The Founder of espnW Explains How to Start a Business Within a Big Company

By Devin Tomb

We've talked before about opportunity, and how experts say that those who look for it in even the most seemingly mundane situations — serving coffee or walking down the street — are more likely to find success down the road. Even though Laura Gentile already had a pretty high-profile job at ESPN (chief of staff, NBD) when she came up with the idea for a business within the sports network that could better serve women, she essentially started a company within her own company, creating a major opportunity for herself and many others.

Five years in, espnW is a robust platform that serves women (all 114 million of them) who love sports, covering the WNBA, women's soccer, golf, olympic sports, college sports, and much more. Gentile recently shared with Levo how to pitch a new business opportunity to your bosses — but her advice counts if you want to strike out on your own, too. Ready? Game on:

[Related: How to Project Confidence (When You’re So *Not* Feeling It)]

1. Do your research
"I had been at ESPN for about seven years, and I knew there was a huge opportunity for us to serve women more deeply. Step one when you have an idea is to surround yourself with a lot of great research and data. The initial research we did was pretty basic — it was literally talking to women and asking them the simple question, 'If ESPN were to start a business for women, would you accept it? And if so why, and if not why?' Ultimately, the answer was, well, nobody is more credible in the sports space than ESPN, so if they started a business for women, I don’t doubt that they would do better than anybody. But they also said ESPN better mean it and it better be authentic — it shouldn't fill a marketing ploy. Once we got that OK from the women we would target, that's when I really started taking next steps.”

2. Build your business case
"I already had a full-time job, so over the following year, in my spare time, I started building the business case and working with our financial team to figure out critical numbers, like how big the audience could potentially be, what the revenue picture could be, and what kind of staffing would be needed. For ESPN, I knew it was so clearly a large market. Forty-nine percent of all sports fans are women — that's 114 million people. I would actually get the response sometimes, 'Oh, women! That's a nice niche.' And that would make me chuckle but also think, 'That's a pretty enormous niche.' I also had a group of women with the company who were interested in helping, so we would get together every six weeks or so, meet in the conference room, and talk about ideas."

3. Create some buzz
Once it really started to feel like we were onto something, I walked my presentation around to different executives. It was a bit of the pre-sell, which was helpful because I could figure out who my allies were, who was interested in the idea, and who was disinterested in the idea. Ultimately, when it was presented to our executive team for approval, they said, 'Oh, I thought we were already doing this!’ It had been evangelized and talked about to the point where some of the executives felt like we were already doing it. There are other people who've had the idea of serving women better or focusing on women in sports more, but no one had really put together a strategy and a full business plan, and that makes all the difference. Companies can’t always turn on a dime and embrace a new idea, so you almost have to make it irrefutable and as obvious and easy to digest as possible."

4. Accept feedback from advisors — even if it's tough at first
"There was one point early-on where we had editorial reviews with senior executives, and in one of those meetings, we were given the direction to change direction pretty radically, and it was something that I fundamentally didn’t agree with. But I also knew it was something we needed to do in the short-term to keep the dream alive. I could’ve slammed my fist down and said, 'Hell no!' or I knew I could accept that feedback and frame it for the rest of the team in a positive light to say, ‘Hey, this is where we need to go next. It’s not the be-all-end-all and it’s not the forever, but it’s what we need to do now.’ When you’re starting something new, yes, you want success as fast as possible and you want it to be a straight line to prosperity, but you need to be patient. I had to say OK, this is what keeps us alive and fighting, and we will continue to think critically and we will be able to come out on the right side of this."

5. Your fulfillment determines your success
"Success is really an inner-compass kind of a thing. How fulfilled and gratified do you feel every day? It's a pretty clear barometer when you get down to it. It gets you away from always chasing the title and the salary and the trappings. I've always had really good work ethic and I’ve always been ambitious, but working on something like espnW that I feel is fundamentally a new and different approach to sports is super fulfilling. It’s taken my whole career to get to it, to the point where I can lead something like this, but it does truly feel fulfilling every day. You can only define fulfillment for yourself, but you know it when you feel it."

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Photo: Joe Scarnici/Getty Images