Besst Origins - CEO Spencer Gordon-Sand on Fencing, an Existential Crisis, & Entrepenuership

Updated: Nov 2, 2018

By Spencer Gordon-Sand

The most fulfilled I’ve ever felt in my life was fencing in high school.

Objectively, it’s not like my life has been on a downward spiral since then, but I’ve never quite felt the same since. I used to be a very competitive fencer. Serious enough that I trained 35 hours per week. Representing the US at World Cups and Grand Prix all over the world was incredible, but by far the most fun I ever had fencing was in the Public School Athletic League (PSAL) in high school, even though the results had no tangible reward or benefit.

Spencer scores the final point to win PSAL Team Championships 2014

The 4 captains of the strongest teams in the PSAL were myself, Shuya, Michael, and Thomas. The funny thing was that we all trained at the same private club and competed on the national circuit together. In the high school off-season we trained together literally every single day of the week and were great friends. Traditionally, national level fencers wouldn’t fence in the PSAL but we all decided to anyway. Our coaches actually begged us to stop wasting time on the high school league.

Why would we do it? Why did any of it matter? Our coaches were right -- it didn’t. College coaches only recruited off of national results and they viewed our high school competitions as a waste of time. We collectively ignored our coaches advice because we all wanted to go back to the club boasting about how we had bested the others in the latest PSAL competition and because we all just found it incredibly fun.

Even though we were friends, the competition was cutthroat and fierce. There was a tacit agreement that it would just be way more exciting if we all cared way too much and gave it our all. The only thing on the line was pride. Not money, not college scholarships. Somehow, this was way more fun than the competitions that “actually mattered.” Part of the enjoyment was that it felt okay to lose because it didn’t really matter in the long term even though winning was always nice. In this way PSAL tournaments were the best. I either went home a champion, ready to post & boast on social media, or I went home with a renewed passion and anger to drive my competitive growth. Either way, I would win.

Transitioning to college at UChicago where I fenced on the club team was rough.

Retrospectively, I think I took for granted how much people cared about the PSAL. What shook me was that no one seemed to care or really have a reason that they came to practice. Back home, everyone wanted to be the fucking best and strove to improve every day towards that goal. In contrast, here, we were the best club team by far and everyone knew that would continue even with little to no effort. Since everyone was juggling 50 extracurriculars and classes, little to no effort was exactly how much effort they put in. The passion just wasn't there. I quickly felt my own motivation and fulfillment dwindling. Knowing that my teammates weren’t really hungry to win and improve, it all just felt incredibly vapid. In order to regain my excitement, I registered to compete in a Grand Prix in Italy over reading period of my first quarter.

A snapchat from the Turin Grand Prix

I know I started this by bragging a bit about being an internationally competitive fencer, but I should clarify that by saying I was by far one of the worst fencers on the international circuit. Prior to Italy, I had never even qualified for the elimination rounds. That day something clicked and by the skin of my teeth I managed to achieve that feat. I ran into the Team USA area jumping with joy. My best friend at the tournament, Adam Mathieu, asked me how I did and I exclaimed “3 wins, 3 losses!” He gave me a big hug, knowing how important this was to me. One of the other USA guys, an NCAA and national champion, who was sitting nearby, looked at me confused and said, “Why are you so happy?” I knew his record was 5 wins 1 loss, but he seemed disappointed in it. He continued in disbelief, “Even if I won the whole tournament I don’t think I’d be that happy. You haven't even gotten any [ranking] points yet.” I didn’t really know how to respond because he was totally right, I had not gotten anything tangible out of this accomplishment. To earn ranking points I would need to win the first elimination round, otherwise, it would be basically the same as if I hadn't even qualified. I got my ass kicked in the first round losing 15-4 and walked away having gained nothing. Still, I couldn’t help but feel fulfilled and happy.

When I got home, I told this story to a coach of mine who was a former World Champion for the Soviet Union. His take on the concept surprised me, “My biggest regret, I’m telling the truth, is that before I was champion, I hated every moment because I was not at that time champion. And then, when I became champion, I knew I would never be better than I was at that moment, and I lost all purpose. If you fence, you may as well enjoy it. At the end of the day, none of it matters at all. Everyone goes to the same morgue. Whether you are the champion or a fast food cashier, we all end up at the same morgue.” This drove home for me the realization of how deeply big and finite prizes can corrupt the fulfillment of the act of competition.

For the guy who didn't understand why I was happy, competition wasn't fun. It was transactional. If he won, he had achieved his goal and would focus on the next tournament. If he did anything other than win, he would feel awful because he had failed. For him, the competition was a lose/lose event. He was existing in such a different competitive paradigm than I was. For me, if I didn’t make the elimination round, I would have been a bit sad, but honestly that was the expected outcome. If I made the elimination rounds, I would be incredibly excited and the competition was thus a win/win.

This is the crux of why competition fascinates me.

The prevalence of the lose/lose competitive mindset is why so many people have a negative view of competition. Our singular goal at Besst is to drive this win/win type of competition in a way that removes the possibility of the lose/lose paradigm. Caring is so important, but when the only reason you attend a competition is to win the prize, the pressure and expectation really impact the effect that the competition has on you. When you become too vested in the result of the competition it also starts to lose what should be its inherent fun.

After the excitement of Italy died down, I fell back into my rut and realized that I would face the same problem of motivation. As my classes got harder, I couldn’t just fly to a grand prix every now and then to fuel my passion for fencing. This filled me with an existential dread. I needed to look for meaning in the other activities and rediscover that sense of victory and pride. How could I drive that passion? How could I again feel that sense of accomplishment?

The actual idea for Besst came when I went home for break and was hanging out with some of my friends.

We were bored and most of us were traders and thus making random $10 prop bets on who could do more pushups and other stupid things. The problem was that our artist friend, who was in a rut at the time, had a negative balance in his bank account. Someone offered to cover his side but it just didn't feel the same. The money didn’t really matter to anyone, but it was a point of pride. One of my friends suggested that we message our friend group group-chat the winner instead. Suddenly something clicked and things got interesting. Our stupid competitions now mattered exactly enough that I didn’t want to lose, but not enough that my life was significantly impacted if I did. It was the perfect win/win that I had been looking for.

While that experience was a lot of fun, the logistics of it were somewhat convoluted. The gamification bridge that we created between real world events and our social network drove tremendous value but faced the limitations of FB Messenger which was not designed for it. We wanted to have leaderboards, keep track of longer term bets, and make derivative bets on which side we thought would win. None of which was possible at the time. I realized the solution was simple: make a platform that drove and facilitated this specific gamification and form of social interaction.

Besst evolved from this core concept. Betting with friends makes everything really fun as long as social capital is at stake instead of money. Caring about the thing you are doing or the competition you are engaged in makes it so much more worthwhile. That’s one reason why gambling is so addictive. People care about money and that invokes emotional investment from them in whatever they are doing. That’s also why gambling can be so destructive. Negative outcomes can greatly impact people's lives. Traditional economists would argue here that the personal utility function around betting is a zero sum game, where the joy at winning is proportional to the sadness of everyone who lost. When money is wagered, this is almost certainly true. Nevertheless, social competition escapes this paradigm. There is not a finite amount of utility and happiness related to social clout in existence so value derived from social competition turns out to be non-exclusive and therefore a non-zero sum game. Driving emotional investment in activities and generating passion is at the core of our philosophy and is what allows Besst to make competition a positive experience for everyone involved.

I think of entrepreneurship similarly as a competition. I want to fundamentally change the way that people engage with competition and give the world a tool to drive passion and and create that fulfillment that I find so personally invigorating. Incidentally, I also plan to make a multi-billion dollar company. I’m not going to rest until I accomplish all of that. I can’t wait to share what we’re working on and to help create more fun for everyone!

To stay in the loop for when we launch and for all updates, don't forget to sign up to be a beta user on the homepage and to follow Besst on social media:

Besst CEO Spencer at the Forbes Under 30 Summit