From the club to the couch: how one Kiwi company is changing the way we think about, play and watch sport

As Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball shows, the clever use of data and technology can mean the difference between winning and losing in sport and, with massive broadcasting rights being signed here and around the world and a range of brands hitching their wagons to professional athletes, there’s plenty at stake. And VX Sport, a Kiwi tech company, is quietly revolutionising the way sport is played—and, maybe, how it’s watched. 

The company has created a wearable-tech hardware/software system that provides detailed analytics for sports teams and coaches. Athletes wear a set of sensors – a log, vest and heart rate strap – which transmits data points, via GPS, to a receiver. The receiver measures distance travelled, the number of sprints performed, accelerations, heart rate zones, body forces, metabolic power, then provides simplified reporting of athletes’ performance, giving coaches an accurate view of the wearer’s workload. 

The system has been used by some of the biggest sports teams in New Zealand and overseas and while there’s plenty of potential there, another big opportunity is to visualise that data for media companies. As competition among broadcasters and brands to provide the most compelling viewing experiences increases, a range of innovations have become standard (think Hot Spot for cricket, Hawkeye for tennis or Animation Research’s visualisation for the America’s Cup). VX Sport has formed partnerships with such big name brands as Red Bull, NBC Sport and Quiksilver, among others, so we tracked down VX Sport’s managing director, Richard Snow, to find out just what it takes to break into the lucrative US sports market.

Tell us a little bit about VX Sport. What’s your story?

Richard Snow: Well, we’re unusual for a technology company. We’ve had the good fortune to grow the company and self-fund it for nine years, so, really, it’s been completely different from the usual entrepreneurial model. We’ve been focused on the international export model from day one. Now we’ve got reasonable traction in the US, so now we need to address that market … which is enormous.

VX Sport has been involved with some pretty big name brands over the years. What are some of the highlights?

VX Sport was first in the world to provide real-time speed and distance for pro surfing, which we did for Quiksilver on the Queensland rounds of the ASP World Pro Surf tour in 2011 and 2012. These were two-week rounds with TV and web broadcasting going on all throughout event. 

We met the head of Red Bull High Performance Sport during that tour for Quiksilver and in 2013 Red Bull made a series of videos using our technology. These were in conjunction with NBC Sport as a post-production exercise.

We sponsor the Phoenix, Hurricanes, Blues and NZ Rugby League so our brand often appears on TV, either as ground signage, as when TV films them at training. There are many more one off events as well, like horse racing videos using an HD jockey camera, with his heart rate and speed displayed.

So let’s talk about the tech. Where is it at now? Are you still in development?

You never stop on tech, but we’re in the fourth generation since 2009, so we’re getting to the point where it’s pretty refined. The next thing for us is a cloud data service that will be open at the end of the year, because we’re PC-based at the moment.

What will the cloud-tech do?

The cloud data service will extend the application of our technology and allow two-way interaction between the athletes and the data, not just the coaches. With a tablet the athletes will be able to see their data after the match and exchange their own inputs – such as how well they feel, how rested they are – with their coach. It’s matching that internal psychology with the external million data points, which gives you a much fuller picture. That benefits everyone.

There are others in this space though, right? What do you see as VX Sport’s competitive advantage over your competitors?

One of our strengths is our smallness and the reliability of our real-time data receiver. Compared with any of the competing products, it’s tiny, it has better range and better reliability.

We’re moving into the college space now, so having a product that those customers can afford, that’s another difference between us and our competitors.

Is that that the focus at the moment? US colleges?

It is. We started moving into the US at the beginning of 2014.

The biggest take up for us, by far, is soccer, although we are also bringing on field hockey and lacrosse teams. The obvious ones are football and basketball of course, but they are areas we haven’t yet focused on. It’s a matter of sorting priorities. You’ve got to focus on the few that will meet your strategy. Plenty of companies have failed because they’ve lost that focus and they’ve tried to take on too many opportunities at a time.

NZTE came into the picture in early 2015 and we engaged with them about investment and capital strategies.

What does NZTE bring to the table?

They’re excellent at providing a forum to link companies with complementary technologies – where there’s synergies, opportunities for collaboration, and meeting investment people who can advise and assist in that growth. It’s quite subtle, but it’s quite effective. They’re an ally for companies they work with. Running and growing companies and marketing is a core skill that any technology company needs, but in terms of growth and investment strategy, that’s quite a complex area so they can help you understand the right investment paths and help you meet the right people.

Speaking of meeting the right people, how do you get in front of the right people in the US market?

The old fashioned way. We run some social media – Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn – but they are supporting channels. They’re no substitute for actually contacting and engaging with people. That’s the lesson. Don’t expect, if you’ve got a complex product, to not go and contact your customers. You have to. Nothing substitutes going and engaging with your customers directly.

Image: VX Sport managing director, Richard Snow

So it’s about being willing to spend that time developing relationships rather than going for a scattershot approach with, say, Google AdWords or a Facebook advertising campaign?

Yes, especially given that you’re engaging them in a sale that’s a multi-thousand dollar commitment over several years. That’s not a decision that gets made in a minute. Social media has its place. If you’re engaging with fans, then social media supports that, but if you’re getting someone to part with some real money, it’s a great idea to go and see them face to face.

That direct interaction generates an enormous amount of goodwill. People like to actively engage with other people who know the product. Electronic media just doesn’t compete.

Are you seeking investment right now?

Yes. This is a growing market for us. We’ve got a very small sales team at the moment, so our investment round is to support that sales team on the ground. This is the very first time that we’ve needed to do that since our original research and development.  

Really? How has the company been financed so far?  

I backed it as an angel investor myself, which is highly unusual for start-ups. I’d previously established a successful company – New Zealand consultancy companyIntellex, a specialist industrial electrical engineering and consulting company.

That’s quite a luxury to be able to that. And quite a risk.

I guess it is, but I think it’s just reflective of the way I like to work. I’m interested in doing high integrity business with proven products, and I wouldn’t ask anyone to invest unless I had a product that was tested. That’s not really the typical start-up model.

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