Vodafone xone Innovators Series: Spalk's Sam Viskovich on sacrifices, snails and why Justin Marshall should be worried

Vodafone xone Innovators Series: Spalk's Sam Viskovich on sacrifices, snails and why Justin Marshall should be worried
From left: Sam Viskovich, Michael Prendergast and Ben Reynolds

To mark the arrival of the Vodafone xone business acceleratorIdealog is interviewing a whole heap of established New Zealand innovators, as well as the founders of the 10 startups selected by Vodafone to receive mentorship, funding and the potential benefits of working with a global network. One of those lucky, talented few is online sports commentary platform Spalk, which aims to add some diversity to the voices calling the sports action. We chat with co-founder and self-described sports tragic Sam Viskovich and head of Vodafone xone Nicole Buisson. 

Ben FahyIdealog's publisher and editorial director: Now, Sam, New Zealanders love watching sport, obviously. They also love talking about sport. Sounds like a pretty good combo for a business idea, that. Can you give us the executive summary of what Spalk does, and what happened to make you think that there was a business here?

Sam Viskovich, co-founder of online sports commentary platform Spalk: Thanks for having me here, Ben. In short, Spalk, we work with livestreamers and broadcasters that are putting sports games online, and allow anyone from anywhere to commentate on that sports game, and in sync. You might have one game that has 5-10 commentaries that could be you yourself at home giving your opinion Ben ...

Not unusual.

Not unusual. There are a lot of armchair critics in New Zealand. A lot of different languages, different levels of knowledge and so on. So where did we see the business value in it? Well, I think we're seeing a lot of changes in the media industry and a lot of opportunity to come, and in sports there's a huge segmentation of fans, and if you can tailor content to each of those different fans, then you've got an opportunity there, and that's what we're about providing to broadcasters.

How did you get into the business of commentary? Obviously, you were destined for greatness on the sports field and a tragic accident cut that short. Is that what happened?

I fancy myself as a rugby player, but don't know if I was 'destined for greatness' there. To be fair, it started off as a couple of mates that thought they could do a better job at commentating than Justin Marshall, and then that slowly developed as we got more and more people tuning in. As we got talking to the sports media industry, it was like, 'Hey, how can we build something that provides value to this industry?' And that's where the synchronization technology came into play.

You could suggest that it might be dangerous having lots of people, amateur critics, commentating. But do you find that this is a new way to bring talent on board? You see it sometimes with social media and the way that YouTube stars become mainstream media stars; the endorsement deals that they're getting. 

For sure. I think there's 2 sides to it. One is those existing social media stars coming across and using Spalk as another avenue, but as you say, new people finding an avenue to build a profile; it's a unique set of skills to be able to speak in that live environment, and there's not too many other platforms that enable that or challenge someone to do that.

It seems it's often harder than it looks, too.

Definitely! Not having a camera on definitely helps.

Now, livestreaming has opened up a lot of opportunities, often for the smaller sports, and you see big broadcasters that are getting into this as well. Is that where your market is, for smaller niche sports, or do you see this being a lot bigger than that?

It's definitely both. To date, we've worked with a lot of smaller streamers, and there's an easy way to provide value to them, because we can increase eyeballs on their content, but the play for us is definitely doing both, and working with broadcasters. You're right; more and more smaller sports will stream online, and they have to, and we'll be there to partner with them. Over the next few years, we'll see broadcasters increasingly deliver online, and we're starting to see that in New Zealand at a rate of knots.

You're also seeing some of the big social media companies like Facebook with Facebook Live and Twitter and apps like Periscope and Meerkat getting into livestreaming. Does it scare you, or do you see a niche?

I think it helps us in two ways: one, it means broadcasters have to add some social value to their content, so we're a way of being able to bring the social experience to broadcasters. The second side of it is, if smaller streamers want to stream off social platforms, it's difficult for them to find a way to tie that back to providing value. Sure, they can get those eyeballs, but how are they directly linking that to revenue or marketing dollars or strategic plans? I think we're sort of in-between social and broadcaster streaming platforms.

What were some of the early business ideas that you had? Have you always had an entrepreneurial streak?

I got grief for this when I mentioned this earlier. When I was at school I ran an organic snail repellent company, so, slightly different industry there, and Ben [Reynolds], another co-founder at Spalk, and Michael [Prendergast] has been involved in the entrepreneurial space and worked in The Icehouse, so, yeah. Always had a keen interest in being involved and doing my own thing, and I guess sports is the perfect combination.

Starting a business always requires some sacrifices. You could argue there's a mythology around the hero entrepreneur. Is it hard to do this? What have you had to give up?

I definitely think there's a lovely image around entrepreneurship at the moment that doesn't tie in all the sacrifices that have to happen. Our whole team's given up a lot to get where we are, and moved back with the parents, which has been an interesting experience. You give up some other things – playing sport, for example – and take a significant pay cut in the process.

With the long-term goal, obviously, of having a pay rise if things go well.

For sure. That's part of what gets you up in the morning, that you're going to make up for it at the end.

What led you to seek help from Vodafone Xone?

I think there's nothing quite like it in New Zealand. They're definitely leading the way in terms of corporate innovation, and it was a no-brainer for us to try and get a part of it. Vodafone's always had a strong relationship with sports and sports fans, so we always thought there's a synergy there.

Often, with startups, publicity is the oxygen that they need to keep surviving. Has that helped? The grunt of Vodafone and the publicity that you're getting?

Hugely. Opportunities like this to speak with you, Ben, help a lot with inbound interest, and what we've seen over the last week or so after the Vodafone Xone programme's launch is a lot more people have been inquiring; a lot of sports streamers are asking how they can become a part of this, a lot more commentators saying, 'Hey, I think I've got a good voice,' so you're right, it's oxygen and it definitely helps.

Are there some misguided beliefs that they may make it into the commentary field?

Oh, there's plenty of misguided beliefs, but we have a long tail, and we're more than willing to have some people tune in that are not necessarily going to be the next big star.

Keith Quinn? What does he say about this? Has he signed up?

I haven't actually talked to Keith Quinn. We spoke to a good mate of his named John Burgess from the UK, who's all about this and a big fan, so hopefully we'll get Keith there eventually.

Excellent. Sam, thank you very much for your time.

Cheers, Ben.

With me now is Nicole Buisson, the head of Vodafone Xone. Nicole, what is the thing that stands out about Spalk? What's the unique point of difference that will make this succeed?

This is a pretty exciting product. No longer do you have to listen to just one sports commentator; you can create your own commentary, and that's a pretty exciting proposition for sports-crazy New Zealand.

What have they been doing differently since they started working with one of the mentors?

I think there's a whole lot of ways that we at Vodafone can help Spalk to grow, and one of those ways is through providing mentors. One of the big challenges for Spalk at the moment is how they develop partnerships, so to get to scale, they really need partnerships with media and broadcasting partners, and with the likes of Vodafone to forge those relationships, so that's one of the ways that we're helping them; linking them with mentors in that area.

Funding is also key for these startups. Obviously, they've got a lot of sports games to attend. I'm sure Vodafone can assist with that.

They do, they do, including getting them free tickets to the Warriors, that we're the lead sponsor on, so as part of the Vodafone Xone programme, we're providing some seed funding to 10 startups, so $25,000. But it's not just that. That's not going to get you to where you need to get to. We're also linking in our 10 startups with the venture capital community in New Zealand, and the Angel community, so those contacts are key.

One of the things we see a lot at Idealog is the struggle as a small startup to get any traction; of trying to get into new markets. But occasionally, if a big deal is struck with a larger partner, then things start happening. The waterfall effect takes hold. Is that what the goal is here; for Vodafone, as a global company, to open up some of those opportunities?

You've absolutely hit on it, Ben. Really, Vodafone is in 60 different markets. We've got 420 million customers, so the way that we think we can be different from other accelerator programs in New Zealand is really by giving the startups that we're working with access to that global reach, so that, we see as the Mecca for New Zealand startups, is getting to the world as soon as possible.

What's impressed you about the way that Spalk has gone about developing the business?

I think the first thing would be, just their pure dedication. They've quit their day jobs, two of them have moved home with their parents to allow them to focus on the business, so they're very, very dedicated, and then I think the second thing would be, these guys are straight out of university. That's pretty impressive, and I think there's a pretty cool message there to other students. You don't have to go and work before you start a startup, you can just get straight out there and do it.

What other major challenges do you think that they face?

I think the primary challenge at the moment is developing those partnerships that we talked about, so getting them to the right mentors to develop those partnerships, I think will be key.

In your experience, is it the business idea or is it the team that's running the business that is more important?

I think it's both, but for sure, there's a very heavy focus on the team, and something I would say internally at the Vodafone Xone, we like to say that we have, in the team at Spalk, "a hipster, a hacker, and a hustler." Sam's the hipster, with his pulse on new ideas, Michael's the hacker, having come top of his class in programming, and Ben is the hustler or the deal-doer, so he's spent a lot of time out in the world of venture capital while he's been a student. That combination really leads to a team that we think can really grow their business.

I like that phrase in the ad, 'cyberjocks.' Seems to sum it up.

Absolutely.

Excellent. Nicole, thank you very much.