Silver linings: how Tagboard turned a crisis into an opportunity
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.”