Earlier this year, the world flocked to the web to watch a reality show about eagles living in a nest on British Columbia's West Coast. At its peak, the EagleCam site was getting 14 million unique hits a day and reached 17,000 simultaneous streams, says Arthur Griffiths, the current CEO of the company behind the scenes, Infotec Business Systems Inc. To put those numbers into perspective, consider the world record for simultaneous streams for one event is 100,000, which was set by Pope Benedict XVI's first mass.
Now this tiny Vancouver-based company has even more audacious goals. It wants to be the Discovery Channel of the Internet. But it also wants to be a player in the music industry and, get this, an international telecommunications company. To that end, Infotec signed a deal in late September with Saudi Arabian wireless carrier UBG/Mazsky International to deliver messaging, voice-over-Internet protocol and video-streaming services to the Middle East. “We expect to send 85-million-plus messages shortly, and that's into only one country,” says Griffiths, adding a similar deal is pending for a large Asian country. According to Infotec's publicist Christopher Bennett, hits to date are 13.5 million half a million per day.
Telecom, even in the form of video streaming and wireless, seems a stretch for a company whose claims to fame are a penchant for animal reality shows and a high-profile CEO who used to own the Vancouver Canucks, Vancouver Grizzlies and GM Place. “You stop and say to yourself: are you trying to do too many things at one time?” says Griffiths, “but it's fascinating because they actually all relate.” Griffiths says consumers see broadband Internet connectivity as a great way to receive phone services and television. “It would almost be too narrow to say we're just going to stream video, when the customer at the other end wants the Internet and phone products as well. Suddenly, they all converge,” says Griffiths. “New technology in many parts of the world is pretty much the only way to do that.”
Not that entering the crowded telco sector has stopped Infotec from expanding its kooky web lineup. There's the AfriCam, which tracks wildlife in South Africa, and Grizzly Cam, showing bears on Vancouver's Grouse Mountain. The cameras have infrared capabilities, so people can watch nocturnal action which sounds like a good recipe for sleep. Infotec is also streaming live events, including a series of boxing bouts between film director Uwe “Raging” Boll and four of his critics. The live event snagged a half-million hits and 8,000 simultaneous streams; Infotec also televised it for a $5 download fee. (If you're really interested in watching the House of the Dead director fight, you can still download it.) Broadcasting oddities is just the beginning for this penny stock. It's also started a website, Nextposure.com, which showcases independent musicians who pay to have their videos available for viewing. (In return, the artists retain control of their works, get exposure and additional web traffic to their own sites.) So far, 200 artists have signed up the most well-known being Simon Collins, son of middle-of-the-road hitmaker Phil with another 100 soon to be added. Think of it as a MySpace with video only. Infotec is also deploying Internet television into Mexico and telephone service into condos.
That's a lot of deal-making since Griffiths joined the fledgling company last February. But Infotec's odd business model is no stranger than the long trip that brought Griffiths to this point. Most people will remember Griffiths as the one-time owner of the Vancouver Canucks, the NHL team his family bought in 1974, and for building GM Place, the last large sporting facility built in Canada without dipping into taxpayers' pockets. Griffiths also brought the NBA to town, although the love affair with the Grizzlies was a short-lived one. Then there was the one-year stint as chairman of Vancouver's bid to get the Canadian Olympic Association's nod to compete for the 2010 Winter Games. Griffiths' work paid off, but he left soon after the association gave Vancouver its approval. Starting in 1997, Griffiths also spent three years leading the development of the Millennium Line, a $1.2-billion rapid-transit project in Vancouver that was then the largest in British Columbia's history.
Get the picture? Griffiths is a man who likes big ideas, particularly high-profile ones with a Vancouver bent. So what's he doing with a company that trades on the OTC Bulletin Board in the U.S., where small-time operators thrive? A company that earned just US$219,000 in the quarter ended July 31 and has generated only US$439,000 in revenue since its inception in late 2002, while burning through US$2.2 million? Not to mention a company whose founder and technology brains, Edward Clunn, is currently in the middle of a 20-year ban by the B.C. Securities Commission for hiding key information from shareholders of a company called IMT Mobile Medical Technologies Inc. that he took public in 1989. “I'm not here to run long-term a bulletin board company,” says Griffiths. Pressed for details, Griffiths says a bigger board is in the cards. “The original plan was to have a main entry portal, which is now called wavelit.com, and under that a number of viewing options, from sports to music to news, business and so on,” says Griffiths. “We aggregate multiple viewing experiences like a broadcast cable company. That was our original business model and that is one we're executing on today.”
Infotec's strategy pits Griffiths not only against the variety of do-it-yourself web outlets such as MySpace, YouTube and a host of smaller hobby sites, but also traditional television broadcasters. What sets Infotec apart is that it owns the technology that makes its live streaming events watchable for long periods. Anyone who has surfed the web has come across the standard grainy, choppy web videos. Infotec claims its encoder, a shoebox-sized box that sells for up to $4,000, is almost able to achieve television quality on the fly, as long as the lighting is good. That allows subscribers who pay a monthly or one-time fee to watch channels or events live, or reruns at their own convenience.
Let's face it, any television exec who pitched an entire channel dedicated to watching eagles go about their business would be looking to make sure the door didn't hit his ass on the way out. Yet, it's the kind of thing that can work on the web. Consider: each country may only have a few people interested in watching eagles. Add up those numbers globally, though, and the potential audience is large. That's why, even in an era where there is seemingly already a digital or cable channel for every interest, the Internet and web-savvy companies such as Infotec pose a threat to established media companies, for they offer even more niche programming at a fraction of the cost. “Most broadcasters are still worried about what the Internet will do to their channel. Will it take away viewers on TV?” says Griffiths. “The smart companies that create content, whether it's a TV series or sporting event, have separated out the viewing from Internet and television, because the Internet is a whole new world.” The result? Broadcasters buy the Internet rights as well, and black out the local market using web address-blocking software. Or, like NBC and Rupert Murdoch have already done, they buy the new media firms who have laid the groundwork and aggregated the content.
Griffiths, for one, doesn't view Infotec's multi-faceted “new-age broadcasting” business model as a big stretch from his family's 40-plus years owning WIC Western International Communications Ltd., one of this country's larger broadcasters before it was sold to Shaw Communications Inc. in 1999. He says the business is still about building relationships with others in the industry, and there aren't many he doesn't know, thanks to his family connections. “The best part about Infotec is that when you talk about your customers and viewers, you're not just talking about people who are in Vancouver or Canada or the United States. It's the world,” says Griffiths. “When someone says your audience, if not your revenue, is predicated on what piece of the worldwide market in broadband you can pick up, your eyes start to dance.”
Griffiths has spent a great deal of his life doing things his own way. Take his erstwhile sporting empire. Starting up the basketball Grizzlies was probably a mistake from the start, as the losing team never caught on, but the Canucks seemed more of a sure thing in hockey-mad Canada. In 1981, at the age of 24, Griffiths became his father's assistant at Northwest Sports Enterprises Ltd., which owned the hockey team. In 1994, Griffiths, along with sister Emily and Seattle businessman John McCaw, bought the team, an arena under construction and the NBA franchise. Four years later, Griffiths sold out to McCaw, a victim of NHL economics and the weak Canadian dollar, which put him at a 40% disadvantage to American teams. It didn't help that the NHL suffered a labour lockout not long after GM Place was opened, not to mention two NBA labour disputes during the Griffiths years.
Ironically, the things that forced Griffiths out of hockey have since been fixed. The dollar is strong and the NHL has a new financial structure that gives every team a shot at winning. Still, Griffiths says he doesn't miss it. “Leaving was actually a very good awakening for me, because you get so consumed,” says Griffiths. “I look at some of the executives and owners, and they can't function without a fix for their hockey. I'm like, 'Gosh, guys, there's more to life than this.'”
Like taking a chance on a technology startup when you're 49? “This is a fun time in my life, for sure, but also for the world, period,” he says. “There is no template. There is nobody saying this will be successful if you follow this approach. It's like a blank piece of paper.” One thing is certain, it's a long way from the ice rinks of Vancouver to the sandbox of Mecca.