As part of The Players’ Impact Blog, we like to have periodic Q&A sessions with athlete investors, athlete entrepreneurs, and impressive founders of sports tech companies to shine a light on various great people making an impact.
Thanks to Ben Reynolds, Co-Founder and CEO of Spalk, for participating in our first Founders Q&A. So here we go…I’ll Q, you A…
1. Alright my friend, so what’s your background? Tell us about what you are working on:
Hi, I’m Ben, Co-Founder and CEO of Spalk.
We’re in the business of sports commentary. We built software that synchronizes fan commentary to existing live sports streams. This means fans are able to pick a commentator to suit their preferred language, style or preference while sports bloggers, influencers & athletes can commentate live games from anywhere in the world.
We sell this software into rights holders & broadcasters around the world to help them deliver demographically targeted commentary to their subscribers. Just last week we had one of our biggest weeks to date, signing one of the biggest streaming platforms in SE Asia and also delivering over 4 million views for FIBA on their U19 World Cup.
Prior to Spalk I worked in Venture Capital, investing in high-growth technology companies in Asia.
2. Very cool. So, Ben, what drives you? What are the big things you want to change in the industry and why is now a good time for this?
It’s quite a funny story really. My business partner, Michael, and I started Spalk in our apartment when we started doing our own audio only commentary on our favorite live sports. We soon built this huge audience of viewers but recognized our audio was 2 to 3 minutes out of sync with the live TV.
After building the first version of Spalk we had broadcasters around the world signing up to use us to power their multi-lingual commentary & fan engagement.
We’re really excited by the global opportunity for Spalk and by how quickly the industry landscape is changing. Driven by the move to mobile, Spalk is positioned perfectly to take advantage of this shift.
3. I love it! Where are you based and what’s the local city startup scene like?
I split my time between Auckland, New Zealand — where our engineering hub is located — and New York.
Originally being a Kiwi, New Zealand is a great country to have started the business from. Given it’s size (4 million people) it was really easy to network our way to executives at the major TV networks, which is what we did for our early customer adoption.
However, New Zealand is a really hard place to grow a startup from! Which is why I now spend most of my time in the USA and the UK.
Some of the other advantages in continuing to locate our engineering team in New Zealand is that salaries are lower than the USA, but the education system is very good and it’s obviously an English speaking country. This means we get the advantages of hiring developers at a similar level of talent to the USA, but at half the cost.
4. Fascinating. Can you tell us about some of the early successes you are personally proud of at Spalk?
The biggest reward as an entrepreneur is seeing users and customers succeed by using your product or service.
In our case, it was pretty exciting in June 2017 when we launched our partnership with FIBA — the international basketball governing body — at the U19 World Cup. We ended up delivering 90 commentators in 5 languages over 30 games to over 4 million viewers. FIBA had previously never been able to offer commentators as it was too expensive and difficult for them to fly commentators around the world. Suddenly with Spalk, they had not just one, but 90 commentary teams all around the world participating in commentary and improving their entertainment product. It was hugely statisfying to see FIBA succeed by partnering with Spalk.
There’s countless examples like this, from small colleges who are able to get notable alumni commentating college games, through to broadcasters who can offer multi-lingual commentary. It’s really motivating to successfully solve someones problem!
5. 90 commentators in 5 languages! Impressive. So for folks not in the industry, what are a few things we should know about and how are you trying to solve them?
The sports media landscape is changing, and fast!
90% of American’s are on their mobile phone while they are watching sport! 1.1m American households ‘cut the cord’ and cancelled their cable subscription in 2016!
The proliferation of mobile devices and internet connectivity has altered the sports media landscape forever and Spalk is really trying to pioneer what this next generation of sports consumption looks like. It’s all about consumption on the users terms and having a product that treats them as an individual rather than the traditional bundle package that cable companies offer.
6. Hey, I was actually 1 of those 1.1m this Summer. OK, since TPI is a group of athlete investors and entrepreneurs, who is an athlete you look up to?
I really admire Greg Norman, both for his performance on the Golf Course and for his talent as an entrepreneur!
I met with Greg recently and it was really interesting to hear about the family values and long-term view that sits at the core of his business, Great White Shark Enterprises. He has been incredibly successful at building brand equity in The Great White Shark name along with developing a sustainable business that spans multiple industries and asset classes.
7. Picking the Australian golfer I see! I have always heard great things about Greg and his Enterprises so it’s good to hear about his values. As an entrepreneur yourself, what are your words of wisdom to players in TPI?
Even if it’s just a Tweet or a short email, startups thrive on collecting data points & feedback from users to build and improve their business. This data helps guide product strategy & direction and will ultimately help the startup build a better solution for users’ problems.
While, it’s not possible to give feedback to everybody, if you do come across a service or product you really like or don’t like, I’d definitely recommend sending a quick Tweet to the founder telling them why/why not.
9. In one emoji, characterize your life as an entrepreneur:
10. What’s been your hardest business challenge to date?
I struggle to pick out a particular event, but I do think the most under-rated quality an entrepreneur needs is the ability to deal with the constant swings from huge highs to massive lows.
For example, there’s days where one minute you’ve got hundreds of commentators on the platform commentating and then next minute the server crashes, then an customer emails with really good feedback, then a employee dials in sick, then you win an awards show, then the next thing happens, so on and so on.
The entire entrepreneurial journey is one big roll-coaster ride and it is so important to have the endurance and the patience to focus on the long term rather than being overwhelmed by the short-term highs and lows.
11: Let’s end on one of those highs. Big vision, where do you see Spalk in 5 years?
Our strategy is to build the Uber for Sports Commentary.
We want to continue growing our community of sports commentators calling amateur & college games and by continuing to sell our software into larger broadcasters, we plan to launch a marketplace to help commentators get gigs! In the same way YouTube & Twitch have built communities of creators around gaming, we are doing the same thing for sports!
Cap tip to Ben Reynolds for his thoughtful and insightful answers to our questions. Please note, The Players’ Impact is not an investor in Spalk — we are sharing their story for the “love of the game.” Check out Spalk and as Ben said, give feedback! Tweet at Ben Reynolds (@benreynoldsnz) or leave a comment here!
Why would I ask a former NBA player out to dinner? Am I crazy? Why on earth would he say yes?
These were questions that (luckily) did not run through my mind a few months ago. Back in February, I had a random idea to build a virtual angel investor group of professional athletes who were interested in investing in startups. Why? I’m honestly not sure. I had this over simplified thesis that today, 100 athletes invest in 100 different startups and 99 of those fail. Why not try to find the 1 startup that has a higher chance of success and have 100 players all invest in that 1 startup together? Then as a group, we can leverage the power of the crowd in two ways — on the front end as we assess the startups and then on the back end to help grow the businesses.
Anyway, I thought I’d try it. What the heck, right?! I built a website and created a Twitter handle and set out with a small goal of 5–10 players and one startup pitch call every two months or so. The Players’ Impact was born. That first weekend I built the website, had my first 50 or so Twitter followers, and was quickly connected to a few players who were interested. On day 2, I hopped on the phone with former NBA player, Maurice Evans. We had a great phone call, and I told him as we were hanging up, “Man, I have no idea what I’m doing, but I think if we build a group of 100 really smart people like yourself, we could do something pretty cool.” He agreed!
As it turned out I was traveling to the same city “Mo” now resides, so after we hung up, I texted him to see if he wanted to get dinner in a few nights when I arrived. Sure enough, he picked me up at the airport, we went out for some great BBQ, and he and I chatted about business and startups for a couple of hours. We had a great time and have become friends ever since. Honestly, if I didn’t have dinner that night, this athlete investor network idea probably would have been filed away, alongside the 100s of other random ideas I’ve had over the years.
Luckily that dinner conversation was great and it gave me the confidence to push this side project along. And as it turns out, there was a lot more interest than I realized! The entrepreneurial and investor athlete network has grown well beyond the 5–10 goal. We now have more than 75 players interested and engaged! What has been so impressive is the thoughtful referrals of the great people who are joining — far exceeding anything I ever expected.
The Players’ Impact (TPI) has Stanley Cup champions, Super Bowl Champions, current MLB pitchers, Summer Olympic medalists in track and field, Winter Olympic Women’s hockey stars, current NFL linebackers and everyone in between — the best part though is everything these folks are doing off the court, rink or track. We’ve somehow attracted some of the smartest, most entrepreneurial minded athletes in the US and Canada. It’s not about the number of goals scored or medals won, it’s connecting like-minded business people with each other and talking to great entrepreneurs. And it’s truly been awesome to see it all unfold.
Fast forward to today. We’ve met so many great entrepreneurs and people in the sports industry. We’ve made a few investments, but the more important piece in my mind is the community and trust that is being built. Just a few weeks ago, former NHL player Bryce Salvador came up to Boston and we went to the PULSE @ MassChallenge demo day together to learn about some new healthcare technologies. It was remarkable to listen to someone so passionate about concussion health chat with a founder of a concussion startup. Below is Bryce demoing some Virtual Reality for physical therapy!
Who knows where this group will evolve to, but it’s already been great to see it develop over recent months. Looking forward to continuing to grow this group and seeing what happens next!