As a kid growing up in Charlotte, all Mac Lackey wanted to do was play soccer—all day, everyday, until it was dark. It was all he cared about and luckily he had talent which took him to Wake Forest on a soccer scholarship and to a year of playing pro soccer as a Charlotte Eagles’ forward.
But Lackey’s obsession with soccer was more than just a passion; it was a clear example of his “all in” personality. He did everything to an extreme.
“For a brief period in college, when I really started to care about my studies,” Lackey recalls, “I went from barely making it to doing quite well, but I didn’t want to just get As—I wanted 100s.”
For Lackey, playing soccer revealed other personality quirks as well.
“Looking back at how I played, it’s clear that I loved taking risks. With two or three seconds left on the clock, there are always players praying that they don’t get the ball. But that wasn’t me—I was the one screaming for it. I wanted to make that last shot to win.”
Lackey, founder and CEO of his sixth startup, KYCK.com, admits that, even as a child, he had personality traits typical of an entrepreneur. But he credits a light bulb moment for starting him on his unconventional career path.
“Out of school, I started working at a software development company,” Lackey remembers. “It was maybe my first or second day on the job when the company president called a brainstorming meeting in his office. Everybody started gathering up their paper and pens but he held up his hands to me and told me to stay out and answer the phone.
“I had such a visceral response to that. I had ideas. I couldn’t figure out why he didn’t want my input. That’s when the light bulb went off and I decided that I couldn’t be in an environment where my ideas wouldn’t be heard or I couldn’t push ideas that are important to me. I resigned six months later and I, and an engineer I’d become friends with at work, decided to start our first company, a software development company we called InTouch Interactive.”
Lackey recounts, “It was a true garage startup with no money, no venture capital and no resources. I had a $10,000 loan from a family member and a one bedroom apartment but no clients, nothing but an idea.
“That was ’95 and most people hadn’t really even heard of the Web then. We were quite early working on the Internet in Charlotte and the Southeast. When we started selling Internet development services but you couldn’t even really call it selling, because we were actually just doing a lot of educating.
“So, there I was, at 22, sitting at the table with mostly older business people trying to explain what the Internet was and why they should care. We left many people scratching their heads.”
Eventually, Lackey says, companies began “dipping their toes in the water.”
“But when Duke Energy ‘dips their toe in the water’, it’s enough to pay your bills,” he quips. “That’s how we got started.”
Lackey sold InTouch Interactive to iXL Inc. in 1998 and served as a senior vice president until the company went public the next year. “I resigned the day after the IPO,” he explains, “but only because I was passionate about my next idea.”
The next idea was InternetSoccer.com, which married Lackey’s entrepreneurial abilities and his love of his favorite sport.
“It was the time when big portals like Yahoo and Excite were becoming one-stop-shops for everything—news, weather, sports,” he explains. “But I had this view that soccer, like music or anything people are passionate about, couldn’t be addressed in some huge, bloated, horizontal portal. Our plan was to build a very deep, focused, vertical network that was a global news site for soccer.”
In the 14 months from the inception of InternetSoccer.com until its $15 million sale in July of 2000 to European TeamTalk Media Group, the company became one of the largest soccer-specific networks in the world.
The sale allowed the InternetSoccer.com management team to remain in place with Lackey as president and CEO of North American operations. But more important to Lackey, the business could remain in Charlotte.
“We’ve had lots of people tell us it would be easier if we moved to New York or Silicon Valley—that it would be easier to find engineers or capital—but we’ve resisted and proven that it can be done in Charlotte.
“Charlotte has advantages,” Lackey points out. “The costs of building a startup here are lower and you can have a company culture where people can focus on their families and have life balance. The biggest disadvantages are access to capital and finding the right talent. There are really talented people here, but if we want someone that has already been successful in driving app downloads on iTunes, they’re likely in San Francisco or New York. We have to be open to remote workers.”
Lackey’s many startups define him as a serial entrepreneur but, because he’s also frequently involved with several ventures simultaneously, he falls under the more uncommon dual category of serial and parallel entrepreneur.
While developing InternetSoccer.com, Lackey also founded ettain group, a software development and technology outsourcing company. In 2001, he segued from chairman to the more active operational role of CEO. During this period Lackey had another light bulb moment.
“The company was doing well,” he explains. “It was about a $14 million operation when one of the ettain board members asked me a question, ‘Do you want to be a CEO or do you want to be a startup guy? If you want to be a CEO, stick around, focus on the operation, focus on the people, add new offices, grow the business and become a more experienced CEO. But if you want to be a startup guy, go start something.’ I thought about that for about a week and then resigned from ettain.
“It was a catalytic moment. I realized I didn’t want to be a CEO in the traditional sense. I love to inspire people but I don’t like managing them.”
Lackey describes the next year as a “hodgepodge”. He did some consulting and acted as interim CEO of a small telecom business. He also evaluated plans for the future with his longtime business partner Ross Saldarini.
“We stepped back and thought about what we wanted to do, what we liked to do and then started working on the vision of that,” Lackey says. “The vision became BlackHawk Equity. The idea behind it was simple. We love to get involved with early stage companies. We like to be active—to think of them, grow them, do everything to make it happen.
“By that point, we had a small group of investors who were supportive and who essentially said that if we invested in something or bought a company or started one they would invest beside us.
“Investors wired money; we put it in the bank, waiting to find something to do with it. That was when Mountain Khakis came along.”
At that time, Mountain Khakis consisted of only a watercolor sketch of a pair of pants and the idea of an entrepreneur living in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, but Lackey loved the concept and Mountain Khakis became the first real investment of BlackHawk.
It was also the first time Lackey’s business involved a physical product. “I could hold it in my hands and see it on people,” he says. “We literally went through the process of laying things on a table and saying, ‘No, that’s no good. Try this, try that. Make more changes. Okay, now put this in the market.’”
Mountain Khakis went on to be picked up by over a thousand retailers, including several major outdoor pro shop chains. The experience also refined the career path of Lackey and his partners.
“It fundamentally changed our view on how we wanted to spend the rest of our entrepreneurial lives,” Lackey explains. “We decided we only want to do things that we’re passionate about.”
Lackey’s latest venture, KYCK.com is definitely a product of a passion. Like InternetSoccer.com, its focus is soccer and it has global reach, but KYCK ramps it up by merging content, social media and e-commerce.
KYCK’s name was an inevitability. Lackey owns many domain names he keeps as placeholders for potential future ventures or names he just thinks interesting. “I always liked ‘Kyck’ with the alternate spelling because I thought it would be good for branding and I knew I’d have to do something with soccer again,” he explains.
The idea that he matched to the domain name started bubbling up two years ago when Lackey reconnected with old college soccer teammates on Facebook. “I was friends with these guys purely through soccer but what I saw on Facebook were their backyard projects, a family birthday party or the music they liked. It felt very disconnected,” he says.
The breakthrough came when Lackey was watching the Women’s World Cup Final with his two daughters. “I was on my iPhone talking about the game with friends on Twitter and every fourth or fifth post was something totally unrelated to the game—somebody checking into Starbucks on Foursquare or something like that. I had a massive déjà vu feeling that what was happening to Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn was exactly what had happened to Yahoo and Excite—these huge platforms were going to fragment into verticals.
“People are going to connect about things they want to talk about. Ultimately, sites that get mind share with people are going to win and backyard projects just don’t get mind share.”
The idea of KYCK became reality in July of 2011. The company has raised $1.3 million in capital prior to its Series A round, which will begin within the next month, and just went through their soft public launch.
Lackey states that the word ‘relevance’ is key to describing KYCK. “The first thing a new member does on KYCK is build a profile,” he explains. “You tell us what teams and players you like and our custom-built algorithm goes out to YouTube and Reuters and even user-generated content to find and deliver exactly what you care about.
“Beyond that, the algorithm applies a social framework. If your friends are all talking about a game or a player, it becomes relevant. And finally, if an item is trending on our network, you probably want to hear about it too.
“The relevancy algorithm ensures that you always get something great that matters to you. But even more significantly, it ensures that every single KYCK user gets a totally different experience. It is customized to the individual level.
“We’ve also introduced media layers to the site which provides a chronological feed of information and then a second, personalized feed of media curated for you. Both feeds run simultaneously on a split screen so you can switch back and forth and still see what’s happening on both. Our team has come up with this to allow a mixture of real time and relevance.”
Lackey foresees the site being used by youth clubs to assist in training and by professional players to build and interact with their fan base. He also sees KYCK’s relevancy algorithm driving e-commerce.
“The same personalization that gives you the content you want will also allow you to purchase the products you want, whether it’s a favorite team jersey or airline tickets to a match.”
Lackey says his biggest wish for KYCK is scale. His goal is for 100,000 members by the end of 2012, and to reach one million by the close of 2013 for a “global fútbol experience.” KYCK already has members from 128 countries.
And while he has big aspirations and vision for KYCK, Lackey won’t discount the option to start something else new in the future. He says, “I love the process of building a company—the adrenaline that comes with it and the satisfaction of taking something from paper and turning it into something real.”