ESPN Is The Ultimate Start-Up Story

ESPN Bristol

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We just started and reading “Those Guys Have All The Fun: Inside The World Of ESPN,” and it’s a page turner. (Even though we’re reading it on a Kindle.)Perhaps the most compelling part of the first section – which focuses on the origins and struggles of the network’s first year – is how closely the ESPN story resembles that of today’s favourite startups.

It began, not so much as a business model, but as simply a cool idea, cooked up by two guy who were passionate about their plan, but perhaps not as savvy in business as they needed to be.

Sound familiar? What about these other tales of startup life?

There was the early pivot from a half-hour show about local Connecticut sports to a 24-hour satellite network – once they realised that technology actually made it cheaper to beam signals around the world than to run wires to people’s homes.

(The founders are described as “getting sexually excited” once they realised what satellites could actually do.)

There’s the venture capital story, as founders Bill Rasmussen and his son, Scott, finagle their way around the country, buying Cadillacs and satellite transponders then figuring out how to pay for it later. They start by hitting up estranged family members and friends, then get turned away by investor after investor, before a patron (with access to Getty Oil’s money) keeps them afloat.

(One Getty executive laughed at an early request for $15 million in seed money, saying “That’s the cost of one dry [oil well.]” It was chump change to them.)

There’s the “lost founder” who bolted at the first sign of trouble. (Maybe the worst business decision ever?)

There’s the tales of long hours; renting tables in other people’s offices (Loosecubes, anyone?); the doubters (“No one will want to watch sports 24 hours a day!”); the mounting bills; the desperate ploys (i.e., lying) to convince investors and sponsors that they knew what they were doing; the nervous money men bringing in “grownups” (the experienced business and TV people who actually did know what they were doing); the college kids desperate to make it big; the veterans leaving more stable jobs at old school companies to take a chance on something great; the forcing out of another early founder who was in over his head.

There isn’t a major startup going today that wouldn’t have one or more (or all) of these stories in their own history book.

Finally, there’s the dozen or so times when it looks like it’s all going to fall apart before a smart decision, a outside assist, or just plain dumb luck saves the day. There was really no reason it should have worked, but looking back on it now, it seems like there was no way it could fail.

A few early reviews have complained that the book starts slow, spending too much time focusing on the early days, but to anyone who enjoys learning the origins of their heroes, the early start up days of ESPN are the most fascinating.

In fourteen months, they went from a father and son with no money and a ludicrous idea in an unproven medium to an on-the-air network, poised to become the biggest company in all of sports. Without beta testing.

Click here to see all our previous coverage of the ESPN Book >