The Shot Stats Challenge
As a co-founder of Shot Stats, I wanted to create a report detailing the struggles and lessons learned in trying to bring to life Shot Stats’ flagship product, Challenger. It, along with its companion mobile app, would supply real time swing data to tennis players and coaches directly to their tennis rackets.
My goal is to provide our Kickstarter backers and partners with an explanation and closure, and at the same time, share my obstacles with budding entrepreneurs in the hope that they avoid the mistakes I made.
Why I Started Shot Stats
Right out of undergrad, I found myself working as a consultant assisting some heavy hitters. In the beginning, I was beyond excited. I was driven and enthusiastic — expecting to make an impact. An impact that gets me recognized, promoted, and you know, a bit more successful and richer.
My definition of “impact” and “success” changed in those 4 years. Call it ambition or stubbornness/ignorance but I began to see things differently and wanted more. This, by no means, is meant to undervalue my past role. I learned so much during those years, met folks far smarter/ambitious than myself, and made some lifelong friends. I just found that my goals weren’t aligned to the company’s goals. For me to dedicate that much time to anything, I needed it to be towards something meaningful to myself and to be honest, I had no idea what that “something” was. I needed a reset.
I moved to Sydney, Australia. There I studied business and design, while beginning to coach and play tennis again. This would be the first time I played competitively in over 8 years.
My love for the game was rekindled there. Tennis is my spark. I love it and can’t get enough of it. I love the mental and physical challenge. I love the the solidarity and teamwork. I love it because it has bettered my life and countless others. I play it, teach it, and share it. I can’t imagine not being a part of that world — it’s my fuel.
I learned design theory and practical skills in the classroom, but found inspiration on the tennis court. I saw the hours dedicated to the game by players, coaches, and parents. I saw the creativity of coaches first hand — using everything from hula hoops, bean bags, beach balls, footballs (soccer and American), chairs, and blindfolds. More conventionally, coaches used video for analysis and pencil to paper for stat tracking. This creativity and my research proved to me that coaches sought innovation in a sport that was slow to the game.
At the same time, tennis players are constantly scouring the web for drills, tips, and tricks to continually improve. There is amazing content (video and written) created by incredible and credible coaches.
My mission became to curate current online content, grounded in statistics, to bring together coaches and players. I wanted to give players and coaches more than just trivial data points. I wanted to truly reimagine the possibilities around teaching and learning tennis. Tennis deserves it.
Designing Shot Stats Challenger
We decided to create a product based on the following:
Make stats instant — use sound, use a bracelet, use a dampener. This technology should be an extension of a player’s mind, capturing and digesting data quickly, simply, and seamlessly.
- Find the best content
Look at how players and coaches are finding content beyond what the global coaching associations are saying. Search Youtube, visit the top academies, and talk to committed players of all levels. They are the hidden genius, and for the most part would love to get their content in front of the millions of tennis enthusiasts. We need to partner with them.
- Make coaching more accessible
Look deeper at the dynamics and interactions between player and coach. Understand the feedback loops and mimic them. The hope is that this technology could act as a virtual coach, reinforcing the knowledge of a coach or the newly discovered content.
Un-tether the phone. I love my phone — but the only thing it is when I’m playing or coaching is a distraction. Save the review, analysis, and debate for the time off court.
A Crushing Decision
I put over 3 years of my life into this project. We went to China for months, ran a crowdfunding campaign, worked with numerous contractors to advance the prototype and went through several iterations, getting closer and closer to completion. Unfortunately, we were unable to complete the prototype on this limited budget, nor secure additional funding.
When do you call it quits? In tennis, it’s when you can’t lift your arm, when your legs won’t allow you to move, and when your vision becomes hazy. Recharge, grow, and fight on.
After close to 3 years taking no salary, pitching to reluctant investors, and being unable to complete the prototype due to a constant lack of manpower and financial resources, something had to give.
I knew quitting would have real-world consequences with my own self-confidence, but more importantly with our backers, supporters, and the tennis community at large.
When my co-founder and I ended up in credit card debt, forcing him to resign, and our development stalled, it was time.
When people asked me why we failed, I generally answer with the fact that we didn’t have enough funds to continue. It was more deep rooted than that. Some lessons learned that I hope will help provide others with some insight:
1. Ensure all necessary skill sets are on the core team.
Neither my co-founder or I had a background in data science or algorithms development. Our first prototype and second prototype (proof of concept model) had basic swing tracking and calculations. We were falsely confident that we could produce a set of robust and accurate algorithms.
Lacking this core competency required that we spend time and money on finding potential resources. Ultimately, we made the decision to outsource that work. As talented as the team was, there were delays due to the time difference and not being able to be present with the developers during on-court testing to discuss important details. In addition to this, our funds only allowed us to keep them on for 4 months.
Beyond not initially having that core competency in house, I was unable to find, entice, and hire a data scientist. Not having the funds to support a full-time employee led me to find another founding member rather than an employee. I had no issues with sharing equity, in fact I preferred it. The trouble was we couldn’t compete with other fully funded startups offering much more enticing offers, with less risk.
2. Co-founders’ visions must align.
Founders will not always see eye to eye, obviously. Those differences can help avoid blind spots. However, when the founder’s core vision of the company do not align, it will lead to issues down the road.
Tennis was always first for me, and I wanted to build a tennis centric company. My co-founder’s vision did not align to this.
These differences can’t be hidden regardless how hard we tried. People, in particular investors, can often see this misalignment. Without a crystal clear, shared vision important decisions are hard to make. Each time a significant decision compromises the vision of either founder — that relationship becomes more and more strained.
3. Kickstarter “success” doesn’t mean fundable project.
We crowdfunded too soon. At the time of launch we had everything Kickstarter required, including a working prototype. That being said, we were too far away from production and grossly underestimated the cost and effort. Below are reasons why we thought we should have crowdfunded:
- After discussions with factories while in China we were confident that we could produce in a timely manner.
- Build traction for investment. 1.02% of projects raised over $100k successfully on Kickstarter.
- Needed the funds to develop quicker.
- Grow our reach and build a community.
These are why we were wrong, respectively:
- We underestimated the cost/time to finish development to be in shape for manufacturing.
- Contrary to common belief (at the time) a successful crowdfunding campaign didn’t make Shot Stats an attractive investment. Investors cared more about seeing how our product would do in the market, the actual market.
- We had roughly 4 months of runway. We should have focused on utilizing other quicker funding options to get our development moving, eventually getting to a production quality prototype before raising on Kickstarter.
- Crowdfunding definitely helped us quickly build a community of amazing supporters. But that community could not help us, yet.
4. My inexperience fundraising hampered our need to raise capital.
I know myself better now. I excel on the product side — iterating, designing, testing. I excel at building and growing partnerships. I fell short in fundraising.
Pitching for money is completely different than pitching a passion.
There were many reasons why we didn’t raise a larger round that would have driven us forward but the crux of it was my inexperience in fundraising. Finding resources is the primary role of a startup’s CEO and a role that requires an innate ability to persuade and sell. These resources included capital/grants, co-founders/teammates/volunteers, and corporate partners. As I struggled to find investment capital, I was unable to secure an additional co-founder who could.
You won’t find a better advocate on the how and why tennis lovers should use this product than me, but as for pitching and selling the company as an excellent investment, I failed. Having to transform my dreams and ambitions into something that will lead into a convincing return was something difficult and not natural for me.
I skewed my thinking, viewing the situation from the perspective of investors. This was a necessary and helpful exercise, but at the end of the day my inexperience compounded by the fact that we didn’t have a fully working prototype that we could demonstrate was too big of an obstacle.
Of all the lessons learned, this was the hardest to come to a realization with and one of the most important areas of personal and professional growth. Know this early and if you aren’t the best person to raise money, find and get that person as part of the founding team. This team member will be crucial in driving the company forward.
5. Be wary of unaccredited investors and equity crowdfunding platforms
Question everything. If it sounds too good to be true — question it more.
We decided to explore the world of equity crowdfunding. What came from it was quite surprising. A few hours after going live on the platform, “investor” request starting streaming through. Among the “investors” were students looking for research, prospective employees, and con-artists. Unfortunately, we fell near victim to one of these con-artists.
Some of the scams were quite obvious, while some were quite elaborate. In our case, the “investor” was a jewelry executive based out of Southern California. The signs were there — not having a LinkedIn profile and an oddly vague and templated company site. I was blind to them in the hopes of furthering the company. We wasted the time and cost of a trip to visit and pitch him, all in the meanwhile creating document after document for him to share amongst his group of “investors”.
We were alerted to this article and immediately recognized the path we were heading. Essentially, being locked with a “fixer” who might jeopardize potential funding, rather than support it. Fortunately, nothing was signed and we moved past it — not without wasted effort and lessened morale.
On a slight tangent, another trap we fell into was creating prototypes which had the sole purpose of appeasing prospective investors. I learned, the hard way, that if an investor makes you go through hoops, 1) he or she is not confident and will likely not sign a check, 2) in the off chance you do get a check, the investor will likely hinder rather than promote progress. We wasted time and money on meeting prospective investors requests when we should have used that money to finish our product.
6. Control overwhelming emotions
Slow down, rash decisions are bad decisions.
I put everything I had into the company. I sacrificed my past career and saw both my savings and retirement funds dissipate. I was all in.
Both my personal and business emotions were tied to the ups and downs of the company. There were many of them, too many of them. My highs were too high and my lows were too low. During the lows, I found myself sleepless, physically exhausted, mentally drained, angry, and constantly burdened. No founder can operate this way. My productivity fell, our collaboration dwindled, and my decisions were not well educated.
May 14, 2013 — Core team formed
October 15, 2013 — Proof of concept created
January 23, 2014 — HAX Kickoff in Shenzhen, China
May 30, 2014 — Alpha Prototype
June 8, 2014 — Crowdfunding goal reached
September 15, 2014 — Partnership with algorithms contractor formed
January 6, 2015 — Presented at the Consumer Electronics Show
April 20, 2015 — Alpha prototype completed
June 6, 2015 — Investment round of $75K
November 11, 2015 — Beta prototype produced
February 28, 2016 — End of production announcement to backers
Use of Crowdfunded Funds:
The cost of contractors and prototyping exceeded the amount of funds we received through Kickstarter. Here are the core expenditures directly for development. These expenditures do not include the initial prototyping before Kickstarter and after the Kickstarter funds were depleted. That total was roughly another $125,000 from outside investment and our own personal accounts. It is worth mentioning that I did not take a salary from the company, ever.
I apologize to my backers, investors, and supporters. You were all apart of of this dream and campaign to innovate and make a difference in the way we teach and train sports.
To our backers:
I would like nothing more but to grab a coffee with each and everyone of you and personally apologize and hear your thoughts, criticisms, and feedback. I imagined that if we were successful, we would work hand in hand to continue to iterate and develop Challenger to meet your needs. I wanted this to be your product and something you could have ownership over.
Your pledges enabled us to take a simple concept and grow it into something that can change how we teach the game that we all love. It meant the world to me that there were 687 people that believed in my vision. Your feedback, kind and harsh alike, was heard and taken to heart. My hope is that one day this concept and product can be realized, even if it isn’t by me, and that your pledges pushed our game forward.
I poured everything I had into Shot Stats and I am sincerely sorry for letting each one of you down.
Our entire engineering package and designs will be made available to all backers. Please reach out to me via Kickstarter if you would like them.
To our investors:
You believed in me. You pushed me. You mentored me. You gave me the chance to do something amazing. It meant the world to me.
My time at HAX will not be forgotten and I will carry all the lessons learned from it. What you do on a day to day is making a huge difference in world that is ripe for change. I’m proud and humbled to be a part of your movement and your family. Thank you.
To our partners and supporters:
Thank you for your encouragement, hard work, advice, and understanding. We would not have gotten anywhere without you. Your testimonials, blogs, feedback, and connections were instrumental. If there is anyway I can do to help please don’t hesitate to reach out. I plan to remain in the world of sports and to continue to look for new, innovative ways to improve it.