Betting on sports has long been a fun way for friends to bond over games they’re watching. As the majority of states have legalized some form of sports betting in the last five years—and with online gambling available right on our phones, more people than ever are wagering on the outcomes of games. How popular has it become? It’s been estimated that the already sizeable total betting market in the U.S. will be worth more than $150 billion by 2030.
While some risking some dollars are only looking to get a piece of the action, others see sports betting as a way to better connect with the teams they follow, the games they watch, and the people with whom they share their obsession.
And now, thanks to a venture initiated by Ben McPherron, a McIntire student and sports enthusiast who recently launched an app called Beat the Book with his Co-Founders Jeff Allen and Shaan Hossain, everyone can share the excitement of those moments with their friends near and far.
“The experience of sitting with friends on a couch, at a bar, or during a game, and passionately rooting for our teams with a bet of $5 or $10, was something I cherished,” McPherron says, explaining his frustration that none of the disparate apps connected with sports betting—social platforms, sports network apps, or others—could capture the real-time essence of that connection, competition, and thrill of both the games and the friendly wagers made.
Beat the Book operates as a meeting place to encourage smarter betting habits and provide an avenue for users to interact with their friends. While the name references sportsbooks, the room or area of casinos where those types of bets are placed, the app satisfies a wholly different need. “On our platform, there isn’t a single dollar wagered,” he explains. “In essence, Beat the Book gamifies and socializes the sports-betting experience, offering an agnostic platform that empowers users to interact with their favorite teams and games in the way they prefer.”
McPherron says that currently, most of that kind of shared risk and chummy teasing had been taking place on platforms like Twitter/X, but he felt that the sports betting experience was being commoditized, with nothing differentiating the major sportsbooks other than large promotional offers. “It’s no more a social than an E*TRADE or a Fidelity account,” he says. “I wanted a very user-friendly kind of space, so instead of competing with these big platforms, we want to be the first agnostic platform, unbiased, that sits at the top of them and allows the user to dictate their experience.”
A Maximum Pre-Game Effort
Having only soft-launched in September, Beat the Book is a few years in the making, with a great deal of initiatives having helped support its future success as it picked up speed and headed up the runway.
“We initially started this venture around two years ago, while I was pursuing a gap year and driving across the country during COVID,” McPherron explains. “I visited the dorms, houses, and apartments of my friends across college campuses; pitched this idea; and through the resounding positive feedback I got, created a waitlist for the app.” The waitlist allowed him to gain both capital and advice from angel investors, mostly from his hometown of Boston, but also from UVA alumni and parents. The funds helped finance a beta test in March of 2021 that he ran in and around the University.
“I only gave the website we had to a couple of close buddies in my circle and also shared it when I was at local bars on the Corner,” he says.
The proof of concept appeared to be feasible—and then some: “Within only 10 days, my sample size blew up from my initial 10-15 kids to almost 500 before our site crashed,” McPherron says. “We took all the valuable feedback and insights provided by the UVA community to raise a bit more capital and redesign a mobile IOS app. UVA has been instrumental in my startup journey.”
After months of preparation, Beat the Book soft-launched in September of 2023 ahead of their proposed schedule. The question that lies ahead, McPherron says, is whether or not they’ll be able to find users who not only use the app, but will go one step further and advocate for it: “These are the individuals who are willing to endure any difficulties, bugs, or even crashes because they understand that we’re moving quickly and evolving.”
Since September’s start, with only 25 users initially, BTB has witnessed rapid growth, now boasting around 500 users, the majority of whom are from the UVA community. Of all the users who were onboarded, 70% have remained weekly active users, with nearly a third logging on to the platform every day. “This feedback is incredibly promising, although I do acknowledge that our first users are not fully representative of our greater target market. Nevertheless, it provides us with a solid foundation for future growth in the coming months,” he says. In going through the process, which targeted friends, fraternities, and fantasy sports leagues, McPherron and his team have learned how crucial it is to attract small, highly dedicated user communities; their current strategy has them planning to gradually onboard friend groups and college communities as their product evolves.
“October 16 is our big day, the official and widespread launch of Beat the Book, when we anticipate attracting users nationwide, eager to experience the close-knit community on our platform,” McPherron notes. “The enthusiasm generated from this launch day is pivotal, setting the stage for the app to become a notable player in the market as users from various locations download and engage with Beat the Book.”
“Rather than relying on broad marketing strategies, our primary focus is on achieving steady growth and, more importantly, retaining our users,” he says. In the short term, they’re focused on paying close attention to users and their experiences on the platform so that in the coming months, when they plan to host football game-related fraternity tailgates and party events at UVA, University of Alabama, University of South Carolina, and University of Connecticut, they’ll be best positioned to leverage their college ambassador program to promote Beat the Book through networks at each school. Beyond the events, they also have more than 65 college ambassadors across 34 schools enlisted to help drive users to the platform.
“We are stoked for what comes next and so grateful for every person here at UVA and within our team’s network who is helping us get this thing off the ground,” says McPherron.
A Balancing Act
While all of this energy is being invested in this startup, keep in mind that McPherron is a full-time student. He readily admits that time management has been his biggest consideration by far.
“I came to UVA not just for the rigorous course load that a school like McIntire offers, but also for the community and social scene. I have cherished my time here, so trying to balance Beat the Book alongside my social schedule, rigorous coursework, and personal health is definitely a challenge,” he says.
The attention he’s poured into Beat the Book was unexpected. He had planned on taking advantage of the time he’d have in Charlottesville to spend with his friends at UVA and make the most of being in the company of his fellow students. So while time management has been his greatest challenge, McPherron is also trying to manage both other people and his own personal growth: “It’s hard to imagine that I’m a 23-year-old kid trying to figure out my own life in addition to being at school,” he says, noting that his role at Beat the Book puts him in a management position, supervising other colleagues such as engineers, app developers, designers, and marketers supporting various aspects of the venture. “I have to grow up a little bit faster, because at this point, I’m no longer just responsible for myself; I’m responsible for 10 other people, some capital that we’ve raised from investors, for giving them updates on a quarterly basis, and making sure that my team is meeting our expectations.”
The close contact of navigating the ups and downs he’s had with his team has already been quite a journey for the Commerce fourth-year.
“It’s true what they say about starting a business being like getting married. The thing I have enjoyed the most is being around a group of people as driven, passionate, and excited to build as I am,” he says. The experience has already taught him how important it is to be resilient. Setbacks are inevitable. “There are always going to be days when you believe that this will be the next unicorn company, and days when the outlook is gloomy, but so long as you are able to surround yourself with ‘A’ players—and those who actually believe in the vision—being an entrepreneur is damn fun,” he says.
Others have taken notice of McPherron’s early successes. David Roselle (McIntire ’23), who made quite a noise himself with his event ticketing app DoorList, is effusive: “Ben’s dedication to the venture, combined with his focus on assembling a strong team, has played a major role in Beat the Book’s success thus far. His ability to iterate, hire, and market the product stands out in an extremely competitive space. I’m excited to see the success in store for Ben and his team!”
Success for McPherron is contingent on quantifiable month-over-month user growth and retention in order to demonstrate to potential investors and venture capital firms that they’ve got a product that people want and want to use again and again. “And has the ability to scale when we look to raise our first institutional round of fundraising in the spring,” he says.
As he completes his final year as an undergrad at UVA, McPherron is thankful for what he, his co-founders, and team have already accomplished, and the powerful commitment they have to continue achieving together in the coming months: “It’s truly what pushes me every day and what will drive us across the finish line.”