Shannon Ferguson will have her voice heard.
When she began playing hockey as a child, she was one of just two girls on her team — a theme that followed into her professional career in sports marketing. From these experiences Shannon developed a gritty, competitive spirit that would guide her impressive journey as an entrepreneur.
Today, she’s the Co-Founder & CEO of FanSaves, a rapidly growing sports tech startup that supports more than 40 organizations and 500 brands on their platform. Through FanSaves, sponsors broaden the reach of their activation opportunities with fans so they can engage with them outside of venues and in real-time, by offering discounts and deals.
As her professional success grows, so does Shannon’s commitment to supporting women startup founders on their journey.
* * *
Before FanSaves, Shannon and her partner, Co-founder Kris McCarthy managed the sales and marketing for two minor professional hockey teams. While selling sponsorship, they both noticed a trend: business owners wanted more out of their dollars. As Shannon said, sponsors “didn’t just want the traditional inventory we were offering, like rink boards, scoreboard ads and wall signs. They wanted something digital that would bring people into their stores while tracking customer demographics and their return-on-investment.”
With a lack of digital assets afforded to sponsors, Shannon and Kris saw that there was a gap in the market — so they decided to fix it by building an app. Although both of them had experience in sponsorship, sports marketing and entrepreneurship, neither came from a technical background. But that wasn’t going to stop them.
In Shannon’s words, “We grew up playing hockey, so we’re really competitive. We rise to the challenge. So when we recognized that gap, it was a no-brainer, like ‘of course we should do this.’”
One step at a time
Shannon and Kris got to work building FanSaves in 2017. It didn’t take long for their business to take off and today they are partnered with more than 40 organizations and 500 brands across North America. FanSaves is growing fast: hiring new talent, and, in May, opening their seed round.
When asked how she keeps this momentum going, Shannon breaks down her process into digestible pieces that are handled one at a time. “When we look back, we didn’t say that we were going to accomplish all of this,” she said, “but as we got validation from bigger teams and industry leaders, we would focus on getting to that next phase, and tackling whatever was in our way.”
Her advice for entrepreneurs-to-be? “Just start. Your idea will evolve, it will change. But you have to plant a seed in order for it to grow.”
It’s this can-do attitude that helped Shannon explore a new vertical for FanSaves in 2019. “We realized that we could work with Chambers of Commerce and digitalize their member-to-member discount programs.” That’s when they began working with Chambers and Boards of Trade while adding BIAs, tourism groups, universities, colleges and media into the mix; anything that relied on sponsorship.
Growing into multiple vertices was so successful that it now serves as one of FanSaves’ main revenue sources, and has been an anchor through this pandemic where local sports teams have been unable to play or host fans at their games.
Growing pains — and gains
Over the years, Shannon has gained ground as a successful woman entrepreneur in an industry dominated by men. But she’s the first to admit that she wasn’t always in tune with the barriers women face. “I was in survival mode. I was focused on being strong and having my voice heard.” she said.
By virtue of having a man as her co-founder, Shannon noticed how gender bias impacted how people talked to her, versus Kris, about critical business issues like investment. As Shannon said, “Kris and I use the same pitch deck. But he is still more likely to be asked questions about FanSaves’ potential for gains than I am.”
For women founders, her experience is all too common: in 2017, the Harvard Business Review published findings from a study that found that both men and women VCs tend to ask men founders questions about the potential for gains, and women founders about the potential for losses; biases that, from the get-go, present women as a liability, and men as an asset.
As conversations around gender bias enter the mainstream, Shannon believes things are moving in the right direction for women founders — as long as they keep speaking up. “We can’t just ask investors and VCs to change their mindset if, as women, we’re not also changing our own biases about each other, and women in business. I will continue to rise up and celebrate the women in my life. By coming together as one voice we will be heard.”
Community, confidence and connections
Through SheBoot, an Ottawa-based 6-week bootcamp that prepares founders to pitch their business and secure investment, Shannon finally found a community of women with whom she could share these challenges.
“I’m so often amongst men. There are plenty of women business owners who are rock stars, but they’re not startup founders. We’re a niche group that faces unique obstacles. Through SheBoot we get to help each other succeed.” said Shannon. “The impact goes beyond the program. I gained a community, confidence, and connections to people that will help our business grow.”
As for whether the program is helping her secure investment for FanSaves, Shannon has this to say: “SheBoot has given me so much confidence, especially with FanSaves’ current seed round. And I haven’t stopped learning. There are monthly newsletters and the people in it have offered introductions to people I wouldn’t have spoken with otherwise. There needs to be more programs like this.”
Here’s how Shannon overcomes adversity
With an eye to seeing FanSaves revolutionize the world of sponsorship, Shannon offers advice for others facing challenges bringing their dreams to life. “Especially in this pandemic, especially as a founder, sometimes it can feel like things are never going to get better and that you’re never going to have that breakthrough,” she said.
“Just keep moving forward, even if it’s a small step each day. We’re all so hard on ourselves. Don’t give up. Even if you can only do one or two small tasks today, do them because tomorrow you might be strong enough to do more.”
To learn more about FanSaves, visit www.fansaves.com.
This article is a part of the SheBoot spotlight series. To read other stories that highlight women founders building exciting tech and tech-enabled startups, click here.
Invest Ottawa has a holistic tech portfolio, meaning our services and programs (including SheBoot!) help businesses by shortening their growth path. To learn more about how we do this, visit Venture Path Programs | Invest Ottawa.