Woman of Steel: Priya Narasimhan, CEO and founder of YinzCam, has designs on doing, well, everything
Sitting in her Pittsburgh kitchen last month, Priya Narasimhan reflected on the latest step in her remarkable journey. YinzCam, the mobile app company of which she is CEO and founder, had just signed the Vodacom Blue Bulls, a rugby team in South Africa. It is YinzCam’s first client on the continent where she grew up. “This one was personal to me,” she said.
Both Narasimhan and YinzCam are global enterprises. She was born in India, raised in Zambia and moved to the United States in 1998 to get her Ph.D. at UC Santa Barbara. Eleven years later, she founded YinzCam, and with the Blue Bulls on board the company now has clients on four continents and close to 200 clients overall. Among them are the NFL (24 team apps and status as the league’s official in-stadium handheld technology provider), the NBA (21 team apps and the league’s official team mobile and arena app developer) and La Liga (as the official app developer).
YinzCam usually adds at least 20 clients a year, and it has not slowed down during the pandemic. Nine new clients have signed in that time, including four MLS teams, the Orlando Magic and the San Francisco 49ers. Overall, the company has had 90 million app installs and 19.5 billion page views.
Narasimhan, 49, has been called “wicked smart” (Michelle Andres, senior vice president, Ravens Media with the Baltimore Ravens) and “a genius” (Dave Soltesz, retired president of the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation). Now she is putting those skills to work trying to meet the needs of this moment.
YinzCam was founded to provide on-demand replays to fans sitting in venues, and it already has custom apps that provide mobile ticketing, interactive in-venue maps, contactless payments and mobile food ordering capabilities. Lately, it has accelerated ways to aid clients amid a global pandemic by exploring how to execute timed entries in venues and improving convenience for fans needing to adhere to social distancing recommendations.
Narasimhan says it is a way to “take the device that is in their pocket and make it almost a guardian for their safety. This mobile device is how they relate to their team. Why not use it as a safety tool as well?”
The innovations go beyond safety.
“I would have told you that YinzCam was a valuable partner before the pandemic, but the work they are doing in collaboration with our pinnacle partner PayPal is looking to be invaluable,” said Dean Stoyer, chief marketing and communications officer for the Phoenix Suns. “YinzCam has allowed us to integrate PayPal technologies into the Phoenix Suns app to build our mobile wallet, allowing fans to pay for concessions and merchandise with PayPal, Venmo, Arena Cash or any credit card.”
To Narasimhan, the limits of how technology will improve the fan experience are bound only by imagination. The Baltimore Ravens have been a client for more than a decade, and Andres said, “if you can dream it, she and her team are going to make it happen.”
For most of its existence YinzCam has eschewed a marketing focus to concentrate on engineering, believing that the product’s quality resonates loudest. But the June hire of George Scott from the NFL as chief strategy officer will allow Narasimhan to focus more on technology, while Scott — who spent 12 years at the league, most recently as vice president, general manager, club media group — establishes a broad vision for the multimillion-dollar company (the company declined to provide revenue figures).
“I did it because of Priya,” said Scott, who is based in Los Angeles, of his decision to leave the NFL. “She wants to solve problems. Someone has a COVID problem at the stadium? She will figure out a way to solve it with technology.”
There has naturally been speculation about if and when Narasimhan would sell YinzCam, but she sidestepped a question on the matter, saying in part, “We are making investments in the company so that we can focus on growing the business domestically and internationally.”
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Narasimhan remains a tenured professor of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon, runs marathons, and along with her husband is raising their 13-year-old son, all while leading YinzCam and its 60 employees. The rumor among staff is that she doesn’t sleep.
“Did I set out for this? No. Did I envision we would be this? No, absolutely not,” said Narasimhan. “What an absolutely incredible privilege when I am not really from the industry. I’m an engineer to start with and an academic. We’ve never lost that scrappy attitude of where we started.”
Those origins stem from her attending a Pittsburgh Penguins game in 2007. Standing 5 feet, 3 inches, she couldn’t see the action with anyone tall in front of her. She wanted to explore how fans could pick and choose how they watched a game. What if you could tap on a mobile device across different camera angles and could see that camera angle live? You could capture the game as the goalie saw it, as the bench saw it, as the overhead video board saw it.
As a professor at Carnegie Mellon, she worked with students that year to create a prototype of an app. She approached the Penguins to try it out at Mellon Arena, their home at the time. Then during the 2008-09 season, she launched a trial run of the service. She and some 20 students worked almost every game late into the night that season, which the Penguins capped by winning the Stanley Cup. She’d walk her son, then 2 years old, through the winter slush into the arena. He’d fall asleep in their workspace — a closet area typically used for camera operators to change batteries.
During the games, Narasimhan would venture into an empty seat, pull up the replay angles on her phone and watch as a group of fans around her inevitably began to look on with interest. They’d ask: What is that? How can I get it? Then she’d go to another section and go through the same routine. Suddenly, they’d have an increasing number of users each game watching about 30 hours of replays. Soon, team owner Mario Lemieux was using it in his suite, and the Penguins said they wanted to license it and buy it.
She had never even contemplated that scenario. In one season, the number of users grew from seven to 800. The feedback was so encouraging that the Penguins used YinzCam in their new arena, Consol Energy Center, now PPG Paints Arena, which opened in 2010.
“That’s the beauty in life,” she said, “People believe in you sometimes when you don’t believe in yourself.”
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Clients everywhere soon became believers. In 2009, the New England Patriots became the first NFL team to sign on as a client, and three years later the Suns were the first NBA team to join. And several teams that have parted ways with YinzCam over the years came back, including the Utah Jazz, Portland Trail Blazers and the 49ers. Jeramie McPeek, who worked for the Suns for 24 years as vice president of digital and brand strategy and is now YinzCam’s director of business and partnership development, said the company’s growth is due to adding more functionality and making products more valuable for teams because of their personalization.
That speaks to a recent transformation that Narasimhan pinpointed as critical to their success. While YinzCam initially built monolithic apps that were difficult to update, about six years ago it began building a more dynamic product where every element was updatable, configurable and personalized. They achieved this with so-called “cards” serving as the building blocks of the apps. Narasimhan equates them to Lego blocks.
“What is the beautiful thing about Legos?” she said. “You go out and buy the same box of Legos that I do. You’ll build a helicopter, I’ll build a steamboat. It’s our imagination that takes us where we want to go. Our goal was to build the best possible set of Legos for a sports organization and then give them the tools and the dashboards to basically assemble those Legos into the ship, boat, helicopter, house, castle, whatever they want of their dreams.”
In other words, teams are not hindered by needing an app update. Narasimhan, a member of SBJ’s Game Changer class of 2016, called it a transformative engineering decision. The result is that a Spanish-speaking fan sitting in a stadium in Madrid using a Samsung device could have an app that looks very different for an English-speaking fan sitting on their couch in New York City watching the same match on a Verizon carrier on an iPhone.
Another key to the company’s success has been clients driving the road map for the company. The products are a result of crowdsourcing ideas from all the sports organizations, leagues and venues they work with. One client will say, “Can you build an augmented reality element?” YinzCam will, and then 10 other clubs will soon adopt it.
“Our platform has now served as the way to disseminate best practices from a U.K. team to an NBA team to an NFL club to an Australian rules football club to a New Zealand cricket team to a Spanish-league team to a team back here,” said Narasimhan. “I wish I had thought of these things. Our clubs do. Every team has contributed ideas for Lego blocks.”
The company has also expanded beyond mobile apps. Its Internet Protocol Television platform was first installed at Texas A&M’s Kyle Field, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse and the Atlanta Falcons’ Mercedes-Benz Stadium. All signage inside and outside the venue can be controlled by an iPhone.
It’s part of the spirit of innovation that has marked the company’s upward surge.
“No idea is ever too small or too big when working with Priya and her staff,” said Matt Koch, the Chicago Bears’ director of digital media. “The most fulfilling part of the process is launching a feature that started by asking, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if …?’”
Narasimhan and her staff are always thinking about the answer to that question. They are building software development kits that can be used equally in non-YinzCam apps. She hopes to be part of connected television and websites and her ambitions don’t stop there. “I literally want us to be the dynamic platform for anything digital that a club has,” she says.
“My job is to make sure that our clients look like rock stars in their organization. Without them, we didn’t exist. I still find it incredible they gave us a chance to play with them.”