How we secured a slam-dunk deal with the NBA

Two years ago, we wrote about James Macfarlane under the headline: ‘The quiet tech entrepreneur who’s building a half-billion-pound empire’. Hands up. We low-balled him.

In April 2021, PM Connect – which James founded more than a decade ago – signed a contract with the NBA. The agreement, the first of its kind approved by the USA’s multi-billion-dollar basketball league, means that fans in Europe and South Africa can now pay to watch the New York Knicks, LA Lakers et al via their mobile phone – without the need for a credit card. Astonishingly, PM Connect’s network of around 20 mobile operators will bring NBA games to 300 million fans across seven countries. This is significant in its own right, but for Birmingham-based PM Connect it’s game-changing because it provides a clear roadmap for similar agreements. Where the business could go from here is dizzying. 

“What we’re doing for the NBA is helping them to distribute their content – and brand – to millions more people around the world via mobile operators (MNOs),” says James. “And for the MNOs, we’re offering emotive, world-class content that builds long-term loyalty. It’s a win-win for both parties. We sit in the middle and make it happen.”

PM Connect’s CEO is especially excited about bringing the NBA to South Africa: “There’s a huge basketball fan base there, but credit card penetration is very low at around 14 per cent, so many have never watched a game because they simply can’t pay to access them. With this deal, they can buy an NBA League Pass through mobile billing. That’s special because it means we’re democratising content, making it accessible to all, which is one of our major company aims. Hopefully, we will expand the deal to more of Africa soon.”

After signing on the dotted line with the brand that brought us LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal, James posted on LinkedIn: “I’d never have believed ten years ago when I was sitting in my pants running a small business from my bedroom that I would be signing a multi-million, multi-year deal with a billion-dollar business. It’s humbling to look back at.”

The founder also highlighted that PM Connect’s success is a team effort: “I am so grateful for all the colleagues and partners that have been such an important part of this journey… If I could give you one tip, it is: surround yourself with hungry, intelligent and gifted people. If you find them – hang on to them. This business is no longer about me – it is about the whole team.”

The NBA deal – and the experiences that brought James to this point – have taught him a great deal. After speaking to him at length about the deal and his career, these are the insights he offers that strike us as useful, interesting and inspiring.

Big deals require grinding prep work.

Summary: PM Connect’s NBA deal wasn’t the result of a couple of Zoom calls and a few emails. It was the culmination of months of groundwork and a gradual winning over of hearts and minds. In other words, huge deals don’t fall into your lap; they’re more like climbing Everest.

James: “Getting the deal over the line involved lots of consistent, grinding work. We talked to the NBA for 18 months before getting the deal done. With a vast organisation like the NBA, you have to network your way through the decision-makers to get buy-in from the influential stakeholders.

“The negotiation itself was challenging and fun. The biggest hurdle was the legalities. When you sit down with lawyers, you have to know what you’re willing to concede and what you need to keep. Defining what we could push and what we could be more relaxed about required lots of hard work and due diligence.”

When negotiating, stick to your guns over things that matter – but ensure the outcome works for both parties. 

Summary: As James infers above in Point 1, sometimes you have to dig your heels in to get the best deal. However, you want to ensure that the deal is an effective one for all concerned – as that’s what fosters a fruitful long-term partnership. When you need to be rigid, be civilised and demonstrate empathetic understanding of the other party’s position. Balance this steely approach with elasticity in less vital areas.

James: “Before entering negotiations, it’s essential to know what you can’t concede on and be transparent about it. Set out what you want to achieve, and ask for feedback and the other party’s perspective – you can then have an honest, realistic conversation – and come to a solution. For example, after signing the NBA deal, one mobile operator said we’d need to connect to them through a third party. From our point of view, that wasn’t viable – we needed to connect directly – but they were adamant. I finished our conversation with: ‘Thanks, I appreciate your time. I really want to work with you, but unless we can connect directly, we can’t do business.’ Two weeks later they invited us to sign directly – it was the first direct deal they’d done in years. My advice is to be politely uncompromising on the points that matter and concede on less important things. Do that and you will end up with a good outcome.”

If you want to get major deals over the line, it’s essential to go with your gut.

Summary: Pioneering deals are different from common-or-garden business decisions. They are tougher to complete and come with greater potential rewards (and risks). James suggests you should treat deals such as the NBA agreement more entrepreneurially. Listen to your instincts as well as your lawyers. Those two voices may be at odds with each other, and only you can decide which to listen to.

James: “Signing a big deal is challenging. Regular, everyday decisions are based on business case and budget, but when you’re trying to partner with a billion-dollar brand in a first-of-its-kind deal, things are different. For our NBA agreement, I needed more than just a strong business case. My gut had to tell me things were right, too. For certain parts of the deal, the logic was crystal clear but my instincts said no. There were also times when the business case was more debatable but my gut said yes. I had to flip between logic and gut feeling. That gets confusing, but you’ve got to trust your instincts.

“You can’t rely purely on legal advice. Lawyers tend to offer a black and white view. They will say: ‘You should not sign this because this puts you at risk.’ While that can be useful, you need to take a more nuanced approach to get the deal done. Remember that most contracts will never be referred to. Don’t get bogged down in contractual details that will never affect you. A business partnership is about trust and a good working relationship. It’s very rare that a contract will actually be cited or needed.”

To achieve entrepreneurial longevity, you have to keep your founder’s spirit alive.

Summary: A year before signing the NBA deal, James went through a period of soul-searching. Why was he flogging himself on the business treadmill? The option to retire was available. That’s when he realised that entrepreneurial motivation is like fire: you have to feed it and tend to it to keep it burning. 

James: “In around 2020, I started to question myself. I thought: I’m in a nice position, I could retire, so why am I putting myself through stress, heartache and problems at work? I came to two conclusions. First, I love both being challenged and learning. I need those things. Second, I want to make sure everyone who has helped me gets rewarded. Once I’d worked that out, my drive and motivation returned. 

“You spend so much time and effort climbing the hill that you don’t know what to do when you reach the top. But as soon as you stop climbing, you start to fall behind and get lazy. What I needed was another reason to climb. If you’re running a business and you don’t have passion and drive, the business knows. It slows down because it needs a motivated leader.”

As your business grows, hang onto your authenticity and individuality.

Summary: As you hire more staff and your business matures, it’s vital to retain your individuality as a leader. Yes, the company you founded needs to become more process-driven, professional and corporate, but it also requires a confident, authentic, passionate leader. 

James: “Being a young founder is exciting and fast-moving; you have control over everything. But as the business grows – and this is the boring part that your inner entrepreneur doesn’t like – you need to make sure your business is safe; that processes are in place. Everything you fought against as a new founder, you need to start putting in. 

“Something I did – which in hindsight was a mistake – was to professionalise my public image. Because my company was growing and evolving, I felt obliged to project a more businesslike profile. So I’d wear suits to meetings, send out headshots of me in a shirt and chinos, that sort of thing. But it was an error because that’s not me. It was much more important that I kept my enthusiasm and drive because that’s what the team buys into. They want an authentic leader, not a generic CEO. I now realise how important it is to celebrate your individuality and hang onto the initial passion that inspired you to launch the business in the first place. It’s impossible to underestimate how much more you get from people when the leader is excited by what they are leading.”

As your business grows, you also need to change your approach. Hand the reins to others.

Summary: Knowing when to keep your beak out is a vital skill for any leader. If you try to micromanage every aspect of your business, you’ll alienate your team, arrest their development and stymie your company’s progress. When the idea that you can do a better job than everyone else pops into your head, be self-aware enough to recognise it as natural (and likely misplaced) arrogance. More importantly, resist acting upon it. 

“It’s natural for humans to think thoughts such as: ‘I could do that better’ and ‘I would not have done it like that’. However, as a founder, you need to be wary of such notions. As the owner, you have the power to get involved in all areas of the business. But if you try to micromanage everything, you show your team that you have no faith in them. Equally, you remove their opportunity to grow because they never get to make mistakes and learn from them. 

“It was tough for me to curb my natural arrogance, to suppress my instincts that I could do everything better. But when I gave more power to the team, I found the business ran more smoothly because I had been trying to do too many things at once. So my advice is to dampen your natural arrogance and give your colleagues more responsibility. It’s tough. I still get involved in stuff I shouldn’t, but far less than I used to.”

Conclusion

PM Connect’s deal with the NBA is a pivotal moment for the business and the culmination of years of hard work by the team. It is also a giant milestone in James Macfarlane’s entrepreneurial journey. Growing a business from a bedroom start-up to becoming a key partner for one of the globe’s most recognisable brands takes something special. PM Connect’s intense ambition, supreme market awareness and brilliant teamwork have taken it to an exciting place. The company’s founder may have started his business in his pants, but now the sky’s the limit. And as the insights he shares in this article show, he is continuing to learn and improve as he goes…