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WORLD | 01-02-2020 07:38

Digital visionary Alexis Ohanian on democratising football and big tech regulation

US entrepreneur and investor Alexis Ohanian, who co-founded Reddit, talks investment, paternity leave and why he chose to invest in Gloria, a new app founded by Argentines that looks set to shake up the world of football.

The pace of technological change has accelerated dramatically in recent decades, changing almost every aspect of our lives. And ever since the Internet became mainstream, this process has only been exacerbated by the massive proliferation of mobile phones.

Over the past 15 years, Alexis Ohanian has been a key player in this evolution, first as cofounder of Reddit, a sweeping digital platform for communities that grew to become one of the most visited websites in the world, and later as a successful venture capitalist – he co-founded Initialized Capital, which boasts over US$500 million under management.

Ohanian’s varied interests have made him a sort of social media celebrity. Married to tennis megastar Serena Williams, he has turned his experiences in fatherhood into full advocacy for paid parental leave, while he was also very vocal about debates pertaining to net neutrality and digital regulation.

Now, the multi-faceted Ohianian is investing a new sports-based app, with links to Argentina, that is looking to democratise and revolutionise the world of football.

What brings you to Buenos Aires, more specifically, to the River Plate stadium? Tell us a little more about this new investment.

This is my first trip to Argentina and I’m here because we led the first investment in a company called Gloria.

I was mouthing off on Twitter during the Women’s World Cup a little early this year about how under va lued women’s football in particular was and how there was a business opportunity. I wasn’t sure what it was exactly. You start mouthing off on Twitter as an investor and you start getting pitches! As a result I met Matías [Castello] and Vicky [Cogevina] who are the founders of Gloria, who were working on this platform that would enable anyone with a smartphone to be their own scout, to no longer have to rely on imperfect talent networks and just the old-school ways of finding talent, and letting individuals take that control themselves.

Now that cellphones are ubiquitous, any young boy or girl that aspires one day to play professional football can be their own advocate. The nation of Argentina loves the sport so much that it makes a lot of sense that a company like this would be started here.

What attracted you, an A m e r ic a n i n ve s t or, t o football and what are the different elements of it that make it an interesting place to invest in technology? Technology simplifies things but there has to be a reason behind it.

It can’t just be tech for the sake of tech. You’re right. The first thing we look at when we meet founders is if they are compelling and have the main expertise. Then we would look at the market opportunity – how big is the potential audience for this product?

What impressed me as an American is that we take for granted how popular football is across the world. When you see numbers, a few billion people watching the World Cup, you realise that this is a massive market opportunity that already exists – it’s truly global and with people connected throughout the world.

There are a lot of great founders who have a good idea and a love for a sport but are not able to take those first steps to bring it to fruition. They don’t have the relationship or the Saturday, February 1, 2020 ability to build the product. This team could do both and made it a pretty straightforward decision.

When Diego Maradona was in his prime, people used to say that Maradona was more globally more famous than the Pope. There is this thing about football… it can be played by anybody with essentially anything. You don’t even need a ball. Now a smartphone seems to be something that everybody has, it crosses the social divide too...

The official team balls of FIFA are US$100 and the reality is that a smartphone is cheaper than that these days.

For a business like [Gloria] to start in the US would be a disadvantage because globally US football is not living up to what all us Americans would like. It’s not respected. It’s a huge advantage to have a business founded here with this essence and energy. It gives it credibility not just to countries in Latin America or Asia but literally all over the world. This sort of ‘unfair advantage’ is what we look for when companies get founded. Startups are hard, most are going to fail. You need all of these things to line up and when you find this other advantage – founding a company like Gloria in a country like Argentina – it’s a no-brainer, it adds so much more value to its potential.

O n e o f y o u r founders is a woman and interestingly the w o r l d o f most sports, particu - l a r l y ootball, is male-oriented, not only in terms of pay but also in terms of interest and ratings. The US has been a leader in women’s football, where there’s greater female interest i n t he s p or t among youngesters than for men. Now we a r e s e ei n g it erupt across the globe.

One-hundred percent. This is why I was mouthing off on Twitter during the Women’s World Cup. While I was growing up, I played basketball, American football and then moved to other sports. The path for male athletes – and I wasn’t a serious athlete – usually funnels them somewhere else. That’s starting to change with the MLS, but there’s such an opportunity because so many talented young women fol low t h i s path.

Now America leads the world in women’s football, and I think very quickly now that so many nations that have football fans are being more exposed to the women’s game and it is just every bit as entertaining.

The ethics and equality part of it it’s important. I have a daughter, if she wants to play football professionally I hope there’s an industry there that can support her and pay her what she is worth. I’d love to see Gloria be a part of that change. Gloria can now provide almost instant infrastructure for scouting talent men and women where it didn’t exist before. Now more clubs are realising we need to invest in a women’s team, there’s money to be m a d e t h e r e . Fans want it.

You are an investor [in Gloria]. What did you see in the founders that made you invest?

Vick [Victoire Cogevina, Argentine entrepreneur and businesswoman] was a CEO and has deep expertise in the industry. She ran an agency, has worked with footballers for years and knew how to navigate the landscape, which is so important when you’re talking about a big business that is global and diverse and intricate. You can’t just show up on day one and expect to figure out how to navigate yourself. [Then] you combine that with a co-founder with great technical competence and technical ability like Matías [Castello, Chief Product Officer at Gloria]. That’s the dream set-up we look for. Where you have two complementary founders who have a good dynamic and a strong CEO that will be able to be compelling, who will be able to sit down with a journalist and make them believe in their vision, who will be able to sit down with a future employee and make them believe in their vision, who will be able to sit down in front of the head of a league and help them see their vision.

So you have a good market, great founders... what’s the tech side?

The app takes advantage of existing trends in social media, where people are using YouTube and TickTok and Instagram to post footba ll highlights or random fun videos or even challenges. It’s riding on that trend where users are already using those other platforms to do things they weren’t designed for and building a social network specifically around that type of content.

Even if you have no interest in playing football and want that content you’ll have a home in Gloria. If you do aspire you have an easy way to create a profile for yourself and actually start to be you own scout and create a path to get teams interested in you or even aware of you. the sport is already so democratising – you just need a ball to score some goals.

We know that talent exists but it doesn’t always gets discovered. We get might be missing out on the next [Leo] Messi because the system isn’t efficient. This software makes it a lot closer.

When you combine a massive sport and tech you have the conditions for something very big. How does it become that?

I founded companies that navigated this [problem]. Gloria has a distinctive advantage: although they need people on the platform, they have started the path by building these relationships around the [Argentine First Division] Superliga and to have that connection incentivises those first users to see the opportunity. Really it becomes a selffulfilling prophesy where they start seeing more content which is more motivational. We are all very competitive – we will watch those challenge videos and we will think she did that pretty well but I can do it better. That drives engagement.

There is still a lot of work to be done like in any company but all the variables are in place.

You are an Internet guy, an investor. I want to reflect on the state of things. We had this tech revolution that improved the lives of people. There is also a recent realisation that other things are not as good. We saw an aggressive loss of privacy, loss of personal d a t a f o r other purposes... what’s your vision of general view of digital and tech and where it could go?

I’m a cautious optimist. I do believe that any tech, whether it is in the age of social media or before is neutral, and that it comes down to us as people to decide how we will use it.

It’s important that we are [now] having the conversations that should have happened 5 or 10 years ago, at least in the US. As a society, where do we want to draw the line on something like privacy? It’s a really important discussion for any nation that believes in that as a right, whether it’s codified in their constitution or whether it’s something that they believe as a people. The tech won’t stop evolving and will continue to be a sort of arms race. The response in the next few years will be a privacy-oriented technology that is built for consumers. That’s the response to the feelings of people not having enough control of their data. The question becomes how far does that swing back.

Part of that becomes the responsibilities of us as citizens to put people into office and hold them accountable for the things that we, as a collective, want. You can see the more extreme versions of it in countries like China... We all have to decide.

We are still having a deep discussion in the US about where we are on this. And the only thing I’m certain of is that there will continue to be an evolution in the technology. The trend is still in a positive direction, I have to believe this because I want to help shape that future.

All of us have a role to play, especially those who allocate capital and investments. I want our kids to inherit a better world than we had and we are seeing a massive shift. The genie doesn’t go back in the bottle and part of my job is to make sure we are able to support more platforms that empower people than those who do the opposite.

Is it time to regulate in any way the major companies in the US, like Google, Facebook or Amazon, that concentrate power?

It looks like some form of government regulation is inevitable for companies such as those, that would be US regulation.

One important discussions is that every nation state has some authority over how they want these companies to play and I think more nations are creating new policies that these companies have no choice but to deal with it. When it works well, it can help to dictate boundaries.

It is inevitable in the US that those companies will face some sort of intervention or regulation. The biggest opportunity now – and the one I’m looking as an investor – is what happens beyond social media. We have reached peak social as consumers, we reached our limit of this model of following individuals to get content. We are going to see a retreat to tighter communities and that will have its effects.

You were a strong advocate over parental leave [in the United States]. Where is that right now?

Right now the standard is being set by the tech industry. Average is four months of paid family leave and that is for mothers or fathers. That doesn’t always get used, especially by the men.

I took my full leave. The ability to flexibly use that time is what made it possible. I was home for the first month and a half, made sure the house was in order. My wife had complications after our child was born so there was no way I was going to be anywhere else. I wouldn’t want any of my fellow humans to have to make the choice between their career and their family.

It’s vital that we have this opportunity and that this is provided. We are still a few years out in the US from getting a federal law to guarantee it for everyone. It’s only a question of when, not a question of if.

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Agustino Fontevecchia

Agustino Fontevecchia

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