Questions, answers and how Satisfi Labs turned uncertainty into an opportunity
When Donny White and Randall Newman founded Satisfi Labs in summer 2016, its first signings were a trio of genuine New York icons: the Mets baseball team, the Macy's chain of department stores, and the US Open Tennis Championships.
Just over four years later and Satisfi Labs’ roster has ballooned to 200 high-profile clients, with half of them sports brands and the rest made up of theatres, theme parks, airports and other largely tourism- and entertainment-related outlets. But no matter the subject, the idea and tech underpinning it all is always the same.
The original aim was to create an “Amazon experience” for stadiums and live events by using conversational AI to make them searchable and shoppable – a quest inspired by the availability of bacon on a stick at Citi Field, the home of the Mets. With the help of Satisfi Labs’ tech, teams would also be able to understand the demand curves for such a delicacy and inform fans about things they otherwise might miss.
While Satisfi Labs’ tools were previously focused on answering questions around live events that Google wasn’t necessarily best-equipped to help with – places to park, how to find a particular seating area, or what vegetarian alternatives to a stick of bacon were available - the Covid outbreak led to the realisation that, while this focus on the physical represented the biggest data gap, it was unnecessarily limiting.
When the pandemic hit and every single one of Satisfi Labs’ clients had its business put on hold, usage of the company’s tools dropped initially but never hit zero – and it soon saw a dramatic rise, partly due to the free COVID-19 Assistant the company released at the end of March. Even when people were stuck at home they still had questions about when fans would be allowed to return to stadiums, how ticketing would work, and what safety measures would be in place.
“Our volume went up by five times because people had a lack of places they could go to get good information and ours comes from the source,” says Donny. “The system has learned five million new phrases as a result of Covid and 50% of this year's questions were new or applied in a different way.” All of sudden, face masks weren’t just something found on NFL players’ helmets.
The result is a product that now has more wide-ranging use and appeal than before the pandemic, which allows the company to serve a broader audience than just those attending particular locations or events. The team realised that the questions that fans were asking would change now that they were removed from the stadiums.
“We immediately shifted resources to building at home experiences,” says Donny. “But now we were dealing with questions like ‘How do we stream practice?’, ‘Where do I watch the game?’ and ‘Who is starting?’ rather than ‘Where is the parking?’. We had to supplement our physical search understanding with things like scores, stats, standings and schedules.” In August 2020, 15 MLB teams, including the Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves and Chicago Whitesox, were the first clients to go live with the new capabilities via Google Assistant.
Of course, there have been sacrifices too. Every member of staff has taken a temporary pay cut, off-shore resources for things like quality control have been moved in-house, and the lease on the eye-catching Times Square office is unlikely to be extended when it comes up for renewal. But the company never had to make any reductions in key resources and has been able to accelerate its product development.
That’s been made possible by a recent injection of cash from Bigfoot Capital – a financial services firm that Donny first encountered at an event called Foundercon back in June 2018. Organised by seed accelerator Techstars, whose program Satisfi Labs has previously taken part in, it was here that Donny also first met Google.
After a few initial follow-ups with the search giant things went quiet, but around nine months later Donny was invited to fly out to the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, California. “At first I thought they were suing me,” he says with a laugh, “but they were actually interested in partnering with us.”
A two-hour grilling kicked off a multi-month due diligence process that Donny describes as “the most intense you can imagine,” with everything from the customers and the tech, to the employees and other investors under close scrutiny. “When it was finally approved I felt like I'd been through the gauntlet, but they're the most enjoyable to work with,” he says. “There are certain career moments that nobody can ever take away from you – and that's one of them.”
Donny meets regularly with a technical contact from Google who offers advice, ideas and assistance, but it’s just one of many important relationships that need to be juggled carefully. As well as Google Assistant and Google Pay, Satsifi Labs’ tools work with Apple’s Business Chat, plus Apple Pay and Amazon Pay are both supported. Of course, it benefits the customers to be available through as many digital access points as possible, but what’s it like to deal with three of tech’s biggest rivals? “It's a constant balancing act,” says Donny. “But you just have to be really good at what you do and all of them will benefit from that.”
Earlier this year, being really good at what it does led to Satisfi Labs signing up its first UK client. A few weeks after the Kansas City Chiefs had lifted the Vince Lombardi Trophy in February, Donny woke up to an email from Tottenham Hotspur. Impressed by what Satisfi Labs had done around the Super Bowl, the Premier League club had reached out via the company’s website to see how the two could work together. So how does a British sports client differ to those back home in the US?
“It's more different than I thought it would be,” admits Donny. “We asked them to tell us what the most important things about their experience are so we could build a UK database.” As well as less focus on parking and more on nearby bars, Tottenham fans have also shown more interest in retail, while stadium tours and the Dare Skywalk, which involves stepping out onto a glass walkway nearly 50 metres above the pitch, have also been popular.
The tool went live in time for the first game with fans back in the stands, a derby win over Arsenal at the start of December, but it had been a long time coming. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the whole process between Spurs and Satisfi Labs was conducted virtually over email and Zoom calls, but Donny sees more pros than cons with this way of working.
“It has enabled quicker relationship-building in some circumstances because there are certain walls that have dropped,” he explains. Before the pandemic, Donny would’ve felt the need to jump on a plane and fly to London for the Tottenham deal, but jumping on a video call and being able to get a glimpse into the personal lives of people you’ve never met takes the pressure off a little bit. “For me, I actually think this is better,” he admits, before revealing that he’s also been able to pursue something in Japan this year as a result.
A key focus for Donny in 2021 is a new feature called Knowtifi (his more Brooklyn-inspired suggestion of LemmeKnow was vetoed by the marketing department). Inspired by the uncertainty that surrounded professional sports fixtures and the back-in-stock alerts that some retail websites allow potential customers to set up, Knowtifi applies the same concept to questions. If a brand can’t answer immediately, users can choose to be informed when it can, rather than having to keep asking the same questions every day for the next two, six or even 12 months.
“I always believed that having a hyper-indexed content system that understood very detailed customer intents would lead to something,” says Donny. “I thought commerce was going to be the bigger thing – but now I think Knowtifi is ten times what that could be. The uncertainty is an opportunity.”