Career Athletes' "affinity ecosystem" creates network of college athletes

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Posted: Tuesday, April 23, 2013 12:00 am

Career Athletes co-founder and CEO Chris Smith speaks at the company's launch of its new product at Sporting Park earlier this month.

Chris Smith, co-founder and CEO at Olathe, Kan.-based Career Athletes, believes in "affinity ecosystems"—networks that give users a head start through an existing common bond or relationship.

Smith, a former Missouri State University football player, began believing in this type of network during a leadership conference put on by his former employer, Eli Lilly. While waiting for the company's president to speak, the crowd sat silent—no one was sure what to talk about or whether to talk. So Smith struck up a conversation with the person next to him and found out he had been a college athlete, as well. Others began to pick up on the conversation, and it wasn't long before many in the room were talking about their experiences. He made note: 7 out of 10 attendees were athletes.

With this in mind, and reflecting on the fact that he had been hired throughout his career based on recommendations from former teammates, he wondered if there was a way to connect fellow athletes and put them in front of interested employers. That's the idea behind Career Athletes.

"We believe people miss the boat on networking," Smith said in a recent interview. "Networking should be about advancing your career, not getting a job."

In 2009, Career Athlete's launched its first version. Today, more than 130,000 athletes from 500-plus schools are on the free network with 500-plus employer and recruiter partners, including Enterprise, KPMG and AT&T.

Career Athletes starts with users' common athletic bond, which Smith believes cuts through the inefficiencies of networking, and adds the ability for employers to engage with them. That's translated into four revenue streams: businesses wanting access to hire from the network, schools reaching out to members about graduate programs, companies interested in advertising to the niche group and campus visits the company makes to talk with athletes in career seminars and forums.

Lately, the 20-person team has been hard at work to launch a new version, unveiled last week, including instant chat with connections and a 5-star level system that aims to gamify networking. Smith said a major problem with LinkedIn is that all the connections are treated the same and anyone can connect with anyone. Career Athletes wants to "create go-getters" who earn the right to network by being active online and participating in events offline, which he said meshes nicely with the competitive nature of athletes.

Career Athletes has received $1.5 million in total investment, said Smith, part of which came from a group of Wichita investors led by Jay Maxwell of Pixius Communications.

Athletes to Business is the closest competitor, according to director of marketing Marti Rosche. It coordinates the placement of student-athletes within corporations, whereas Career Athletes is "an ecosystem that feeds off of itself," she said.

The company's plans involve replicating that ecosystem. Next up is competitive and professional athletes, but Smith envisions a number of potential ecosystems can be built out.


Credits: Photo from Career Athlete's Facebook page.

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