Q&A: Julia Rivard, Partner, Pursu.it

Q&A is a feature where Sports Business Canada sits down with someone involved with the sports industry in Canada. This week we chat with Julia Rivard. Julia competed in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia as a member of the Canadian CanoeKayak team. She continues to stay involved in sport at a high level and worked with the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) as Team Services Officer in both Beijing (2008) and Vancouver (2010). In 2012, she and her partner Leah Skerry launched a not-for-profit crowd-funding platform called Pursu.it to help Canadian Athletes raise much needed funding to support their goals. 

Sports Business Canada: What motivated you to launch Pursu.it?

Julia Rivard: Leah and I both have a sports background. Leah in gymnastics and I was an Olympic athlete in Australia (2000 Sydney Olympics). I’m still very connected to the Olympics movement and we are highly aware of the gap in funding for athletes who are trying to make it to the top. Even some podium athletes are still struggling with funding for athletes so we thought this might be a fantastic way to connect Canadian fans which we saw come out in huge numbers around the Vancouver Games in 2010. We just thought there’s huge fan support in Canada, there’s got to be a way to connect those fans directly to the athletes who are trying to reach their dreams to help support their financial needs. So that’s what we decided to do and we really expected this to either fall flat or be successful pretty quickly. So we built a technology in about a month and launched it at the Athletes CAN Conference in the Fall of 2012. It was a success pretty much immediately out of the gate. We launched with six fantastic athletes and in the 1st year we raised $300,000 and that was really kind of built on zero marketing dollars, on zero salaries. Other than building the technology, there was no cost so we deemed that a success. We really thought this isn’t too bad given the investment and so we decided to keep going with it. So that’s kind of the history.

SBC: Are there any other similar crowd sourcing platforms out there in Canada right now?

JR: The most similar one in Canada is called Make a Champ. I would say the difference between the two is they are for-profit so that’s one difference. Also they have a different business model altogether. But Make a Champ also is a platform that highlights athletes of all different levels in all different sports. Pursu.it really focuses on that athlete who has shown the commitment to their sport to get them to a level of high performance. So they are trying to get to a championship level or an Olympic level. We are trying to help them bridge that gap to move from really good to great. It’s just a different criteria I would say with the athletes we have online. We also focus a lot on consulting with the athletes as their leading into their campaign. Although it’s a software where they can just upload their campaign, we really encourage some coaching sessions on what you need to do to be successful. We’ve had a really high success rate with campaigns in terms of the money they raise so we see that as a formula that works for us. Less campaigns but athletes who are at a very high level and then who were coached to know how to run a campaign successfully.

SBC: What’s involved with the coaching sessions? 

JR: It totally depends on the athlete and we’ve never limited it. They can get in touch with us as much as they want before their campaign goes live. So we do an initial meeting with them just to go over what they are thinking for their campaign before they have created their video and give them some tips. When they have created their video we do another feedback session and we will do as many as we need to ensure their video is right. We won’t put campaigns up that don’t have great content, that’s important to us. We try to keep the standard high. We don’t think it reflects well on the athlete or on the platform if we have just mediocre content up there. So we work with them just to give feedback on their video. Once that’s all set, we do the same with their givebacks. Then for the athletes who are keen, we’ll build kind of a road map with them. Let’s say your campaign is going to be up to 60 days, well what’s going to happen in the first five days, then the next ten days and what are you going to do every day so you’ll be successful. Because these are athletes, they are used to being coached and helping to build that plan I’ve seen really work well for them.

SBC: Is athlete funding a problem in other countries? Or is it a Canadian thing? 

JR: No, I think it’s pretty prevalent in a lot of different parts of the world. We’ll be launching Pursu.it in the fall in the US. We’re also launching in Hong Kong so we’ve had organizations who are affiliated with the Olympic Committee in those two areas ask for the exact reason. The group from Hong Kong actually is a spin out from the Australian Institute of Sport and so they have connected us with the Australian Institute of Sport who are experiencing the same problem. The platform has been built to be multi-lingual and to handle currencies from all over the world so we expect that Pursu.it will be a global platform over the next couple of years. But I think it’s a pretty common challenge, however different countries handle things differently. When I was paddling, I had a good friend from Argentina paddling. He didn’t do very well in the finals but he was telling me that part of the problem was when he was racing in the finals, he knew that if he had won he would get $100,000. So he was like I’m going to win $100,000 but as soon as someone passed him, he’s like alright $75,000. He ended up about 6th so he got $10,000 and he said it was literally on his mind in the race, which is unfortunate. I’m glad I didn’t have that pressure. Some countries reward athletes financially for getting on the podium. It’s also sport specific.The high profile sports get different treatment than some of the low profile sports. It’s different in every country but I think there is a consistent gap in a lot of countries.

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SBC: Are Canadian athletes compensated in a similar way? 

JR: It’s not the same. You’re not handed a large cheque for getting a medal but you can get higher levels of carding depending on your international standing so you can be financially rewarded that way through Sport Canada. There are also different levels of support in terms of the top athletes are invited to go to fundraisers. There is a lot more for the top athletes that way, especially with sponsorship now. The COC is doing a fantastic job getting the names of the athletes out there. They are household names now but that’s been a longtime coming. It’s only been since Vancouver we’ve seen that.

SBC: What’s been the biggest challenge for Pursu.it? 

JR: The biggest challenge has been marketing. It’s not a technology really. It’s a marketing platform and we’re volunteers. We’re not-for-profit. The marketing dollars is not something we think about because we want the money to go to the athletes. That’s our biggest challenge. If I could invest anywhere it would be in marketing the platform so that every Canadian knew this was the go-to place if you wanted to help high performance athletes reach their dreams. At the same time, I want every athlete to know they have an outlet to make these types of campaigns. We do work with the Canadian Sports Centre across the country and we’ve had different levels of success with different Sports Centres in getting the word out to athletes. But there is still a long way to go. We couldn’t do enough in terms of marketing right now. Even if we had the budget to do it, there is a lot of work to get that brand out there. I think the more we can talk about it, the better. Leah and I do a lot of speaking engagements. That’s the way we kind of raised the awareness and we don’t want to invest a lot of cash in marketing so speaking engagements is really what we do. And social media, lots of social media to attract as many people.

SBC: How many athletes that competed at the Sochi Olympics ran Pursu.it campaigns?

JR: We had eight. We would like to see twenty athletes in Rio who’ve been affected by Pursu.it in some way. But the eight athletes in Sochi was ahead of target for us so we were really happy with that. In fact the whole woman’s Biathlon team was supported on Pursu.it which was interesting.

SBC: Have you been seeing an uptake since the Sochi games?

JR: Well there was definitely an uptake during the Sochi games. However, we are seeing the same problem. There’s a bit of a wow after the Games from athletes and from fans so that’s a time where we need to push it to let people know. We have the Pan Am Games coming up which I think will be really great. Hopefully it will be another Vancouver like experience for Canadians; maybe not at the same level but the Pan Am Games is a bigger Games than the Olympic Games. There are going to be tons of great athletes competing so I’m hoping we can use those platforms all the way along. Different
world championships. All different types of things to boost the fact that these athletes are out there doing great things.

SBC: What’s been the most raised from a single campaign?

JR: Larisa Yurkiw who was at the Sochi Olympic Games has an amazing story. She was a medal contender in Vancouver in 2010 but right before the Games she blew out her ACL so she wasn’t able to compete. She lost her status with Alpine Canada, and with Alpine Canada it’s $20,000 just to get up on the hill, just for membership. So it’s a very expensive sport and she was not able to pay for that. So when she got herself back in shape, she decided she wanted to go for the Olympics in Sochi without any funding. It’s an amazing story and she raised $22,476 on the platform.

SBC: What’s been some of your favourite givebacks in launching? 

JR: Larisa’s knit toques. That was really cool. I saw a couple of tweets going out during the Olympics Games when she was racing with people wearing her toques saying ‘hey I’ve got Larisa’s toque. It’s that kind of bragging rights you can get from being a part of the athlete’s team. I think that’s super cool. We had Jenna Marks, she’s a Canadian athlete but also an artist and she designed these really fantastic t-shirts as givebacks. I thought that was a neat one. The Ferguson Brothers; they are a sailing team. In Louisbourg, Nova Scotia there is a company that’s world renown for creating bags out of old sails. They’re beautiful bags and they all have a story. So what they did was send these to a certain amount of donors. The athletes have been really creative. There have been some who have done cook books, all different things. I think the more creative they can be with the givebacks, the more successful they are because it’s not easy. The money doesn’t just drop in their laps. They have to expect to work this campaign like they work their training. Money is something that people hold sacred and people are only going to support someone they are inspired by and if they feel like they get something back that’s a bonus that helps for sure.

To learn more about Pursu.it, and to support Canadian amateur athletes, visit pursu.it.

Sports Business Canada

Covering the top stories at the intersection of sports and business in Canada.