Sonny Bill Williams frustration led to Blinder tech
It’s fair to say that New Zealand rugby union star Sonny Bill Williams is a larger-than-life personality.
At 6’4” and tipping 17 stone, he strikes fear into opposing defences and is currently bidding to win a third World Cup at the heart of the All Blacks midfield. He is also a true crossover star, having boxed in seven professional fights and represented the New Zealand rugby league team – the sport in which the former labourer began his career.
The insatiable media appetite to cover Williams’ story caused Caley Wilson such a headache that he was inspired to take the plunge as a tech entrepreneur.
“The seeds for Blinder came from my experience as the communications manager of New Zealand Rugby League working alongside athletes like Sonny Bill Williams,” Wilson (pictured below) told BusinessCloud.
“If you live in New Zealand, you're used to arranging remote access for interviews, because you're a fairly remote country. I had the extra challenge of most of the players playing in Australia while I was based in New Zealand. We also had some players based over in Wigan in the UK.
"I needed to provide media access to those players throughout the year.”
The difficulties came to a head during the 2013 Rugby League World Cup, which was partly held in England and Wales and lasted seven weeks. “I wanted to provide great access to them during that tournament – but I didn't know how to do that while also respecting the privacy of the athletes,” Wilson explained.
When he sought help, Wilson was advised to simply hand out the personal phone numbers of the athletes and ask the journalists to respect their privacy once the interview was finished. “I didn't think that was a very professional way to provide access to athletes, especially when I was dealing with people of the profile of Sonny Bill Williams,” he said.
“I did every phone interview on my own phone for that team. If you wanted to speak with the coach or one of the players, that was me standing outside a hotel room handing a phone over. It wiped me out. And it made me a big bottleneck for my organisation.
“I came back from that tournament and said ‘this is ridiculous… I don't think it needs to be this hard’. I was immensely frustrated and determined to do something about it.”
He teamed up with Ross McConnell to launch communications platform Blinder, which enables athletes to receive a call on their personal phones without handing out any details or having to log in to specialist software. The pre-approved calls can be audio or video and are automatically recorded to help with transparency and accuracy of content produced from the interview.
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It is refreshing to interview Wilson, who is currently based in New Zealand but is over in the UK talking to potential partners, including Manchester City, using the video tech – if only to see his face when I crack a joke about England’s success in the Cricket World Cup final this summer.
Indeed the web-based technology is backed by former New Zealand cricket captain Stephen Fleming and fellow Black Caps Scott Styris and Simon Doull, as well as US sports technology group Stadia Ventures.
It is already being used by Olympic champions, the cutting-edge Formula E series and teams from leagues as diverse as the NCAA US college sports system and the Premier League: Cardiff City recently treated their supporters to spoof video ‘Better Call Sol’, featuring cult defender Sol Bamba (pictured below with team-mates).
“I come from a journalistic background so I'm incredibly keen to be respectful to journalists and work with them to see the stories of the team told,” said Wilson, who will today pitch to the Leaders in Sport conference at Twickenham.
“We can record the conversation when an 18-year-old who's just about to make their debut breaks the news to their parents; or help US college athletes stay tightly connected with the local papers and radio and TV stations in the areas where they've come from all around the world.
“I also find that many athletes who are striving to improve their athletic performance would like to give better interviews. Because Blinder calls are recorded, the athletes can get feedback now on how they’ve done and that helps give them the confidence to open up and do a great job of telling those fascinating stories.”
Birmingham Bears use Blinder
Blinder, which employs fewer than 10 staff, also boasts two recent World Cup winners among its clients in US Women’s Soccer and New Zealand Netball’s Silver Ferns. However there is a wider market for the technology, as evidenced by the recent signing of Warner Music.
“In the past I've worked with sports teams that included teenage girls and giving out their personal contact details just did not feel a professional way to operate,” said Wilson.
“Blinder does a lot of work in music, where similar challenges exist. We’re also looking at providing access to [big personalities in] politics as well as medicine and the legal field.
“New Zealand and Australia was a great testing ground but it's not a big enough market for us to be doing the things we wish to achieve.
"North America is huge for us because of the sheer size of the market, but one of the lovely things we've found in Europe is that people there understand the magnitude of the organisations we're working with… there's an understanding, for example, that New Zealand Rugby Union is a big deal.”