From Sports to VC: My Journey to Becoming a Founder with Mike Cotton


Mike Cotton began his career in the sports industry and then went into venture capital, where he learned how to identify successful startups and what it would take to succeed as a startup founder. After launching two companies in the gaming space, Mike launched Wondr Gaming, which acquired Gamelancer Media

“At Ryerson Futures Inc, an accelerator and VC fund, I ran the sports and media division. We operated a portfolio of over 200 portfolio companies,” he says. “That was what taught me what to do and what not to do, because I had a front row seat to watch these companies raise hundreds of millions of dollars. Some exited, and some went to zero.”

He made this transition during a massive shift in the world of marketing. With the explosion of social media networks, advertising evolved from an exposure-based enterprise to one reliant on social media networks like TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube. 

On Nov. 8, Cotton hosted a webinar for Founders Network  where he provided his journey to becoming a startup founder and what he has learned as social media revolutionized marketing. 

To learn more about venture capital, see if you qualify for membership and check out the webinar from November 8.

A New World of Marketing

Before becoming a startup founder, Cotton worked for sports leagues like the MLS and consulted for NHL franchises on player evaluation and analytics. 

Advertising for these leagues was a different game 10 years ago. Then, advertisers sold “multimillion dollar packages to throw a logo on a rink board or run intermission activations. And they still do, but we’ve seen a massive shift in where brands perceive value in these partnerships,” Cotton says. 

“Advertising through TikTok and Instagram results in greater engagement and higher conversion rates,” he says. 

Through his work in the sports technology field as president of Gamelancer Media, Cotton has capitalized on this knowledge. The Toronto and LA-based media network gets more than 1.8 billion monthly views and has more than 33 million followers on TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat by selling direct advertising against the audience to some of the world’s largest brands. 

“We’re the conduit between our partners and our audience, which is largely Gen Z and millennial subscribers that are challenging for advertisers to access. Many brands don’t know where or how to reach them, how they consume content, and how to authentically sell to them. We listen to our consumers and they’re preferences inform how we leverage TikTok as an ecosystem to help brands commercialize and convert into our audience,” he says. 

A Startup Founder Red Flag

While working in venture capital, Cotton helped decide which startup founders got the green light. That meant evaluating founders and their startup teams for red flags. 

“By far, the largest red flag is founders that aren’t willing to take feedback and pivot their business or adjust. That’s my number one. It’s not even close,” he says. 

The firm he worked for saw a few founders exit in 9-figure pay days. 

“Successful founders were those who could recognize when something wasn’t working and make very quick, swift decisions to pivot the core business, exit certain sectors and enter into others,” he says.

Sometimes taking advice requires painful cuts, like laying off staff or going in a different direction than expected. 

Cotton recalls the founders who were brilliant but wouldn’t budge from their visions when given advice. 

“Those are generally the VC investments that go to zero,” he says. 

Listen to the Market

The other things he’s learned from his days in venture capital is: listen to the market. A startup founder won’t succeed if the company is not responding to an actual need. 

“You need to listen to the individuals who are generating revenue for your company,” he says. 

In his webinar, Cotton covered:

  • Background and Professional Experience
  • Venture Capital: how I built our portfolio and evaluate companies in which I invest; 
  • How to catch investor attention in decks, presentation materials, and data rooms; 
  • How I became a founder and why; 
  • Gamelancer Media and emerging trends in media and entertainment

To learn more about how venture capital, see if you qualify for membership and check out the webinar from November 8.

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