Some people like sports and some people live sports, Kris McCarthy is the latter. For seven years, Kris played pro hockey for four teams in two different leagues winning two champions before moving into a head office role for another, so he knows a thing or two about being part of a winning team and how to promote a game, brand, and product. Spotlight on Business Magazine sat down with this professional hockey player turned entrepreneur to learn more about the co-founder of FanSaves, as Kris shares his passion for sports and where he gets his drive on and off the ice.
Spotlight on Business: Tell us a little about yourself, your hobbies, and what you like to do in your spare time for fun when you are not working if there is such a thing?
Kris McCarthy: A lot of people talk about work-life balance, for me, it’s more like work-life integration. Being a startup founder it’s really rare to work a 9-5. My mind is always racing with new ideas and strategies from the moment I wake to the moment I go to sleep. When you love what you do it isn’t really “work” and having a co-founder who is also your life partner just amplifies that. We love talking about the business and manifesting where it could go. Having said all that, there are many things I like to mix into my days. Some would say I have a bit of a green thumb! I spent years working with a friend during university for his landscaping company doing everything from cutting grass to cutting down trees to interlock and more. I gained valuable experience that I’ve carried into my present life that really comes in handy around our property, which backs onto the Rasion River in Martintown, Ontario. Gardening, hedge trimming, really anything I can do around the property is appealing to me and I find satisfying. Aside from that, fishing is another one of my hobbies. When I’m not out on our river on Sunday mornings I like to spend time with my dad hauling in largemouth bass and spending time on the water. Hockey is one of my biggest life passions so when I’m not cheering for my Ottawa Senators, I like to get out on the frozen river and our backyard and go for a twirl. It’s literally one of my childhood dreams and an escape from the day-to-day business.
Let’s learn about the business side of Kris, where you went to school, your professional experience, and background, and your role at FanSaves?
KM: I’m very proud of my post-secondary education, I studied business administration at SUNY Potsdam, and it was there where I first had my first flair for entrepreneurship. I started a business on campus that helped pay my way through school… and maybe a couple of drinks with my friends on “Thirsty Thursdays” at the local campus bar! I’ve always had a strong work ethic and often worked multiple jobs during the summers to help pay for my school. Jobs like landscaping, working in the stone yard at Home Depot, refereeing men’s league hockey with my dad, or prepping and delivering food for my friend’s Greek restaurant in Ottawa. Shout out to Greek on Wheels! All these jobs taught me valuable life skills that I’ve carried into my current career as a startup founder such as communication, teamwork, and quick decision-making.
I also signed my first professional hockey contract in the summer of 2010, in the back of the kitchen at Greek on Wheels, which is a whole other story! I was fortunate enough to play seven years of minor pro hockey, four of which while I was enrolled full-time at SUNY Potsdam. That experience taught me a lot about time management, building relationships and asking for help when I needed it, which was something historically that I was never really good at. Playing professional hockey taught me so much about myself and while some of the previous skills I carried with me like hard work and communication, I also picked up important life and business skills like leadership, professionalism, and resilience. These character traits are so important as a founder of a tech startup. I am so grateful for my hockey career which prepared me for leading a team and growing a business from scratch. As the Co-Founder & COO of FanSaves, I lean on my previous work experience all the time and that is something I am very grateful for. I’ve seen a trend where these days students coming out of school feel entitled to things without putting in the time and proving themselves in the wild. I’m big on putting my head down and putting in the work to get ahead in life!
What was the transition like from being a professional athlete to the front office?
KM: It was difficult for me; I think like a lot of athletes, life after sport is a time where you really learn a lot about yourself and what your career has taught you along the way. Over my career I made so many great lifelong friends but when my career ended a lot of those friends either kept playing in other cities or went back home to embark on their next move in life. It was a lonely place for a little while, luckily, I had a great support system, and it didn’t take me long to run into Shannon Ferguson, my FanSaves Co-Founder and life partner with who I instantly was drawn towards and shared so much in common with. I really threw myself into my work which at the time was working in the front office as the Sales & Marketing Director for two minor professional hockey teams. My passion and work ethic were matched by Shannon if not more which I was really attracted to outside of the beautiful person she is. Right away we clicked, and the rest is history! We both loved working in sports, and it was that that led us to the pain point we are solving with our startup FanSaves.
As a professional athlete, the goal is to win games and championships, of which you have two. In the front office, it is more or less the same thing but at a different level. Can you tell us about the difference?
KM: As a player, winning a championship is the ultimate goal. During my hockey career, I’ve broken bones, bled (more than a few times) and sacrificed a lot to achieve that goal. I feel so fortunate to have won two championships as a player and one as a member of the front office. Some players… a lot of players go their whole careers without winning anything, so I feel very grateful to have accomplished that goal twice. Winning a championship at the pro level, whether it’s single A pro or the NHL, is something no one can ever take away from you. They are memories that stay with you for the rest of your life and the bond you create going to battling and winning with teammates is something that keeps you connected for life.
Working in the front office and winning a championship is a whole other level. While without the players there is no game, without the front office putting butts in the seats, selling sponsorships, and promoting the team in the community and in the media, there is also no team. It’s a different challenge but a lot of the same characteristics overlap like teamwork, communication, and hard work! I feel so grateful to have worked in the front office of professional sports as it allowed me to sharpen my skills, build a network and is ultimately what led to the creation of our baby, I mean startup FanSaves!
Did you always want to be an entrepreneur and start your own business?
KM: To be honest, I always saw myself working in the front office of a major professional sports team. I love the business of sports and it’s something I’ve always been drawn to. Having said that I’ve always kind of had an entrepreneurial flair. The business I spoke of earlier while in university was a food delivery service that I created called the Union Delivery Service or UDS for short. I quickly became known on campus as the guy that would go to the student union where all of the different food vendors were, and I would use their student cards to purchase and deliver right to their door. If you’ve ever been to college or university, there are many reasons why this service is appealing. Students and friends hated having to walk the few minutes to the union to get food and while it may sound a little lazy there are many valid reasons why having your food delivered made sense. Whether it was in the middle of a study session or paper, partying with roommates, heavy snow (Upstate New York), or inclement weather many sought me out to deliver their food for a small fee. A friend lent me a scooter and I got myself a little cooler bag. I even would wrap up people’s orders in brown paper bags and staple the receipt for full transparency. I wish I had a better phone back then because it was a real sight to see me ripping through the quad balancing a couple of pizzas and drinks in one hand trying to steer with the other. It became so popular that I even made “The Racquet” the school newspaper where I and my venture was featured! This was my first foray into entrepreneurship but would not be my last!
Did you have a mentor? If so, who was it and what was the most important lesson they taught you?
KM: I’ve had many mentors throughout my time at school, working in the front office and throughout our startup journey. A few that stand out are Edwin Portugal and Greg Garder, a couple of business professors that I really liked and who helped me manage to balance a professional hockey career and a full-time university course load. They taught me a lot about business and prepared me for the next phase of my career. Two others that come to mind are Don Kirnan and Herm Sorcher. Don was and still is the commissioner of the Federal Prospects Hockey League which is where I played and got my start in the front office. Don gave me my first front office position as the GM of the Watertown Privateers and I often say I would not be where I am today without that opportunity, I’m so very grateful. Herm was an owner of another team in the league and when I was hired as the GM of the Privateers, he helped me get my footing and provided me with continuous advice and information to help increase ticket and sponsorship sales which were two of the main responsibilities of the position. It’s something I’ll never forget!
Tell our readers about FanSaves and the work that you have been doing with teams and organizations to help increase sponsorship sales and fan engagement through your award-winning digital platform.
KM: In 2017 while Shannon and I were managing the sales & marketing for two teams in the FPHL we kept running into the same problem while selling sponsorships to businesses in the community where businesses wanted more than the traditional sports sponsorship inventory we were selling. We kept hearing over and over again from business owners that they wanted a way to digitally activate our fans while giving them a way to track fan data and return on investment. We didn’t have anything like that, so we created FanSaves as the solution. FanSaves is a digital platform that offers fans, discounts, and deals from the sponsor of their favorite teams. We like to think of it as Instagram meets Groupon, but teams can think of it as their own digital coupon book made up of deals from team sponsors that fans can redeem. We found from speaking to our fans that often they couldn’t even tell us who our sponsors were. In 2020 we did a research study with thirteen university sport business clubs across North America and found that 90% of fans surveyed couldn’t name more than five of their favorite team’s sponsors. It’s a huge problem when you consider over 4 billion dollars is spent annually by brands on just the big four sports here in North America alone. Connecting brands with fans is just one of the many problems we are solving with FanSaves.
Can you tell us about your “Living the Startup Podcast Co-Host” and what it is all about?
KM: Our Living the Startup podcast is something that came out of Covid. Shannon and I had wanted to create a podcast for a little while leading up to the pandemic but were often pulled in too many directions in the early days of FanSaves. When things shut down, we saw an opportunity to launch our podcast and made the effort to do so. The goal was to interview other startup founders and talk about life behind the brand and the candid lessons learned. Fast forward to today, we’ve recorded 70 episodes from inspiring founders building great companies at any stage. It’s something fun for us and a great reminder that we’re not the only ones living this startup roller-coaster. We’ve also learned a lot from these other founders, and it’s been a great way to help share their stories as founders. Towards the end of 2020, we partnered with Staples Canada which helped give the podcast a boost of credibility and offered listeners a discount on print services at Staples locations.
What is your greatest strength and what is something that you struggle with as an entrepreneur? What motivates you as an entrepreneur and business owner?
KM: I think leading by example is something that I’ve always prided myself on. You can’t expect your employees to do something and then you do something else. As a founder, you need to lead by example, and this is another thing I think I’ve picked up from my career as a professional hockey player. I think sometimes it can be hard to see beyond the next mountain peak speaking metaphorically and you can begin to compare yourself to others. I’ve learned to ask for help and consult others that have been there before. It’s easy to compare yourself or your company to others but I always remind myself that everyone’s journey and outcome are different. I always just tell myself to put my head down, do the work and good things will happen. I’m motivated to provide for our team and build a brand and a life that I can be proud of, no matter the level of success.
Where do you see yourself and the business 5 years from today?
KM: We have ambitions to be a global brand and while we’ve started out in professional sports, we see the opportunity to work with multiple verticals outside of sports. We’re building our brand one day at a time and in five years we aspire to be up there with some of the most recognizable brands in the couponing industry.
Kris understands how important it is to any brand to be able to connect and stay engaged with their customers. He has taken his experience on the ice as a player and the challenges that he has faced in the front office to help develop a platform that makes it easy for businesses in all industries to do both. So, keep your head up, stick on the ice and your eyes on Kris as we personally believe there will be many future goals achieved for this amazing and talented entrepreneur and for the FanSaves brand itself.
by Lee Ann Atwater