This week I had the pleasure of interviewing Excelle Sports cofounders Kim Donaldson and Cat Osborne. They launched Excelle earlier this year as a media platform dedicated to covering a wide range of women’s sports all year round. Read on to find out more about what sets them apart from other sports sites, their early challenges, and what we should be reading on Excelle this fall.
Q: Can you take me through the inspiration for Excelle and the need in the market you were seeking to fill?
Kim Donaldson: Before Excelle I had co-founded and spent 10 years running a niche media company called Bottlenotes, which focused on wine and craft beer. We had grown to an email list of 625,000. But after 10 years of doing that, I was ready to try something new.
I love starting and building companies, so I was looking for a void in the media landscape as well as something I felt really passionate about. A friend suggested sports since I had spent most of my life loving and playing sports. I am a lifelong Rangers and Knicks fan. I grew up playing tennis and hockey, skiing, running track and playing squash throughout the juniors and in high school. I played Varsity Squash at Yale. So I started looking at what websites were out there and realized there was surprisingly little coverage of women’s sports.
Cat Osborne: When we got the idea, we assumed that there had to be a website out there covering women’s sports, but we looked and we couldn’t find one. It turns out that about 40% of all the athletes out there are women, but only 4% of the news media coverage goes to women. At that point, neither of us had heard of ESPNW. When we did see it we saw that they they were covering a limited number of sports in a different way than we would do it. Our focus has always been to cover sports news and tell athlete’s stories through features and interviews. We cover 20+ sports year round, not just during the Olympics or the major tournaments. We’ve also had the opportunity to work with our 28 great pro or Olympic Athlete Ambassadors like Olympic swimmer Kim Vandenberg, golfers Michelle Wie and Lydia Ko and nine Rio Olympians, including medalists KK Clark and Sandi Morris. Some of our ambassadors have interviewed other athletes for us, and it provides such a unique perspective.
Q: How did you become co-founders? What makes the partnership work? What do you each bring to Excelle?
KD: Once I settled on the idea, I immediately thought of Cat, whom I’ve known since grade school in New York. Cat played many sports growing up and is still is an avid golfer and tennis player. We also both have kids who play hockey.
Cat is very smart, incredibly energetic and determined, outgoing, organized and has a deep financial background. All these things complement my skills and traits. She also has a wicked sense of humor, is fearless, and is realistically optimistic, which are very important attributes in a business partnership. I had coffee with Cat in January of 2015 to tell her about the idea and she was immediately on board. We spent the six months working on it around our kitchen tables. From the start, we were on the same page about the opportunity and what our vision for Excelle Sports would be
CO: We come from different professional backgrounds, but we have the same overall mentality. The clock doesn’t end at 5 o’clock. You keep going and the days are long but we love what we are doing so it is usually fun and exciting. I came out of a Wall Street trading and sales background, so I’m more the numbers person. And I’m becoming the HR and IT person now, working on the backend of the site and even learning how to code.
KD: Cat is involved in everything and wears way too many hats! She runs all company operations, HR, financials, tech, and is entering scores and rankings in her spare time. She’s fabulous at managing the team. We both do the fundraising, strategy, branding, voice, editorial strategy, partnerships, advisory board building and design strategy for the website. My background and value are in the creative, branding, marketing, design and big picture idea areas of the business. Cat has the ability to take all my ideas and help to figure out if they make sense in terms of bandwidth, brand focus, and budget. She has many ideas of her own that often work perfectly with what I am thinking so we make a very good team.
Q: Early on when you were seeking investors and explaining the Excelle idea, I’m sure you faced a lot of skepticism about the concept of building a site dedicated to women’s sports. What was the most frequent critique you received? How did you respond to that criticism?
KD: It wasn’t so much a critique as people kept saying, “I don’t think that many people are interested in women’s sports.” What became clear to us is that people don’t look for women’s sports in the news or on television because it’s never been there before. We needed to create the landscape that would allow people to know that the coverage was out there and that it could be top quality, dynamic journalism.
We also kept hearing, “I don’t know, hasn’t women’s sports been tried before?” But it’s different this time. I think Sports Illustrated for Women was a fabulous idea. I went out and bought that magazine. The problem was that it was in print, which meant they only covered certain sports and by the time it was published it wasn’t news anymore. Now, with digital and social media it’s so much easier to get the word out. It costs no more to cover 20 sports than it does to cover two, because you don’t need to print more pages. With the excitement surrounding athletes like the USWNT and Serena Williams, there are more and more examples of women sports blowing up in terms of participation and viewership. It’s just not true that people are not interested.
CO: We’re not trying to convert men into women’s sports fans. We’re focused on providing the best sports coverage possible for the athletes and communities of passionate sports fans in each individual sport and across all sports. And there is certainly demand. For example, when the NWHL ran the Isobel Cup (National Women’s Hockey League finals) game on ESPN three days after the fact, it had a better rating than the live NHL games that day. Commissioner Dani Rylan made it possible for female college hockey players to play professionally. Now, you have these women who are professional athletes that girls can look up to as heroes.
KD: Cat grew up playing softball and I played squash, so we knew that those sports had really passionate communities of former athletes, parents, friends, and coaches. Squash has a huge international community as well. As we built the site we realized just how big and passionate each of those audiences is. A long time ago, when we were just starting out, a friend of ours mentioned that her daughter was going to a volleyball tournament with more than 900 teams. I couldn’t even imagine that many volleyball players in one place. Every single sport has that kind of an audience, you name it, rowing, lacrosse, ice hockey, tennis, etc… We are bringing all of that to one place for all women’s sports. It’s something that no one else has ever tried to do.
Q: What has been something that has pleasantly surprised you about this experience?
KD: It’s been incredible how many people have been happy to talk to us. Athletes, coaches, teams, and agents, everyone wants more coverage for women’s sports. But the biggest surprise for me is that 50% of our readers are men. We expected it to be heavily skewed towards women. But there are many men out there who are women’s sports fans.
CO: The international aspect has been very surprising. During the Olympics, we did a story on tennis player Monica Puig. She had won the first gold medal for Puerto Rico and the story was a huge hit. We suddenly had a ton of readers in Puerto Rico, because not that many other outlets picked the story up.
It’s really exciting to see readers finding us from different countries where women don’t have as much freedom to play sports. At the end of July, we had 65,000 unique visits to the site. By the end of August we had 260,000 from 183 countries. It’s been really exciting to see that we have readership from places like Iran, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, India, and South Korea.
Q: What advice would you give to other women entrepreneurs as they are just starting out?
KD: Besides “get ready to work harder than you’ve ever imagined,” my advice is to focus on one core goal and skill set as the foundation of your company. Don’t bring in too many ideas and try to do too many things at once. I think that is the downfall of many startups, both in terms of finances and focus.
CO: This is my first startup, and I will say that the hours are long, but the rewards are great. It’s been great to be introduced to this world and meet so many people passionate about women’s sports. I would tell other entrepreneurs that fundraising is unfortunately harder for women. You have to prove yourself before people want to fund you. I would love to see investors, especially women investors giving women more credit on these types of alternative investments.
Q: What is one storyline in any sport that we should be following on Excelle this year?
KD: Everyone should follow pro athletes outside of the Olympic season. They should follow them year round!
CO: I would say Kim Vandenberg’s stories. She’s an Olympic swimmer, who started working for us full time. She writes fantastic stories that tear at your heartstrings, including a great piece not too long ago about a Paralympic swimmer and another about sports psychology. She wrote a great piece about how she came in 3rd at the Olympic trials for London, but they were only taking the top 2 competitors. When you come in 3rd you still have to abide by the Olympic rules and go through drug testing as if you’re going to compete, just in case, even though you know you’re probably not. It was a really compelling article about something that most people don’t consider when they’re watching the games.