So This Is What a Rocket Ship Startup Looks Like in 2015

Xconomy Boston — 

DraftKings may or may not have raised $250 million from Disney at a “unicorn” valuation. I do not care. The company runs daily online fantasy sports games that pay out real money ($1B this year). I do not care. It has flown in 12 regional winners from around the country to Boston to compete for a $50,000 top prize (“King of Boston”) this weekend. I love sports, but again, I do not really care.

What matters most is that DraftKings has become a leading consumer-tech startup in New England. You see its ads on TV, hear them on the radio, and the company has partnerships with all the big sports leagues and many of the teams. It is a rare breed in these parts.

The picture above is a snapshot of massive growth, yet it looks so ordinary. I took it at a reception for fantasy-sports players at DraftKings’ Boston headquarters near South Station. The office is standard startup fare—open floor plan, conference rooms, lots of workstations and people tapping on devices. Modest amounts of beer, wine, pizza—this isn’t a Silicon Valley party.

On the left is co-founder Matt Kalish. On the right is co-founder Paul Liberman. In the middle is early employee and communications head Femi Wasserman. (Not pictured is CEO and co-founder Jason Robins.) The founders originally got together when they worked at Vistaprint.

They look weary but satisfied, pleased but not relaxed. That’s because they are entrepreneurs running 100 mph, plus they all have small kids (or small kids on the way) and families to look after. That’ll do it.

Like all entrepreneurs, they want to be moving even faster than they are. Looking back, Kalish says he only wishes they’d quit their previous jobs earlier. Liberman recalls early days of working around the clock and dealing with payment issues. Wasserman points out that DraftKings’ daily offering wouldn’t have been as successful just a few years ago, before smartphones really took off. Keep in mind the company only launched its product in 2012.

The photo is a good reminder that companies are built by real people with lives, not analytical machines focused on customer acquisition or revenues. And that connecting with customers and online communities is a personal endeavor—one that DraftKings hopes will raise awareness of its offering and help it go mainstream.

For now, the company is 190 people and growing fast. It plans to get to some 300 employees in the next year or so. On behalf of Boston (and startups everywhere), we say onward, DraftKings.