How the OKC Thunder "LaunchPad" is driving economic development

by karlis kezbers - director, business intelligence and ticket strategy at the Oklahoma City thunder | October 01, 2019

The Oklahoma City Thunder have been leaders on and off the basketball court ever since they arrived in OKC in 2008. They’ve thrilled fans with their up-tempo energetic brand of basketball, and they’ve continued to over-deliver on the customer experience as well.

Now they’ve taken their commitment to the community to another level with the introduction of their initiative, the “LaunchPad”. It’s part community relations and part start-up incubator, but one thing is for sure, it’s helping a lot of people and driving economic growth for their city.

I was intrigued by how it all worked, and what the connection was to the Thunder, so we contacted Karlis Kezbers, who’s the Director of Business Intelligence & Ticket Strategy at the Oklahoma City Thunder for a quick Q/A in an effort to learn more about the program.

Q: What is the LaunchPad?

A: The Thunder LaunchPad was opened in January of 2018 with one goal.  We wanted to be the cheerleader for local and regional entrepreneurship.  Through educational programming that offers everything from “Job Searching for Veterans” to “Girls Coding Camps”, our aim is to use the Thunder brand to grow workforce development and shine a huge light on the great talent being grown in OKC.  Secondly, we partner with StitchCrew, who runs two 12-week business accelerator programs each year.  Companies that graduate our program have an average valuation of $3.5 million.  We’ve graduated 29 companies, and in total they have received over $6 million in funding and 90% are still in operation, as opposed to the national average of 50%.

Q: What is your role with it?

A: I act as the liaison between the OKC Thunder Organization and the LaunchPad.  I work to establish relationships with the entrepreneurship community, offering our brick and mortar venue for meetings, workshops, brainstorms, classes, etc.  I ensure our programming schedule is robust, diverse and publicized properly.

Q: How did it get started?

A: Following our 10th season in Oklahoma City, we knew that we needed to lay another foundation for community growth and goodwill over the next decade.  Through the wonders of coffee, networking, and just about a full calendar year, we developed the idea for the LaunchPad.  There is something special growing in Oklahoma when it comes to innovation and we knew that using our strong brand to bring exposure is a great use of our time.

Q: Why was it created?

A: Oklahoma City is a very unique sports market.  Many businesses here feel they have a civic responsibility to be great community partners, and we are no different.  We have a terrific on-court product and atmosphere, but it is equally as important to us to be as respected off the court when it comes to giving back.

Q: What is the goal of the program?

A: Our goal is two-fold.  First, to bring more people into the world of economic development and entrepreneurship.  We hope that one person who is sitting on an idea that they haven’t been able to get off the ground, can feel a renewed sense of confidence that with the help of the Thunder and their network, they can be the next Google or Apple.  We want that person to be successful and point back to Oklahoma City as their starting point.  Second, we want to bring real educational value to the hands of the generation that is going to take care of us when we get older.  We have a terrific partnership with Google, and we work with them to offer curriculum that will grow workforce development in the Midwest.

Q: How does it help the Thunder?

A: It doesn’t.  It helps the OKC community and the state of Oklahoma overall.  We do not take any equity in the businesses that go through our accelerator program, we do not charge admission for any class we hold, and we don’t charge a rental fee for using our space.  This is about growing our community.  Now if the next Amazon is launched within the LaunchPad and they become the next naming rights partner to our arena, then sure, I imagine we’ll all benefit!  But our focus is highlighting the great things that are already happening.

Q: What makes it unique and different?

A: In the startup and entrepreneurship world, the Midwest is known as the “flyover states.”  We’re unique because we are absolutely in the minority when it comes to investment and deal flow.  But our hope is to change that mentality.

Q: Where do you hope to take it?

A: My hope is that the Thunder LaunchPad becomes the template for other professional teams to grow economic development in their own communities.  We all have large brands that are recognized across the world.  How can we use that platform to help someone else’s business grow?

Q: How can people get involved with it?

A: Give me a shout!  Applications to Batch 5 of our accelerator program will soon be open at www.stitchcrew.com, and we’re always searching for unique and innovative programming ideas.  If you want to host a workshop, learn how to code, start a business or just have access to a space that will challenge you professionally, email me at kkezbers@okcthunder.com.