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Episode 97: Hans Frauenlob – Curl runnings

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All Xero Gravity episodes

Hosted by Elizabeth Ü

Hans Frauenlob’s story doesn’t start at the beginning. Instead, it starts somewhere in the middle, at a point so bizarre it sets the tone for what came before and what comes after.

He developed some of the world’s first sports analysis software, worked on the road as a professional musician, represented his country in the Winter Olympics, and helped get businesses off their feet after a natural disaster, and that’s not even all of it.

His portfolio may be varied, but there’s one common denominator across all of them: a desire to make other people’s lives easier, happier, or more comfortable. Frauenlob’s is a humble one, but one that has had impact across the globe, and will continue to in years to come.

 

Resources:

Belong – employee benefits platform 

 

Cool runnings

“When I was a kid I watched the Olympics devoutly. I thought it would be the best thing in the world to compete in. Growing up in Canada, I never would’ve pictured that many years later I’d be representing New Zealand (NZ) in curling, but that’s what wound up happening,” Frauenlob says with a chuckle.

Olympic curling became a sport in 1998, and Frauenlob started representing NZ in 1997. It was a time when curling was a mostly unknown sport in a country full of rugby players, and a sport that would lead to a range of interesting career opportunities for him.

“Before that time the only awareness people in NZ had of curling was the outdoor variety. Olympic curling was brand new, and all of a sudden it was on television and people were seeing it and understanding what the sport is about.”

“In 1997 there were four guys on the team and they were basically just four guys who could slide. To say the talent pool was shallow would be kind, and the average Kiwi had no clue what the sport actually was, but we managed to battle through.”

“In the 10 years leading up to the 2006 Olympics we would do all our training overseas because we didn’t have anywhere to train over here. We would beg, borrow and steal at every opportunity to try and get better and it worked out okay,” he says of the team’s numerous training trips to Canada.

“When we qualified for the Olympics in 2006 it was the only time NZ had an olympic curling team at the Winter Olympics. We were the Jamaican bobsled team of New Zealand. We had a sheep farmer from Central Otago, a chemical salesman from the Waikato, a guy from Dunedin, and I was living in Auckland.”

Just like a reality tv show

Believe it or not, curling is now the second-most watched sport during the Winter Olympics. This is something Frauenlob puts down to the added layer of personality curling has that other sports don’t.

“Curling as a televised sport is fantastic. It’s about the only sport you can follow where the athletes are wearing microphones and you can hear what they’re doing during gameplay. Even if you’ve never seen the game before, when you’re watching it on television you can actually hear the players talking."

“It’s a bit like watching a reality television show where all of a sudden you know the characters.”

It’s Frauenlob’s personality that has obviously won over some people in high places. Now he's traveling the world as a commentator of the sport.

“Tomorrow I’m getting on a plane to fly to Edmonton where the men’s champs are being held. I’ll be doing TV commentary there, and just this week I’ve had an invitation from Olympic Broadcast Services to join the host broadcast crew for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in Korea."

"That’s something I’ve been hoping to achieve for a few years now so I’m absolutely stoked. It will be the experience of a lifetime.”

So what is it he loves about commentating? Well, aside from the sport itself, it’s the element of fun commentating brings with it.

“What’s fun for me is helping people who’re watching a game for the first time translate the jargon. I also like slipping the odd Kiwi-ism into a broadcast. We actually stole this from the New Zealand cricket team who I’m sure stole it from others, but lots of teams will have a word of the day, and you have to figure out how you’ll work that word of the day into the broadcast,” he says.

Backtrack to the Blue Jays

Curling wasn’t Frauenlob’s first foray into professional sport. Before moving to New Zealand, he spent six years working for the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team. He was in charge of developing information and analysis technologies.

“Working with the Blue Jays happened by circumstance. After high school I went to university only to drop out after a year. I then became a professional musician and did that for about a year and a half. After that I thought I should get a real job, so I went back to school to learn computer programming. I could’ve kept playing music, but I had to ask myself what I wanted to be doing at 50?”

“I found a course teaching computer programming and did that for a year. I found a job right after that year was up and all of a sudden I was in IT. I worked for a couple of companies in different roles over a decade before I wound up with the Blue Jays. That’s where baseball and my vocation converged again.”

It’s here that Frauenlob was really given the chance to flex his problem solving muscles.

“A big part of any professional sport’s system is the ability to identify talent really early and try to somehow project them forward six or seven years based on their genetic makeup. You’re trying to imagine a 15 year old as a 22 year olds who are fully developed physically and emotionally. I found that amazingly interesting and loved working with our scouts, because you’d learn the ways they did it.”

“If you were aware of the patterning of certain offensive/defensive relationships you could shape the positioning of your shortstop or center-fielder toward where the ball is usually going to go. It becomes an advantage if you have insight into where the ball will be put into play.”

“In 1993 our intellectual property was a three ring binder held by coach Nick Leyva. He did all of the defensive charting and placements on paper with colored pencils. That was the system. He had a page for every player and every pitcher which was great, but there was no backup,” Frauenlob says of the high-risk system.”

“At the time it was only situational for a certain pitcher against a certain batter. They couldn’t slice and dice the information to analyze it.”

“I told the baseball guys I might be able to write an application where we could pull a few of those things together and marry the two. I could write an application that would record the pitch and chart where it was hit. They let me have a go at writing it and I did. I founded at the time what is now pretty stone age technology, but back then it was all we had.”

“I found a radar gun you could plug into a computer and I wrote an application our scout could use to chart the pitch location, where the ball was hit, and then make player changes. It brought technological analysis into the sporting arena, which is commonplace now, but at the time nobody was doing it,” he says of the technology he created that changed the way people analyze sport today.

Diversifying the portfolio

As mentioned above, Frauenlob’s portfolio is diverse and varied. It’s at this point that we skip forward to the present day. Hans is now in a role that amalgamates all of the skills he’d picked up prior, founding his current venture, Belong.

“Belong grew out of an IP we already had in a sister company called Portland Software. It’s group insurance software that does a fantastic job of managing group insurance products for insurers and brokers.”

“Portland Software had good technology but a limited customer base. Insurance companies are risk averse by nature so they take forever to make up their minds about things. We got to the end of 2015 and asked ourselves, ‘we’ve got this excellent IP that takes a long time to sell to insurance companies, could we do anything else with it?"

Naturally, the answer was yes.

“Our first iteration of the IP was setting up as an insurance company and using our own software to differentiate ourselves, but that didn’t work. It wasn’t until we were talking about the wider topic of employee benefits and integrated benefits that we put that proposition in front of company leaders. All of a sudden they were much more interested,” he says of the rebrand that really landed with people.

And so Belong – the marketplace where employees can offer a range of benefits to employees – came to be.

“Belong is a platform where companies can put offers to other companies as a merchant and that becomes part of the employees benefit plan. Our customers can also take their own benefit offerings to put on the platform,” he says of the one-of-a-kind platform.

“One of the reasons I’m passionate about it is it’s something I always wanted as a manager and employer. In the name of fairness you can often offer the same benefits for everyone, which is when I like to say ‘one size fits none’. One size fits all is easier to administer, but it doesn’t necessarily work so well for the employee.”

Where are the benefits?

Critics might argue that there is no point in offering employee benefits. Frauenlob suggests checking the numbers before ruling them out completely.

“There’s a lot of good research about the productivity of the engaged employee. Often employers get a partial view of what their employees like, so we like to create a feedback loop. Everyone has heard about this work/life balance thing for years, but we’ve all reached a point of accepting that work intrudes on life and we deal with it. Belong brings things to the employee that they can use in daily life.”

“We can give employers an idea of things that push the buttons for their team. If we can give the feedback that their people love personal development and growth, then the company can work with that. Without the feedback the employer could be out doing things on their own,” he says of the upper hand Belong has.

But in a time when every site and app is data-mining, just how much of employee’s information is Belong taking? No more than it needs, because according to Frauenlob, Belong isn’t about taking anything away.

“We do summarize data, but we also take employee privacy very seriously. Belong is all about the employee, their needs and what they want to achieve in their lives. We’re trying to build an understanding of what motivates a person.”

“We’re giving managers the tool to say a small but meaningful thank you.”

As for the jump from insurance to employee benefits, Frauenlob couldn’t be more confident. They made the right decision.

“Remember in The Wizard Of Oz when the film starts off in black and white then turns into technicolor? That’s what happened for us when we shifted to Belong. Everywhere we looked everybody was a potential customer. Everyone employing staff is a potential customer of partner,” he says.

Doing business for good

Frauenlob’s CV includes 10 years he spent with New Zealand Trade and Enterprise. (NZTE), a government organization where he was able to create a system to support businesses. This was after the Christchurch earthquakes.

“This always chokes me up when I talk about it. At the time of the earthquake I was a general manager looking after the business-assisted products we had. We had nine offices and one was in Christchurch. There was a massive quake late in 2010, then a 6.8 in 2011 that unfortunately happened in the middle of the day and 155 people died. It was absolutely devastating.”

“The purpose of NZTE is to help NZ businesses do business overseas. We’d had several people say they just needed to get on a plane and go see their customers because they were saying things like, ‘We know you’re struggling right now so we’ll take our business to someone else and let you get on your feet again, then we’ll come back.’ It was the absolute worst thing in the world,” he says.

“People were literally walking away from their quake-damaged businesses and getting on planes to try and reassure customers. We were hearing this story often enough to know it was becoming a trend.”

“I knew there were some existing programs we could dust off and reorient specifically for Christchurch, so we created the Christchurch Market Connection Fund. Only Christchurch businesses were eligible and it allowed businesses to go to market and ensure their customers they were okay. We matched it dollar for dollar, and empowered our frontline account managers to make the call on the spot.”

In a government organization these things normally take months to process. However, this system moved through with urgency.

“From thinking it up and pitching it to my chief executive it took eight days to get into effect. The need and rationale for it was absolutely clear and all the boats lined up really well, even getting ministerial support was like pushing an open door.”

Learnings and titles and new frontiers

Does the man who has built so many things from nothing consider himself an entrepreneur? The short answer would be no.

“I guess I’d consider myself more of a problem solver than an entrepreneur.”

“I have a psychological reflex to certain words, and when I hear the word entrepreneur I think of hanging out at a co-working space in Silicon Valley and pitching an idea for something you haven’t built yet. I don’t think that’s true, but that’s what comes to mind. I just like coming up with a solution, that gives me a lot of satisfaction,” he says modestly.

It’s a road that’s not always been linear, but one Frauenlob is happy to have traveled down.

“I tried lots of things that were an honest go but just didn’t work out.”

“You learn something from everything. The best life advice I ever got was from a curling coach and I found it transportable to a lot of things in life. In the context of trying to improve team performance he said ‘You can prepare as much as you like for an event and every possibility, but something else will always happen that you can’t control. What you can control is your reaction to it.’ For me, that was a lightbulb moment, and knowing that I had a choice became hugely empowering.”

Frauenlob isn’t one to talk big audacious goals, but he definitely has a plans for Belong moving into the future.

“We want to take Belong overseas in the coming years, but there’s so much interesting stuff going on in the tech space right now, so who knows what I’ll be doing? Maybe I’ll just wind up in the bar again playing bass.”

 

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