When retired NFL safety Chris Crocker was at the peak of his career, like many other athletes he signed countless autographs. Many of the autographs were done face to face with fans, while others were signed for dealers who negotiated with fans.
From that experience, Crocker set out to focus on the next chapter of his life: starting a technology company that would connect fans directly with athletes and teams to purchase signed merchandise while allowing players to maintain control of their brands.
In 2014, Crocker hung up his cleats after more than a decade on the field, and now he’s in the beta phase of his new technology company FanFlow, a website and app that will help fans purchase memorabilia online without a dealer acting as a middleman.
“Essentially as an athlete, you’re indirectly an employee of that shop or that memorabilia dealer,” Crocker said. “There’s a huge disconnect between yourself, him or her, and your fan base. I just didn’t like any of it. I just didn’t like the fact that I own my name, and you leverage my name for your monetary gain as a memorabilia dealer. I just thought that was just so wrong. All my colleagues dealt with this, but it was the only way. There was no other way.”
According to Crocker’s business plan, fans will choose the item and the player and customize their message. FanFlow will take it from there. The business is still in its initial phase.
“Choose the athlete you want that has an article you want, and then have that athlete personally inscribe it,” Crocker explained. “Along the way, we video verify it, and we give that to you. That’s really a connect, and the thing that we do with the video, which is an integral part of what we do. We’re able to expand on that video, and that customizes as well. It’s a form of engagement, it’s an experience. It’s really awesome.”
Each athlete’s signature has a specific price point, and they will be paid accordingly. FanFlow will take a percentage of each transaction.
“We not only offer a premium form of authentication; our platform makes it significantly cheaper to acquire memorabilia for consumers because there are no markups in the product, and alternately more profitable for athletes because of the same fact,” Crocker said.
According to Crocker, memorabilia dealers charge higher rates for the same product because they have to pay the athlete to sign and then sell the item to make a profit. “This easily doubles the price,” he said.
FanFlow’s beta phase was launched in 2015 and has only one team on board: FC Cincinnati of the United Soccer League. No other teams are under contract in any major sport yet.
“This is for intentional reasons, as we don’t necessarily want to divulge our go-to market strategy,” Crocker said. “Our platform doesn’t depend on having working relationships with sports franchises. We have the option of working with big-box retailers as well. Everyone sells the same merchandise, and FanFlow gives the competitive advantage because of that very same fact.”
Crocker has invested a significant amount of his own money. He says he has attracted outside funding, which he is not yet disclosing. “We are in a seed round of fundraising, and the company valuation has yet TBD,” Crocker added.
Crocker was a third-round pick in the 2003 NFL draft by the Cleveland Browns. After two years with that club, he spent time with the Atlanta Falcons, Miami Dolphins, Cincinnati Bengals and Minnesota Vikings. He spoke with The Undefeated about the transition from football, getting his business off the ground and investing in yourself.
How did you become interested in a tech company?
I conceptualized this while I was playing. Before we actually dove into this, it was all about the research and trying to figure out who does it, and who’s in this space, who’s doing what we’re doing, what are some of the similarities. Then trying to sort the company, who could help us build it, because at that time I could never put together a team.
How did you decide on sports memorabilia?
I felt like if I could just create a platform where you could empower the athlete so that he could control it, it really is the right thing to do. It’s about time that the athlete can leverage his own brand, and if someone else is going to sell your likeness, it should come directly from you.
That’s why I wanted to … really create something that, in my opinion, really transcends the relationship between athletes and their fans. Because when you think of memorabilia, it references a point and a time, whether that’s in your life or what you were doing at that particular time.
What’s been the hardest part of the tech journey?
It’s probably just getting people to listen sometimes. I think with any entrepreneur that’s probably the common struggle, that when you think of something, when you want to invent something, you just need people to listen. You need that feedback, because some people are going to say, ‘Hey, it’s a great idea.’ Then some people are going to tell you, ‘No, that’s a terrible idea.’ You’re able to evolve and to really create something great because of not only the good advice but the bad advice.
I would say that’s probably the struggle, just that it’s hard sometimes to get people to listen to you and believe as much as you do in the product you’re trying to build. I think it was hard for people to listen to me because, I’m a former athlete, right? I’ve never been in business for myself, I’ve never done anything like this. They’re looking at me as just, what are you doing? Obviously, I could build this product from the point of view of an athlete, but they’re like, ‘You’ve never been in business for yourself, so how are you going to really create something out of thin air that doesn’t exist and get people to adapt?’
What’s the best advice you’ve received?
The biggest struggle any entrepreneur faces is that you can only infuse so much of your own money into your product.
The best advice I’ve gotten on that front is people would talk about the power of being broke. I wouldn’t necessarily say I was broke, OK, that wasn’t the analogy, but sometimes you’re forced. What that can do is that can force you to make bad decisions. You can go either way, because there’s some entrepreneurs who let that affect them, and they build a product that’s not necessarily applicable to what they’re trying to do because they’re cash-strapped.
Someone once told me, don’t let that affect your decision-making process. You have to be very resilient that when you get to a point in your business where you need more capital, you still have to make sound decisions. I’ve always kept that in the back of my mind as, OK, I need the money but, Chris, make a sound decision. Don’t let that affect your next step. I would say that’s probably the best advice that I received.
During your playing years, were you seriously thinking about your post-NFL career?
I was thinking about tech. I was thinking about everything everybody else was thinking about. Investing in mutual funds, stocks, IPOs, franchises. I was thinking about everything everyone else was thinking about, but my wife [Karrie], we had a conversation one day and I was really hell-bent on doing this, and my wife was kind of on the fence.
It just hit me one day, and I just said to her — it just literally came out of my mouth — ‘Hey, we invest in other people’s businesses, other companies.’ I really felt, I was convicted, I really felt like why don’t we invest in yourself? Let’s take a risk on us. We can do this.
Instead of investing in the mutual funds and all the other stuff that is normal, I said, ‘Let’s just put the money into us and let’s take a risk. Why not? There’s a 50-50 chance it goes up, there’s a 50-50 chance it goes down.’ I put my money on myself. I’d bet on me any day.
What advice would you give to other NFL players or athletes about their post-NFL careers?
I would say, I think the opportunities are there now where they weren’t as much when I was playing. I think the NFL, the NFLPA [National Football League Players Association], they’re doing a much better job of allowing guys to sort of dive into other businesses, whether it’s internships, whether there’s a program for the opportunity programs that they put on.
I would say do as many of those as you can because you don’t necessarily know what you’re going to end up loving, but if you never try them once you’re done, those doors close. Every athlete told me that prior to me retiring: ‘Hey, you have these opportunities in front of you. People are more willing to listen to you now than they will be when you retire.’ I’ve experienced that firsthand.
I would just say, networking is really immersing yourself in other communities. Don’t do what everyone else is doing. Do other things. Those opportunities could really turn into something else post-career.
You have two daughters (ages 2 and 5). What are you teaching them this early in life?
You really write your own story, and that you get out of it what you put in it. I also say that I do believe in luck, but you have to work really hard to get it. I continuously tell my daughters that there’s no reason why you can’t do that. You have all the opportunities right in front of you.
Entrepreneurship is real; you’re going to succeed and you’re going to fail by your own means. You are literally your own worst enemy as an entrepreneur. That’s the lesson that I teach my daughters. You’re going to get out of it what you put in it. If you don’t work hard, then the only person to blame is yourself.
Was your transition from football difficult?
I think for me, it wasn’t difficult at all. I think it was a little bit of a shock, in my opinion. I still have relationships and I stay close to the game. I’ve been afforded the opportunity where I can still go back to Cincinnati and walk into that building, and there’s no problem.
I’ve seen that I have a lot of colleagues or former teammates who can’t even go back into a building anymore. They treat them like a commodity, and I thought that was very, very sad and very tough to deal with for every athlete. That’s the thing that I think guys struggle with the most. I didn’t deal with it as much, but I did feel the fact that people didn’t respond as much. People weren’t as correspondent. Me being in my post-career, I just felt like athletes experience that, and I experienced it firsthand.
I was fortunate, and I said I’ll attach myself to something, such as officiating, at the time. I was fully immersed in that, but I had to step aside from that because this demanded every ounce of my attention, and you can’t do anything great if you’re not hands-on.
It was like I went from playing to directing to officiating and also from there into this venture. Both of those things, whether it’s officiating or this, it really was sort of, like, it allowed me to be flexible. I think that’s something that really attracted me about entrepreneurship is that, you know you work hard, you get to enjoy that. You’re on your own schedule. You’re your own boss. The ceiling is as high as you want. There’s an endless lot of opportunities.
It’s been good since I retired. It’s been very good. My wife has been great. Our daughters are young, and so we’re all about them. My life is really good. I think I was getting to the point, though, where I was going to be bored. If I wasn’t doing this, I can’t imagine the athlete that doesn’t do anything. He’s just bored.
What would you tell other entrepreneurs?
Chronicle every step so that you have the opportunity to look back. Because, shoot, where we were a year ago, we’re a completely different company. I think sometimes you have an idea as an entrepreneur, but it has to evolve. It may not end up looking like the end product, but you’ll get there some way, somehow. You’ll figure it out.
We were a completely different company from inception to now. Our product is all about the end user, and the end user for us is the athlete. Nothing works without the athlete, and so we had to build a product that we knew the athlete would use. The demand is already there, but you have to make it simplistic, you have to make it easy to process. When it comes to fulfilling these orders, the autograph signing, you have to make all those things simplistic for the athlete where it becomes a part of their schedule.