When San Diego-based online race registration sensation Active Network was sold in 2013 to Vista Equity Partners for $1.05 billion, many of the company’s local execs and employees chose to stay in San Diego instead of relocating to the new headquarters in Dallas. So, naturally, they went to work for, start or run other San Diego companies. One of them was Ram Krishnan.
“After Active sold, I chose not to move to Dallas with the business. I’d moved a lot for work and we were expecting our third child,” said Krishnan, SVP/General Manager at Active for three years. “I promised my wife I’d try to stay in town. It’s tough to leave San Diego when you’ve lived all over. It doesn’t get much better than here. I also knew that San Diego was a small town and there weren’t a lot of CEO opportunities. Every recruiter call I took was for a job out of town.”
In the meantime, Krishnan did a lot of networking, assisted startups, and just immersed himself in the San Diego tech community. He ultimately found NTN Buzztime through a friend.
“I was approached by the then Buzztime Chair and CEO and after a few months decided to take the job,” he said. “Being a public company CEO in a microcap seemed like a daunting challenge, but the company had good products that people loved to play and I thought that was important to being successful. I have tended to take down and out, legacy businesses that have a rich history but have lost their way and turned them around and into believers in themselves. This one has definitely been my hardest challenge.”
Below, Krishnan gets down to the nitty gritty of taking the helm of a 35-year-old struggling tech company, as well as how his experience at Active.com helped prepare him for all the ups and downs.
Company: NTN Buzztime
Year Founded: 1984. Read more about the company’s 35-year history and fun facts here.
Technology: NTN Buzztime produces interactive entertainment across many different platforms. Its most well-known product, called Buzztime, broadcasts trivia and other games via broadband over a national network to over 2,600 bars and restaurants in the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean.
Employees: Roughly 90 employees
The Strategy: Venues subscribe to Buzztime’s service to differentiate themselves via competitive fun by offering guests trivia, card, sports and arcade games, personalized menus and self-service dining features. Buzztime’s platform improves operating efficiencies, creates connections among the players and venues, and amplifies guests’ positive experiences.
Growth: Since taking the helm at Buzztime, Krishnan has focused on fixing the balance sheet and getting the company back to operating profitably. Losing over $7 million per year when he joined, the company has right-sized its operating costs, built higher quality products and has been creating newer, smaller versions of its product.
“When I first joined Buzztime (in 2011), we had just started on a new tablet platform and a large contract with a big customer,” Krishnan said. “We were unfortunately faced with a big uphill battle. Our new tablet technology was designed poorly, was difficult to manufacture, had significant quality problems, and a number of other problems we had to sort through. I ultimately spent three years solving those problems, and we have only recently begun to shift product and company strategy against things I wanted to do several years ago.”
“Along the way, we optimized the management team and financial performance of the business. We were losing millions of dollars per year when I got here, and we recently turned in our 12th consecutive quarter of positive EBITDA. We have created this really light product. It used to cost $4,000-to-$5,000 to put our system in places. Now it’s $150. We’ve added new advertising technology that allows us to expose ad inventory on our TV screens directly to advertisers who want to reach that audience. We are still turning the company around. Culture is a big part of that – developing accountability, and building the right team that is focused on the same goals.”
Outlook: “There are network effects at Buzztime,” Krishnan said. “It’s similar to Active in that the more consumers you have the more your platform grows. We think we can create this massive in-venue audience that doesn’t exist anywhere else today.”
Going Mobile: Buzztime recently launched a mobile app called Buzztime Entertainment mobile app on AppleiOS and Android mobile devices. Using the app, players can compete in trivia and live events on their own devices at any of the 2,600 Buzztime bars, restaurants, and other locations. The company is currently testing the app and its light product in its hometown of San Diego, allowing for early adopters to get in for free.
“We plan to scale the technology across the country. Through this new product, Buzztime is hoping to expand its market and audience,” Krishnan said. “We are bringing people together and building community.”
Product Launch: Buzztime has also launched Buzztime Basic in San Diego, which allows venues to connect to its network in minutes. The company plans to introduce the product in other markets soon. Buzztime Basic uses a much smaller footprint of technology and is intended to be self-installed by customers for fast, low-price access to the Buzztime experience. “This makes Buzztime easier to produce, distribute, and deliver, thereby expanding our prospects and opening new opportunities in adjacent verticals,” Krishnan said.
Community Building: Buzztime’s multiplayer competitive trivia platform gives players a chance to join together to play. “At the heart of what we’re doing is creating local community experiences,” Krishnan said. “Between players, venues, and advertisers, we want to connect them all together. Community experiences drive happiness and joy, and we’re at the center of that experience.”
Culture Connection: On Fridays, Buzztime runs a trivia competition in the company’s Carlsbad headquarters’ employee lounge. “We break them into six teams and we drink beer and play games,” Krishnan said. “Besides bringing the employees together, it also serves as a testing ground for new products and games.”
Industry Insider: While Buzztime is among a cluster of gaming companies in Carlsbad, Krishnan describes the company as more of an in-venue entertainment platform. “We’re more like a marketing and engagement platform,” he said, adding that Buzztime has 10 million registered players in its network. “We attract and draw traffic to venues and help businesses build the in-store experiences. There’s nobody else doing interactive trivia at this scale in venues. There is an audience looking for that.”
Priorities: According to Krishnan, “Our priority in 2018 was to modernize our advertising platform so more brands could access our valuable, highly engaged audience. We’ve plugged into modern ad exchanges and marketplaces while showcasing our demographic targeting abilities. Buzztime is becoming more accessible than ever before – to new players, locations, and advertisers.”
Future Growth: In a recent letter to shareholders, Krishnan wrote, “We’re reaching a new level of self-sufficiency as we head to market with our reinvented and expanded product line. By diversifying our revenue streams, expanding markets, and lowering production costs, we’re poised for smart, sustainable growth and a stronger, stable bottom line. The Buzztime product line has come a long way since 1984. What hasn’t changed is our unwavering commitment to our core mission: to create fun, rewarding experiences…Buzztime experiences.”
Passion Play: When asked what he likes about his job, Krishnan said, “I love the chance I’ve had here to make in impact on our employees and the market we serve. It’s been hard to do while public, but at the end of the day, we’re really an established business, with business structures and systems, but with a startup/venture mindset, and with brand new products and services we’ll take to market. If we can balance those two and take advantage of the pro’s associated with them, we’re going to be highly successful.”
Success Meter: Speaking of success, Krishnan has experienced a lot of it. Before taking a management role at Active.com, he spent 15 years at GE Healthcare in San Diego, with his last role being Global VP & GM of Radiology. Here’s how the rest of his career path went from there:
“I worked at a GE for 15 years, ran a healthcare IT business that was a larger business than Active was at the time and operated globally in just about every region of the world. It was exciting, but I realized I’d never be the ‘CEO’ of GE and I really wanted to take a swing at that.”
“I was recruited at Active by Scott Mendel (CFO) and eventually joined after a few months of interviewing with the team,” Krishnan continued. “I worked for (CEO) Matt Landa. I was excited to start something new, in a young, mission focused business with a lot of potential for growth. I wanted to affect business culture, build a winning team, and drive growth. I got to do all of those things and more.”
Active Years: “When I arrived, so much of what I perceived was great about the company was there – the youth, energy, mission,” Krishnan said. “But it also quickly felt like a company of insiders. It also felt like a conglomerate. A lot of businesses that were acquired over time that had not been integrated. They still referred to themselves with their prior company name, hadn’t changed the way they worked, with minimal technology, process, or people integration.”
Shape Shifter: However, Krishnan did carve his own niche at Active. “I loved the chance to shape the company culture, and I loved the people, the purpose, and the customers we served. It was disappointing that we were unable to pull it together in the public markets.”
Active Achievement: The company’s biggest achievement was “attempting to unify all these businesses into one activity management platform,” he said. “I think it was ambitious, and I applaud the efforts to inorganically build this platform. I was thrown a hodgepodge of business units that were seemingly unconnected but we first formed as a team and then built our own mission and purpose. I spent a lot of time in the field as our offices were mostly remote (for the businesses I ran). I got to know the teams, their motivations, and their markets. I visited their customers, and got to know each group. They were all hungry for attention. It felt like they’d been bought told their way stunk and then left alone. But there was plenty of talent, great products, markets, and customers.”
“We created our own anthem and went off on our mission to help communities get more active, and increase participation in the activities our customers offered in their communities. It was exciting. Here was our anthem. And we grew. As people, I had the chance to shape and develop a lot of talented young leaders; we grew our sales team to over 100 reps and delivered some amazing business growth.”
Active Ingredients: “I will say that Active acquired a lot of businesses, but left a lot of business owners in charge, and gave a lot of inexperienced colleagues a chance to run business units, functions, etc… I think that trial-by-fire may have caused mishaps and challenges at Active, but those lessons learned translated into experience, which other companies in town are benefiting from.”
Sunny Diego: “We love being outdoors, and San Diego lets us have an outdoor lifestyle all year round,” Krishnan said. “The pace of life is aggressive, but laid back, spiritual but future-forward. I like the balance.”
SD Tech Landscape: “I don’t know if it’s changed a lot. I still think we’re heavily weighted in biotech and small startups. We need more successful mid-sized companies and to foster our own community more.”
After finishing his time at Active, Trumbore, a former corporate finance manager, took some time over the summer to spend with his family. During that time, Krishnan reached out to him regarding an opportunity with Buzztime.
“I thought very highly of him,” said Trumbore, currently Director of Finance for Buzztime. “With Buzztime, it continued the trend of working for a ‘smaller’ company. Buzztime is a 35-year-old public company with a start-up mentality and less than 100 employees in the main Carlsbad office. The excitement of working at such a small, public company really appealed to me. There was an opportunity to address some of the challenges Buzztime had experienced in the recent past, as well as to re-define the company’s future. Similar to Active, this was a company whose product most people have experienced positively during their lives.”
Dot-Com Days: When asked to describe the difference between a dot-com back in the late 1990’s-to-early-2000’s to startups today, Trumbore said the tools and technology have come a long way.
“During my days at Active, the functionality just wasn’t where it is today. When analyzing data, you could only go so deep and much of the reporting required tedious, manual efforts. This meant that even standard monthly reporting could take a long time to pull together. Since then, new systems and improved functionality provide real-time information and the ability to slice/dice the data in so many different ways. This kind of insight wasn’t as readily accessible when I was at Active though our systems were good for that time. At Buzztime, standard monthly reporting is quickly completed, so more time and energy can be spent on analyzing trends, etc… The data is much more robust. This helps to model different scenarios and quickly adjust to the changing landscape”
“In my early time at Active, budgeting occurred on an annual basis with occasional adjustments to the forecast throughout the year,” he added. “At a smaller company like Buzztime, it is much easier to make these adjustments on a weekly or monthly basis. This is a result of both the improved technology and the smaller company structure.”
When Trumbore joined Active in 2006 he had just moved to San Diego from Chicago (and New York before that), working for JP Morgan Chase. At the time, Active had less than 500 employees, which felt very small to him. “This idea of working at a ‘small’ company really appealed to me. On top of that, Active showed so much potential for growth. Although it’s foundation was in racing/endurance, the basic model could be applied to nearly everything. Financially, when I joined, Active had just turned the corner and was beginning to grow at a very rapid pace. Thinking back, there were really two major achievements which impressed me. The first was managing such growth across so many verticals. It’s not easy moving into one new vertical, much less a dozen. Active was on a mission to power your activities, whatever they might be. This could be signing up for a 5K, registering a Little League team or buying a fishing license. The second closely related achievement was Active’s ability to tap into their customer’s passions. Active made it easier for people to do the things they loved. When someone (not just San Diego folks) would ask me where I worked, many of them would positively recognize the company, because they had used Active to sign up for something they enjoyed. Being able to expand to so many new areas, as well as maintain such positive customer interactions felt like Active’s biggest achievements.”
Dedicated Team: To Trumbore, Active was defined by its culture. “It had an amazing culture. The work wasn’t easy as we tried to grow the business, but people believed in what we were doing and felt strongly about those activities we were enabling. Many employees were drawn to Active because they ran marathons themselves. Work/life balance was a foundation of the company. All employees were encouraged to join workout sessions before work, at lunch, or in the evening. In addition, group trips and activities were scheduled on the weekends. Active also provided employees extra PTO days to be used for community service. The culture and balance made it an amazing place to work.”
Cameron Maghami, Legal Counsel at Buzztime and former Senior Sales Operations Analyst at Active, was attracted to Active for its cutting edge software as a service platform and its mission to make the world a more active place. “It is very rare to be an employee of a company whose products/mission match your lifestyle,” he said.
Active’s culture, he said, was “Work hard, play harder. No two days were ever the same. You had great senior leaders getting the most out of their talented teams. There was a healthy competition between the verticals and that kept everyone on their toes.”
Connections: During his first two years at Active, Maghami worked alongside Krishnan. “Throughout this time, he became a great mentor and friend to me and I couldn’t give up the opportunity to work with him again,” he said about joining Buzztime. “In addition, the position would report to Allen Wolff, the CFO of Buzztime. Allen’s vision for Buzztime and his compassion towards his employees sold me.”
Digital Difference: The major difference between dot-coms of yesteryear compared to tech companies today, Maghami said, is the focus on the consumer. “The first dot-com companies concentrated on being the first to the market, while digital companies today place an emphasis on having the best product in the market. Stated differently, quality over quantity trumps in today’s technology landscape.”
The Buzz: “I like working with passionate people who truly care about the products, consumers, and their co-workers. The leaders at Buzztime push you to bring out your best potential, but never at a cost to your personal wellbeing. It’s the perfect balance between work and home.”
Because, San Diego: “San Diego’s beauty is unmatched,” Maghami said.
“Catching the sunset at Moonlight Beach on my drive home is a luxury I never take for granted.”
Local Tech Scene: “With all these new innovations, we are becoming numb to the bigger picture. Who knows what the future holds with the advances in AI, big data, VR, block chain, etc… I’m just excited to be part of the show.”
Editor’s Note: This is part five in a series about the early pioneers of online race and activity registration, the subsequent companies they went on to create and run, and how they are still “active” in the San Diego tech ecosystem. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6 & Part 7.