Buzzer: How this personalized, live-streaming platform will advance the customer experience and enhance the value of sport media rights for all stakeholders
This post is a Q&A between Michael Spirito and Bo Han, founder and CEO, of Buzzer.
In the past week alone, a live sports consumer has had the opportunity to watch:
- The NBA Playoffs
- The NHL Stanley Cup
- The final week of the MLB regular season
- Over a dozen NFL games
- College football
- Soccer across the major national leagues of Europe as well as MLS
- The UEFA Super Cup
- The US Open of golf
- The French Open
- A made for TV golf event featuring Tiger Woods
- And several other competitions
That is if that consumer knew when these events were on, who carried them and whether they were even a subscriber. The sports-media calendar is in complete disarray, yet the desire to consume streaming products and interact with the leagues, teams, athletes, media companies and brands that matter so much has never been higher. Buzzer, the latest Sapphire Sport investment, solves this, and it does so with the stakeholder explicitly in mind. Simply speaking, Buzzer’s solution is the advancement, not disruption, of the industry at large, providing for net new media consumption and associated revenue. Resulting in more users, more value per sponsorship dollar, and the addition of data-driven ancillary products like betting or commerce which help foster engagement. All in all, a better consumption experience.
When Bo Han first shared his vision with us and several of Sapphire Sport’s LPs at the NBA All Star Game in Chicago in February, which now seems like years ago, it was clear that this was a product that needed to be brought into being, and that Bo was uniquely positioned to do so. COVID-19 has only accelerated this need. Since our co-lead investment last spring, there has been an interesting evolution of how small decisions have resulted in a forward-leaning company strategy. Bo has:
- Offered to give the money back
- Begun building a company whose core values are completely aligned with the extraordinary times in which we are fortunate to be living, and
- Built his product and team completely remotely.
We are delighted to have Bo here to share the story of Buzzer so far!:
Q: Bo, it’s a pretty unique period of time to be starting a company, tell me about the pre-COVID origin story of Buzzer and what the current state of sport and media means for what you are building.
We started this company when there were no live sports. It has given us both the time and flexibility to be immensely thoughtful about how we build products that complement unique challenges faced by potential partners in the sports media ecosystem. Each partner has been profoundly impacted by the pandemic in their own way. We have a responsibility as an industry advancer to develop complementary solutions to fill gaps that our partners have identified -- whether it be generational gaps in consumption of live sports, the net decrease of pay-TV subscribers, or the challenges of growing subscription-based products in an already crowded market. Our vision is to build bridges, not another island. We want to work across the ecosystem to make it healthier by unifying the live sports viewing experience -- whether it be in complementing the TV audience, or extending the digital one.
During my time at Twitter I realized that while we were successful in creating a forum for users to identify and collectively engage around key live moments in sports, there was an opportunity to help sports fans actually see the live moments they cared about. As my close friend, and Twitter Head of Sports, TJ Adeshola, likes to say, Twitter is the ultimate sports bar. What I came to notice, however, is that it’s often like being inside of that exciting sports bar, but not being able to see the TV. I wanted to create a platform that allowed our customers to watch live moments in sports, with barrier-free access, across the leagues and competitions they care about. We’ve all had those stressful personal experiences -- the moments of panic where we hear about a close game, and scramble to find the nearest screen to watch the last few moments. This is what Buzzer is aiming to solve for the customer: simplifying access to ephemeral live moments in sports.
Q: From your time at Twitter and now in the early days of Buzzer, what are the market trends you have seen and how will Buzzer address them?
There is an unfortunate reality of a generational gap impacting the consumption of sports, while sports itself is intergenerational. You have the older generation still watching live games on TV, while the majority of Gen Z and Millennials purely consume highlights & clips on platforms like Twitter and Instagram. Buzzer is a product built around an incremental sports right that sits between long-form live linear and short-form near live clips -- we’ve coined this new format, ‘short-form live.’ Focusing on short-form live, allows us to help our partners reach an incremental audience of Gen Z and Millennial sports fans, where they are -- on mobile, in real-time. If we solve for the incremental customer, the broader sports ecosystem will be healthier, and if the ecosystem is healthier, everyone wins -- leagues, networks, MVPD/vMVPDs, and OTT platforms.
Q: You are truly creating a company of the times, including hiring almost exclusively at the outset from a pool of talent that had been laid off or furloughed elsewhere and bringing a team together amidst a racial justice movement. Tell us more about that.
We are a company truly born from this unique time. And I don’t mean to state the obvious realities of building a company amid a global pandemic and a national racial reckoning. What I mean is that these external situations have pushed us to be mindful of how we internally build a team and a product that supports community, diversity and inclusion from the start.
It began with focusing our hiring strategies on individuals who had been directly impacted by the pandemic. Our first hire, Melissa Kandrach, was found through a job share for people who had been laid off, and she remains one of the best people I’ve worked with in my professional career. From that first hire, our pipeline grew to include talented folks from internships that had been rescinded and MBA programs that were uncertain. Five months later, 12 of our 16 teammates were hired out of those circumstances. It has had an immeasurable impact on our culture, which is one of gratitude and social responsibility. Our team is just good to each other. There is grace, understanding, and empathy for one another, and a shared passion for community within each member of our team. It’s really incredible to see.
When I think about how fortunate we are to build a company during a time when many business leaders need to make tough decisions to survive, I always come back to the core of our product and vision for Buzzer -- as a place to build community. We build community by democratizing access -- by addressing the societal inequities created by a lack of access for underrepresented groups, by hiring from a talent pool of millions impacted by the pandemic, by ensuring we have diverse representation across our team and cap table -- and we do it intentionally, with clear purpose.
Q: The Strive Initiative is among the first socially conscious programs we have seen from our portfolio companies, and a major initiative for a company as early as Buzzer. What was the genesis of that and how has that impacted your company structure?
In May, I sent out a Tweet recruiting college students who were looking for a summer internship, with an intentional focus on HBCU students. Within days, we received hundreds of resumes, and were able to hire 3 amazing summer interns. Instead of simply turning down the other applicants, we quickly transitioned to a summer mentorship program. I initially asked about 60 industry leaders and executives for their time as a personal favor. Word spread, and within weeks we had a pool of over 500 mentors. We ended up pairing over 1,000 mentors and mentees this summer, and the stories that have come out of the program are heartfelt and impactful. I love the fact that the first product we shipped at Buzzer had nothing to do with live sports, but rather mentorship and development within the sports community. It highlights what sports truly is -- a unifier. We tapped into a professional network of individuals who wanted to do good, and a community of talented young folks who sought mentorship -- and we simply created a connection point.
From the Strive Summer Mentorship Program came the Strive Initiative, Buzzer’s first public commitment to be progressive as a company. The Strive Initiative is a vehicle for Buzzer to drive positive change and outcomes in society through our 1x1x1 strategy: 1% of the company, 1% of net profits, and an invitation for customers to donate 1% of each transaction to a partnering organization. These contributions will be dedicated to investing in equitable outcomes for Black, Indigenous and People of Color. Buzzer is dedicated to leveling the playing field through our company’s mission, values, product and financial tools in order to create more opportunities for underserved and underinvested communities.
Q: Speaking of company structure, you offered to give us, Lerer Hippeau and the other investors our money back as this deal was closing in late March early April and the world was very much uncertain, what was behind that sentiment?
I felt it was the right thing to do. If the roles were reversed, I would want the investors to have the same care and consideration for our team. As we got closer to the close of the seed round, I sent a note to all of our investors offering to size down or give back any committed investments. I wanted to make sure I was conscious of the potential impact of COVID-19 on our investor’s lives and finances.
Of the $4m, we ended up seeing only a $25k investment drop-off in total, with the majority of our investors actually offering to size up their commitments. It was scary in the moment, but I would do it again if faced with the decision. I firmly believe that our current investors are that much more committed because we have exhibited that we will strive to do the right thing.
Q: You’ve spoken a bit about your desire to do the right thing and being intentional in how Buzzer will consider its potential partners. Where does that come from?
As we know, the sports rights business is highly competitive, with big platforms and big licensing budgets. In leading Twitter’s live sports content acquisition business, my mentor and former Twitter COO, Anthony Noto, essentially created a start-up within Twitter. In this setting, I quickly learned how to do more with less, cross-collaborate across different business units, and deploy a partner-first approach. I learned to be resourceful and strategic about how our products can better serve and advance the broader sports and media ecosystem by fundamentally understanding our partner’s business goals and objectives.
The second piece is more personal. I came to this country with my family in 1988 when I was 3 years old, with 8 bags and a few hundred dollars. As an immigrant, the Korean community in Nashville was important to us. My dad was a pastor at a local church, and always instilled in me the fact that you cannot be a leader in society if you are not a leader in your own family and immediate community. His point: if I can’t minister to my own family, how can I minister to our extended family? I consistently encourage our team to be introspective and reflective. If we cannot care for our own teammates, how can we care for others in the broader community of potential partners and customers? We have to think beyond ourselves and Buzzer’s interests if we are to engender trust and create real value. This is how Buzzer will inspire true leadership in our community.
Q: No one knows when anything is live and ’on’ anymore in sport, schedules are in transition and calendars are in disarray. But almost everything is back. How can you be the solution that stakeholders uniquely trust?
With people no longer dreading going into the office on Monday, we’ve uncovered the new Sunday scaries. There are so many sports playing at once! Playoffs, fifth sets, final putts, OTs, no hitters -- content discovery is challenging with all of these events occurring at the same time. A sports equinox is when the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL play on the exact same day. Sportico reported earlier this month that an equinox has only happened 19 times in history. This month alone, the equinox will happen 7 times.
Buzzer solves for this challenge of content discovery by providing a mobile-first experience, hyper-personalized notifications to give users access to “can’t miss” Buzzer Moments, and seamless navigation of the overlapping schedules through a simplified electronic programming guide. Buzzer streamlines the content discovery process across leagues and networks, ensuring fans maximize the value of their existing subscriptions while raising incremental awareness of other Buzzer moments and easy access to those live moments.
Q: Finally the self serving one; why are you excited to work with Sapphire Sport?
As an individual, Michael, you fundamentally understand how this landscape is structured. You understand this business and what is required to move this industry forward. You’ve been on the other side of the licensing table (given your expertise in regional and national media rights), and I think you bring a really unique perspective as an investment and business partner.
As an investment partner, Sapphire Sport is also uniquely positioned to make a deep impact in the sports industry because of its holistic approach to the broader ecosystem. You think about the future of sport, and how an all-encompassing strategy can drive the industry as a whole, while keeping your unique group of LPs top of mind. Sapphire Sport essentially functions as a bridge, as does Buzzer. The alignment of this philosophy is what I am most excited about.
Disclaimer: Nothing presented within this article is intended to constitute investment advice, and under no circumstances should any information provided herein be used or considered as an offer to sell or a solicitation of an offer to buy an interest in any investment fund managed by Sapphire Ventures, LLC (“Sapphire”). Information provided reflects Sapphires’ views as of a time, whereby such views are subject to change at any point and Sapphire shall not be obligated to provide notice of any change. Nothing contained in this article may be relied upon as a guarantee or assurance as to the future success of any particular company. Various content and views contained within this article represent those of third party guests, which do not necessarily reflect the views of Sapphire. Such views are subject to change at any point and do not in any way represent official statements by Sapphire . While the Sapphire has used reasonable efforts to obtain information from reliable sources, we make no representations or warranties as to the accuracy, reliability, or completeness of third-party information presented herein, which is subject to change. Past performance is not indicative of future results. Companies mentioned in this article are a representative sample of portfolio companies in which Sapphire has invested in which the author believes such companies fit the objective criteria stated in commentary, which do not reflect all investments made by Sapphire. A complete alphabetical list of Sapphire’s investments made by its direct growth and sports investing strategies is available here.