Q&A with two of Slate's co-founders Michael Horton and Eric Stark
TitletownTech’s Startup Spotlight series provides a glimpse into the portfolio companies and founders building the future of sports, media & entertainment, digital health, supply chain & logistics, construction & manufacturing, and agriculture, water & the environment.
Let's set the stage...
When Pew Research Center began tracking social media adoption in 2005, just 5% of American adults were using social media. By 2011 that share had risen to half of all Americans, and according to most recent survey results (2021), 72% of the public uses some type of social media.
Though it feels as if social media has been woven into our societal fabric for decades, providing us with new ways to connect, enable relationships, purchase, and, yes, even dance, modern day social media is still relatively young. But its relevance and importance continue to grow.
Resources and tools necessary to facilitate social media content creation and publication are just starting to catch up with the overall growth of the space, though they’re often fragmented, not mobile-first, and provide limited opportunity for truly branded elements in real time.
So, who better to build the one-stop-shop for modern social media management than a content creator slash UI and UX designer, a social media manager, and a budding entrepreneur?
Slate is a content creation platform that allows companies to seamlessly brand, edit, and customize their social content. Founded in 2019 by Michael Horton (the NFL content creator slash UI and UX designer), Eric Stark (former NFL social media manager) and Will Brooke (budding entrepreneur), Slate has quickly become a market leader in the digital content creation space and is now used across every major US sports league, universities, top media organizations, and beauty and fitness brands.
The company has seen tremendous success. Most recently it was named one of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies. In the sports world, specifically, Slate presented at SportsPro Live, the Sports Technology Awards, and accepted an award at the SportsPro SportsInnovation Summit in the spring of 2022.
We had the chance to catch up with two of Slate’s co-founders, CEO Michael Horton and President Eric Stark for this Startup Spotlight.
In this Q&A, we chat about Slate’s founding story, initial customer acquisition, expanding their target market, and the most rewarding part of building Slate.
How did you meet?
Michael: We met when we were both working at the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers in 2013. I was a video producer, Eric was a social media manager, and we were part of a larger team managing content creation across digital: web, mobile, and social.
Eric, can you talk about what you were doing in your role with the 49ers and then later for the NFL?
Eric: I was creating and posting content to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter and managing the website by publishing articles and updating the homepage. Basically, I oversaw everything published to our digital properties. I learned Adobe Photoshop to be able to take designs from our design team and edit them in real time because I didn’t want to go to our design team each time we needed an element tweaked or resized or the copy changed. I remember we downloaded an app that watermarked our photos with our logo. It was a very hack-job way of branding our work, but we were constantly looking for solutions. I went to the NFL after working for the 49ers and was in international marketing. I created a lot of content for international social handles but worked with local teams on how to create social content. I always tried to provide templates and give them resources to easily create content, but even with brand guidelines and templates there was always a gap. A lot of the work that I was doing helped inform Slate. Michael and I intimately understood those pain points.
After going your separate ways, Eric to the NFL – International Marketing, and Michael to Swarm – UX, UI design, when did you decide to reunite and pursue Slate?
Eric: Michael and I always stayed in touch and talked about different business opportunities. Even when we were at the 49ers, we would be brainstorming startup ideas with one another. Michael ended up getting into the tech world sooner than I did. He worked at Swarm on the UX and UI side, developing products for startups. Michael worked for a startup briefly and then started his own company called Fontmoji with our other co-founder Will Brooke. Michael would call me regularly about what he and Will were doing, and I would provide insights or ideas from a brand perspective. That was when the idea for Slate came about. We took a deep dive into Fontmoji and decided the platform they were working on would be more powerful as a B2B product rather than a B2C product, we realized there needed to be a change, and the outcome of that pivot was Slate. I knew that brands would pay for what Michael was building because I started asking teams in the NFL. That was when I got excited and decided to jump on board.
Michael: I think my transition to the tech side was gradual. I went from being a video producer to a graphic designer to a UX and UI designer because I knew the importance of building a great product living in the Bay Area. I did this with the idea that I would eventually start my own company. At the time, me and Will, now Slate’s chief operating officer, were already working on Fontmoji, and we started hearing feedback from brands that they wanted something like Slate, and Eric still needed something like Slate in his day-to-day role. Eric was living it from the customer point of view, and I was experiencing the tech and startup side of things. It was a perfect combination.
At this point, you've acknowledged there’s a gap in the market, you’ve decided to come together to build Slate, and now it’s time to get to work. What was that initial building process like?
Michael: Honestly, we got lucky on that side of things. Our initial team of four could get everything done with our own skill sets, including building and designing the initial product, securing original customers, managing the admin aspects – all of the things it takes to stand up a solid brand. We didn’t hire anyone else until we raised our first round and already had quite a few real customers with revenue coming in. We went into our first Super Bowl in 2020 with over half of the teams in the NFL working with us. Fox Sports was working with us. I would say our experience is probably unique in that sense. Having that previous company that we pivoted into Slate gave us a head start, in addition to strong connections within an industry we knew so well.
Eric: For me, seeing a tangible product gave me the confidence to leave my job with the NFL. The fact that the bones were already there when I joined was huge. We did everything from creating collateral to reaching out and selling. We were cranking out features and growing that way. Of course, we had to figure things out on the fly, like our pricing structure, launching, terms, and legal aspects. It worked out that the four of us had slightly different skill sets: developer, sales, operations, and marketing. One of our co-founders applied to this legal startup support program through the University of California-San Francisco. He helped us get a professional law firm to help us create documents we never knew we needed. We considered applying to Techstars or incubators, but that never made sense for us. Starting a company is like being in high school again because every year is monumental in terms of your growth, both physically (product) and mentally (gaining knowledge).
Talk about your first customers. Who were they, and how did you acquire them?
Michael: We worked our network as much as we could tapping into sports, specifically leagues, and teams. We used those connections and our backgrounds to reach other people that weren't necessarily in our network. We really went after trailblazers who liked to try new things. Once we got a few big names on board, we would promote that and use it to connect with more potential customers. It was just a grind. We sent out emails, called people, and, most importantly, got people on the platform. We knew if we could show them our product, it would be a game-changer for them.
How was the transition to selling outside of sports?
Eric: After exhausting our sports network and immediate connections, the real selling came in. But lots brands and properties are tied to sports, and that is where we've decided to focus our growth efforts. We’ve seen a lot of success in sports adjacent categories, food and beverage, apparel, and finance, but that's because sport is the tie-in.
Michael: Staying on brand in today's world of social media is not exclusive to sports by any means. We’re continuing to build the product so that our current customers and future customers can use Slate for all of their content creation needs. We have big product and platform enhancements coming out this year and the next. On the product side, we have no shortage of ideas. We have great relationships with our customers. We are always happy to get on a call and talk about how we make Slate even better.
What's been the most rewarding part of building Slate?
Eric: It's been seeing our team grow. Creating and building not only a product, but a culture, has been amazing. We love seeing other people in the organization take our ideas and make them better. It’s something you don't think about as much when you're just starting a company and you’re focused on getting a product off the ground, selling it, and getting to the next stage, but it’s very fulfilling.
Michael: As a fully remote team of 30 full-time people in 14 different countries, it’s exciting to see people come together from all different cultures to take on our vision. Interacting with that diverse team daily via Slack and Zoom has been a really rewarding experience. We’ve met awesome people we never would’ve had the pleasure to know had it not been for Slate. We wouldn’t be where we are without the team.