Jerry Shen: Making Fantasy Sports a Profession
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because fantasy football can lead to some very real, non-fantasy cash.
By Lorena O'Neil
Just as a quarterback doesn’t win the Super Bowl without breaking a sweat, Jerry Shen didn’t create his popular fantasy sports apps without facing a few challenges.
Shen, 31, is the creator of Bignoggins, a popular fantasy sports app company that was acquired by Yahoo last year. Shen never hired any full-time employees or took any funding for Bignoggins, which is a rarity for startup acquisitions in Silicon Valley.
In 2012 fantasy sport players spent $3.38 billion on products, services and entry fees.
The idea started in a mobile development class he took at Santa Clara University’s Graduate School of Engineering. Shen tells OZY he’s always been a big fantasy sports player; it was his main way of keeping in touch with his college friends from Berkeley. When it came time to develop an app for his class’s final project, he wanted to create one that would allow him to easily manage his fantasy teams on his phone. He was surprised no other app had allowed him to do this before. “There’s a huge advantage to watching something on the news and immediately making a change [to your team],” says Shen.
A 2012 Yahoo fantasy sports survey found that 16 percent of respondents would give up sex for the entire season to win their fantasy league; 39 percent would give up beer.
Shen’s professor suggested he add it to an app store, which he did in May 2010. When football season rolled around three months later, the app took off. Shen humbly attributes the success to timing, pointing out that Yahoo and ESPN also came out with their own fantasy sports apps right before football season — but by that time people were already hooked on Bignoggins.
Fantasy sports is a rapidly growing industry — and one that brings in quite a bit of cash. The Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA) reports that in 2012 participants spent $3.38 billion on products, services and entry fees. Thirty percent of fantasy sports players reported using their mobile device to play fantasy sports in 2011. The FSTA president told Bloomberg that by the time research is conducted, it is already out of date; that’s how quickly the industry is expanding. FSTA reports that in 2014 there were more than 41 million people in the U.S. and Canada playing fantasy sports, and a Yahoo rep tells OZY that of those, Yahoo Sports generates more than 15 million registrations annually across their 15 games, with players spending more than 23 billion minutes playing fantasy sports every year.
Most ideas that are later seen as very successful are seen as very stupid at the time.
Shen weighed the potential upside and decided to go all in on Bignoggins. He quit his job of six years at Lockheed Martin, and in 2011 he and his wife traveled to 12 countries for seven months as he ran the company from abroad, speaking to customers from Asia, Australia and Europe, and talking via Skype with a U.S.-based designer he had hired to work on the apps part-time. But in the three years before Yahoo acquired his company, the extroverted Shen said he grappled with extreme loneliness at work.
“I was very lonely for a while, and there’s been a lot of — at least in the tech world — there’s been a lot of founder suicide recently that’s very personally impacting for me, because I can totally understand that mindset,” he says. “The paradox that comes with entrepreneurship is most ideas that are later seen as very successful are seen as very stupid at the time. For a founder, that’s really tough. As much as you want to have thick skin, you can only take so much rejection and punishment.”
In response, Shen and his contract designer Roberto Ortiz started the ELEO conferences as part support network, part leadership conference. They built a community of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs with weekly meetups, and then started inviting guest speakers to come to the events. “One thing that’s not really covered so much in the Valley is leadership at its core,” opines Ortiz. “Not only do you need to know product and design, but you need to know how to lead your teams well in order to scale.” Founders with venture capital funding often get leadership training in the Valley, but Shen says that as far as he’s aware, ELEO is the only conference in SV specifically for entrepreneurs with a focus on leadership.
Shen was born in China and moved to Ohio at the age of 5. He says he often got into trouble for questioning authority and the status quo, and thought this was a flaw until he moved to Silicon Valley with his family in eighth grade. “That was the first time I realized that some of the aspects of my personality that I thought were flaws could be flipped to strengths.”
When Yahoo came calling, Shen was ready for a change. Along with the acquisition, Shen became director of engineering for fantasy sports mobile at Yahoo. Time magazine even called the fantasy football app improvement one of Marissa Mayer’s best moves as new CEO. Then came opening day of football season: The fantasy app crashed for a full week.
Failing to prepare for success is a common problem in the tech industry, but Shen takes full blame. “I was not used to being responsible at that scale, both as an engineer and a leader. At the end of the day, I was responsible; I was not prepared.”
He explains: “The unique thing about fantasy football is that users are extremely rabid fans of the product. The good side is it feels really good when you are creating features they enjoy. You get a lot of publicity for it. When things go wrong, the flip side is they can be a very vocal minority.” He calls his first year at Yahoo a “big learning experience.”
Despite his successes, Shen thinks back to his struggles when asked what advice he would give to aspiring entrepreneurs:
“What I tell people is, if you can do anything else besides starting a company and you can be happy doing it, you should probably do that. It’s not fun, it’s not glamorous. I would describe it a lot like war.” He pauses and likens it to a bad action movie. “It’s boring except for a few minutes when there’s this really intense action. It’s running in quicksand, not making any progress, punctuated by moments of sheer terror.”
This piece was originally published Aug. 19, 2014, and updated as of Nov. 23, 2014.