in the athlete circle, that has become easier.
Also, the market that we are targeting existed, but there wasn't exactly a marketplace. The average customer didn't know that they could engage with their favorite athlete. Creating that awareness has been a challenge. The way that we have attacked this challenge has been by creating press around it to help build awareness. Now, our primary objective is to find the right marketing channels.
Entrepreneur: How do you plan to grow the business?
Barber: We want to grow quickly. While we've targeted the big markets to begin with, it's most likely going to be the local, smaller markets where we can generate a lot of interest. We're looking to find talent, like the local football star from the University of Texas who never made it to the NFL but still has a lot of local currency.
Internationally, the concept of a player appearance is not as prevalent as it is in the U.S. We feel this is an incredible growth opportunity, especially around soccer in Europe.
Entrepreneur: What advice do you have for other athletes who want to own their own businesses?
Barber: Always be cognizant of relationships. Sometimes as athletes we believe that we are invincible and we can do anything we set our minds to. But you need help, you need friends who will pick you up when you have a bad day and point you in the right direction.