Fantom is the perfect translation of tangible nostalgia into the digital realm. The Irish startup, founded by Paul Healey and Aine Maria Mizzoni, is a digital platform for collectibles, from stickers to trading cards.
Since launching in January 2012, Fantom has partnered with sports teams and sponsorship brands to help increase fan engagement and outreach, and to bolster their social media presence. Fans gather stickers and cards in online albums, connecting with each other and with their teams, and earning prizes and perks.
As head of business development Oran Bambrick, who recently established Fantom’s US presence at the Enterprise Ireland tech incubation hub in New York, explained, the Fantom team “looked at the options and decided that this was sort of the last paper component that hadn’t gone digital. We wanted to do something disruptive, and that was one of the only things still waiting to be taken there.”
Fantom is the trading name of Lightkeepers Media, which was formed in 2009. It went through the Dublin City University Ryan Academy Propeller Venture Accelerator program and received investment and support from Enterprise Ireland, the AIB Seed Capital Fund, and Bloom Equity, GameStop founder Kevin Neary’s investment firm. Like many startups, Fantom went through a number of iterations, including a politics-focused social media tool and a business-to-consumer version of their current set-up, before zeroing in on the b-to-b model that would work best. “We knew we had something that was really engaging, that brought people back again and again,” Bambrick said, “and as we were figuring it out, we realized that with this ‘stickiness,’ we probably had even more to offer to brands and sports teams.”
After first partnering with the US-based program Impact Wrestling, Fantom took off in Ireland, the UK and the rest of Europe. In October 2012 they landed their first English soccer team, Derby County FC. From there, deals with the Queens Park Rangers, Wolves, Benfica, the English Football Association and the Heineken Cup (rugby) followed. Opportunities outside the world of sports also emerged, as Fantom discovered the appeal of their platform to RTÉ (Ireland’s national broadcaster), and toy-maker Mattel for its Monster High dolls. They’ve also partnered with trading card company Topps, one of the two main international companies in the (physical) trading card field.
Topps’ biggest age demographic is the 8 – 12 set, so the Fantom team was surprised to find that their strongest demographic is 18 – 24-year-olds. “Obviously there's a difference from brand to brand,” Bambrick said, “but we thought that was such an interesting thing. Take Topps, hopefully we can help them to monetize a new audience – kind of how Farmville, their main demographic is 36-year-old women even though it looks like a kids game.
"For the Queens Park Rangers, in a contest they did with us last year, one of the winners was a 62-year-old doctor from Egypt. It was so surprising. But we kind of see ourselves as big kids too, so it makes sense.”
Bambrick arrived in New York in mid-October 2013, with the aim of expanding Fantom’s presence into the U.S. market, which presents a vast array of opportunities – from publishing and music to the major professional sports leagues and beyond. In addition to the New York office, Enterprise Ireland also has incubation spaces in Silicon Valley and Boston, but Bambrick said that from a sales perspective New York presented the perfect home base.
The target was to land a deal with one major sports team by January, so when he stopped by IrishCentral’s offices Bambrick was proud to report that two teams – one from the NHL and one from MLS – will soon be announcing partnerships with Fantom. His approach has been inventive: rather than making cold calls (which, let’s be honest, very few people enjoy), he’s been utilizing LinkedIn as a way of getting the attention of prospective clients, so that the calls he makes will be met with a warmer reception.
“Because we want to work with top tier sports brands our lead list is big, but it’s also finite,” he explained. "So every time we reach out to someone, they’re researched. We know what they’ve done in the past with social media, and what they want to do going forward. With our East Coast leads list, I’d say we’ve got to talk with all but about three or four of them, and mostly because of LinkedIn. When they’re expecting your call, it’s that much easier to connect.”
Though the European and American sports worlds are very different, Bambrick said the prestige of the teams Fantom has worked with at home has translated well thus far. “The analogy I was using at first was that it would be a bit like the film "Coming to America," where Prince Akeem is very well respected in his homeland, and then he arrives and things are totally different here. But having worked with the English Football Association and with Topps, that helps us get a foot in the door. The correlations don’t always come across, but now that we’ve secured partnerships with teams here we can leverage that. We’re hoping that the first couple of deals will have been the toughest, but we’ve also been finding that the door is surprisingly open to us.” He also credits Enterprise Ireland and Fantom’s investors with making valuable introductions.
For the year ahead, the goal will be to have Fantom’s product across all five major sports leagues: the NBA, NHL, NFL, MLB, and MLS, and to diversify with other sports franchises and non-athletic brands. If all goes well, the question of expanding will come. Though it’s early to say, Fantom would likely increase its sales force here, while maintaining its tech team in Galway and leadership in Dublin. They also see potential to go beyond the current b-to-b model, perhaps with a self-publishing suite, by which everyone from amateur sports teams to pub teams could create their own collections.
“Just the sheer scale of opportunity here is huge,” he said. “Even in a space as small as New York City, there are 12 top sports teams and hundreds of hundreds of brands that want to sponsor those teams. We’re excited for what’s next."
Another end goal, of course, is to become more self-reliant. “There’s probably never going to be a point where we say no, don’t invest. But definitely what we don’t want to do is create a culture where we’re relying on investor cash,” he emphasized. "That’s a big problem with the industry: you’ve got all these models where they’re still trying to figure out how to monetize. We’re going to be a real, proven business model. At the same time, investor cash can always help expedite things and let you be a little more inventive and imaginative, to put weight around what you’re doing.”
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