Our Startups series looks at companies and founders who are innovating in the fields of athlete performance, fan engagement, team/league operations and other high-impact areas in sports. If you’d like to be considered for this series, tell us about your mission.
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World’s shortest elevator pitch: “We turn practice time into game time, so that kids have more fun becoming better at sports.”
Company: Playfinity Inc.
Location: Oslo, Norway
Year founded: 2016
Funding round to date: “2 million in Seed funding.”
Who are your investors? “They are basically tech entrepreneurs and some sports entrepreneurs. Also, other people who are passionate about our mission.”
Are you looking for more investment? “Right now, we’re looking at an A round. Since we’re coming from Norway, we’re also transitioning into getting international investors.”
Tell us about yourself, CMO & co-founder Paal Smith-Meyer: “I’m 49. My education was as a designer. I joined Lego in Denmark in 2000. For half my time at Lego, I was a creative director for a lot of the core product lines like Creator and Mindstorms and Technic. Bringing back the belief in the core Lego products that was kind of gone in 2000. So, I got this experience of play and technology together. For the last seven years at Lego, I led small business. I got this chance to work for corporate and work with a lot of smaller entrepreneurs — and starting things like Lego Ideas, Architecture. A lot of
Playfinity CMO and co-founder Paal Smith-Meyer
things which were bringing Lego to new spaces outside of the traditional toy aisle, but also working with technology entrepreneurs from Israel and Japan on what is the future play. That’s my foundation, basically this combination of working for big brands, starting new businesses with a brand but, at the heart of it, I’m a real Lego fundamentalist. I believe in creating experiences that stimulate people to be creative. After I left Lego in 2014, I also worked with an American startup called littleBits out of New York, which is bringing technology together with innovation. In 2016, I was part of the Playfinity team as an advisor and joined Playfinity as a co-founder in 2017.”
Who are your co-founders/partners? “Jarle Nordby-Bøe, Eivind Solberg, Stian Vælitalo. The reason why we fit together is we were all dads in our 40s. We looked around the table and realized we have all the skills needed to actually make this happen. Jarle, who is the acting CEO now, his background is in IoT and Bluetooth. He worked 14 years for Texas Instruments. He had the technology background on the hardware. Stian, the CTO, his background is in software. He designed the national bank and the national postal systems architecture in Norway. He was like the lead architect for those. Eivind, he’s an industrial designer so his background is really product design and taking things to production. He’s the chief designer.”
How does your product work? “What our company does is we take sensor technology that senses what players are doing. So, it recognizes if you’re throwing, jumping, catching, and then we connect that to the mobile app on a smartphone, which then basically hosts the different games we have. So while you’re playing, you also get live sound effects, feedback and commentary. We’re creating an augmented sound environment for physical gaming and sports, and then we connect that to other players around the world so you get the sensation of competing against yourself and your own scores — but also against other players around the world. The example right now is Backyard League, where we take our core sensor technology, which is a smart tracker. We made that so it is very robust. It can really take a beating. You don’t have to do any kind of setup outside just launching the app that will tell you to connect you. We have other experiences with handball, which is a very Norwegian sport, and also trampoline. It’s the same core technology that can be used across different sports and technologies.”
What problem is your company solving? “It’s two converging problems. One is the screen fatigue we see with kids and not going out to play. As we started working and launching our first smartball in 2018, we started getting involved a lot with sports. We discovered that 70% of kids leave sports by the age of 11 because it’s not fun anymore. We were like, ‘That’s our invitation into sports!’ We knew we needed to connect with something that kids were doing already. We want to make the core skill training a really fun and engaging activity because that’s what coaches tell us is very difficult is to keep kids engaged when they learn core skills. It’s also the reason why a lot of kids have difficulty playing together because the skillgap is big.”
Playfinity’s goal is to keep screen-addicted kids engaged on the playing field.
What does your product cost and who is your target customer? “Our product right now as a launch is $89. It’s around $129 as a final retail price and that’s all inclusive. There’s no subscription, no in-app purchase because we wanted to make it easy for parents. Our core target group is ages from 8-to-14. The sweet spots. But we see a lot of parents — the experience of playing together with your kids, playing catch in the garden with 4-year-olds or 6-year-olds is something that creates a gaming experience you can have together. All adults that tried it are like, ‘Oh my god, I forgot how fun it is to play ball.’”
How are you marketing your product? “At the moment, we are marketing through social media advertising, through PR, but we’re also looking at working much more with the baseball community and the sports community with teams and organizations to bring this up.”
How do you scale, and what is your targeted level of growth? “When we look at the potential of what we’re doing — out of the 65 million people who play baseball and most team sports, like 90 percent-plus are kids. But no real tech offering today turns what they’re doing into a fun activity. As we grow in the next five to 10 years, this is an area we see as a real market opportunity for us. We have been pioneering in what we’re doing because we’re doing the cross field between gaming sports and active, which is kind of undiscovered. Switch has it with cycling. But what we’re doing is kind of new, especially setting the sound to the experience. We know from our experience that it will take time. We believe that if we hit this right, then this will be relevant as a supplement to kid sports in their spare time, but also in their practice time in the clubs. For us, if we do it right, we’re talking millions and we feel like we’re on the path to that.”
Who are your competitors, and what makes you different? “We were not the first company to bring tech into sports equipment. There are many examples. Where we are different from what people would perceive as competitors is that other companies are really just focusing on performance enhancement of players through data. There’s a lot of data to optimize, often more like the pro players. We are here to gamify and make skill training fun, as a game itself.”
We’re creating an augmented sound environment for physical gaming and sports, and then we connect that to other players around the world so you get the sensation of competing against yourself and your own scores — but also against other players around the world.
What’s the unfair advantage that separates your company? “There’s this combination of different things. One, of course, is the team we have because we have a unique combination of wonders. Right now, we’re doing end-to-end. We’re doing everything from research, concept, development, production, sales service. We are really like an octopus now. We wanted to prove end-to-end that it’s possible before we really start growing and scaling because there’s nothing worse than adding a lot of money and people if parts are broken. We also know we’re not experts at everything. But there’s no one in the market today who is really creating games out of exercises the way we’re doing, by really creating this augmented sound environment that makes the players feel inside the game — and not just getting data after they play the game. We’re a little bit ahead of everyone else in a different approach.”
What milestone have you recently hit or will soon hit? “As Playfinity, we are reaching 14 million throws and jumps this fall because we already have a smartball in the market, and we have a trampoline app. We just launched JumpLeague, which is our second trampoline game with an Australian partner. It’s based on what we’re doing with Backyard League, which is also launching (in September). We completed what we call our kickoff to our 2021 market introduction with an Indiegogo campaign, of which we have basically 300 players.”
In what ways have you adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic? “For us, being together with players and being out there was one of the foundations of launching our first smartball. We knew that sitting in our lab, playing together, was not the way to learn. In 2018, we launched the smartball and we had like 50-to-60 event days in 2018 and 2019. We also joined sports clubs and training and different activities. We were out there a lot for any opportunity we had to play with the kids, adults and talk with coaches. We started our first pilot with 20 handball clubs across Norway in the fall of 2019. We were going into phase two with 100 clubs in the spring of 2020. That did not happen. Suddenly, it went from being very much out there in the world to where we found ourselves like, ‘Oh no, we’re probably going to be stuck in our office for a while.’ But it gave us an opportunity to really focus on baseball. We said, ‘Let’s take all our learning from the first two years and focus 100% on sports and then focus on baseball. We can take a leap from Norway to the U.S. and out in the world.’ Kind of a two-edged sword.”
Beyond the pandemic, what obstacles has your company had to overcome? “The biggest obstacle we’ve had is that even though we are familiar with activities which people are doing, it’s still new enough that people are questioning: ‘What is it really?’ Once people try it, they’re like, ‘Oh my God, this is great.’ [But] especially now introducing a gaming baseball to the U.S. while sitting in Norway and not being able to travel has been a challenge.”
Four Norwegian dads in their 40s brainstormed how to mix technology and baseball to light up kids’ faces.
What are the values that are core to your brand? “For us, the fundamental value is really play. It’s something that is important in our team and how we do business. We are very playful as a group. We like joking a lot because we know it’s hard to build a startup, but it’s also the foundation of what we want to bring to the world. We know that if we don’t have fun, how can we actually bring fun to players? The essence is play and fun. It’s also being trusted. We want to make something that people trust works, and we deliver what we promise.”
What does success ultimately look like for your company? “The ultimate success is really that more kids are joining sports and they keep playing longer. Fundamentally, that’s great for them as individuals and it’s great for society — the longer kids are active in sports. If we’re really lucky, then people just keep playing sports for fun as a game and are spending less time on the screen. Not saying the phone won’t be there but just in the background.”
What should investors or customers know about you—the person, your life experiences—that shows they can believe in you? “The important part is that this is not some random idea. I have the background in play from Lego. I was part of turning Lego around. I helped create and build a lot of brands within Lego that were seen as entrepreneurial and are still there today. For me, it’s always the legacy that they didn’t go away. Lego Create, Lego Technic, Lego Mindstorms, Lego Architecture. I left Lego and tried to build new startups with other entrepreneurs and really learn how hard it is from the bottom and take that learning with other experienced entrepreneurs in different fields. We’re doing this not as a project to see if it works. We decided we want to make a difference in the world and we’re in it for the long run.”
The idea is for Backyard League to turn a game of catch into international youth competition.
What made you decide to launch a baseball product? “Based on our initial experience with our smart ball and our trampoline, where we basically were testing how to gamify activity, we saw that baseball was a natural step away from Norway into the sporting world.”
Do you have a favorite quote about leadership? “Everything big starts small. Being able to nurture what you’re doing while it’s little is where you learn the most because once you grow bigger, there’s so many other things you have to take care of. We knew this would take time. So, the first three years, we really spent time learning what we’re doing, tuning the platform and technology. Another is, ‘Launch is king.’ If you don’t have your product in the markets, you’re actually not learning consumer research. Focus groups are not actually learning. But if you put your product on the shelf in a store and people are buying it and giving you feedback, that’s where we learn. So, it’s trying to make it real as fast as possible and be iterated many times.”
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