Tottenham Hotspur and England center back Eric Dier wants to be clear, the startup might be his side-project, but he is still a key player.
“I am involved in every aspect,” he tells me, more than once.
Dier is sat across a big wooden table at his home in North London with the startup’s other two founders; his brother Patrick and long-time friend Zoe Connick.
Their creation is the app Spotlas, which is something between Instagram and Trip Advisor; a recommendation sharing social network where users can follow friends, family and influencers to see their favourite ‘spots’.
The trio is the app’s executive team and its engine-room, their weekly meetings are where the big decisions are made.
Although Connick and Patrick work on Spotlas full time and it is Dier’s side hustle, the job he does when he’s not manning the heart of the Tottenham Hotspur or England defense, his influence on its direction is equal.
“A key thing for [Eric] is people’s perception often with these things is that; ‘it’s a [soccer player] they’re just like throwing money at it’ or ‘they’re not actually involved.’ Whereas with him [there is] a lot of brain time put into it,” explains Patrick.
“All the ideas, all the designs, are fully discussed between the three of us. Even like management problems, the three of us we deal with it together.”
The pitch to Dier
The trio embarked on the business venture two years ago, inspired by an experience Connick had in her final year at university in Birmingham.
Just before she left the city a close friend took her to a restaurant she immediately loved, but wouldn’t be able to any spend time in.
“I was thinking, how is it so inefficient? That such a close friend of mine has this great recommendation for a place there that I didn’t know about,” she tells me.
The desire to find a solution to the frustration of missing out was the seed from which Spotlas grew.
When she mentioned the idea to the brothers, who were already considering moving into app development, and they were equally taken by the concept.
Not that Dier decided to inject his cash immediately, the trio wanted to do things the proper way.
Connick and Patrick had to pitch the business to the Tottenham defender as they would any outside investor.
“We went back and forth [on the] valuation, negotiating [on] what we need[ed]?” says Patrick.
“It’s very important [to go through that process], I don’t think a startup will do very well if they start with whatever budget they want.”
Whilst Connick studied biology at university and hadn’t intended to go into business, Patrick always had an entrepreneurial spark.
He once got suspended from school for selling cookies bought from the local supermarket at prices that undercut the canteen.
Regardless of your business instincts, forming a company with your brother, even if he is a Premier League soccer player, carries its own challenges.
The siblings were aware of how working together could alter the dynamic of their relationship and made sure to set clear rules from the outset.
Dier continues: “The most important thing is that nothing affects us as brothers. But at the same time, I said to Patrick, when we just started the thing; ‘there’s no one I prefer to do it with.’”
“No one that I know would put in as much hard work as Patrick and Zoe.”
One of the ways they sought to ensure a division between their work on Spotlas and their time together as a family, was by holding their weekly meetings in the app’s offices in central London.
That was until the coronavirus pandemic hit.
The COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent nationwide lockdown couldn’t have come at a more difficult moment for Spotlas.
March, the month all UK restaurants, coffee shops and bars were thrown into an indefinite hiatus, had been earmarked for the launch.
Suddenly the country was being told to “stay home” and avoid going out for all but essential trips.
Unfazed, Connick and the brothers delayed the app’s launch and used lockdown to regroup.
For Dier, whose weekend matches were suddenly put on hold and daily training sessions conducted remotely using video-conferencing platform Zoom, it was an opportunity to reflect.
“Everything was so intense for so long in everything, but with the app as well […] lockdown gave us all a chance to take a step back,” he says.
The delay enabled them to add more features than originally planned, ahead of the app’s ‘soft launch’ last month.
The August release was good timing as the British government had begun encouraging the public to “eat out to help out” by subsidizing a portion of restaurant bills.
Dele Alli’s favourite Chinese restaurant
One major advantage of having an England international soccer star on your management team is that they are connected to other players with large social media followings who can potentially promote the app.
Not that Dier was looking to leverage his influence in the dressing room for Spotlas.
“I don’t want to push into anyone’s hands,” he says.
“Our message is always like; ‘we’ve built this app, we’d love for you to try it.’
“The response has been so positive […] lots of the boys from Tottenham and England they’re on the app and lots of them really like the concept and have published it on their social medias.”
It can’t hurt that a new user quickly sees a host of international soccer players to follow on Spotlas.
Browsing the app you discover which Chinese restaurant in Mayfair Dele Alli recommends or the Sushi place in Greenwich Christian Eriksen says he could eat at “every day.”
“It’s just a stupid conversation”
Despite soccer players having ample free time, the slightly bizarre perception persists amongst some commentators and fans that those who have a serious interest in something outside the sport are less committed.
A clear example of this attitude came a few years back. Former Manchester United players Roy Keane and Gary Neville slammed current Red Devils striker Jesse Lingard’s decision to launch a clothing line one week before the club played Liverpool.
Keane said it made him “worry about the United dressing room” and that in his day “it wouldn’t be tolerated.”
“I think [soccer] should be your number one priority. People say you should have other stuff outside of [soccer], but I don’t think you should,” Keane added.
For Dier, the suggestion that he could be less committed because of his work with Spotlas, is frankly, ridiculous.
“It’s just a stupid conversation because the idea that I don’t want to do as well as I can possibly do at [soccer] doesn’t make sense,” he says.
“No one wants me to do better at [soccer] than I do myself. It’s my number one priority and my number one focus.
“If I was like out partying, you know, or living badly, eating badly, 100% you [would] have an argument. But I don’t do any of those things.
“Me spending my time using my brain on other ideas and trying to build something successful. I don’t understand how that could ever impact my [soccer].”
A big American sports fan, Dier sees a more mature approach to the outside interests of current stars on the other side of the Atlantic.
Current Brooklyn Nets NBA All-Star Kevin Durant, he points out, hosts a podcast in between playing, amongst his other business interests.
“In America, I feel like they’re so far ahead in the sense that basketball players do all sorts of different things outside of the sport and it’s completely accepted,” says Dier.
He adds that when he launched the app, other players approached him in the England set-up to say they had similar side-projects.
Dier is reluctant to name them as “they might not want it to be known”, which is another indication that the British public has a way to go in accepting that it’s healthy for a soccer player to think about something other than the game.
Not that the Tottenham star believes will always be the case.
“I do feel like [soccer] is getting to a better place,” he says.
Foundations for a “new life”
At the moment, Spotlas is focused on establishing an engaged userbase in London, getting insights from these early adopters, ahead of a bigger marketing push to drive numbers.
The eventual goal is to generate revenue by offering a click-through booking service on the platform and incorporate takeaway apps like Deliveroo.
Advertising is another avenue the trio is considering for monetizing the app, although they are clear, not if it disrupts the user experience.
Long term Connick and the Diers want to grow Spotlas as much as they can, other apps might be added to the roster, but they aren’t building a business to sell.
Negotiations are ongoing with new investors, as they gear up for their next push.
For Dier, Spotlas is not only broadening his horizons it is laying the foundations for a career post-soccer, although at 26 that could be the best part of a decade away.
“I’ve set the foundations now for the beginning of a new life, whatever that might be,” he continues.
“I’m not living to 35, and then my life finishes at 35, which I think is the problem in a lot of cases.
“[I’m] setting everything in place so that I can continue to build from 35 and continue to go into different things.
“Spotlas in 10 years, hopefully, is the place that everyone goes to for finding, choosing [and] booking [restaurants] and it’s a household name. That’s the dream.”