- Feb 07, 2014
Original article published here in the MS Business Journal
OCEAN SPRINGS – Though just out of college, business partners Eric Hill and Daniel Payne are seasoned entrepreneurs, having formed several successful businesses, two while still in high school.
However, their current endeavor – SportSnax, a service offering smartphone-ordered, seat-delivered concessions during sporting events – is their most significant to date.
Just last week, SportSnax landed the University of Alabama, its second Southeastern Conference client. And, the company was on the cusp of a third contract at press time.
Hill says one of the keys to SportSnax's success is the working relationship he has with Payne. Hill, who serves as SportSnax's COO, is the technical/engineering guy while CEO/CFO Payne's strength is business strategy, accounting and finance, which Hill says "makes my eyes glaze over."
When the concept of SportSnax came to Payne, the first person he called was Hill.
"I knew if I did this thing, I'd have to have Eric," Payne says.
The pair grew up a state apart. Payne called Ocean Springs home, and quickly showed an uncommon business acumen. Rather than just mowing grass, Payne built a successful landscaping/yard-cutting enterprise while still in high school. He would subsequently take that nose for business to Mississippi State University as an accounting major.
Hill grew up in Sterlington, La., and also formed a startup while still in high school. HillTech, a web development and management company, supported customers in more than a dozen states when he sold it after five years.
Hill found Payne's name through a young entrepreneurs program. Seeing Payne was at Mississippi State, where Hill was headed to study industrial and systems engineering, he contacted Payne and proposed a meeting.
The partnership clicked immediately. Their first joint venture was in publishing while still at MSU. The pair successfully launched High Cotton News, a weekly newspaper in Starkville that reached 50,000-plus readers, and then they added more publications, including the biannual Starkville Menu Guide.
In 2010, Payne had earned his bachelor's degree in accountancy and was working in his field (he would subsequently earn an online MBA from Delta State University to meet continuing accounting education requirements) while Hill worked towards his graduation (class of 2012).
It was during this period that the concept of SportSnax was developed. Payne was attending an MSU sporting event when his girlfriend, who wanted something from the concession stand. Payne didn't want to leave his seat and miss the action.
"It created a conundrum," Payne quips.
Payne credits his girlfriend (now fiancée) with sparking the idea for "virtual concessions" – a service that would offer smartphone users the ability to order concessions and have them delivered to their seat at sporting events.
Payne remembers, "She said, 'You know, if I was at home I could order a pizza online – I can even do banking, but I can't even order something to drink here.' For the rest of the game, all I could think about was revenue models."
Payne contacted Hill, who assured him the idea was not only great but also doable.
They got a boost from their alma mater when Hill landed a grant through MSU's Thad Cochran Endowment for Entrepreneurship. The funding helped meet legal costs and gave the young company they dubbed SportSnax, a unit of the duo's parent company Blue Ocean Communications, LLC, some early operating capital.
SportSnax worked hard to come up with a system that is easy to use. There are no apps or downloads for the service that is compatible with iOS, Android, Blackberry OS and Windows Phone. Customers go to the team's customized SportSnax page and order. The order is automatically routed to the nearest concession stand, and customers can either pay with their card or cash upon delivery.
In early 2013, SportSnax officially formed, and the company quickly landed MSU. SportSnax launched its service – dubbed DawgSnax in Starkville – in the spring of that year at Dudy Noble Field baseball games. Working in conjunction with MSU's foodservice provider Aramark, the SportSnax service proved successful, with average delivery time less than five minutes after ordering.
With that success, MSU contracted SportSnax for the service at men's basketball games in Humphrey Coliseum. DawgSnax successfully debuted there Jan. 11 during the Bulldogs' game with cross-state rival Ole Miss.
Now, SportSnax will be offering its service at University of Alabama home games in Coleman Coliseum. The company landed the Crimson Tide last week after several weeks of negations. Still in beta testing, an official launch date in Tuscaloosa had not been set at press time.
And, SportSnax is working a third contract. Still in negotiations, the partners could not offer details at press time but it would be similar to deals struck with Mississippi State and Alabama.
"SportSnax is all about the fan experience, and we have to make sure it works perfectly when we rollout the service," Hill says.
Both Hill and Payne see wide horizons for SportSnax. Payne is convinced the service is scalable and can handle large football stadiums as well as arenas.
"I think it can work," Payne says. "We just have to convince (prospective clients) that they won't get 100,000 orders at one time. But I know it will work."
For more information on SportSnax, visit its website at www.sportsnax.com.