How a Montreal startup cracked the monster U.S. college football market

Brothers Liam and Dylan Burger picked up garbage and cleaned toilets for three years to raise money to launch their company NXTRND in 2018.

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During U.S. college football’s conference championships in early December, brothers Liam and Dylan Burger watched from a television in Montreal as players thousands of kilometres away donned their company’s gear.

“We spotted over 40 players wearing NXTRND (pronounced Next Trend) mouthguards this weekend, and over 500 this season,” Dylan Burger said during an interview. “Which is crazy, which is awesome. It’s a blessing to see the guys wearing our stuff.”

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Just over a month ago, Florida State’s Keon Coleman, the team’s leading receiver this season with 658 yards and 11 TDs, wore two of the company’s lip guards in Miami’s orange and green colours while playing against them. A photo of Coleman wearing a helmet with the dangling mouthguards went viral.

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Before playing the Florida Gators in late November, Coleman contacted the brothers asking for orange and blue mouthguards.

“During that game, he just had the orange mouthpiece in his mouth and the blue one hanging just to antagonize the opposing team,” Burger said with a laugh.

While the company has enjoyed a recent surge in popularity, it had humble beginnings.

Montrealers Dylan, now 25, and Liam, 27, started NXTRND in 2018. At the time, Dylan was in CEGEP studying architecture at Collège Montmorency and Liam was in university studying engineering at École de technologie supérieure. They worked municipal jobs to raise money to chase their dream.

“During weeknights and weekends, we’d set up events, clean the toilets, empty the trash, etc.,” Dylan Burger said, likening their role to stagehands. “We worked that job for three years and managed to save up $40,000 — $20,000 each.”

Now the brothers oversee a team of 10 and operate out of an office building in Old Montreal. NXTRND, they say, was never a mere project.

“We’ve always wanted this to be our full-time job,” Burger said. “When we started, that was the mission with it.”

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It certainly helps that high-profile college players are taking notice of their products.

Caleb Downs, a former five-star recruit and current Alabama freshman defensive back who signed a name, image and likeness (NIL) deal with NXTRND in November, wore a blue mouthguard in his last game, which contrasted with the Tide’s crimson and white uniforms.

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Back in May, Travis Hunter, who was the No. 1 recruit in the 2022 class and now plays for Deion Sanders’s Colorado Buffaloes, signed the company’s first NIL deal.

Hunter reached out to NXTRND, saying he had worn their equipment in high school and wanted to pursue a deal.

“All the other players who are wearing our products are just through word of mouth and cold outreach,” Burger said. “So we either reach out to them or they’ve seen it on one of their teammates, they send us a message that they want to rock the product, and we hook it up for them as promotional equipment.”

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The most exciting, Burger said, is when there is no prior contact.

“Some guys go ahead and just buy it on our website — they don’t even send us a message,” Burger added. “And then we see them wearing it, to our surprise.”

NXTRND began with mouthguards, but has since evolved to making other products, all exclusively football equipment. Interestingly, it’s a sport neither brother ever played.

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The Burgers have skied and snowboarded all their lives. And mountain sports, they explain, actually inspired the brand.

“In skiing, snowboarding and skating, there are a bunch of brands,” Dylan Burger said. “We saw that within the football industry — in an industry that’s so huge, that’s so mediatized — there was a void of core brands.

“The existing (football) brands had outgrown the sport of football and were onto different things,” Burger continued, listing companies like Nike, Under Armour and Adidas as examples. “We saw an opportunity to serve football players and make the equipment specific to them.”

Everything from the idea for the brand to its marketing strategies came from their experience on the slopes.

In mountain sports, “it’s a smaller demographic, but they do such a good job of making things cool,” Burger said. “The social media is cool, the content is cool — everything just looks good. So that’s what we’ve done for football.”

As for the company’s unusual name, “we wanted something that not everyone knew the definition of,” Burger said. “Some people think it’s ‘Next Round’ … but the people who really know the brand know the actual name, and that’s the kind of effect we want to have.”

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With the brothers having engineering and architectural backgrounds, the products were easy to design. They used their CAD 3D skills to build prototypes, and then they made and tested samples. Nowadays, all of their products are manufactured in Asia.

While NXTRND has competitors — Shock Doctor, for example, has been around since 1993 — the brothers stay in their own lane. The company’s motto is “Don’t take part, take over.”

The company has seen steady growth. “I still don’t think it’s a big deal,” Burger said of the success of the company, now in its sixth year of operation. “I think it should be bigger. We haven’t reached that point yet.”

While Burger says it has been profitable from the outset, the brothers didn’t pull a salary for the first three years of operation, preferring to reinvest all money back into the company.

“We do our own thing, and that’s what makes us different,” Burger said. “We don’t look for inspiration from other brands in football. My brother and I talk, we brainstorm, we take inspiration from our own ideas and our environment, and that’s how we build the brand.”

A lot of building that brand, Burger says, comes from social media. NXTRND sends private messages to each new account that follows its page, and customers feel connected. The company has more than half a million followers across all social media platforms, and an average of four million accounts are reached per month.

“When you make a great product and there’s a great customer experience, people want to support, and the word gets out there,” Burger said. “And over time it just grows.”

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