E100: Clifton Dawson, Founder & CEO of Greenlight Insights – Interview

March 2, 2017


This 100th episode of Flyover Labs is with Clifton Dawson, the founder and CEO of Greenlight Insights. Greenlight does market research, consumer insights & business analysis for the Virtual and Augmented Reality Industry. Clifton and Greenlight are in the middle of understanding the changes in the VR/AR industry.

Clifton also played football (running back) at Harvard and then played in the NFL. In this episode, we are lucky enough to hear about Clifton’s background and his insights into virtual and augmented reality.

Here are some other things we talk about:

-What attracted you to virtual and augmented reality?
-How do you conduct your primary research? It’s arduous.
-Who should care about your research reports?
-How will VR become more mainstream?

Dave Kruse: Hey everyone. Welcome to another episode of Flyover Labs and today we are lucky enough to have Clifton Dawson with us. Clifton is the Founder and CEO of Greenlight Insights. They do market research, insights and business analysis for the virtual and augmented reality industries. So that makes Clifton right in the middle of VR and AR.

Clifton played football at Harvard and then played in the NFL and so I’m pumped to hear more about Clifton’s background and his insights into Virtual and Augmented Reality and the future. So Clifton, thanks for coming on the show today.

Clifton Dawson: Yeah, of course. Thanks for having me. It’s nice to be talking with you.

Dave Kruse: Definitely. Well, before we jump into what you are doing now, can you tell us a little bit about your background?

Clifton Dawson: Yeah. So I – professionally I went to Harvard for undergrad where I studied economics. I was also the college athlete as you mentioned. I went back to Harvard to get my MBA in 2011 and since then I have been involved in a number of startups, including Founding two.

Personally I grew up in Toronto. I played a lot of sports. I came from a big family that excelled athletically and I particularly started at the ball track early, which kind of led me to playing in college and then professionally.

Dave Kruse: Got you, okay. So how – Harvard is a pretty touch undergrad. So how – I mean I can’t imagine playing a college sport and going to Harvard. Was that tough to make both happen?

Clifton Dawson: Yeah, in Harvard and Harvard football really epitomizes what it means to be a student athlete. For instance, there aren’t any scholarships and most of the players don’t get any special treatment from their missions department. So you know for a collage football locker room you can kind of imagine the range of characters in the Harvard locker room. You know my funny side note, my college full back after graduating went to get a graduate degree in Opera studies and is now a professor of Opera with the performing arts, which you know is not atypical when you think of college athletics.

But athletics is definitely is a high level of competition. You feel like increasingly you are hearing about athletes who compete at Harvard and then go on to compete at the high level afterwards. So I think that was really the best place for someone like me who is interested in sports, interested in getting a really good education and having a very diverse experience all the way through college.

Dave Kruse: Nice and you said growing up that you came from a big family that was pretty athletic. Was there a lot of competition – it sounds like you were pretty active growing up?

Clifton Dawson: Yeah, I’m the youngest of six and everyone grew up playing soccer and cricket and track and field. My family is from the Island from Jamaica and so we were always kind of you know competing methodically. I played fun sports in growing up, but like I said, I excelled at football and track and then continued to play those, do both things actually in college. So at Harvard I played football and I also ran track during the summer, during the spring. But I think that really started when I was a young kid growing up in Toronto.

Dave Kruse: So, are you still pretty fast to this day?

Clifton Dawson: I think that’s relative.

Dave Kruse: Okay, good point. NFL runback versus average person you are probably, maybe still fast compared to the average person.

Clifton Dawson: Maybe, maybe.

Dave Kruse: Nice, and how was it going from Harvard to the NFL. Like the – was it intimidating, you know was the level of competition that much higher? What was your experience?

Clifton Dawson: Yeah, so and in my case I was a you know undrafted free agent, which just means I wasn’t drafted into NFL and so for me, my role was a little bit more challenging than it might – than for some people who play in the NFL. Over my three year career I played for three teams and the transition itself was not as much of a jump as you might expect. I think athletically clearly there is a lot of incredible athletes at that level and you know anyone who makes it is – you know it’s highly accomplished in that regard.

But what I found about my Harvard experience that helped me at the NFL was the ability to do the things outside from being a physical athlete, the additional training to think about the offence, analytically they kind of prepare for the mental aspect of the sport. Harvard definitely helped me do that and so when I got to NFL, I felt like I could jump right in and understand what we are trying to accomplish into the different offences that I played for.

Dave Kruse: Interesting. Do you think Harvard might do a better in that, than a lot of universalities, more the analytical aspect and yeah…

Clifton Dawson: You know, it’s hard for me say. I played at two colleges, one at Harvard and at Northwestern for a brief period and I think Harvard does a really good job of just making sure that it’s training student athletes to be quick analytical thinkers and that translates to when you are playing football in the NFL.

Dave Kruse: Got you. All right, so two quick questions and then we are on to Greenlight and about your background. And so one is, do you have any good story about the experience in NLF? Like sometimes I like to ask – like I’m always curious how hard – I do some training, nothing like what you guys did, but you know I’m always curious if there is any like good training stories or any good story about how much food you could eat or anything like that?

Clifton Dawson: You know it’s funny when you talk about sort of the NFL training rigger. I think one of the things that I remember was actually from my college days when I was at Northwestern. We used to do our training camp in Kenosha, Wisconsin. I know you are in Madison, so, but I remember those days when I was in the Northwestern football team and traveling up to Kenosha, we’d had our two day practices and during training camp whether you are in college or in NFL, training camp is probably the worst month of your life.

But in Kenosha I remember that actor – you know they had two weeks of nonstop two days. Our head coach at that time put aside and canceled afternoon practice and we went off to a movie and the theater there, I think that was kind of just one of the things that just really developed with me about my experience at Kenosha at least.

Dave Kruse: That’s cool and how was the, you have been playing sports your entire life and professionally which is very unusually and rare and then you have to retire right, you have to give up. How was the transition back to the real world? Were you excited entering the real world or was it hard or how was that time?

Clifton Dawson: Yeah, I was personally very excited about when again it’s time to retire. I was going through college. I was studying economics, I was really excited by these different things that I could do and so when I got done, it felt like really the world was my oyster and so I spent about a year trying different things, you know because many people have many different careers that they could and so I found something that I was really excited by and then went back to graduate school to brush up on some of the practical business skills which lead me down the path that I’m currently on.

Dave Kruse: Excellent, and that’s a good segway. So can you tell us about – you know you are now Founder and CEO of Greenlight Insights. Can you tell us a little bit about what you guys do?

Clifton Dawson: Sure. Yeah Greenlight Insights is a company that I started two years ago. We do market intelligent specifically for the VR and AR industries. Its – I starred the company when I realized that the category VR in particular was one that wasn’t quite well understood by most large corporations and felt like there would be an important role to play for industry analysts who were dedicated to understanding the phase. And so one of the things that our firm does that are unique is that we take them – the data driven approach to industry analysis.

So we actually undergo primary research investing and unique data set, be it a consumer insight or a quantitative research with industry participants, original forecasts. We do this work and we take a big approach, so that we can continuously understand the dynamic nature of the industry and just still the complexity of the industry into actionable insight that we provide our clients.

Dave Kruse: So can you give an example of kind of the primary research ideas that are like interviewing people or…?

Clifton Dawson: Yeah. So a really good example of a source of primary research that we do that’s truly unique to our Greenlight, we do have a really robust industry survey that we’ve done over the last two years and we are doing now for the pathway. We do it twice a year where we survey a few thousand industry participants, be it small developers or hardware manufactures or service providers about their expectations for the industry, expectations for the their own businesses and help develop really good benchmarks for which we use and gauge how the industry is evolving and really feed all the other areas of research that we do. And so that’s something that we take pride in maintaining annually and that’s again just part of being category focused and it’s really unique to Greenlight.

Dave Kruse: Got you. And what are some of the questions or answers in those parts of that report?

Clifton Dawson: Sure, yeah. You know it’s funny that you are asking that – you are asking about that particular area of research that we did, because we are literally fielding the study, the fourth way of what we call the virtual reality industry monitor survey. And so sometimes I think what we dive into is the unit economics of production; the understanding that you are let’s say – that you are working on a VR first person shooter, you know how many titles do you have currently in your pipeline, how many more are you expecting over the next 12 months; how long does it take you to create your experience from start to finish and sort of where you expect to price and how do you expect to price.

Those are things that if being able – that actually deviates significantly between firm type, like a small firm versus a big firm, both the metrics change as it deviates significantly by content type and some cap form that you support and those are sort of things that we labor to understand, because we think it’s important to quantify for really solid industry analysis.

Dave Kruse: Interesting. Yeah, well it is. I mean it’s those details that seem maybe not important, but those are the ones that are interesting and I know how much you can share. I mean I’m curious, because I know the VR game is just kind of getting going. You know what does – in terms of like teams, because some video games of course have you know hundreds and hundreds of people. You know have you seen good sized teams developing VR games or budgets or how long does it take? You know can you share any insights around that?

Clifton Dawson: Yeah, I mean I think it’s a really interesting area that you know takes a lot of time for us to unpack. But one of the things I’ve noticed in the data set and I can program now in our fourth way is that those team sizes are expanding and the sort of productivity of different teams sort of varies by team size, right, so the larger the change, in fact the longer it actually takes to sort of create, even you are trying to standardize for content covered category or location and some other factors.

I think ultimately what’s interesting is when you begin to connect differently types of research together to understand where this entry in going, about what these opportunities are and what I mean by that is you know it’s really important that we do this research with industry participants, but it’s also important that you connect that to consumer research, right. So understanding among consumers can be less or other regions, what are their attitudes and behaviors as it relates to this technology.

So like we do with our industry research, we do an annual consumer adoption study, which is currently under development too and connecting these different types of research together really gives us a high level view of here how the industry is unfolding, particularly over time.

Dave Kruse: Interesting, okay. And you know how do you see kind of the, at least a VR – you know AR obviously got some detraction of Pokémon Go, but at least for the mobile headsets it might take a while, but with like VR, you know where do you see VR becoming main stream first? You have like education, you have gaming, you kind of have entertainment, probably missing some other spaces, you know yeah, where in your research do you – I don’t know if you look into those questions or not, but how do you see VR eventually becoming more mainstream?

Clifton Dawson: Yeah, I mean I think that’s a really good question and I think we are very early in our profits for understanding that particular, and so I think it’s a really important point around that. So anyone working in the industries is visually trying to unpack and so I think in trying to – you know all of has industry wide servers and participants firm, you know ultimately what we need to appreciate is the timing of which we are talking about main stream first? What do you mean when you say mainstream, right? Are we talking about a certain number of – a certain penetration of household in the U.S. or globally?

Are we talking about you know a benchmark of use cases and engagement, which I would argue is incredibility, incredibility important, that’s what we should be shopping for. And then again, are we talking about some mainstream within the households or within a sort of enterprises. You know I think there is a lot of sort of – I think the answer of your question depends on a lot of factors.

I think one thing it does not depend on is time and what I mean by that is we are not talking about years; we are really talking about decades right. Anyone working in the industry and I kind of believe it should be thinking about the industry in decades, half decades, not you know two or three years. And so when we forecast the industry, we are really thinking about what are the drivers and enablers of industry adoption on a large scale and a long time horizon.

So things like the global rollout of 5G and its something like that I think it’s important. We think drivers like the untethering of headsets is an important enabler of adoption and then you know I think we are also looking at transitions between different mediums, right.

So you know what sort of you know – I think we are watching to see how consumers are being educated and embracing VR, so that we understand you know sort of what penetration and usage would look like in the model or early adopters and particularly young research I think per the misguided half of conversations about the technology becoming mainstream without looking at the behavior of young people and how they embrace this technology.

Dave Kruse: And do you have and this would have to be like off the top of your head, so that’s fine if you don’t, but do you have any noteworthy forecasts and I’m sure you do in your reports. You don’t have to give away stuff that you know you usually sell, but you know whether its – I mean this would be a generic question, but how many VR headsets are going to be around in five years or it don’t have to be that, but do you have any noteworthy forecast off the top of your head? It fine if you don’t.

Clifton Dawson: Yeah, I mean I think – bear with me. I’m checking for something…

Dave Kruse: That sounds good.

Clifton Dawson: Lets come back to that question I guess and I’ll try and pull something up.

Dave Kruse: So I was curious you know. What was your – you probably spent some time in VR, AR. Is there certain application that you like to – that has really kind of blown you way or impressed you that you’ve experienced.

Clifton Dawson: Well, you know I think, as an analyst I do not – I intentionally try not to pick winners and losers, but you know there are a number of applications and experiences for which I find myself, when I power up let’s say the in-store I try to, its within the first five that I go back to and what’s unique about those ones are one, they are – I find that the, the DUX within the – if it’s a good application, its unique to the medium and so being able to create my own experience, to reversing the experience, it feels very fluid and so I really like that about a number of apps and that’s something I’m actually noticing across many applications.

And then secondly, I always enjoy interacting with other people, particularly people that I don’t know. I have no other reasons to be connecting with in VR. So playing a game of basketball with someone in VR is something that I really enjoy doing, believe it or not or you know just doing some paint ball and stuff like that in VR with a group that I actually don’t know and I just met, it’s something that brings me a lot of pleasure.

Dave Kruse: Well, there is always that, and this still surprises me. I’m sure I don’t do as much as you, but whenever you go into VR and you interact with other people, it’s definitely – it’s not like being in person, but it’s a lot more than being over the phone or even this video is definitely a very intimate relationship. You know you experience personal boundaries even if you just have like an avatar, which is weird, but this kind of shows you the power of the VR medium I guess.

Clifton Dawson: Yeah, yeah and then it also shows you I think some of the challenges that I think it still has and just getting to understand around you know sort of social interaction through the medium, right, because it does give people, I think a heightened sense of boundaries and but then at the same time for some people it actually removes those boundaries as to how we negotiate that within the medium that’s going to be a very important question that anyone who is creating an experience or creating a platform that enables this experience has to adjust very seriously in and I think we haven’t even scratched the surface on that.

Dave Kruse: Yeah, your right. All right so if somebody, there is a company like allows us, we should really get caught up to speed, let’s call Clifton, like how does the process work? The main reports that you have is kind of this primary research report. What if they have like other questions, like throughout, another time like hey what about this Clifton or how does the relationship work with your clients?

Clifton Dawson: Sure, yeah. So the – if you want to access our research, there is GreenlightInsights.com and a number of our reports are available for ordering right away, although we do make a select report available on a subscription basis. But if someone who is new to the industry wants to understand our outlook on the industry, a good place to start is our industry report which we publish in the spring and the fall. This year we are co-offering that with another VR company called Road To VR and that’s a 100 page report that contains a lot of research and outlook on the industry. So we look at ways to sort of get us sense for the things that we think are important and will drive the industry long term.

In terms of engaging with us, we are always acceptable for a conversation, e-mailing myself or our team at GreenlightInsights.com or finding us on Twitter and just talking at us and we will talk back. And if you are up for meeting us in VR, we are always jumping of basis and things like that and we ask for a quick chat.

Dave Kruse: Excellent, okay. And the last question and maybe you can’t just well – yeah, you know I was curious, the question was if you had investment fund, like where would you be putting your money in VR now? I mean there’s so many different places from – I mean I guess the headsets are a lot of big guys, but there’s some smaller guys, but there is also lots of controls and then there is games and then there is like more B2B kind of content, its mobile, it’s kind of overwhelming. But where do – yeah, I mean where do you think some of the more interesting plays could be at?

Clifton Dawson: Yeah, you know I think one that was asked throughout your questions and because I find myself answering – realizing that to answer that it depends on a lot of clarifying assumptions, and so I think one, it really depends on the type of investor you are and the timeframe for what you want to invest on.

Every year we do a year end review on the venture funding landscapes surrounding VR and AR. So we just finished up the study that you can read about on our blog. Looking at the deal volume and transaction activity since 2011 through the end of 2006, it seems that looking at what sub-categories are fast growing, those are the time horizons and that sort of really, really good work.

One of the things that I think is evident in the data in terms of where sophisticated investors are investing, you know still it’s a sort of portfolio approach to investing in categories that where there is a clear opportunity for sort of exit opportunities within a reasonable time horizon and there are some trends there. But I think if you’re like me and you are just really excited about the space and if you were to sort of invest your time and effort I would say you know, find a space that you are particularly excited by and just connect to it, because whichever one it is, it’s going to be a very long horizon that you are going to be building a business. There is really no kind of short cut for that.

Dave Kruse: No and I like your long term perspective, thinking decades not years. Your science is just a healthy attitude, like you are not going to see this take off in six months right. Six years you are going to see some traction and 15 years it could be amazing, but you know that’s just how – like you said, like cell phones and I think that’s a healthy attitude I think and realistic probably.

Clifton Dawson: Yeah, look I think if you are you know sitting here with you know a unique algorithm for doing you know inside out positional tracking, maybe there is a you know – there is an opportunity for her as I said within a short time horizon, but I really think that for the vast majority of people who are excited by the industry, it’s really about you know taking that passion and investing it in the medium for a payoff that’s going to take a half decade, a decade or longer to come to fruition.

Dave Kruse: Makes sense. All right, well I think that just about does it. So Clifton, I really appreciate your time. It was fun to hear about your background and your insights to VR and AR and I definitely appreciate your time for coming on the show.

Clifton Dawson: Yeah, thanks so much for inviting me on. It’s been a lot of fun.

Dave Kruse: Definitely, and thanks everyone for listening to another equipoise of Flyover Labs. As always, I greatly appreciate it and will see you next time. Bye everyone. Bye Clifton.