How to selectively consume information in the tech era?

Craig Buntin, Co-Founder & CEO ● Jan 30th, 2024

The full transcript

Oleg

Hello, Craig! Welcome to the Devico Breakfast Bar! I appreciate your agreeing to join me today. Could you please start by telling us a bit about yourself and your background?

Craig

Absolutely. Well, first off, thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it. I've got a bit of a unique background from a business perspective. I spent most of my life as an athlete. I was an Olympic pairs figure skater, did that from the age of 10 pretty much till 29. I was a three-time Canadian champion. I had the honor of representing Canada at the Olympics in 2006 and the multiple world championships. I retired at 29 and I started my first company and sort of just started, you know, running directly from sport into business. Being an entrepreneur always sort of felt natural to me: just as an athlete, you're going out there, and you're pushing to win, and it's all on you. And I think that type of risk profile sort of fit me well. I started my first business. At the same time went into school at McGill – I began my MBA. At that time, I didn't have an undergrad degree. I'd been out of school for 12 years. So, I basically just sort of in many ways started my life at 29 years old outside of the rink. And within three years, I had finished my MBA and was sort of wrapping up my first company, and that led me to Sportlogiq.

Oleg

Okay, great. Sounds good. I totally understand the comparison between sports and business because I used to be a triathlete. I didn't reach such great results as you did but I used to be a professional triathlete in the past. So, I agree. Craig, your journey from being a professional pairs skater to the co-founder and the CEO of Sportlogiq is quite unique, I admit. Can you share the story of how you made this transition? What inspired you to delve into the world of AI-powered sports analytics?

Craig

Yeah, you know, it's always a tricky question to answer because I think the answer to that really is iteratively. When I go back and I look at the story of Sportlogiq and the technology we've built, the story always sounds really nice. But the reality is when you're in it, you're sort of swimming through utter chaos, trying to find whatever the things are that are working. So, at the end of my MBA, I was fortunate that I was able to take really a full semester and do an independent study. And it was a very broad study just on sort of what new technologies are emerging, status of numerous industries, and how to make an impact on the world. And I knew that I was starting a company, and I knew that I was probably going to spend a good portion of my life in that company, and I didn't quite know what I was going to do. And it was 2012-2013. And there was a huge spike in academic research around machine learning, computer vision, pattern recognition – all the things that we now see as AI.

And they're very obvious looking back. But at that time, in 2012-2013, talking about AI was actually kind of taboo. It was really like nobody was really talking about real commercial applications of it. It was just this sort of cool research thing that had a lot of traction around it. I ended up really just going and spending some time in the Center for Intelligent Machines, walking through the hallways, literally walking into robotics labs, and sitting down and asking people what they were working on. And I ended up meeting our co-founder. He was finishing his Ph.D. in computer vision. He had a fascinating technology that did anomaly detection in security surveillance video. He could watch a security video and it would just flag if somebody in the video did something different. It wouldn't tell you what, but it would say, 'Hey, some anomalous thing has happened in this video.' And look, having the lens of being an athlete for 20 years of my life, I recognized instantly that that type of video annotation would have a tremendous impact in sport. And it was clear it wasn't just figure skating.

It was, you know, every sport everywhere is watching video and analyzing how they're doing. And this ability to automatically tag video was a really intriguing one. So, Mehrsan and I got together. Originally, we were thinking we're going to build something for multiple industries, right? We're going to do satellite imagery. We're going to do retail. We're going to do self-driving vehicles. And we had this really big view of what we wanted to do. And we started training videos using football videos. If you're trying to track a person in a video, tracking somebody wearing a colored jersey with a number on the back running across clear measured lines is an easy problem. So, we tracked a whole bunch of videos and we were looking for some small piece of technology, like a foot tracking technology or something like that. And at the end of like a week long, deep dived into just tagging video, the two of us looked at the data and we were like, 'Those are all the running paths from this game.' Like I'm willing to bet no coach wants us to have this information.

And so, we knew we were onto something. And we started looking into it and we realized in sport right now there are tens of thousands of people manually tagging video, tagging shots, tagging blocks, tagging hits. Whether they're tagging it for their team or they're hired by a large association globally and tagging video, it's just, it's a huge thing. And what we recognize is that there were certain data points that people weren't tagging, like, say, tracking data: XYZ coordinates, how fast are you going, what is the route you're taking between point A and point B. And we knew that we could augment all of that data with automated player tracking. So, we really started there. We started in the NHL, just sort of knocking on doors, seeing if anybody was interested. Gathered a whole bunch of data, got some initial interest from some NHL teams, and realized very quickly we needed money.

Oleg

A typical problem.

Craig

Yeah, I mean, look, it's a good problem to have when you've identified a customer and a product, right? I was looking for investors. One of the people who was like top on our target list was Mark Cuban, who's a prolific technology investor, owner of the – maybe former owner – of the Dallas Mavericks, and found his email address literally online. Somebody had posted it to some forum and I just sent him an email. And within an hour he responded and he ended up coming in for our seed round. I guess the rest is kind of history.

Oleg

Amazing! Amazing! Thanks for sharing this story. It was more than one question. I think you just shared half of the story and covered part of my question that I keep in my head. Anyway, let's move on. Pair skating requires a great deal of collaboration and synchronization. How the lessons and the skills you learned from the skating career influenced your approach to entrepreneurship and leading a team at sport?

Craig

It impacted it in so many ways. In fact, if you're a parent out there and you're thinking about putting your kid in sport, or particularly in figure skating, I highly encourage you to because the skills I took from it were life-changing. So, I did pair skating, and I had a number of partners over the course of my career. And what I found is like we would run into technical problems, say on a jump, or a lift, or something like that, and oftentimes it would come down to the person – my partner or even myself – was not in maybe the right headspace for that day, right? We didn't come to the arena prepared, or we needed some more mental training, or we needed something to get our heads in the right place. And there's a real sort of soft skill, human component to that, sort of intuitively understanding whether your partner needs something. And it's no different in business, right?

Like, whether it's investors, or a co-founder, or employees, or your executive team, people are human beings. And oftentimes when you're seeing problems arising, sitting down and having honest conversations with people about how they're doing, right? When we went through the pandemic, people were really in a tough place and struggling for whatever reason in various aspects of their job. And oftentimes you needed to ask them how their kids were doing. Are they locked away for a year and isolating from people? Do they have friends or family around? And I just think that that soft skill and treating people like human beings is one of the key things that I learned from my coaches and my partners. And that's definitely taking hold in Sportlogiq.

Oleg

Great. Great. Thanks. Are there any professionals or leaders in your network who inspire you in your professional journey?

Craig

This is, it's an interesting one. I think one of the people who I've taken a lot of inspiration from is one of our board members. You know, you start a seed round, then you raise a series A and a series B, and at each step of the company you need to fundamentally change everything you know. And you need to figure out whatever your next job is. The minute the cash hits the bank from one financing round, you immediately need to go into that next phase and learn all the skills that you need to learn as quickly as you can. And we had a board member who really made sure that I had the mentorship that I needed and really just sort of helped guide me when I needed guiding, criticize me when I needed criticizing, call me out on my BS when I needed to be called out. Yeah, Sean Brownlee is his name. I've watched him through his professional career go from, you know, one fund going to the BDC, and now he started the True North Fund. And I've sort of watched him, navigate his career. And I've watched him mentor other entrepreneurs within the ecosystem. And I think that's really inspiring. If I can give back to the ecosystem the same way he has, I think my career will have been a success.

Oleg

Amazing. In your experience with Sportlogiq, what challenges have you faced in the field of sports analytics and how has technology played a role in overcoming those challenges?

Craig

It’s a great question. I've always thought about sports analytics. Youth sports has always kind of been the holy grail from a technology and a product standpoint, right? You could sell one product that maybe costs $100,000 to a professional team or you could sell a product that costs $5 to a million youth athletes, right? So, it's a much, much bigger opportunity. The challenge with youth sports is if you're going to provide information or technology from video, the video quality is not as good. You don't have these perfect broadcast, you know, feeds. It's a much more difficult product to deliver. And so, when we came into Sportlogiq, our thinking was let's build the products that we would have wanted or even I would have wanted as an athlete, which is I would have wanted some analytics on my competitions, on my training so I could get some easy video playback. But one – the technology was not ready; two – the video quality was not as good; three – there was not widespread video across all arenas everywhere. And so, we were in this sort of holding pattern where we needed to build technology, and we had to wait for video quality to get better, we had to wait for videos to be more widespread.

And so, what we did is we started delivering technology to professional teams, to media, to anywhere that we could, where we could build a great company, and almost wait for the state of technology to get better and push as hard as we could, but also wait for the cameras to be installed everywhere, and wait for the video to get better. We sort of hit this inflection point only in maybe 2020-2021, and we founded the company in 2015. So, we had this sort of huge vision for what we wanted to do in youth sport. And we were almost kind of like, 'Trust us, we're going to get there. We just have to wait for the cameras to get there.' And so, we built this amazing company with this incredible technology, and we got a little bit lucky when it finally did start to hit in 2021. But that waiting game and that sort of necessity to find value and build a company in the market that we were kind of almost not yet there was a real challenge for years.

Oleg

How did COVID affect you? Okay, they found cameras. Cameras appeared at that time, but sports during COVID times – it was not popular, I would say.

Craig

It shut, like, it shut down. We were kind of fortunate in that number one we had just finished closing a financing round. So, at least we weren't sitting on this sort of cash crunch right out of the gate. But we went from having kind of PhDs working in house. We were taking all these PhDs, taking all of this new technology, and really pushing the boundary of what could be done with computer vision. We had a number of early-stage projects in the pipeline and we were really excited about them. But all of a sudden it's like you went from 'Okay, we're going to start investing in these new technologies' to 'We're going to invest nothing that we don't have to.' All our customers go away. All of our prospects go away. And suddenly all these sort of like early amazing product projects gone and focus on like profitability now. You got to think about that. Number one, from an operation standpoint, it's very difficult to do. We had to make some layoffs, we had to tighten up our business, we had to fundamentally change all of our goal setting and how we approach every project that we take. We had to get really organized really quickly.

But the other thing is just think about what that does culturally, right? So, when you're hiring some of the top PhDs in the world with the vision of building brand new technologies that nobody's conceived of yet, to all of a sudden as a company saying, 'No, no, this is the very specific tracking technology that we're going to productize within six months, and here's our payback period, and here's our ROI in that investment,' it's a fundamentally different feeling in the air in the company. And we had to make that shift. We had to make it very quickly. It was not easy for months, years. And it was just a matter of continuing to let people know why the projects we were working on were exciting. Delivering a new player-tracking technology is super exciting. Delivering a small technology that saves us $100,000 a year is more exciting from a business standpoint, certainly not more exciting for the people on the ground actually building it.

But so explaining to people how it's going to feel once we're profitable, right? It was like explaining, ‘Remember when you had your first job and you made your first dollar on your own? You didn't need to rely on your parents anymore. You remember how that felt? That's how we're going to feel once we're not relying on our investors.’ And we're relying on our bottom line and our products, and sort of building that sense of pride, and making that shift, trying not to forget that this is our baby and we're going to make it the best company in the world. It was a real cultural challenge, a real operations challenge, but here we are. We've managed to ride out the storm. The company is scaling quickly. We're turning that corner on profitability. It's a super, super exciting time right now.

Oleg

Amazing. Happy for you. As the CEO of a powered sports analytics company, you're likely in the forefront of technology innovation in sports. What are some of the latest technology trends you're seeing shaping the future of sports analytics in general? Or maybe you know some particular technology?

Craig

You could have asked me this question 14 months ago, and my answer would have completely changed. The last year has been the largest shift in artificial intelligence that the world has ever seen. And I think historically, we're going to look back on these past 12-14 months as the moment that the world changed. 20-30 years from now, we're gonna look back on it. We spent five or six years getting really good at pattern recognition on videos and being able to collect information. So using a video and being able to determine how good a hockey player is, right? Now, what we're seeing is this sort of huge unstructured data sets, all of a sudden, being tangible and useful for average human beings like me, right? We could take 158 million data points from a game, turn it into sort of a structured data set combined with a data lake of tracking information. Now, using tools like ChatGPT, very soon we're going to be speaking to an interface on a computer or on a device and saying, 'Hey, how'd the game go?'

And this new technology will be able to say, 'well' in a very human language. Here are some of the strengths and weaknesses. And you want to watch out for this player, and this player played a stronger shift against tougher players but was still able to keep the puck in this area of the ice. And that translation layer between massive data sets and human interaction has really grown exponentially over the last year. And we haven't even seen any or very few of the real products that are being developed now. We haven't even seen those come to market yet. But I think the way that we think about how we interact with our devices and how we interact with information is fundamentally changing. We won't think of websites the same way that we do today. We're going to be interacting with our devices and our data the same way we interact with other humans. And it's good, it's really a fascinating time.

Oleg

It's really hard to imagine what to expect in five years.

Craig

Exactly. Yeah, the faster we're developing, the shorter the timeframe of predictability is.

10 years ago, I could have probably told you trends 10 years out. Now, it becomes challenging to predict a trend five years out.

Oleg

Completely agree. Further to my previous question, how do you see AI continue to revolutionize the way we understand and engage with sports in the future?

Craig

So, the sandbox that I'm playing in right now, if you see the bags under my eyes, my nights right now are spent on this specific question. One of the areas, and there are many, but one of the areas that I'm personally just most fascinated with right now is so over the last three-four years, there have been a number of video streaming companies that have installed these inexpensive cameras in every sport venue across the world. They are in local municipal hockey stadiums. I'll use hockey as an example, but it applies to every sport. There's a company called LiveBarn that has installed a camera into 2,000 arenas across North America. They're one of maybe half a dozen companies. Huge companies now are growing fast. The video they stream back, the parents watch it, and it's just like sitting and watching an amateur game in any municipal arena. It's just, you know, the kids are skating, and they're playing, and you see what you see.

The layer that we're introducing right now can take that video, track your player, analyze, and just use video production to keep your player as the star of the show, intelligently panning and zooming, following your player, cutting the video down, and giving you a highlight reel. You just get this sort of really well-produced highlight reel of your kid. Where that's going right now is because we have information, like automated shot detection, automated past detection, automated goal detection, automated rush chances, we actually have a data narrative of the game. So, when you think of when you watch an NHL game, the commentators tell you the story, right? They tell you, they give you a pregame show, and then they tell you the story of what's happening throughout the game. We're now in a position where we're able to take that data and build out a full produced video content, piece of content, where when you watch that game, you're going to have all the commentary, the storytelling, the context, and all of the insights that it's going to feel a lot like watching an NHL game, except you're watching your 12-year old play, you know, local hockey.

You're going to have the pregame show, you're going to have the intermission where you see some comparison between the players, and you've got some audio discussions talking about what's happening, and you've got graphics that come up and show you where the shots are happening. And all of these types of things, they're going to enhance the experience of watching your kid to the point where a parent goes and talks to their kid about how the game went. You're going to have all of that sort of insight that you would normally get from a pro video. I'm seeing the demos today, and I'm seeing the data, and it's inevitable that we're going to be there very soon. And I'm watching these videos going, this is a completely new experience. I try to think of the conversation that's going to happen between parents when they go and pick up their kids from the rink later, right? They're going to talk to them, 'Oh, hey, you were skating really so fast on these lines. And yeah, you know, you guys struggled a little late in the game, but you did great in these few areas,' because that's what the commentators, and the graphics, and the insights, and all that you got from that video gave you. So, It's going to be just a really really interesting time, specifically for youth sports.

Oleg

Fascinating! Amazing! I'm feeling that I'm living in totally different time, and it's a matter of, I think, months, not even years.

Craig

Months. I agree – months.

Oleg

Yeah, for sure. The collaboration between humans and AI is definitely evolving as we both admit. How do you see the relationship developing and what role do you envision AI playing in augmenting human capabilities in the workplace?

Craig

My philosophy on this might be somewhat more boring than many of the sort of futurists that you'll hear out there. I think the capabilities of what AI can do are so groundbreaking – we can't conceive of them. But when you look back historically at the products that actually end up getting built and the technologies that actually end up getting to market, and taking traction, and really being integrated with our lives, you end up with just functional tools. When I think about the proliferation of technology in AI, I think what we're going to see is tool by tool by tool that are useful. When people talk about, 'Oh, general AI is going to create this and it's going to', like, maybe, but I think what you're going to see is things like having an AI-based assistant that you could maybe have a quick conversation with and it'll draft your next five emails for you and ask, 'Hey, do you want to write it this way or that way?'

And you've got an assistant that is doing a lot of the sort of legwork for you in your daily tasks: emails, calendars, making some quick calls for you, maybe summarizing a few conversations that are happening across multiple email chains. I think it's just these functional tools that are going to be integrated in our lives very soon. You're already seeing it with ChatGPT and other things. But I think the idea of a web browser and a search engine at some point very soon will start to really change. I think it's going to be a lot more like interacting with a person where you're asking a question and it's giving you context and nuance based on a search of all of the information in the space, and a summary, and sort of some insights, and discussion around the question that you had. And I think that interaction with that search engine is going to be much more common than people searching for a question in a search bar and then going through multiple sites themselves.

Oleg

Yeah, we saw this in films back 10-15 years ago. Now, it's the future, basically.

Craig

Yep.

Oleg

As a leader, what methods do you recognize and nurture talent among your team members? And could you elaborate on the strategies you implement for the development and retention of skilled individuals?

Craig

We have really high employee retention at Sportlogiq. I think a part of that is we're in sport and we're in technology, and it's really cool. But I also think the part of it is that we have a lot of really transparent communication with our team through difficult times, through easy times. We really are clear about what goals we have as an organization, why we're making the decisions we're making, how we're making them. We have feedback channels open either anonymously or not anonymously if people choose to reach out. So, just that, as a starter, I think, gives people or potential leaders the opportunity to speak up and drive initiatives. So, it's an open safe space for them to come forward with new ideas or new initiatives. And then as long as that space exists, and that transparent communication exists, trusting your people, trusting your leadership, being able to hand things over to people that you would have the inclination to hang on to or micromanage. I generally have the management philosophy that if you hire somebody to do a job, trust them implicitly until they either prove to you that they can do it better than you or they prove to you that they can't. And I think that trust of handing over tasks is a really difficult thing to do in a leadership position, maybe even underrated. I don't think there's a ton of discussion about it, but allowing people to either succeed or fail and then giving them the tools, depending on how they do. Yeah. So, I'd say transparency and then trust in leadership.

Oleg

Got it. How do you prioritize and engage in continuous learning to stay ahead in the tech landscape and how do you encourage your teams to do the same?

Craig

So, we have, we do a couple of things. One is we do have lunch and learns, but we also offer courses that either we suggest or we allow our employees to go and find their own courses, whether it's through LinkedIn learning or if there are any other online platforms that people want to use. And we help subsidize the cost of those platforms for people to learn. The other thing – and again, I think this kind of gets back to transparency and enabling people to take initiatives – is that anytime anybody has come to me with an opportunity for something that they've wanted to learn or a course they wanted to take, eight-nine times out of ten, we've been supportive of it. I think oftentimes if somebody's willing to take the initiative and say where they want to learn and they're given some feedback and support, that's sort of how we've approached it.

If I were to flip that question and say for me personally, I'm really selective about the information that I consume. And so by that, I really try to guard my time from social media too because there's just so much noise out there. And I think if you end up just scrolling through LinkedIn or Facebook or whatever site you're on, you're going to get inundated with things that you think you need to learn. I'm very, very selective about the time and the sources that I use for my information and then very targeted in what specifically I want to learn. So, if I see a new initiative, I'll talk to my team about it. And if it's a trend, then I'll spend some time learning about it. I very seldom will just sort of browse for what's happening out there in the ether.

Oleg

Yeah, definitely. I agree with you. Nowadays, especially if you are working tech business, definitely you need to have a filter. Otherwise, your brain becomes blind. You cannot let information – useful information – go in and absorb.

Craig

What's challenging is there's no good filtering tools that exist today for what is noise and what are signals, right? There's just so much noise and so many platforms competing for your attention. And it's very easy to quickly scroll through LinkedIn and think there are five things that you should be concerned about as a leader. And the reality is that's just content, you know, oftentimes it's just content, and really, it's just a waste of time. I think it's just being intentional and targeted about what information you're consuming.

Oleg

We need to create this AI filter.

Craig

I'm convinced somebody's got one. It's just it hasn't surfaced yet. But 100 percent, there's probably 20 new startups competing to build that or deliver it.

Oleg

Yeah. Could you comment on the challenges associated with the shortage of qualified specialists in the IT sector, particularly in relation to your sport business?

Craig

I mean, like I said, we've been pretty fortunate to have really good employer retention. We've got great people. We listen to them and we haven't had to sort of go out and hire key roles in the space. And also in full disclosure, hiring teams in IT – I recognized early on that this was not my skill. And so, we hired Mitchell, our COO, who's a phenomenal, just super organized, super phenomenal operations person. He owns this and he's probably more qualified than me. I can tell you all about sort of the future of technology and where we're going strategically, but when it comes to this specific question, I'm the wrong guy. I can help support the people once they're here.

Oleg

Okay, got it. And the last one. Could you share one key piece of advice or insight for our listeners, especially those aspiring to leadership positions in the technology industry?

Craig

Yeah, you had sent this earlier and I have been thinking about it. And it might get a little rambly, but the one thing that I am kind of fumbled into, and I'm happiest that I did about Sportlogiq, is that very early on I set sort of a very long-term guiding North Star. I knew that this type of technology was going to change the world. I didn't quite know how. I knew that AI was coming. Everybody knew that there was sort of something brewing. And I knew that I wanted to be in this space almost regardless of the steps that I took to get there. And so, taking a step back, doing some self-reflection, and thinking about the next 10 years of your life, what are the general things, very broadly speaking, that you want? We're all going to work jobs in our lives. We're all going to work at something. But what you create with that job or the team that you help support to create that thing, the things that you build matter. And I think being really intentional about the 10-year direction of your career, I think, is a really critical thing. And that's something that as long as you've got that guiding North Star, it almost doesn't matter how good or bad you're doing at any given time, right? Because as long as you're sort of directionally going where you want to go, you're going to wake up every morning inspired to build the things that you're building.

And so, I'd start with that. If you don't have that thing or if you're just doing a job because, take some time, take a few weeks, take evenings, weekends, take an hour to meditate here and there if you can and really try to find what that 10-year guiding North Star is. And so that's the first. The second is work with people that inspire you. Work with people that are great and that expect a lot of themselves. And I think if you can surround yourself with truly great people who are passionate about what they do, who are qualified and capable, and you see them do things that you know you couldn't do, right? I look at some of the people around me and I say, 'Wow, they've got skills that I wish I had 10 percent of what they could do!' So, I've surrounded myself with people that inspire me for the last decade. And I would say that if you've got a direction and a vision for where you want to go on a 10-year basis, and you're surrounded by people that inspire you, I mean, what a gift! In terms of your career and where you're going, you'll always have magic at work. And I think that's something that I kind of stumbled into those two things. But if somebody today could sort of sit back and say what are the things that I might want to do as a leader, those are two very broad things that I would suggest.

Oleg

Great. Really. Thank you very much for joining me today. I'm sure that our audience will find this information useful. And for sure we are living in a totally different time period. Amazing things happening right now and your product is one of them, for sure. I learned more about the future of AI today. I learned more about your project. Amazing video podcast! Thanks for joining me.

Craig

I really appreciate it, Oleg. Thank you so much for having me again and good luck with everything.

Oleg

Thank you!

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