Tyler Shooshani co-founded Inked Sports, the influencer marketing platform to help college athletes connect with brands for sponsorship opportunities. They have onboarded 85 athletes (and growing) and have 5 brands wanting to sponsor those athletes.
Hi Tyler! Who are you and what are you currently working on?
My name is Tyler Shooshani. I’m a Senior (22 years old) at USC studying Business Administration with an emphasis on entrepreneurship. For the past 3 years, I have also been a student manager for the USC football team, where I am responsible for setting up the locker room before practices and games, assembling and assisting drills throughout practice, traveling to away games, warming up the players, and overseeing all football equipment during game days.
Currently, I am the co-founder and CEO of my startup Inked Sports, the new influencer marketing and awareness-building platform to help college athletes connect with brands for sponsorship opportunities. The company is based in Los Angeles, California. Our platform is and forever will be free of fees for college athletes. We charge brands a 20% transaction fee on the deal value to help facilitate the entire deal process, from sourcing athletes to sending offers to executing deals to identifying key results on their influencer investments.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
As a student manager, I noticed how much time and effort it took to be a student athlete. Most began their days at 6 a.m. working out and going to rehab if they were injured. They’d then rush to class, scarf down lunch, go back to practice, maybe some more class, and then get home when it was already dark out to do their homework. I felt awful for these athletes, as their commitment to their sport took up most if not all of their time to develop professional skills.
Additionally and most notably, at the time, the NCAA did not allow college athletes to profit off of their name, image, and likeness (NIL) in any capacity (including starting their own business), which meant most athletes were left with little to zero experience when they graduated. However, an opportunity arose. California announced that by 2024, college athletes in California would be able to profit off of their NIL, combating the NCAA’s amateurism policy. I knew that other states would soon follow, and I sat down and thought to myself, “How could I help college athletes capitalize off of this opportunity with a solution that can scale to all college athletes?” Inked Sports became that solution.
Over time, certain parts of Inked Sports changed as my co-founder, Max, and I continued to meet with professors and other business professionals to get their feedback on the idea. But the core concept of helping college athletes for free never changed. We then dove into extensive customer discovery with both athletes and brands to ensure that our product would be designed specifically for the needs of both customer bases.
My motivation to build Inked Sports is to help athletes who feel underrepresented feel represented. 98% of college athletes don’t make it to the professional level, leaving 490,000 athletes with little to no interest from agencies that can help them. We built a solution that enables any college athlete to essentially be their agent and manage their NIL opportunities in less than 15 min a day.
How did you go from idea to product?
The process was long but very rewarding. We started by gathering as much data as possible by conducting multiple interviews with college athletes and brands. We eventually decided to build a mobile app for athletes and a web app for brands since we believe it is the natural product for both customer bases. College students, in general, use their phones far more often than they use their laptops, and we wanted to make it as easy and accessible as possible for college athletes to utilize their NIL. For brands, we wanted to create a web app that was simple on the front end and complex on the backend so we could create substantial value for brand managers that wish to continue using our product. We even have an internal motto for our brand’s web app: “To make NIL deals as easy as Facebook ads”, and we know through our product development with the joint leadership of the three co-founders that we have accomplished that.
Currently, we only have the athletes’ app launched. Since day one, we have received incredible feedback and love the initial reactions from college athletes. However, the most impactful part of our launch was when other college athletes reached out to us, wanting an opportunity to join the platform. It’s one thing to reach out to a massive set of athletes and have a specific percentage download and make an account, but it’s an entirely different feeling when college athletes you didn’t contact reach out to you and want to be a part of Inked Sports. As a founder, it is the best feeling in the world when your brand organically grows. It’s difficult to put it into words, to be honest.
Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?
Through my position as a student manager for the USC football team, I was able to speak with multiple student athletes about what NIL meant to them and how we could develop the most convenient solution possible. Additionally, it helped that most of these guys were my good friends since I had spent time with them almost every day for 3-4 months. So being able to get honest, authentic feedback was super crucial to the success of our product. The value proposition is straightforward: We guide athletes throughout the process and help them make money from their NIL, all for free. So it didn’t take too much convincing for them.
Approaching brands was a bit harder to do. Still, we ended up having over 40+ conversations with social media and influencer managers to investigate the influencer industry and how we can provide additional value in a fast-growing sector. Before completing the brands’ web app, we already have 5 brands that want to work with us and sponsor athletes on our marketplace once the web app is complete.
How are you doing today and what are your goals for the future?
One of my goals for the future is to complete the development of our brands’ web app so we can finally help the 85 athletes (and growing) on our marketplace capitalize on this incredible opportunity. A personal goal would be to dramatically change a college athlete’s life (in a good way, of course) through Inked Sports.
I work closely with my other co-founders Nico and Devin. Nico is our CPO and leads the product development of both our athletes app and brands web app. He helped conduct a handful of athlete and brand interviews and developed the UI and UX for both applications.
Devin is our CTO and is the mastermind behind our entire tech development. We are looking forward to giving him a much larger tech team soon, and I’m personally very excited to see Devin’s leadership skills take action.
I handle the day-to-day conversations with athletes and brands, ideate and execute our marketing strategy (with the help of our awesome marketing intern, Shanna!), meet with potential investors, rework and fine-tune our business model, and keep track of all of our legal work. We all come together every week and talk about putting the company in the best position possible to succeed outside of individual roles. We all know we have unique abilities that help us do our respective work, but we always help each other out whenever we can.
Since starting Inked Sports, what have been your main lessons?
Be patient, but act fast.
It’s ok for people not to like your idea. That’s the time to hear a different perspective on your company, which can be very valuable.
Be open to any ideas that your team comes up with.
Whatever you do in life, make sure you are passionate about it. It makes you enjoy your work so much more.
What were the biggest obstacles you overcame? What were your worst mistakes?
Our main challenge has been executing the development of our tech. I am so proud of all the hard work we put into getting to this point; now, it’s just a matter of executing.
Through this experience, I’ve learned that developing great software takes a lot of time and resources (money and experience). We are very excited for the day our tech is complete for college athletes and brands to finally receive the whole Inked Sports experience.
What tools & resources do you recommend?
We were a part of the Blackstone Launchpad fellowship in Spring 2021. I highly suggest anyone who has a startup apply to the fellowship. It helped us grow the network of Inked Sports with many individuals we still speak with today and a fantastic learning opportunity from many speakers and activities they had us take part in.