11/19/2013 05:52 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Thuzio: Tiki Barber's New Play

By Liz Elfman

When you think of NFL great Tiki Barber, the words "tech entrepreneur" probably aren't the first ones to come to mind.  Barber, the former New York Giants running back, is more widely known as the guy who retired in 2006 as the team's all-time rushing and receptions leader.  These days, along with Mark Gerson of Gerson Lehrman Group, Barber is bringing his A-game to a new arena: the world of startups via Thuzio.  Thuzio is an online marketplace that connects fans with pro-athletes for appearances, motivational speeches, lunches, golf outings and more.

Thanks to Thuzio, having a coaching session with Lawrence Taylor or getting a personalized "Happy Birthday" video message from Andre Brown is now very much in the realm of possibility, even for those of us not willing to shell out six-figure fees for the privilege.

Currently, Barber is drafting former and current athletes, as well as other familiar faces, to round out and develop his talent pool.  For example, check out this shout out by New England sportscaster Jenny Dell, who dishes out some serious Fantasy Football smack talk for a Thuzio client. For a small fee, Dell tells a bunch of inside jokes about a friend group- jokes that were scripted beforehand by the purchaser.

Barber isn't above the fray either; he's part of Thuzio's talent pool and can be found playing flag-football with civilian Thuzio clients.  "You hear these weekend warriors saying stuff like, 'Tiki, why'd you do that?  I could've run the play better myself!' Now, they actually have a chance to prove it!"  On one occasion, he played flag-football with a group of 20-to-40-somethings who happened to be serious weekly flag-football players.  "We played for two and a half hours, and I was dying at the end - I felt like I'd been playing a regular NFL game," Barber said.

So why, exactly, would pro-athletes, many of whom make millions of dollars in their respective sports, get involved with Thuzio? According to Barber, it's "not dissimilar to a lawyer building a practice."  His theory is that it's all well and good to take on $50,000 endorsements, but when pro-athletes can continually go out, book engagements, connect with fans, and build credibility - they're more likely to be in it for the long game. Until this point, the barrier between fans and players has rarely been bridged; fans have been left to interact with players at arm's length, through computer and television screens. Thuzio's platform allows the players to reach across the divide and establish an in-person social connection, as often as as the customer chooses.

"Tech is actually more competitive than the NFL, because it's ever-changing," Barber said. "You're constantly having to find ways to innovate and recreate, realizing competition is always at your heels.  In the NFL, if you're a superior athlete, you can find a routine that affords you continued success for a while."

Luckily for Barber, the NFL prepared him well to join the ranks of startup gladiators, teaching him collaboration, teamwork and fighting through adversity.  "Football depends on everyone doing their part, which proved to be a great testing ground for building an e-commerce company with many inter-related components.  Hiring people who are engaged and talented has been the most important thing we've done."

To keep up with the fast-paced nature of the game, Thuzio may one day expand to other high-profile industries.  Reportedly, the original business idea included several verticals - from cooking lessons with an all-star chef to writing classes from lauded authors. The hope is that individuals can connect with people they admire in many different fields using Thuzio as a vehicle for that access.

For now, Thuzio is focused strictly on sports.  The Super Bowl will be a busy time for the company, as corporate sponsors look to expand on the standard "getting tickets, meet and greets and going to the game" routine.  On the agenda: creating actual engagement with athletes who have won Super Bowl rings and providing access to experts who can provide in-depth analysis on The Big Game.

There's a lot of cynicism surrounding pro-athletes, especially when it comes to how they profit monetarily from their performances and reputations.  But to hear Barber tell it, there's something pretty moving about how both the talent and the clients can have a meaningful experience through Thuzio.  "Idols, mentors and teachers are important in any capacity you can find them.  I grew up without a father and my coaches were father figures in large part.  Not only did they teach me about aspects of the game, they taught me some extraordinarily important life lessons.  As we build the site, we're allowing the talent to engage as role models.  Yes, they are marketing themselves and enhancing their brand; but they're providing a memorable experience that makes a real difference in the lives of fans."