Our experience of working with some of the most exciting companies at the intersection of sports and media, has shown the value of having insightful advisors who can guide the company and provide practical advice. We always knew we wanted to build a world-class group of advisors who could help Sports Loft grow, but at the same time, could also really help our members.

When we set-out to build our advisory board, the criteria of people we wanted was clear. We were looking for leading practitioners at the intersection of sports and media, a mix of investors and rights-holders who operated with a global perspective and people who are naturally empathetic with founders and the challenges they face as they build high-growth tech companies.

As you can see from the names below, we can safely say that we met our criteria (and then some!). So, and drum roll please, the Sports Loft advisory board members are:

  • Drew Crisp (Liverpool FC- SVP Digital Product, Media and Marketing).

  • Jasmine Robinson (Causeway Media Partners – General Partner)

  • Nick Bourne (ATP Media – Chief Strategy Officer)

  • Arjun Metre (Tennor Holdings – Head of Sports, Media and Entertainment Investments. Previously Investment Director, Intel Capital)

  • Yanni Andreopoulos (E1 Series – Chief Commercial and Marketing Officer)

We are really excited to have Drew, Jasmine, Yanni, Arjun and Nick on board to help guide the evolution of the Sports Loft community, because we know they will bring tremendously valuable insight to our member companies. As Sports Loft grows, they will also help ensure that we continue to work only with the best, most exciting companies in this space.

Drew Crisp, SVP Digital Product, Media and Marketing at Liverpool FC said:

“Innovation in sports is becoming more and more critical as the industry changes. This requires different capabilities, services and solutions that start-ups can really help drive, and it’s great to be on the advisory board of Sports Loft to help provide insight, support and guidance to, but equally learn from, these fast-growing businesses.

Jasmine Robinson, General Partner at Causeway Media Partners said:

“At Causeway, we believe companies in the sports ecosystem can benefit from industry-specific strategic support as they scale. The community that is being built at Sports Loft provides these companies with excellent support, which is why I’m so excited to be on the advisory board.”

Nick Bourne, Chief Strategy Officer at ATP Media said:

“From having built Copa 90’s commercial business to my role at ATP media, I’ve seen first-hand how early stage companies are shaping the fan experiences and the commercial agenda. But they also need support, which is why I’m so excited to be part of the Sports Loft advisory board and to see these companies grow.”

Arjun Metre, Head of Sports, Media and Entertainment Investments at Tennor Holdings and Former Investment Director at Intel Capital said:

“The platform that Sports loft is building is fantastic and provides huge value to the companies who are members. I’m really looking forward to being on the advisory board and helping guide the growth of Sports Loft as I think it is has a very unique place between investors, sports organisations and tech companies”

Yanni Andreopoulos, Chief Commercial and Marketing Officer at E1 Series said:

I’ve worked with Sports Loft for the past year and have been very impressed by the team and the calibre of the member companies. At E1 Series we are all passionate about innovation and world firsts and Sports Loft and its members share that passion - so Im very excited to be joining the Sports Loft advisory board.”

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Since we launched Sports Loft, we have worked closely with the CEOs and leadership teams of some of the most exciting tech companies in our sector. They are fantastic companies with some great stories to tell – but it’s not all a walk in the park. Running (and being part of) a startup is hard. Whilst the romanticised stories of success in silicon valley sound lovely, the reality is more about the endless investor meetings, the belief that is required as you hear “no” after “no”, and the constant juggling act of building a great team. Some people thrive under the challenges of startup life (I have endless respect for them) and at Sports Loft we have seen first-hand how the leadership teams at the different companies deal with the challenges that come their way.

So, for this blog, I thought I’d highlight some of the things that pre-occupy founders and senior teams of high growth tech companies at the intersection of sports and media – and if you are reading this and working at a startup in another sector, it might also be quite a familiar list. The aim of this post is to start to give an inside view of what its really like to be at a fast growing startup and we’ll be launching a series of podcasts on this very topic in the next few weeks. This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list, so I’ve picked four areas: hiring, getting helpful product feedback, fundraising and the sales process. When I asked our founders what were their most pressing challenges, I got a huge variety of responses – my favourite was “is that today’s most pressing challenges, or yesterday’s? Or tomorrows?”. I thought that was pretty fair. So here goes..

1. Hiring

For almost all of our founders, this was their number one concern. They know that they can’t build a company on their own – they need to build a team around them. In many ways hiring the senior team is the easy bit – they get the vision and they have experience in the market. The harder hires are the next layer – the people who will make it happen but need to be able to articulate what the company is trying to achieve, the people who need to be able to think through problems but also get their hands-dirty and make it work.

When I asked Donny White, CEO at Satisfi, he said “The most difficult aspects of hiring are finding people that will be willing to work with less resources, tell people they are at a company their friends have never heard of, get paid less salary than market rate, have to work more hours, and formulate the culture you want to define your organization. And if you mis-hire, it sets everyone back”.

2. Getting helpful product feedback

We heard this from quite a few of the companies at Sports Loft. They are at the stage where they are growing fast, both from a commercial perspective and from a product perspective – they are adding new features on a constant basis and more people are using the product, so more use-cases are developing. Will Brooke, Chief Growth officer at Slate, said “Focus is so hard when it comes to product – it’s easy to go in a million different directions based on customer feedback”

Tom Kuhr, CMO at Greenfly put it another way – “One of the hardest things for early startups is get honest product validation. How do you get prospective buyers to give you direct feedback, when as buyers we all hold back because its part of negotiation? Does your product or service will solve a major problem for them? How much does that problem actually cost the business each year? Does your product solve 100% of it, or 55%, or 5%? The answers to those questions dictate how well your product sell out of the gate.”

From a B2C perspective, there is the same challenge around picking the right features to build, but the context is different – consumer focused products can elicit more feedback (and often more data), but there is often less detail so it needs more interpretation. When I asked Andrew Hall, CEO of Get Metrix, he said “The biggest challenge is wading through the signal to noise to build the right features that move the needle on the business metrics”

3. Fundraising

For founders, fundraising is inevitably top of mind. the thought of “always be raising” seems to be a consistent theme, and the idea that “the best time to raise money is when you are not raising” is pretty true. Fundraising is a huge drain on time and resource, especially for the leadership team, but its also a real challenge to get the narrative right and with lots of moving parts

With a background as a VC and now as CEO, Andrew Hall at Get Metrix said “Fundraising always twice as long as you think it will. You need to work out which investors you focus your time on. We all have a bias to leave the meeting with the positive aspects in your mind. You need to work out which are actually doing the actions to give you confidence”

For Nick Goggans, Founder and CEO at Pumpjack, getting the message right is one of the hardest parts – “What is it that investors are looking for? It changes so much. Some investors want the big picture vision, others want to see the metrics – which metrics? Revenue is great, but we’re talking about early stage companies who might have a handful of clients – so what else? Increased product usage time? Customer referals? Increased sales pipeline?”

4. Sales process

One of the biggest issues forB2B companies in the sports and media sector, is getting in front of their potential customers – the right people within the right organisation. The gatekeepers in the sports and media industry – whether they be consultants, agencies or just factors such as available time and competing projects- can be hard to get around.

Dave Minetti is the SVP of Sales at Tagboard. When I asked him about selling as a startup he said: "The most important part, and the hardest part, is building trust within the market. You’ve got a newer product that many people won’t have heard of and you are trying to disrupt their current workflows. They need to be confident to trust you. This is especially true when selling into extremely well-known entities that maybe don’t move as fast as you’d like. It requires an equal balance of patience and persistence."

For Nick Pinks, CEO at Covatic, timing is all important: “aligning to the client’s timing is tough. Sure, you can get lucky, but how do you know when they are looking for a solution, when the budget process works, when they are open to new ideas.”

For Colin Casey, EVP Partner Development at Fevo, “It’s so important to get to the right decision maker. Who actually has the power to make the decision, but also who will influence them. The decision makers are going to be busy people with a lot on their plate so you’ve got to be really respectful of their time, but so much has changed with COVID and senior leaders seem to realise that and are open to hearing about new ideas.”

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Nathan Peterson’s first week at Tagboard did not go as planned.

In late 2016, Nathan, who now serves as the Seattle-based company’s president, was just three days into his new role as head of marketing when the CFO broke the news to him. After a round of funding had failed to come through and the previous executive team had made the decision to start ramping up prior to the cash being in the bank, Tagboard was “bleeding money” and some difficult decisions needed to be made.

For Nathan, it all felt horribly familiar. Immediately prior to joining Tagboard he’d worked for an indoor-location tech start-up where one of his final tasks had been to help shut it down due to lack of market fit.

This time, though, it wasn’t the end of an era, but the start of a new one.

Founded in 2011 by current CEO Josh Decker, the Tagboard of ten years ago is almost totally unrecognisable from the cloud-based production platform it is today. Tagboard in its infancy was a search-and-display tool that was used primarily to surface and show tweets on big screens at live events. But as the social-media landscape evolved and two of Tagboard’s main competitors suddenly found themselves flushed with cash after major takeovers, Josh needed to find a way to differentiate Tagboard and show that it had something valuable to offer.

“When I walked in the door at Tagboard I was unfamiliar with the financial circumstances, more familiar with the promise of what we were building,” says Nathan. But there was little chance of that promise being fulfilled without first doing some significant ship-steadying, so while many of his new colleagues were understandably nervous, things weren’t as bad as what Nathan had seen before. “I was very determined not to let what I had just experienced happen again,” he says.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it was easy. Expenses were cut by 40% and a 60-strong team had to be reduced to 20, but the ordeal became a rallying cry for those who remained. “It was a hard time but it bonded a lot of us, brought us together and gave us an opportunity to really turn the business around,” says Nathan. “We had to turn it into something amazing that would do everybody who's ever walked in or out of these doors proud.”

It was around this time that Nathan and Tyler Singletary, current Chief Product Officer who joined Tagboard just months apart from Nathan, noticed a change in the way news had started to break, particularly in the sports world. Big-money moves and lucrative new contracts were increasingly being announced by the athletes themselves on Twitter and Instagram rather than via traditional TV networks, but ESPN et al still needed to cover them – and it wasn’t a problem they could solve with a reporter and a camera crew.

At the time, getting social content on TV was a major hassle. Just to show a tweet on air meant taking a screenshot and sending it to a designer to work up a graphic in Photoshop. That could take up to half an hour, by which time the news had already spread halfway around the world.

By pivoting into that production space and helping broadcasters to get social content from the source as fast as possible, Nathan and Tyler saw an opportunity for Tagboard to really find its niche. “We knew that if we solved that from a workflow and user-experience standpoint then we were going to be on to something,” he says.

Tagboard’s solution to the problem was still very much a work-in-progress when Turner Sports first got in touch about working together. 2018’s March Madness, a 68-team college basketball tournament that’s watched by millions across the US, was just around the corner and the broadcaster had a whole bunch of requirements that Tagboard’s main product couldn’t yet meet – but they had something in the pipeline that was exactly what Turner Sports was after. “I don't know if it was wise or not but we decided to show them Producer,” says Nathan. “They were like: 'This is brilliant, let's go with it.'”

Producer, which was recently nominated for User Experience of the Year by GeekWire and has now become the main canvas of Tagboard’s product, hadn’t even reached beta status when Turner Sports first saw it, but after some intensive testing the company took it straight out of alpha and launched it for March Madness. “I was losing sleep every night that week just praying that it worked,” reveals Nathan. “But it worked without a hitch and all of a sudden we had a production-specific product. That was the first step that took us out of being a social media display product and into the full-fledged cloud production world.”

Rather than the convoluted process required to put social content on air previously, Tagboard Producer allowed TNT staff to do it in a matter of seconds – and with only a few minutes’ training. It’s all cloud-based, too, so it doesn’t require anything more specialist than a laptop to run, plus there’s even an app version for those who are really on-the-go. The concept was born through the work of Tagboard’s production specialists and the company’s user experience team. The combined team, led by recently promoted SVP Christine Chalk, boasts multiple Emmy awards for live production between them.

As well as breaking news from athletes’ social accounts, Tagboard Producer also allows broadcasters to amplify the voices of their viewers. A big part of TNT’s Emmy-winning NBA coverage involves fans trash-talking the hosts, while it also translates well to news programmes that can now easily source their own user-generated content from the community.

Since 2018, Tagboard has added two new production tools to their suite. In 2019, NFL Media helped to develop and launch Tagboard Graphics, which proved to be crucial for the 2020 NFL Draft which took place right as the pandemic hit. “We were spread out all across the country, and still able to produce quality content from our homes” Catherine Chan-Smith, Sr. Director of NFL Media, explained “Tagboard allowed us to enhance our broadcast in a number of ways, with it being so nimble, and so easy to produce different program segments”.

Since the Draft, Tagboard’s Graphics Engine has enabled NFL Network to produce hundreds of hours of live programming with as few as three technical people working behind the scenes, culminating in NFL Media and Tagboard being nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Digital Innovation. The second new tool, Tagboard Interactive, was announced in January and allows partners to easily integrate a whole range of social polls. It will form a big part of the four-year deal that was recently announced with Major League Baseball.

“2020 was a scary year for us, just like it was for the rest of the world and the rest of business,” says Nathan. “But we were conservative in our projections and made sure that we were very methodical in the moves that we were making.”

With the disruption to normal working practices, remote production became significantly more useful for a larger number of users, and while the venue side of the business – allowing teams to display social content on their jumbotrons and concourse screens, for example – has become less relevant while games are played behind closed doors, the same tools have been used to make fans feel part of the action from home.

“The demand for something like Tagboard Interactive has grown because of the need to reach fans and engage with them on multiple screens,” explains Nathan. “It just opens up infinite opportunities to connect the dots and merge those physical and digital experiences together.”

As a result, Tagboard’s team is larger now than it was before the pandemic – but it’s not just the growth that Nathan is proud of. Tagboard’s workforce is split 51/49 in favour of women and has been hovering around that range for at least the past three years.

He is particularly keen to highlight the influence of director of sports partnerships, Farren Benjamin. “When I started here we had a handful of teams and now Farren has us across every major league in the United States,” Nathan says. “We went from having a couple of NFL teams to 19 last season, so over half the league. We've got a couple of key sports leagues in Japan, and a couple of mainstay teams in Europe with Bayern Munich and Everton. Our main focus early on this year is to bust the doors wide open in the UK market.”

Nathan reckons this gender balance is “a good start” but is keen to stress that it’s an ongoing process. “We want to think about all the different ways that we can round out Tagboard's business by having the most diverse opinion set and skill set that we possibly can,” he says.

Part of that strategy has involved hiring former sports reporters and producers, who not only understand the clients' needs, their workflow, and speak the same language, but can also help to inform what needs to be built from a product standpoint. “I’ve always thought the people that come out of that broadcast landscape are not only extremely personable, but also really used to that dynamic, fast-moving, ambiguous work environment that start-ups provide,” Nathan says.

It’s now been just over four years since that series A funding collapsed and Tagboard had to adjust course, but after transforming Tagboard into a SaaS (software as a service) business, 90% of the company’s revenue is now recurring. “We've really turned ourselves around and become self-sufficient – and we've done it all without any outside capital,” he says.

What they have done it with is a healthy dollop of luck and good timing, but Nathan doesn’t think that’s anything to be ashamed of. “Anybody who ever tries to tell you that luck and timing are not a part of business is not telling the truth,” he says. “There was genius in some of the things we were building with my last company before I came to Tagboard, but we didn't have the timing on our side. I see things all the time that are in use today that we were building in a company that didn't survive. That's just part of it.

“If you are building a start-up, especially a tech company, and your aim is for sports, you are fighting against hundreds of businesses that are all trying to get after the same folks, to have the same types of conversations, with the same budgets.

“We are proof that if you focus, have a great product, a great team, and you’re consistent, as you get more and more clients under your belt in any league you’ll become trusted. It's not an easy road, but it is possible.”

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