April 28, 2011. Radio City Music Hall. The pick is in for the hometown team and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell steps to the podium.
“With the 19th pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, the New York Giants select Prince Amukamara. Defensive back. Nebraska.”
Amukamara is greeted with cheers from his rowdy, new supporters in the theater. He embraces his family off-stage, then poses with his blue No. 1 jersey alongside Goodell.
“Walking across the stage was very memorable,” Amukamara said. “As a kid, you see this huge production on TV. You always dream what it would be like to walk across the stage and have the lights, the cameras flashing on you.”
His football dream had become a reality, but that was only part of it. Amukamara’s social media audience skyrocketed by 10 times overnight. He found himself sitting with 100,000 followers by the end of the week, and no idea what to say or do. He was prepared to make an impact on the field, but needed guidance to maximize the sudden growth of his personal brand.
The Formation & The Foundation
Back in Nebraska, Blake Lawrence and Adi Kunalic watched their teammate on TV. The roommates had recently co-founded a digital marketing agency called Hurrdat that helped local businesses leverage social media. It was the early days of brand social, and Lawrence and Kunalic were leading the way.
Then, they got a call from an out-of-market contact who needed help building and leveraging his social presence. It was Prince.
“We started working with one athlete, Prince Amukamara, one of our buddies who made it to the NFL and needed some help understanding, building, and monetizing his brand,” Lawrence recalled. “To imagine 10 years ago that this desire to help one athlete would turn into the ability to help tens of thousands, now 90,000-plus on our way to 100,000 athletes around the world, I couldn’t have imagined it in my wildest dreams.”
Lawrence was a highly recruited player out the Kansas City area. He earned a spot as starting linebacker for the Huskers, but was forced to hang up his spikes during his junior season due to recurring concussions. His career was over in an instant, but he immediately invested his energy into developing in the business world. Kunalic graduated as one of the nation’s top kickers and spent 2011 on his own professional football journey. After a series of workouts around the league, he earned a roster spot with the Carolina Panthers. While he was kicking in the NFL, Kunalic supported Lawrence remotely as the agency flourished.
Inspired by Amukamara, they began to define a vision for what athlete marketing would become and sow the seeds of Opendorse.
“Inside every entrepreneur is this undying desire to have people believe in the unbelievable or to see things that don’t exist yet,” said Lawrence. “Simply because you see it, doesn’t mean others will. As a founder, I’ve spent the last decade trying to help people understand that athletes matter. Their time in the spotlight can be turned into so much value for themselves, for their community, the people around them. They just need the tools to unlock it.”
Opendorse would be that tool. Eventually.
They were building Opendorse as a side project, an extension of Hurrdat. The work began in earnest in 2012 with product and brand development, crystallizing on November 1. Opendorse was officially in market in early 2013. 2014 was the all-in year when they sold Hurrdat, Kunalic hung up his cleats, and they fully committed to building their company for athletes.
The co-founders recruited a small team who could help them bring their idea to market. They were grinders. The group included Brandon Barnes, Abbie Giffin, and Sam Weber, all of whom are still with the company today. They outlined the business plan. They built and improved the product. They networked. They connected with athletes. They used social media to market their brand and generate interest in the sports industry. The communicated the value proposition to decision makers around the country. Opendorse developed quickly.
“It was fun. We did a lot of fun stuff as a team,” Kunalic remembered. “The early days were definitely trying to hustle and get a deal done for one athlete, then 10 athletes, and trying to repeat that. Trying to find success in every single process, breaking it down, and see if we could scale it.”
Athlete after athlete, brand after brand, and partner after partner, the bricks were laid that cemented Opendorse’s foundation that still exists today. Each round of funding provided resources for growth and innovation. Each product development opened new doors for athletes and partners. Every new relationship helped build a company that was unlike anything that existed.
“In the very beginning of Opendorse, there were these moments when we had to brute force it,” explained Lawrence. “There’d be one feature we’d be praying that, in the middle of the demo, would work. There’d be five people huddled around the computer in the other room. I’d be demoing and say, ‘Hit that button.’ They hit the button and you could hear a faint cheer in the other room, ‘Ahhh, it worked!’”
The team has grown exponentially since 2012, but the vision and purpose of the company has remained unchanged.
“As we’ve grown from just a handful, to several dozen – now getting close to 100 employees – what I’m most proud of is that the people who are on our team today fit those core values that we look for and understand our vision,” Lawrence said. “It’s fun to wake up knowing the impact we are having on individual’s lives outside of Opendorse, but also to know that when the clock starts and work begins, that there’s people across the country now that put all they have and all they want in their professional career into building Opendorse and helping us pursue that vision.”
The Visionary & The Integrator
Adi Kunalic and Blake Lawrence were hanging out in their college apartment. Over a six pack of Busch Light, they started talking about what could be next in their lives. Lawrence was in the middle of an internship after his concussion-induced retirement from football, and he was doing social media marketing for local companies. At one point in the conversation, Lawrence suggested that, perhaps, they could do social media “for everyone.” This was a revolutionary thinking back in 2010. They continued to throw around ideas and talk about life, then went out to the town.
“The next morning,” Lawrence said on the Bussin’ with the Boys podcast, “I wake up groggy and I check my email inbox. Adi had sent me a one-page business plan. He said, ‘Let’s do it.’ That’s why we started Hurrdat. If he doesn’t exist, that’s an idea that’s a six pack, and a night on O Street.”
Kunalic and Lawrence have matured since those college days, but their entrepreneurial spirit burns stronger than ever. They are ideal compliments to each other as best friends and business colleagues.
“As a founder, you look to find people and surround yourself with people that balance your strengths,” Lawrence said. “I look no further than my co-founder Adi Kunalic who’s ultimately helped us get where we are today and bring a dream to life. He’s somebody who’s an executor and operator.”
Kunalic and Lawrence have long been proponents of Gino Wickman’s Traction Entrepreneur Operating System (EOS®). EOS is a tech platform and “set of timeliness business principles and real-world tools” that foster the vision, forecasting, communication, execution, growth, reflection, and reporting for growing companies. EOS is a way of life at Opendorse.
There are accountability charts, not organizational charts. There are L10s, not meetings. There are Rocks, not goals. There is a clear distinction between the role of the Visionary and the Integrator.
Lawrence, the visionary, is the primary big-picture thinker who leads the course setting of the business – and the industry at large. He is never short on galaxy-brain ideas gleaned from weekend projects.
Kunalic, the integrator, shares in the vision setting with the Opendorse Leadership Team – Head of People Taylor Asmus, VP of Product Abbie Giffin, EVP of Sales Brian Maki, EVP of Operations Derek Peterson, SVP of Marketing Michael Steiner, and Chief Technology Officer Tommy Vacek – but specializes in bringing the discussion back to earth and creating actionable steps.
“Building a team is a personal favorite [function], getting to work with people who find this place just as special as we find it,” said Kunalic. “Our purpose of wanting to build something great with people we care about, we get to live that every day. I don’t think a lot of people get that opportunity. We do, so I don’t take that for granted.”
In the past year, the Opendorse team has more than doubled, going from 47 full-time team members in March 2021 to 97 at the end of March 2022. The team is now over 100. Opendorse leadership as placed a great emphasis on hiring a team with diverse backgrounds and experiences. The company has partnered with Women in Sports Technology (WIST), connected with Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and leaned on organizations supporting diverse hiring practices.
Opendorse is led by women in key positions, including Asmus and Giffin, as well as Lisa Bregman as senior director of campaigns, Mary Lee Gilliland as director of key partnerships, Erika Gunerman as VP of channel partnerships, Katie Hoffman as general counsel, and Kelsey Ostendorf as director of customer growth.
Dozens of Nebraska-based employees work from Opendorse’s 5,416 sq. ft. headquarters on the edge of campus, but the business now accommodates remote work for every team member. There are numerous company-wide events throughout the year to ensure real-life connections and strong relationships. Kunalic and Lawrence are building a company for the future.
“Adi and I, as co-founders of Opendorse, have always looked to find people that believe in the vision first,” Lawrence said. “This is a company that’s built to help every athlete. And there’s a purpose to what we do, and that’s to build something great with people we care about. So, if we can find people that fit our core values and understand the vision, I think that’s the makings of a good team.”
The athlete marketing space has always been a fast-moving industry, but new NIL legislation passed on July 1, 2021, has made it even more so. Being nimble has been a key to Opendorse’s success.
“When I think about how many new products we’ve been able to bring to market and how quickly we can do it – and the quality is still solid and stands out – that’s really something that’s rewarding when you look at it,” Kunalic admitted. “As you grow and scale your team, it just gets more complex. Things really do not get easier, but it does get more exciting. And it does get more rewarding. When you see yourself still doing the cool things like when we were a 20-person team and we can still move as quickly and be as agile and accelerate things, and be able to do that with 90-plus people, that’s pretty special.”
There have been a host of companies sprout up in the last year – endorsement marketplaces, NIL education consultants, compliance solutions, social content delivery platforms – but Opendorse has been built for this moment over the past decade. Kunalic, Lawrence, and the team at Opendorse are primed to carry out its vision: Help Every Athlete.
“I thought [NIL] would happen faster,” Lawrence admits. “Some things take time. Because of the time it takes, most entrepreneurs might step away or look away, but this is something that’s very purposeful – why we’re doing this – and it’s allowed us to survive a decade of ups and downs, and wants and wishes, almost haves, and definitely didn’t wants. It’s part of the journey as an entrepreneur, and I’m proud of it.”
“This is a one-of-one time in our lives that we get to do this. Oftentimes, the market conditions never really line up. Timing with your business is very difficult. You can get funding, you can get business model down, you can get people down, you can get the idea down, but the timing to be on your side is special.”
The Athlete’s NIL Company
@PrinceAmukamara spoke Opendorse into existence on March 28, 2013 with a $10 deal from a brand-new startup in Lincoln: “Just officially got on board with @opendorse . Excited to see how the platform grows, built in #LNK. Check it out opendorse.com”
Built by athletes, for athletes.
“I’ve believed in this moment and where we are, that athletes matter,” said Lawrence. “To see an entire industry pop up around that vision, an entire team and technology staff popping up around it, it’s rewarding.”
Opendorse is home to 30+ former college athletes representing 25 different sports from all three NCAA levels. The staff has over 130 combined years working directly with college and professional athletes on brand building, education, and support. There is school experience, league and conference experience, team experience, agency experience, and in every corner of the company.
It all starts with education, helping athletes understand their personal brand and value. With programming surrounding NIL rules and essentials, financial literacy, mental health, athlete-to-athlete advice, best practices from industry leaders, and social media assessments, the Opendorse Education platform is baked into the everyday Opendorse experience.
“It seems counter not to have a lot of your marketing oriented around the person that’s buying [your product], the customer,” Kunalic explained. “Our thing has always been centered around, ‘Let’s take care of the athlete. Let’s make sure they’re at the center. Let’s make sure they’re having a good a good experience.’ Then the buyers, the people that are in their lives [supporting them], will end up wanting to work with them and buy products.”
Opendorse Content is the software that teams, schools, and organizations use to deliver photo and video content to their athletes. Players can publish with the touch of a green button. It’s their content, it’s their app.
“[Our athlete-centered approach] has really allowed us to be dangerous and roll out new products,” Kunalic said. “Some people might get stuck on one customer segment, [making] it very difficult to innovate or try new things. But the athlete doesn’t change. That’s really helped us be able to scale without running into complete pivots that some startups and younger companies do at times.”
Compliance is a critical component of the athlete endorsement ecosystem. Opendorse Compliance was developed alongside the NCAA as the best NIL solution on the market. But Opendorse has, in fact, been in the compliance business since 2013 through its long-term partnerships with the top players associations and national governing bodies. From the NFLPA to MLBPA, WNBPA and LPGA, to Team USA, they all depend on Opendorse.
“I believe it will be our job at Opendorse to steward this industry, to bring this industry into the future,” said Lawrence. “To be a foundational element of everything that athletes are doing to capitalize on so much work they put in on the field into true value off the field. Opendorse is there from their high school days as preps to their professional days, and to retirement when they get there.”
The Opendorse Marketplace, the company’s first product built for Amukamara back in 2013, is the place where deals get done.
A brand or fan selects an athlete they want to work with.
They build a brief and pitch a deal or create an open opportunity where multiple athletes can apply.
The athlete receives a notification on their phone.
The athlete accepts, rejects, or negotiates terms through the app.
The athlete completes the deal as mutually agreed.
Payment is sent and processed through the athlete’s phone.
Opendorse streamlines the process for athletes and their professional service providers, from pitch to payment. The company recently announced its intention to build a custom, School-Specific Marketplace for all its Premium partners at no additional cost.
“The world of endorsements,” Kunalic said, “is going to look a lot more like what Opendorse does today than the traditional world that we lived in three, four, five years ago, and before that.”
Kunalic and Lawrence’s journey has been deliberate, filled with patience and belief. The foundation is set for Opendorse’s next 10 years of performance and innovation.
“The first decade of Opendorse was about bringing a vision to life, and setting a foundation for the future,” Lawrence said. “The next decade of Opendorse will be ensuring that foundation is as solid as it can be and every athlete around the world can rely on Opendorse and this industry can flourish because of the tools and the team that we’ve built here. We’re on our way to helping every athlete and I believe by the end of this decade we’ll certainly say we’ve had an impact on millions of athletes around the world.”