As the play-in rounds of the 2017 NCAA March Madness basketball tournament get underway today (March 14), a team from the Chicago Booth School of Business has a handy platform for the uninformed. Clutch is a sports-focused daily newsletter (think The Skimm for the fringe sports fan), created by first-year MBA Wenting Xi and her boyfriend, Sammy Lee, a product manager at Weebly. And they’ve recently launched a platform to help those who don’t know much — or anything — with their March Madness bracket office pools.
Where other platforms instruct you to blindly choose men’s college basketball teams based on a variety of available rankings, the Clutch platform gives you tips and factoids for each team before you choose. “Upsets happen! A lot, especially in the first round,” the site points out before listing the top five teams based on an Associated Press ranking. As the user goes through the process of picking teams, fun facts are given for each team. “Villanova won the tournament last year and did not lose any key players after the season,” the page reads. “They have a good chance of winning it all.”
“Virginia Tech finished 1st in their conference and 7th nationally in 3-point shooting accuracy,” goes another tidbit.
The March Madness platform is the extension of a goal for Xi and Lee — to help casual sports followers know enough about what’s happening in the sports world to converse with friends, classmates, and co-workers.
“Most sports sites now, you can jump in, but if you don’t know the backstory, it’s not as entertaining to you,” Xi, 28, tells Poets&Quants. “So I’m trying to change that. And it’s working. People read it and they like it, they enjoy it, and they get it. And that’s what a lot of my competitors aren’t doing — they are just taking sports information and condensing it.”
LEARNING TO CODE ON THE DAILY COMMUTE
Xi, whose parents emigrated to San Diego from China, says business ideas were an almost daily conversation between her and her father. “I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur,” she says, adding that her father would have been one but sought out a stable job to support the family in a new country. “But he always encouraged me to do my own thing,” she continues. “The practice of generating ideas has always been a part of me.”
It’s little surprise, then, that a position as a financial analyst at Safeway Corporate didn’t hold Xi’s attention for long. She spent her days commuting from Oakland, California to Safeway’s Bay Area headquarters in Pleasanton, brainstorming ideas while on public transit and at home each night. First she began building financial tools for her and her co-workers to use and replace the outdated models in place. “The company was pretty old, so all of the processes were pretty old,” Xi explains.
When that wasn’t enough, Xi began watching online coding courses from Stanford University. But the hourlong lectures were not conducive to her schedule or learning style. She soon ran across online coding and web development training platform Treehouse, whose instructional videos were a brief 10 minutes each. Xi watched them whenever she could — during lunch, commuting to and from work, waiting for friends at restaurants. “Ten minutes at a time, I was learning to code,” she says.
Within a month, Xi had built the prototype of her first smartphone app. More importantly, she learned something about herself and her generation. “I realized that our generation, and probably future generations, like to absorb things in small chunks,” she says.
FINDING THE MARKET MATCH
Xi was also growing frustrated that she couldn’t talk sports with her mainly male co-workers. “When they talked about sports,” she recalls, “I didn’t really understand what they were saying. But I was interested.”
All of that changed when Xi happened to catch a football game that was at the center of conversation the next day. “They were trying to remember what the score was, and I just happened to remember it,” she says. Xi told her boss the score, who was so impressed she remembered the score that a month later he was still talking about it when he introduced Xi to other directors at Safeway. “He thought I was really into sports,” she laughs.
The idea stuck. Xi thought about writing a blog for others like her who didn’t know much about sports but wanted to learn. But a blog, she reasoned, would be too much work with not a lot of payoff. Then, one evening last June, Xi brought up the idea to her boyfriend, Lee, who loves sports and had extra time while trying to transition into a product management role at a startup. Lee loved the idea.
Xi immediately went home and emailed the idea to 50 of her closest female friends.
“I thought at first this would be something for females, because I’ve seen other women become frustrated because they couldn’t talk much about sports,” Xi remembers. About half responded positively. For the ones who responded, Xi and Lee began writing short sports updates and texting them to the friends for feedback. They did that for the next few weeks during the NBA finals when their hometown Golden State Warriors were playing, and the updates morphed into an app: Ms. Clutch.