How a serial entrepreneur is taking on the $1.3 trillion sports industry: A chat with heros founder, Stuart Thornton

Published on
January 25, 2024
Written by
Aaron Oh
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How a serial entrepreneur is taking on the $1.3 trillion sports industry: A chat with heros founder, Stuart Thornton
Discover how this startup is redefining success for athletes, brands, and sponsors in the $1.3 trillion sports industry.
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In professional sports, where glitz and glamour often shine upon the elite 1% of athletes, Stuart Thornton, is on a mission to redefine the playing field. As the driving force behind heros, a platform connecting athletes with brands while giving a voice to their personal stories, Stuart seeks to transcend gender, ethnicity, and sport, to create an inclusive marketplace where every athlete can earn and inspire others. Whether it’s the art of user engagement or understanding customer needs, Stuart’s journey offers insights and strategies for aspiring startup founders to navigate the dynamic world of entrepreneurship.

Aspire: Heros is about connecting people with brands and telling athlete’s stories. Could you share what has motivated you to start this journey?

Stuart Thornton:  Sports is a $1.3 trillion industry, it's huge. Even when compared against global GDP, that's still a fairly significant size. One of the key drivers behind starting heros was a story about a New Zealand cyclist who committed suicide because she lost all of her funding and grants from the New Zealand government. None of it was in her control. She was completely reliant on the government. They basically said, “No, we're going with someone else.” She lost all of the money and that was the only outcome. 

50% of Australia's elite athletes live below the poverty line, which means that they're earning less than $20,000 a year. Imagine living on 20 grand in Singapore. There are probably roughly 100 million athletes, which is a significant volume of people. You have the 1% like Lionel Messi and Ronaldo, who are managed by big agencies like IMG. But that means there’s still 99% of athletes from different genders, ethnicities, countries, and sports out there as a market. This is not a niche space. This is massive. 

Messi of course, has a huge community around him. But so does every other athlete, it's just degrees of size, like a number. And whether it's local, regional,  international, or global — all of them have a brand of their own. All of them have a community of their own. Athletes typically are searching for brands to work with, because that's where the money is, and their fans as well, because that's who the consumers are.

Furthermore, our business is purpose-led, which helps us relate to Gen Z consumers. Whether you’re an English-privileged, white male footballer earning loads of money per week or a female Filipino boxer who has 10,000 followers, sports can be the equalizer. Because boxing is massive in the Philippines, she could potentially earn as much as the footballer. So not only are we helping athletes to earn, but we're now helping to solve gender equality, which is also another problem in sports. 

Aspire: Successful startups manage operational expenses effectively. In getting heros off the ground initially, what were some key challenges you faced and how did you address them?

Stuart Thornton: Cash is king and the cornerstone of any business. As a venture-backed company, we're incredibly aware of our growth targets but also spending wisely. You want transparency to ensure that you're empowering people to make decisions but still control where the money's ultimately going. Using a system like Aspire helps, there are built-in corporate cards and budgeting. You can have one card with visibility across every cost — from finance, administration, sales, or marketing. It’s important to have that view in the early stages because these costs can easily increase in scope and size. 

At heros, our main customers are athletes, who are like micro-SMEs. Working with them involves multiple different jurisdictions with payouts over time. We have an entity here in Singapore that operates in SGD and we have the heros entity with its trading currency in USD. It’s another benefit that we were able to spin up a USD account and a USD corporate card relatively quickly with Aspire. Also, I used to work in the payments industry, which made it easier for me to understand and manage these complexities better.

Aspire: Building partnerships is often crucial for startup growth. What strategies did you employ to secure partnerships with athletes and brands initially, and how do you assess the right partners?

Stuart Thornton: Startups face the classic challenge: Who are you and why should I partner with you? Partnerships are about leveraging every single potential opportunity. I don't hesitate to reach out to everybody and anybody who has relevance to what we're doing, to sell the dream and our vision. That mission hasn't changed, but how we're delivering it has changed quite significantly, This is quite useful when engaging partners because you get feedback on what's working and what's not. That’s part of getting to product market fit quicker.

When you look at the broader sports ecosystem, there are quite a few partners who are relevant to what we’re doing at heros. For athletes, we look at all the different partners around them and identify what are the things that they need and what they’re trying to solve. Doing that enables you to have a value proposition for each partner. When you dive into athletes, there are lots of different buckets you can put athletes in. We have rising stars, pros, superstars, legends, coaches, sports influencers, etc. Sport is the foundation that glues them together. 

This is the key to building trust and authenticity between athletes and brands. There are different ways of engaging them. It could be through parents, agents, family members, clubs, teams associations, and you've got so many of them. What we found, interestingly, is that an athlete's community is often the people who care the most. And it's those same people who also have access to the athletes. So, one of our primary partners to get the athlete has been through scouts, as a form of reference. That has been incredibly valuable because they are equally value-driven. They believe in our mission and it resonates with them — they know where the problem is and want to solve it. You don’t have to pay them a salary, they can be part of the journey and the outcome.

On the brand side, affiliate partners have been very valuable. They have access to global brands and can offer revenue share. This gives us the ability to associate ourselves with the biggest brands in the world and enable athletes of all shapes and sizes to promote and market these brands. 

A big part of what we've done is to see our partners as our customers. When you do that, there is mutual value and an incredible outcome."

Aspire: Engagement is key in any community-driven platform. How are you encouraging user engagement and interaction within heros during the beta phase?

Stuart Thornton: Ultimately, engagement comes down to listening to what your users say and understanding the problem that they’re struggling with. This helps you to build that UX and value proposition around it. It’s also about examining the data points that you have. For example, you may have loads of people joining, but not many staying to engage with your product. By listening to the users, we get real feedback on the things they are confused about, which leads to us streamlining the user experience further to encourage more engagement. 

Especially now, when the volume is low, we can afford to do that. Then we can start to build, digitise the process and get the right UX. The more you start to listen and learn, the more you start to see that’s actually how you can grow your pool of customers.  At the same, we’ve used this Scout program to start engaging athletes and drive prospective interest, which has been incredibly valuable. And then from a brand perspective, we've also tapped into my network to manually drive engagement.

You start to see brands coming in without having to heavily promote themselves, and you start seeing athletes joining and engaging voluntarily. That’s a sign that you're starting to get the product-market fit. Once we get the first few athletes over the line, it comes back down to your typical sales engagement – features, benefits, and proofs. And the proof is that the product, user experience, and value proposition should speak for itself. 

Aspire: Developing a platform like heros involves understanding your customers - athlete needs and brand requirements. Can you share your approach to understanding both athletes and brands?

Stuart Thornton:  The answer stems again from — what are we trying to do and who's our main customer? Even when you're doing your first P&L or financial projection, you have that one variable that ultimately determines the success of your business. The major problem that we're solving is for athletes, therefore the athletes become the center of everything that we do.

In terms of managing brands, while you are solving a problem for them, it's not necessarily going to be the only way they can get exposure through athlete partnerships and sponsorships. But it still has a tremendous impact on their business. It's the athlete that we’re trying to solve a problem for that gets me excited. 

From a product perspective, that’s become our prime focus. Their very first problem is discovery. How do athletes get discovered? On LinkedIn, for example, if you look at an athlete's profile, it just reads something like ‘Athlete, 10 years’. What brand is going to want to engage with them? How are you different from any other athlete with 11 years of experience? 

The first thing we needed to solve was a way for them to tell their story. If you're looking for an influencer to work with your business, what do you do? Well, you're going to look at their social channels, their engagement, their followers — that's all put into one place with our platform. Interestingly, this becomes almost like a fan club, and we realized that we're very similar to Linktree, which is also a billion-dollar business. As a Linktree for sports athletes, there’s so much more that we can offer. 

If you look at Nick Krygios, the Australian tennis player’s Linktree, you’ll see ‘What’s on my wrist?’, ‘The drink that I drink’, and ‘Here are my links’. The idea behind LinkTree is that it takes you to different brands, products, services, etc. That’s literally what heros is, but better. Athletes get more opportunities to share their stories and who they are. They also don’t have to pay because we don’t charge them. Instead of paying, we allow athletes to earn from this, which is even more powerful.

The second point to solve was more than athlete discovery, but brand discovery. We started by building a website with all the brands on display. The intention is at some point for this to become like a Tinder of sports sponsorships – where you can swipe left and right. The user experience is key and we’ve focused on making it easy for athletes searching for brands. It’s about how and what are you learning through this process.
It’s essential to have a view of what you would like your product or service to look like in the future because that is one of the most important things that will drive monetisation and product-market fit.

Aspire: Can you share the lessons you've learned from refining and evolving the platform and how startups can embrace this phase of innovation?

Stuart Thornton:  First point of reference, even before you get to this stage, you need to have that right mindset and resilience. There needs to be no ego because you’re literally starting and you need to develop a reciprocal attitude. When I speak to someone, they are offering me an opportunity to listen. It has to be a two-way approach, and that’s how I operate today. Because even before getting to this creative, innovative stage, you’ve got to have the right attitude and resilience ultimately to get yourself to that point.

You have to do your homework and we were quite fortunate to have a little bit of support on the innovation and creative front from things like startup incubators and accelerators. You're always learning even if it's the second, third, fourth, or fifth time you've done this, it’s different every time. The next is to have a structure like a business map where you can analyse and understand all the different angles to your product, service, and what you’re building. This gets you thinking and innovating.

Then it's testing, talking, and sharing with your team. Open up, listen, and ask the right questions to get the right feedback. The answers you seek are in the questions you ask. That’s a really powerful aspect of building an innovative culture in your team and company.

Aspire: What is the single most important factor that has contributed to heros success?

Stuart Thornton:  One thing that has helped drive the small wins along the way is our hustle. Having the ability to go and have a crap day, but wake up the next day and get back on the proverbial horse and keep riding to your destination. The hustle to pick up a phone to talk to anybody, and to take every single opportunity to share what you're doing, anywhere and every day. 

I was in a taxi the other day and had a lovely conversation. Turns out the driver was the mother of an ex-national swimmer in Singapore. The reason why she was driving was because they had spent so much money on their daughter. She said she wished heros was around 2 years ago as her daughter had already retired.  And so just from one little talk, you never know when a door opens or where a conversation might lead to. Just never stop and keep having that hustle to go on your mission.

Are you an athlete or sports influencer? Work with global brands and earn from paid partnerships today with heros.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Aaron Oh is a seasoned content writer specialising in finance, insurance and tech industries. With a writing history at S&P Global, EdgeProp, Indeed, Prudential, and others, Aaron leverages finance knowledge and business insights to help businesses improve productivity and performance.
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