In 2014 AJ Damiano was a freshman at Syracuse University and an avid gamer. He started PowerSpike with cofounder and fellow students Michael Paris and Eric Rice based on an opportunity he’d observed working for another startup focused on Twitch-hosted, esports competitions. The issue he identified was fluctuating (and insufficient) revenue generation for gaming users and content creators based on inconsistent donations, advertising, and sponsorships. Looking at more traditional brands and advertising models, AJ believed he could develop a technology solution to this problem.
Early Competition Winnings
With a team of developers experienced in gaming and esports, AJ and his team created PowerSpike, a media buying and analytics solution for esports communities and gaming influencers. While making some early progress, the business was initially totally funded off of winnings from business plan competitions. (Over four years, PowerSpike won nearly $50,000 in these competitions!)
“I couldn’t speak more highly of the LaunchPad network,” said AJ. “For us, it played a pivotal role in the early stages of PowerSpike, giving us mentorship and coaching advice, business plan competition funding – but also validation, which was desperately needed to motivate us when there were lots of reasons to give up.”
While many students come to their campus LaunchPad independently, the early successes in school and local competitions, and obvious extraordinary potential of AJ and his team meant Syracuse LaunchPad Director, Linda Harstock proactively sought them out. Her approach from the beginning was to identify ways to help the students and add value. At different times that meant making introductions to advisors on and off campus, connecting the team to potential clients and customers, and mentoring them around specific obstacles and opportunities.
According to AJ, “The great thing about the Syracuse LaunchPad being based in Bird Library, which is in the heart of the university, is that you can access resources across campus – so with Linda’s help, we met critically important people from the business school, media school, I-school, and more all of whom have helped us succeed in one way or other.”
Techstars Atlanta Accelerator
By his graduation in May of 2019, AJ and his cofounders had closed his initial round of funding, raising around $500,000 from the Dorm Room Fund, The Sixers Innovation Lab Crafted by Kimball, and Techstars Atlanta in partnership with Cox Enterprises. AJ’s team completed the Atlanta Techstars Accelerator program in the summer of 2019.
“The funny thing is that I initially met Michael Cohn, the Managing Director of Techstars Atlanta, at a Blackstone-organized event in 2018!” AJ continued, “We kept in touch and built a relationship with each other over the next eight months, so when it came time to apply for that Accelerator, it was a very easy application process.”
Some of the most important elements of that Accelerator experience, according to AJ, were the sense of community that developed with other founders (who become lifelong friends), the network of mentors he gained, and the clearer understanding of the core problem PowerSpike was solving. Initially the team thought brands wanted tools to manage influencer marketing internally. What they realized, however, was that actually brands don’t want a tool! Instead they want to simply outsource that process and get the results, just like any other media channel.
Future for PowerSpike
With a team of eight full time employees today, and a pending injection of significant capital, PowerSpike is preparing for a major hiring push during the remainder of 2019 through 2020. AJ expects by the end of next year to have a team of 30 with key hires in product development, design, talent, and even operations. Together, their goal for the next 12-18 months will be to bring more sponsorship opportunities to more creators across different platforms, ultimately helping streamers make content creation their full time career. To stay up to date on the latest PowerSpike developments, AJ recommends people follow the company on Twitter and LinkedIn and watch for exciting job opportunities on their careers page.
AJ’s Advice for Student Entrepreneurs:
- Take care of yourself. Founder moods and outlook is often tied to the highs and lows of entrepreneurship. Find time to do whatever keeps you well – exercise, meditation, therapy, personal coaching, etc.
- Keeping pushing. When things aren’t going well, it is easy to give up, and that’s what most people do. But eventually, if you push hard enough, something is going to give and that is where you’ll get an opportunity most people will have missed out on.
- If your back is against the wall, play offense. (Based on AJ’s experience playing World of Warcraft, he’s found this lesson extends to business!) Making overly cautious decisions in the game’s “arena matches” when his team was in hard-pressed situations, extended the competition, but nearly always still ultimately led to a loss. Alternatively, when the team went unexpectedly offensive in these situations instead of just trying to draw out the match, he’d win about 40% of the time, “and that’s a hell of a lot better than 0 percent!”