From studio art major to sports entrepreneur

by Lindsay Lennon,

"Had I not gone to Willamette MBA, this company would not exist.”

  • Nick-Lawson-pitching-startup-in-Pittsburgh
    Nick Lawson ’12 MBA’14 presenting a product demonstration of Sqwad during an AlphaLab Demo Day event in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Filling an empty niche in an industry is just part of the recipe for a successful enterprise. And when Nick Lawson ’12, MBA’14 and his co-founders at Sqwad identify a need in the world of fantasy sports, they fill it.


Originally from the Bay Area city of El Cerrito, California, Lawson came to Willamette to major in studio art and play four years of football with the Bearcats. After graduating with his BA in 2012, he immediately dove into his MBA at the Atkinson Graduate School of Management.

“The first semester (of the Early Career and Career Change MBA program) was not easy, going from the year before – painting and sculpting and designing – to Excel sheets and customer segmentation,” Lawson said.

Synthesizing art, athletics and management skills to launch fantasy sports app

But the tough transition ultimately paid off, as Lawson traces the creation of Sqwad, an app that serves as an engagement platform for minor/junior league sports fans, directly back to a paper he wrote for his Industry Analysis elective course with former Atkinson faculty member, Sean Campbell.

The topic, inspired by his lifelong love of sports and his desire to focus on professional athletics as part of his career, was “Minor League Marketing: Creating a Cycle Breaking Strategy.” The paper focused on ways that minor league teams could shake up their industry and become viable competitors of major leagues, and Lawson conducted interviews with several minor league teams as part of his research.

When “the ability to engage with technology” was a desire brought up time and time again, “I kind of turned those interviews into, ‘Hey, if I made this for you, would you buy it?’” Lawson recalled.

Several meetings later, Lawson eventually pitched Sqwad to the Portland Winterhawks hockey team while still enrolled in the MBA program. Since the app had not yet been developed, Lawson employed his art and design roots developed as an undergraduate student at Willamette to create Photoshop mockups of the Sqwad experience for the meeting, where the team was ultimately sold on the idea.

Expanding into uncharted waters

Now fans of the Winterhawks, as well as the Charlotte Checkers and Spokane Chiefs hockey teams and the Seattle Storm WNBA team, can use the Sqwad app to check into games, refer friends, and select players for fantasy games, all of which earn them points to spend on team franchise-related rewards.

Sqwad’s latest pioneering move was to spread beyond the Seattle Storm into the rest of the WNBA, a market where fantasy and brand engagement were nonexistent.

“There’s a need in the market and people are ignoring a segment of customers …” said Lawson. “Women’s sports don’t get covered as well as men’s sports. Women’s sports don’t have fantasy leagues. Other than this product and innovation, one of the things we’re most proud about is that we have the ability to highlight some of these great athletes we work with.”

This concept of filling holes in markets extends from the formation of the business itself all the way to the previously untapped markets that Sqwad is serving. In developing Sqwad, Lawson, who’s enjoyed fantasy sports since high school, says that his team seeks to “have the smart phone be an extension of the game instead of a distraction,” as well as a source of rewards.

Lasting impressions, connections

In addition to the paper that inspired his company, Lawson says he owes much of his ability to grow his company to his Willamette MBA education, from the Practical Application for Career and Enterprise (PACE) experience with Larry Ettner playing a “huge role” in the development of his presentation skills, to sharpening his sales prowess in “Sales Force Management” with former faculty member Ted Romanowitz.

“Had I not gone to Willamette MBA, this company would not exist,” he said.


Lindsay Lennon is a freelance writer and content marketing specialist.

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