New app having big influence on campus
Nearly one year before Jim Cavale started a company that has since secured deals with more than 80 colleges, advanced the relationship between athletes and social media and created a new way of thinking about sports branding, he was an unemployed businessman with a vision for a tech startup.
He had a name for what he would call it — INFLCR, or “influencer” — and a plan for how to sell it.
As social media evolved, many college athletic departments saw it as a minefield for student athletes. Cavale imagined a world of what he called “limitless benefits” for the athlete and the school: Teams could store, track and deliver photo and video content to their network of athletes, who could then access their personalized content in real-time via Cavale’s app and share it to their social media platforms.
Cavale gave himself a deadline — sign his first client within seven months or don’t launch the business — and set his sights on a big fish. That December 2016, he called a longtime contact, DeWayne Peevy, the deputy director of athletics at the University of Kentucky, and asked if he could share an idea with him before the Wildcats played a men’s basketball game at the University of Mississippi.
Founded: September 2017
Total employees: 23 (full- and part-time)
Headquarters: Birmingham, Ala. (satellite offices in Los Angeles and Dallas)
Chris Nalley, co-founder and CTO
Neeta Sreekanth, COO
Clients: 427 college teams, including men’s basketball teams at Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina
After driving almost 200 miles from his Birmingham, Ala., home to Oxford, Miss., Cavale sat with Peevy in a hotel lobby. He then spent more than an hour using his laptop to detail for Peevy how his plan would put the athlete first, and in turn grow the brand of Kentucky’s high-profile players and its program overall.
“Prior to the meeting, I didn’t even know what his idea was about,” Peevy said. “I was willing to meet with him just because I believed in him. His infectious personality, right off the bat, made it something I wanted to listen to. After that, it was about, ‘How can you help Kentucky?’”
Three months later, Cavale met with Peevy and two other Kentucky staffers at Josie’s, a Lexington restaurant, to secure the deal. That first contract, Cavale said, was a $10,000 annual payment with an automatic renewal for basketball only. By its official launch date in September 2017, INFLCR had also added three SEC football teams (Auburn, Kentucky and South Carolina). Momentum was building.
Two years later, Birmingham-based INFLCR has more than 90 total clients, including 82 NCAA colleges or universities comprising 427 teams. Among them are some of the most high-profile in college sports, including the basketball teams at Duke, Kansas and North Carolina, and football programs at Miami, Oregon and Penn State. It just surpassed 10,000 active athletes, who average 4.2 app sessions per week. In two years of existence, Cavale said, his company already has a seven-figure recurring revenue stream.
Last week, Teamworks, the Durham, N.C.-based business that helps college and pro sports teams share information such as meeting times and practice schedules, announced it had acquired INFLCR for an undisclosed amount. INFLCR will continue to operate separately and Cavale, 37, will stay on as CEO, enabling him to continue focusing on its remarkable growth.
“We’re literally creating a new category — athlete content delivery, athlete branding and social media — I don’t even know if we have a name for it yet,” he said. “It’s a new line on the budget of the people we sell to. We’ve created it and gotten people to pay for it, and pay more for it year-over-year along with 100% of them renewing. That is surreal.”
At the heart of Cavale’s philosophy is viewing the social media landscape from the athlete’s perspective, and he has built a product that has gotten significant buy-in from them. “INFLCR is the only company that’s really been able to successfully bridge the gap between the reality that athletes experience and their ability to tell their story fully and authentically through social media,” said Zach Maurides, the founder and president of Teamworks. “The result of athletes being fully engaged with the INFLCR technology is that they have more agency, more ability to express themselves, and then as a result of that, the universities that are leveraging their technology are seeing better engagement with their fans and a real return on investment.”
A Syracuse, N.Y., native, Cavale played baseball at the University of Montevallo, a Division II school near Birmingham. While there, he started building a sports broadcasting network for the university. Later, he created a sports recruiting tech marketplace called NextSpex, before leaving in 2010 to join Iron Tribe Fitness, which he helped grow from one gym to more than 45 nationwide. After nearly seven years at Iron Tribe, he stepped down as president in September 2016 and sold his ownership shares to begin formulating a strategy for INFLCR.
INFLCR was selected as one of five companies (out of more than 300 applicants) to take part in the 2018 fall class of Stadia Ventures’ prestigious startup accelerator program. The Stadia Accelerator, which combines up to $100,000 in equity investment with intensive mentoring, seeks founders who have conviction for their vision yet are willing to accept mentorship and guidance.
“Jim fits that to a T,” said Brandon Janosky, a partner at Stadia Ventures. “He’s a consummate networker. He doesn’t just take meetings to say he met you and build a Rolodex. He is sitting down to deliver value. You are going to get something out of it. … Jim is also among the most driven founders that I’ve met, and a lot come into our orbit. He sets the bar.”
At Kentucky, the benefits have been striking. Consider former Wildcats linebacker Josh Allen, who had some 5,000 Instagram followers when the football team signed with INFLCR. By the time the Jacksonville Jaguars selected Allen in the first round of the 2019 NFL draft, he had grown his Instagram following nearly 1,300% with INFLCR’s help, Cavale said.
That’s just one example of the singular focus Cavale has built his company around.
“It’s one word: Athletes,” he said. “We want athletes to have the off-the-field part of their life managed and streamlined in a way that creates a platform they can leverage for the rest of their lives. My mission is to cut out the middleman and to allow the athletes to get maximum value in every way possible.”
Additional reporting by Michael Smith