You can tell by the particularly un-Kiwi job title on Ross Howard's business card (Senior Vice President of Product & Design) that BuzzDial, the fledgling tech start-up he co-founded with similarly accomplished digital media bods Tom Cotter and Geoff Devereux, is looking much further afield than the small local market. And with M-Com's Adam Clark coming on board as chairman, Stephen Tindall's K1W1 fund investing in the business and positive responses to the product from a number of global broadcasters, it seems to be off to a pretty good start.
So, first things first, what the hell is it? According to the website, BuzzDial is a tool that allows people to "instantly share reactions to live events and shows as they happen" and become "part of the roar of the crowd". And it is a response to what the main brains see as a big gap in the market for real-time analysis of TV.
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"We think we’re creating a new category of interaction and analytics," says Cotter, BuzzDial's chief executive and TVNZ's ex-head of digital media.
Anyone can start a dial, whether it’s a broadcaster hoping to foster more engagement from viewers during a show or Dave from Milton wanting to see what his mates think about the ref's decisions during the Highlanders game, and those joined to a particular dial can tap the button to lodge their positive or negative reaction to what's happening. It's a similar idea to the worm that is often wheeled out to show the audience reaction during political debates, except rather than a box, BuzzDial is a simple piece of code that can be shared via email and social networks, or embedded into posts or display ads (it's also available on mobile and tablet).
There is no limit to the number of dials that can be created, and, just like Twitter's hashtags, Cotter says it's almost a case of survival of the fittest, with the network effect meaning the most popular dial will generally win out and attract more users.
At present, Cotter says BuzzDial is "wholeheartedly focused on attracting broadcasters", as TV is currently the best use case for the product. And just as the best TV moments are all about polarity, so too is BuzzDial.
"The ultimate outcome for TV is to create a debate on the couch between a wife and a husband or a parent and a kid," he says. "But you need to be able to identify those water cooler moments ... If the dial is stuck in the middle but the activity is really high, that shows there’s a tug of war. And that’s powerful."
Up until now, Cotter says these insights haven't been available (although minute-by-minute ratings are collected, supposedly for internal purposes, and Nielsen has started collecting TV Twitter ratings in the US and, most recently, in Australia). But after a dial was trialled on the last season of New Zealand's Got Talent (Cotter was employed by TVNZ at the time, so he stayed out of that deal given his conflict of interest), Tony Manson, executive producer and entertainment commissioner at TVNZ said "this gets me much closer to the truth about viewer behaviour than ever before and is something I can’t get elsewhere".
As Cotter explains: "Nielsen gives you a view of volume. We give you a view of engagement and sentiment around whatever’s on second-by-second, which is not achieveable anywhere else. From a Twitter point of view, if you want sentiment it will probably be minute-by-five-minute and you’ve got to shove it through a massive sentiment analysis engine. But BuzzDial gives you immediate visual analytics and insights in one package."
Broadcasters also like it because there’s no moderation involved, says Howard, who was previously digital director at Whybin\TBWA\Digital Arts Network.
"You can hit the negative button a lot if you don't like something, but you can’t swear," he says.
In the past, broadcasters often created single-purpose apps for individual shows and Cotter says most of them were aggregations of images, video and social media feeds. But, as he says, given the convoluted customer journey broadcasters expected fans to go on, it's no surprise the interactions with such apps have generally been so "anemic". Twitter is also hard for some to grasp. But Cotter says BuzzDial's "tap, not type" approach means it is a much simpler user proposition and is likely to appeal to a much wider audience.
"My mum used it—unprompted—when it was on New Zealand's Got Talent. Also, my wife is really clever and digitally savvy but she doesn’t get Twitter. But she was on the dial. And so were my kids."
So why did three well-paid executives who were suckling happily on the nurturing teat of corporate marcomms decide to embark on their own start-up adventure? Are they slightly mad?
Not really, says Cotter.
“We’ve been incredibly clinical in our approach to validating the market. People talk to me about being so brave, about making a leap. But it's not a leap. We did case studies. We tested minimum viable product. We tested if it was going to work. We made it easy to deploy. We asked if people wanted to engage with it, if the broadcasters saw value in it, if they could make a better show with it, if they could get more sponsorship revenue from it. And the level of engagement we’re getting from global broadcasters is significant. We’re talking to every major broadcaster in every major territory and we're getting good traction in Asia ... We’re going to work with a huge market that is in disruption, we’ve clearly identified a problem and we’ve identified a unique solution to that problem. And that solution is so far proving really desirable."
Cotter and Howard certainly exude a fair amount of confidence at this early stage and perhaps rightfully so, because they believe that having "careful investors" like Tindall and Clark (who sold mobile payment and banking system M-Com for an undisclosed sum in 2011 and is working one day a week with BuzzDial) join the party is a ringing endorsement for the idea (they wouldn't divulge how much has been invested so far or which global broadcasters are planning on using the tool).
"We did a friends and family round over a year ago and that gave us seed capital for a prototype," says Howard. "We’ve been quite surprised as we've been expecting a degree of Dragon’s Den knock-back. But it’s given us great confidence that we presented to top tier investors and then had them come on board with a minimum of fuss."
So could BuzzDial be New Zealand's next big tech success story? And has it figured out how to make money yet? Maybe. And not yet.
As far as monetisation goes, they wouldn't go into too much detail, but it's looking at the three main options: structuring deals with broadcasters, charging for analytics and selling out. As evidenced by the sale of WhatsApp for US$19 billion and Instagram for US$1 billion, as well as various high-profile tech IPOs in recent years, an audience can be a major asset, even if the company isn't making any money. And BuzzDial's objective is to grow a substantial audience and "be up there with the big boys".
"We’re ambitious," says Howard. "We wanted to work on something that could have that global impact."
Aileen Lee, founder of Cowboy Ventures and ex-employee at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, wrote a piece about the Unicorn Club last year that showed, contrary to popular belief, "billion dollar exits" in the tech industry are remarkably rare. Howard says there's obviously a very long way to go before BuzzDial becomes a compelling target for a larger company, but he says it's important to understand the market in which it is operating and it is aiming to "grow a highly valuable global company that could be of significant value to other parties".
If it does take off, it's using Amazon Web Services, which allows it to provision extra resource if required, even to the point of adding some grunt when popular TV shows are on (Cotter says TV is still a great mass media and some of the major growth vectors on Twitter are a result of live TV).
Speaking of scaling up, it's also hunting for a host of staff to join its "A-Team". While they wouldn't give specifics on the number of staff currently employed, Howard says it's a "tight but dynamic team" and it's looking to add dozens of people across a range of roles in sales, technology, design and data in the next few months.
They admit it’s a very competitive employment marketplace at the moment because New Zealand has so many great tech businesses. And that's backed up by New Zealand Technology Industry Association chief executive Candace Kinser, who says the tech industry is now worth over $30 billion to New Zealand (it's the third biggest earner behind dairy and tourism) and it’s growing fast. There's currently a shortage of up to 10,000 workers and the lack of ICT focus in the curriculum isn't helping address that, she says, hence the creation of a tech recruitment drive centred around the website workhere.co.nz. Even so, Howard and Cotter believe working with a company like BuzzDial is an appealling proposition.
"One of the things that attracted us was that we are getting to build something from the ground up. There’s no legacy, there’s no incumbent relationships, there’s no politics inside the organisation and that’s really great for people to make decisions and have those decisions bear fruit," says Howard. "It’s been really popular with designers who want to create a brand and a visual language. And we've met so many developers who are sick and tired of working with poorly implemented legacy systems and want to create something beautiful and elegant that can scale globally. That’s what the start-up Silicon Valley dream is all about, really. It's about a rebirth, but in New Zealand, there are fewer start-ups so it’s basically musical chairs in the corporate space. But here we're starting with a blank sheet of paper."
Cotter says the successes of other New Zealand companies like M-Com, Weta, Serato, Xero and Vend have been a huge inspiration.
"The world is much smaller than it was five years ago. They’ve shown they can [live here and succeed on the world stage]. And we believe we’re on a similar path."
As for its competitors, the pair say there's nobody else operating in this space. There are professional services companies and app developers making those single-purpose apps. And while it might appear as if it's aiming to steal the thunder of Twitter, Facebook or the other social networks, Howard believes it actually adds to them by slotting in to the existing social ecosystem.
"A good proxy would be something like Instagram," says Howard. "We see a dial being a really valuable tool that people can use over existing social networks."
BuzzDial's technology isn't patented, but, strategically, Howard says IP is an important component.
"We believe success will be driven out of getting to market with a great product and securing those relationships."
Cotter is also confident its lack of protection won't be an issue.
"When you look at this, could someone in a garage put this together?" asks Cotter. "Do they have the path to market, the capital, the contacts, the capabilities. Not likely."
And what about the broadcasters? Couldn't they create something like this themselves?
"Broadcasters don’t want to build, they want to buy, so the model is to outsource whatever they can," says Cotter. "A great example of that is five years ago broadcasters tried to build their own community networks and message boards etc, but they realised the biggest wheel out there was the traditional social networks. So they decided to fish where the fish were. If there is someone doing a better job of it and you can plug and play, there’s too much going on for them to worry about it. And that’s the feedback we’ve been getting."
While Howard says the focus is currently on shows with a contest, likes sports, debates, the 'shiny floor talent shows', or shows based around opinions, "the most exciting thing is where it could be taken". And that's why it made it an open system that anyone could use, rather than limiting it to broadcasters.
"What we’ve seen in the activities we’ve carried out is people co-opt these dials. When we ran it for New Zealand’s Got Talent, people kept using the dial to respond to A Place to Call Home, the Aussie Downton Abbey that screened afterwards."
Cotter says it didn’t imagine dramas would be a major use case, but "drama is basically fictional decision-making around moral dilemmas". And "broadcasters have been very interested in using this for dramas, probably more than we thought".
But it doesn't have to be limited to TV. Radio shows are also in their sights. And, way off into the distance, Howard suggests it could even be used by the health industry to ask for feedback about how patients are feeling.
"We don’t necessarily have the imagination to know all of the ways that this will be used ... Who knows where this might end up. When you give people the ability to jointly share a reaction and sentiment around a shared event you get some amazing responses."