Numbers are taking over the world of professional sport, as data on the speed, acceleration and biometrics of athletes becomes increasingly important to coaches and managers. And when they need this type of info, they turn to Richard Snow and the tech behind his company VX Sport.
What has your journey been like so far?
For us, it’s been a nine-year journey through R&D and then six and half years with the product on the market. We grow every year, but we’re always in a position where we never have enough money. At the moment I’d like to do a really big PR piece in the US market, but I just can’t afford it. We’re literally going out with plans to do a crowd-funding round in January. We’re just putting that in place. We’ve never gone out for external funding, which is unusual for a start-up company.
Why did you develop this technology?
There are numerous ways in sports to track athlete motion and a lot of the earlier systems involved video technology, which was pretty crude. The difference between what we do and camera tracking does is that we look after the athlete. It’s all about the tracking and optimisation of the athlete. In other words, you’re taking information on speed, heart rate, acceleration and distances—there are literally somewhere between 200 and 300 metrics that we calculate—and you use that essentially to optimise performance and training. You can look for patterns and changes in patterns in performance that would indicate that they’re injured or at risk of injury.
Is there really a need for this level of data?
There’s a significant amount of published sport research and unfortunately there’s probably more research out there than people use in an effective way. Even from pre-release of the product, we had the ability to look at hip forces and imbalances. It was way too advanced for what the user market was back then. I think we’re finally entering a phase of the market when there’s a lot more awareness of health and fitness. It’s partly due to sports watches and fitness trackers. Without dismissing the Fit Bits and the sports trackers on your phone, they’re not really that accurate and they’re not really professional or suitable for serious level sports.
Who is the target market?
We launched our very first athlete-tracking product in early to mid-2009, with the emphasis that this company and product would be for an international market. There was never any intention that it would be anything other than an international product and export company.
Why this focus on the international market?
The investment required for technology is significant. The reality is that the New Zealand market is too small, and the investment required to make the whole thing work is very high. You couldn’t find a product like this having a big enough market in New Zealand. It just wouldn’t work. The investment when you do a hardware electronics product plus software requires millions of dollars just to get you to the starting line … When I first looked into the market size, I thought there was a significant market out there, but it was premised on international sales in the US, UK and Europe.
Do you think the size of the Kiwi market dissuades innovators?
For companies that produce low volume but big-ticket items, there’s a natural advantage in a market like the US where if something takes hold it’s rapidly scalable. And if you look in New Zealand at most of the big successes, like Xero, they are rapidly scalable, but they rely on that international market.
So should Kiwi innovators head offshore?
If you’re trying to do a product in New Zealand that’s hardware, it would have to be domestic to make it work. People talk about going to China, but unless you’re making hundreds of thousands of products a year for a technology product, then you’d need to do it in New Zealand, but you can’t rely on the local market to support you.
What are some of the sports teams you’ve worked with?
In 2011, we got an engagement with Quiksilver to monitor pro surfing in Australia on one of their international rounds, and it was great. It was the first time ever that anyone had done speed and distance from a surfer to a live TV and web broadcast … We also met Red Bull in those early years and they did three videos on mountain biking and skateboarding using our data. In 2009, we established a relationship with Channel 9 in Australia and we’ve done a number of cricket tests, where they tracked the bowlers and batsmen. We also did a season of 20-20 cricket with Sky and few years ago. A few years back we also did a summer season of beach ironman and ironwoman competitions with Telstra Clear in Australia … The fact is that all of the New Zealand national rugby teams use our products.
Is the utility limited to sport?
No. We’ve got military users in New Zealand. The New Zealand Army has been using it over the last 12 months for identifying and analysing early injury patterns with new recruits. And at the moment there are also some moves into education. We have a technology agreement with the University of South Australia for use of the product in schools. And we also have Kelston Boys’ High School in Auckland integrating our product into the sport and teaching curriculum.
What’s the application for education?
It’s a bit of a Trojan Horse strategy, because people like sport much more than they like technology. But if you can get them playing with or using tech for sport, you’re in fact exposing them to the use of hardware, software and data analysis. The kids love it.
How important is marketing to you?
People have probably quite rightly commented that our company looks very product focused and not very marketing focused. And I accept that criticism, but knowing your market and how it will pick up is quite a tricky thing with new technology. The road of technology is littered with products that are not properly researched, so we had to emphasise getting the product right and also work out who would buy and use it. That’s a many-year process.
So how do you make sales?
With a complex product, you have to put your own people onto it. Where there’s a high sale value and a high level of technical complexity, you have to sell it yourself. So we have our own people [in various locations across the world] … The target market we’ve got is quite complex. It’s not like we’re trying to sell Coca-Cola or concert tickets to a massive audience.
Where to next for VX Sport?
Given that the product is now in its fourth generation, we don’t need to spend as much on the product anymore. We will continue to spend on R&D and product refinement, but we’ve got a well-proven product. We know that it’s probably better than the best alternative on the market. From this point on, our story is all about marketing. The whole story now moves from a product to marketing story.
- This story originally appeared in the January/February edition of NZ Marketing.