The problems were numerous and exasperating for the former media manager of New Zealand Rugby League Caley Wilson.
Whilst managing the in and out flow of media for New Zealand’s men’s team during the 2013 Rugby League World Cup he found himself as the de facto phone courier for the team, rushing around hotels and training to get players onto phone calls with journalists.
Knowing that there was a way to make things simpler for a team, a media manager and journalist, Wilson and his business partner Ross McConnell founded Blinder: a call scheduling and recording app and platform for communications and public relations managers.
The aim is simple: Make athletes available to receive calls – from the media or fans – at suitable times through their own phone, maintain control of the access, respect everyone’s privacy and have a record that the call and conversation occurred.
The AFL, New Zealand Rugby and Netball Australia were all early adopters of Blinder. America’s Cup winner Emirates Team New Zealand was another. Now the system is used heavily by clubs across Australasia, by Olympic champions and in competitions ranging from the NCAA to the English Premier League.
By not wanting to make it a shit fight to arrange, a communications manager can better handle the external needs of the media as well as the internal needs of a school or club.
In this conversation, we went one-on-one with Wilson.
Let’s go back to the beginnings, given your background working for elite sporting organisations and teams, when did the idea for Blinder begin to be seeded?
Caley Wilson: “From the very first media call I had to arrange for an athlete when I was working with New Zealand Rugby League. That was for Kieran Foran.
“I was in Auckland and so was the journalist – while Kieran was in Sydney. I was keen to make the call happen but quickly realised I wasn’t sure how to actually set it up. I asked around to understand what the standard process was for connecting athletes with the media and I was told ‘You just ask Kieran if he’s okay with you giving out his number and then hand it to the journalist.’ Really? I thought that was a very beatable ‘system’. I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s how most clubs and national teams – in Australia and New Zealand, at least – were providing access to their athletes. It seemed pretty clear that things could be done better. I just didn’t know how then.”
It does seem a bit obvious but between player, journalist and communications manager, there’s a lot of friction points.
CW: “If as a comms manager I was giving out the personal contact details of my athletes I sacrificed their privacy and risked their wellbeing and performance. I had no idea how often they’d be called and by who. And I also had no record of what had been discussed or even whether calls had happened. I was flying blind.
“So, there’s a pretty strong argument that giving out athletes’ personal numbers isn’t great form.
“But the friction of trying to make athletes available without exchanging personal contact details is considered by many to be even greater. Under this situation, comms managers might only do calls through their own phone, like I did at that Rugby League World Cup. This means that the media can now only get access when the athlete and the comms manager are together and available. That severely restricts coverage and wastes everyone’s time. For those reasons and more, a lot of clubs have been reluctantly handing out the personal numbers of their athletes.
“Shit option A versus shit option B’ was how I eventually described the choices to Ross.”
When did you get to the point where you’ve felt you had to form the idea and look at developing it?
CW: “I did every phone interview for the Kiwis for the 2013 Rugby League World Cup through my own phone. Across the course of those seven weeks, I would’ve spent tens of hours facilitating phone calls, standing outside hotel rooms. I remember spending well over an hour trying to arrange a single call for Manu Vatuvei and I was thinking to myself that this was insane.
“Pressure forces you into new ways of thinking. Having to handle worldwide media interest in athletes like Sonny Bill Williams in that squad meant that, yeah, there was a fair bit of pressure and I just kept on thinking that the routine I was going through with phone interviews was ridiculous.
“I concluded that things would be a whole lot easier if my athletes could receive calls on their own phones without sharing their number with the caller. Or, to flip things around, if I could allow the media to call my athletes directly, at agreed times, but without having their number.”
The idea seems so necessary yet obvious. Why has it taken a while for a platform like Blinder to be built viably?
CW: “You need a bunch of elements to align to launch new technology and among the critical ones for Blinder were: Society in general becoming increasingly conscious about privacy, sporting organisations taking athlete wellbeing far more seriously after some horror stories and the media industry going through obvious and wild disruption. Journalists were telling us they felt like they were in a 24/7 drag race to tell stories first and that a ‘whoever-breaks-the-rules-best wins’ attitude was developing around privacy. The combining of those elements provided fertile ground for a new way of doing things. But Blinder needed more than just good soil.
“That Rugby League World Cup experience with the Kiwis was really significant in our backstory. The worldwide interest in Sonny, especially, put my processes under the blowtorch and I came up short. It put major fire in the belly.
“I also worked with the Northern Mystics netball team in Auckland, which meant providing access to stars of the sport – like Maria Folau – along with teenage girls. I just thought the way that professional sporting organisations, at least in this part of the world, were making athletes accessible – whether they were Sonny Bill or a netballer just out of school – was unprofessional.
“Sharing my frustrations and initial idea with Ross – who was a good mate from school – and him getting excited about where this could lead was a huge step, too. Plenty of good ideas die on the vine. The way Ross responded ensured that wasn’t going to happen.”
Would it be a case that the media is demanding a lot of access to teams and athletes?
CW: “Athletes are the highest-profile group of people in many countries. Australia is one of those. One of our AFL clients told me that there are more media covering the AFL than there are federal and state politics combined. So, sport is a very big deal and the money that rights holders pay to cover competitions backs that up.
“Understandably, rights holders and the general media want good access to athletes and coaches. I want them to have that, too. A huge motivation behind creating Blinder was to remove the reasons athletes might have for not wanting to speak with the media.
“I think it’s absolutely fair enough for an athlete to say to their club that they’d like to do interviews through the ease of their own handset, at convenient times, without having to give out their personal contact details, and with an accurate record kept of the conversation. And when clubs say ‘no problem’ to that, you find more athletes stepping up and more and better stories getting told.”
Is the sporting landscape in this space the same in the northern and southern hemispheres?
CW: “As we delved deeper into the worldwide discovery process with Blinder, we found that the standard behaviour in Australasia, where numbers were being shared, wasn’t the norm in North America and the upper reaches of European sport.
“So, in many ways Blinder is solving two quite different problems. It’s solving a privacy problem, for teams that have been giving out numbers, and it’s solving an access problem on the other side of the equation, where teams have been very restrictive about how they make their athletes available.”
You’ve expanded to the US, what’s some of the key challenges of growing a business outside of your home country to a market that is as big as the US?
CW: “As New Zealanders, we’ve always had our radar pointing outwards – and the US is an obvious market for a sports tech company. If you look just at division one of the NCAA, there are 350 colleges supporting a minimum of 14 sports teams. So, just that slice of American sport dwarfs all of Australasian pro sport combined.
“The challenges in the US have included finding early adopters who for us came from college sport, getting key locals alongside us which we got with Stadia Ventures and CoSIDA and convincing Americans that us Kiwis had created something they really should be taking a look at. We’ve spent a lot of time in the US including a big chunk of the end of 2018.
“We’ve recently hired Jared Thompson, who used to work for the NCAA as well as Purdue and Oklahoma universities. He’s based in Las Vegas and he’s helped take a couple of the rough Kiwi edges off our US presentation, too.”
By having that outward thinking, has that helped the business grow quickly across four continents?
CW: “It’s funny how your environment shapes you. As Kiwis, home is great but tiny, so you have to have international aspirations. That’s part of your DNA.
“When we went to Dallas last year, as part of the Stadia Ventures accelerator, we were regularly asked about our traction. Having clients on four continents was clearly a big deal in the eyes of others but I hadn’t thought about it too much until then. That level of progress was always going to be needed to achieve what we wanted.”
What surprised you about what the product can do, has been used for? I’m thinking the content and fan engagement aspects of it, so did you think that it could be used like that?
CW: “Going to back to the hotels in England for the Rugby League World Cup, I wasn’t thinking about content or fans. I’m thinking about me being less of a bottleneck and Manu Vatuvei getting on the bloody phone!
“But, yeah, your customers teach you a lot and we have people using Blinder now to provide direct phone access between fans and athletes. Clubs can record these calls and then share them with the rest of the fan base through social media and podcasts. That’s got nothing to do with mainstream media access, which was the initial use case that we were focussed on.
“As I mentioned before, we’ve got Jared Thompson working for us now and when he was the head of digital content for the Purdue Boilermakers, they were using Blinder to interview their own athletes. So, that had nothing to do with privacy. But they thought Blinder was a great way to capture audio from any phone conversations and create content from it. It’s great seeing the new ways people are using the system.”
What verticals outside of sport have you had growth or you feel there is great potential?
CW: “We already work almost as much in entertainment as we do in sport. We don’t talk about the individuals who do calls through Blinder, but the system is used by major music publicity agencies representing talent all the way through to Grammy winners.
“We’ve had discussions with senior political advisors. Press secretaries and so forth are dealing with similar challenges around access, privacy and keeping an accurate record of conversations.
“One of our investors is from medicine and would like to see Blinder in the hands of doctors so they could make themselves accessible to patients at defined times. There is the potential to make an impact in health services.
“We know that Blinder can go across a lot of verticals but we’ve decided to attack sport in the first instance with entertainment a close second.”
How do you rein in so many competing opportunities?
CW: “When we put our beta offering out, we knew sport well so we went there first. Then music. Then, as we just discussed, we got approached to look at what we could do for other industries and verticals.
“What we found out was, whilst they had a lot of overlapping needs, we would have to do little tweaks and changes to the product. That obviously affects your product development because it disrupts your focus, but it also affects your communications, because you have limited resources and you want potential clients or website visitors to feel right at home when they see your material.
“We had a regroup last year and doubled-down on sport and the US. That’s paying dividends in a bunch of ways, including a better experience for our customers.
“As tech founders you have to have a bit of backbone about what you’re doing and not flip-flop based on every suggestion. But we wholeheartedly listen to every suggestion and we’ve taken a number of great ideas from our customers. I think they rightly feel very invested in what we’ve created because they’re a significant part of the journey.”
*Images courtesy of Blinder & AFL Media (Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Media)