founder

Team Topia Founder Mason Hale on Supporting Niche Sports

Introduction

Many children are registered for organized sports. That typically means just as many parents and guardians are driving kids to practice, signing up for volunteer shifts, and cheering their kids on at games. Sports can be a huge time commitment for both children and their families.

Team Topia is building software to help make parents’ and team managers’ lives easier when kids participate in sports. The company’s flagship product, SwimTopia, is a swim team management software suite that helps teams and leagues gather registrations, schedule practices, share updates, run swim meets, and more. We reached out to founder and CEO Mason Hale to learn about his team’s swimming experience and hear how Hale became the platform’s original customer.

Note: This interview was conducted over phone and email. It has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Zee Zhong

In your own words, how would you describe Team Topia?

Mason Hale

Team Topia is a platform that makes running sports teams, leagues, and competitions ridiculously easy. We’re focused on solving the challenges of all the “niche” sports including timed sports like swimming, track, cross country, and skiing as well as judged sports like diving, gymnastics, and cheerleading. These are sports that are largely ignored and underserved by existing solutions, yet they make up a majority of the global sports software market.

Zee Zhong

What inspired you to take the leap and start this company?

Mason Hale

Team Topia was born out of a need to solve a real problem I was experiencing firsthand. When my kids joined our neighborhood swim team, I volunteered to help run the computers for the team — not really knowing what I was signing up for. It turned out my job was to pull together all the entries for each swim meet, inputting which of the 250 kids on our team would be in which events, and working with our coach to select the fastest combinations for relays. It was a nightmare. The software used by our team and nearly every other team at the time was archaic, complicated, and confusing. It ran on one laptop and was not online. It was easy to make mistakes, and any mistake could result in crying kids and angry parents. 

At the time, I was the chief technologist at Frog Design, one of the top design firms in the world. I was frequently travelling internationally and didn’t have time to track down parents to ask which events their kids wanted to swim in or to drive over to the coach’s house in the evening to pick relays. So I built an online system that let parents select their events for each meet and would also automatically generate the fastest relay combinations for our coach. The parents on our team loved it, and it saved me a huge amount of time and frustration. 

Eventually, the word got out, and other swim teams started contacting me, asking if they could pay to use the system I had built. Initially, I rebuffed those inquiries until I realized that building a system to solve the problems of swim teams would also solve similar problems for all kinds of sports. After doing some market research, I realized that while there are a lot of sports software companies, they are mostly focused on the biggest sports. They were ignoring the “niche” sports, even though all those niche sports make up most of the market. At that point, I realized there was a huge opportunity, not only to build a massive business but also to save a lot of time and frustration for lots and lots of people. Once I made that realization, I jumped out of the proverbial airplane and started Team Topia.

Zee Zhong

Who is on your team and how did you come together?

Mason Hale

We have some amazingly talented people on our team. As I already mentioned, I was previously the global technology leader of a world-renowned design firm, Frog Design. For eight years, I led teams on projects for companies like Microsoft, T-Mobile, Dell, Disney, and SAP, working with a wide range of technologies on the web, desktop, mobile, and embedded devices. Though I have been in “management” for many years, I’ve always kept my technical skills sharp. At this point, I’ve been writing code and leading teams for more than 25 years.

Our director of sales and marketing, Elli Overton, is a three-time Australian Olympic swimmer. She attended the University of California, Berkeley, where she was co-captain of the women’s swim team and graduated from the Haas School of Business. Elli and I were introduced in 2012 through mutual acquaintance when she was head coach for an Austin-based swim team. Elli has been instrumental in growing our customer base from 50 to more than 1,800.

Our director of customer success, Tracy Nelson, is also a former coach. She previously owned and operated a triathlon training business and prior to that was a business management consultant. Tracy found us in 2015, when she was looking for a platform to support her business. She really liked what she saw and eventually joined our team. Tracy now runs our Customer Happiness Team, which is also largely staffed by current and former Team Topia customers.

I met our vice president of engineering, Chris Bonser, when I was working for another company. He stood out as being one of the most talented software developers I had ever worked with, and I’ve worked with some very exceptional developers in my career. Chris also happens to be a former NCAA Division I collegiate swimmer. Chris previously co-founded a financial technology startup and was a manager at a Fortune 500 company. Chris helped build our Meet Maestro product, initially working as a contractor, before joining our team full-time in 2020.

We also are supported and guided by an amazing board of directors who are all seasoned technology executives, entrepreneurs, and investors. They collectively have co-founded two startup incubators, invested in hundreds of companies, and guided numerous previous startups to successful exits, including four nine-figure acquisitions and an IPO.

Zee Zhong

How is Team Topia transforming the sports management industry?

Mason Hale

Team Topia is the first platform created to support all the “niche” sports that make up a majority of the global sports software market. Existing platforms either offer very shallow support for tracking anything more than team scores and player positions or they are narrowly focused on a single vertical sport. We’re taking a different approach. We’re building a platform that supports all the foundational types of competition — such as timed sports (e.g. swimming, track, cross-country) and subjectively judged sports (e.g. diving, gymnastics, cheerleading) — and making it extensible so that end users who are passionate domain experts in a specific sport are able to tailor our platform to their needs. This approach enables our customers to extend our platform to add deep support for potentially any sport or activity. This approach is very similar to the crowdsourced localization strategy used by Facebook to add support for dozens of languages and locales in just a few months, which is credited with sparking the company’s rapid global expansion.

Zee Zhong

Why did you choose swimming as your primary sport? What is your plan to expand to other sports?

Mason Hale

With our SwimTopia® and Meet Maestro™ products, we have started by focusing on swimming — the sixth-most popular US sport and the biggest timed sport by participation. With large teams (120 athletes average) and an affluent customer base, the competitive swimming market supports higher revenue per customer to achieve faster lift-off. Swimming and diving also happens to be the only sport that combines all three major competition types — team-scored, timed, and judged — thus providing the ideal starting point for a platform intended to serve every form of competition. 

We have a two-pronged expansion strategy. First, we will intentionally and methodically expand into naturally adjacent markets, including track and field, cross country, diving, and gymnastics. Second, we will simultaneously encourage and support organic expansion into additional sports by creating a platform that coaches and parents love and making them aware the same platform can be extended for use with potentially any other sport or activity. In the US, the majority of kids involved in sports participate in more than one sport. Thus, there is a built-in natural viral effect that — if executed effectively — can quickly spread to dozens of sports in just one or two seasons. 

In fact, we’re already seeing this natural expansion at work. Even though we do not yet support any sports beyond swimming, we occasionally will have non-swim teams sign up for SwimTopia accounts anyway. These teams learn about SwimTopia usually from a coach or parent who used our platform for a swim team and want to use the same platform for a different sport. We invariably try to turn these teams away, telling them we don’t yet support their sport and we don’t want them to be disappointed. Despite our objections, today we have a handful of teams including track & field, cross country, alpine skiing, and even soccer teams that are paying for SwimTopia accounts because they prefer our platform over other alternatives.

Zee Zhong

What does the competitive landscape look like, and how do you differentiate?

Mason Hale

The competitors in the sports management software industry essentially break down into two camps: (1) big cross-sport platforms like SportsEngine or TeamSnap that provide general-purpose features for sports teams like websites, online registration, and communication tools but don’t support tracking of the specific metrics and statistics that are are crucial to many sports; or (2) narrowly focused sport-specific platforms like GameChanger that are great for one sport but don’t provide benefits beyond their chosen vertical. All the biggest competitors are, not surprisingly, mostly focused on the biggest sports: basketball, soccer, baseball, and football. However, those four sports only make up about one-third of the overall market. The remaining two-thirds — the bulk of the market — comprises “niche” sports, which are largely ignored and badly underserved. We’re changing that by creating a platform that is uniquely positioned to serve the needs of all the smaller “niche” sports in the very long tail of the sports market. Achieving this requires building a platform that people will want to use with all the sports in which they participate. 

On that front, we’re off to a very strong start with consistently high ratings (4.8/5 or better on most app stores or review sites) and sky-high Net Promoter Scores (more than +70 for our core products). By every measure, Team Topia has very happy and very loyal customers. Our average annual churn rate is insanely low at less than 2% per year. In fact, 100% of customers who joined in our first two years of operation are still Team Topia customers today.

Zee Zhong

How do you intend to use the money you raise this round to scale the business?

Mason Hale

We are raising money at this time to accelerate growth, not to fund existing operations. If we chose to do so, we could be running at breakeven or profitably in a very short period of time. Instead, we are focused on growing by expanding into additional markets. We expect approximately 80% of funds raised in this round to go toward product development and engineering, with the remaining 20% or so going toward sales and marketing. Over time, we expect that ratio to shift more heavily towards sales and marketing.

Zee Zhong

What do you want potential investors to know about you and/or your company?

Mason Hale

We have identified a huge market that is ripe for disruption. We have assembled a world-class team that is uniquely qualified to go after this opportunity. With 10 years of operational history, we’ve proven our resilience and stability, limiting downside risk. Prior to the 2020 pandemic, while selling in just one highly seasonal market, we established a strong track record of consistent 50% or higher year-over-year growth. This year, we have rebounded from the pandemic, and we’re on track to exceed $1 million in annual revenue. Now is the perfect time to invest in Team Topia. We are poised for rapid growth as we expand into new markets and position our company for our next milestone: a successful Series A round within 24 months.

Zee Zhong

As you think about the business 5-10 years down the road, what do you see exit opportunities looking like? Have you set any future goals for the company?

Mason Hale

We’re focused on building a great business, including an awesome product with an amazing team and strong company culture. We have been very intentional about laying a solid foundation for our future growth. 

We have several goals we are currently pursuing:

  1. This year: exceed $1 million in annual revenue (on track)
  2. Within 24 months:
    • More than double our annual revenue to $2 million or more
    • Gain meaningful traction beyond the swimming market
    • Raise a Series A of at least $5 million
  3. Within 5 years:
    • Exceed $10 million in annual revenue

Future projections cannot be guaranteed. However, we do take the goals we set and the commitments we make very seriously.

There are many potential exit opportunities for Team Topia. The sports management software segment is currently a “hot” sector with a lot of mergers and acquisition activity from larger competitors, private equity firms, giant media companies like NBC and Universal, and huge retailers like Dick’s Sporting Goods. While we would certainly entertain attractive offers, especially in scenarios where our merging with another company would unlock new potential and capabilities, we are not looking for a quick flip. Eventually, an initial public offering (IPO) is a real possibility. Another sports platform, Active Network, went public in 2011 before later being taken private in 2013 by Vista Equity Partners for $1.05 billion. Ironically, it was Active’s archaic swim team management software that originally inspired me to start Team Topia in the first place. Completing that circle by taking Team Topia public would be gratifyingly poetic, indeed.

We look forward to seeing where Mason and his team take the company. Team Topia is currently raising on Wefunder.

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