From fonts and foundation to the NFL: how Slate is reshaping social in sport
Back in January 2019, Slate co-founders Michael Horton and Will Brooke met with make-up giant Shiseido to discuss Fontmoji – a consumer-facing mobile app they’d built with Yury Shubin to turn written text into custom stickers. But it was an exploratory conversation with the cosmetics company that provided the closest thing to a eureka moment for Michael and co.
“They saw our Fontmoji app and expressed an interest in an app for themselves to create content on their own social media,” he says. “We built that for them and they used it at Paris Fashion Week. That was the very first version of what became Slate.”
Today, Slate’s platform is used by some of the biggest sports brands in the world, including the Green Bay Packers in the NFL, the Golden State Warriors in the NBA, and Premier League ever-presents Tottenham Hotspur, to create on-brand content in real time for all the major social media platforms.
It might seem like quite a leap to go from fonts and foundation to NFL, but Slate and the USA’s most popular spectator sport go way back. Slate’s fourth co-founder Eric Stark met Michael while both were working in the social team for the San Francisco 49ers, plus Eric had previously held the role of director of international marketing for the NFL.
The pair knew all too well what it was like to chase players around the field post-match, competing with the world’s press for a slice of the action, often with tougher deadlines but fewer tools. They built Slate off the back of their own experience of creating content on-the-fly and with the same generic fonts, graphics and gifs as their competitors.
Earlier this year, the company strengthened its links to the NFL when it secured funding from TitletownTech and WISE Ventures, which are connected to the owners of the Packers and Minnesota Vikings respectively. While Slate had already been working with both teams before they even spoke to either investor, the team doesn’t deny it gave them a leg-up in terms of the fundraising process, accelerating the due diligence process and allowing them to skip a couple of steps ahead in terms of gaining their trust.
“Even though we had connections to teams in the league the most that gets you is a call,” says Eric. “It's pretty easy to convince the social media managers of the value of the product because we know how hard their job is and the tool very much speaks to making their lives easier and making them work more efficiently. But they're not necessarily the budget holders. The key is helping them convince the organisation that it's worth investing in.”
Having officially launched just before the NFL training camps began in July 2019, the company had seven of the league’s franchises onboard by the time the season kicked off in September and word of this new platform spread quickly from team to team. “We started getting teams either coming to us, or those we'd previously reached out to unsuccessfully, suddenly responding,” says Michael. “We started hearing a lot of: ‘I was just at a game against this other team and they were telling us about your product and how much they love it,’ and getting referrals that way. That was one of the things that made me think it was definitely going to work. It was a big moment.”
By the time Slate customers Kansas City Chiefs lifted the Vince Lombardi Trophy at Super Bowl LIV in February of this year, Slate had worked with the league itself and over half of its 32 teams.
A few short weeks later the Covid pandemic’s inexorable march across the globe changed everything and nothing for the company. With 6,000 miles between Eric in Oregon, Michael and Will in New York, and Yury in Bulgaria, distributed working has always been the norm for Slate. In fact, all four co-founders have never physically been in the same room together. Will is the only one to have met Yury in person and while Michael and Eric worked together, Eric and Will have only met once.
“We want to take advantage of globalisation and the fact that there's amazing talent everywhere,” says Will. “We had such a great time working together on Fontmoji without needing to all be in the same place to collaborate, it just reaffirmed a lot of assumptions that we already had – you don't necessarily need to all be in the same location to build a great team. We also have ambitions to be a global company, so it's great to be able to say we have team members in Eastern Europe or on the West Coast.”
But as professional sports leagues everywhere began to shut down, Slate’s key market looked as if it could disappear overnight. For a company that was barely six months old, that could easily have spelled disaster, with clients cutting budgets, staff and any costs they could. “They didn't know when they were going to play again or if the social media managers would even be allowed at the games. There was just a lot of uncertainty on their side,” explains Michael.
And they weren’t the only ones. After a lot of fraught conversations concerning the best plan of action and some sooner-than-planned expansion into the worlds of media and brands, the team was able to figure out the part Slate still had to play in sports within the context of the pandemic. “There were a lot of ways that we found we could still help teams during the pandemic but in the early part we definitely had to stop and rethink how we fit into this new environment that we were all living in,” says Michael.
With a lot of clients having to move all of their sponsors to social and digital channels, Slate helped them to execute sponsor activations that might have otherwise been lost through the lack of on-field action.
When sports fixtures did return they were almost unrecognisable. As well as the empty stands, teams could only have a limited number of people within their bubbles, so Slate became a valuable tool for reduced social teams with fewer resources, allowing them to continue creating high-quality content despite the difficult circumstances.
“Real-time social media is only getting more challenging,” says Will. “We've been able to speak with a lot of the sports and athlete partnership teams at Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and we’ve tried to position ourselves as something they'd want to recommend to the teams and athletes that they work with every day. If we can get a feel for where the platforms are going we can make sure we're building the right tools before anyone else.”
So what does 2021 hold for Slate? A new round of fundraising is one option, although not confirmed just yet, but a big focus will be on improving the product. “We’ve got this ever-evolving Trello board with 100s of cards for new features, bug fixes and improvements based on client feedback. There’s also a Slack channel full of product feedback that the sales team are getting from customers” says Will.
The other priorities will be building out the eight-person team with new hires, and expanding into as many regions and industries as possible. “We're getting some traction in the Premier League. Tottenham have been killing it, they have been one of the first to add animated filters. We’re also just starting to speak with some rugby teams and leagues, and I want to work with cricket,” reveals Will. “It seems like a massive market, in a different part of the world to what we're familiar with.”
Whatever the company decides to do next, 2020 has shown just how valuable their industry insight is. “We really don't have a true competitor in the market yet,” says Eric. “That's a great sign that we're really onto something.”
It's pretty easy to convince the social media managers of the value of the product because we know how hard their job is and the tool very much speaks to making their lives easier and making them work more efficiently."