5 Things to Learn from Seth Berger of And1 [Basketball, Business]

I was a big fan of And1 for a long time. I really wanted to intern for them, but they never bothered replying.

Thus, while And1 as a company has sucked for nearly 10 years, Seth Berger, the company’s founder, gives me some inspiration as I look into producing a basketball training wearable. His interview with Wharton (UPenn), where he graduated from, gives a lot of insights into the sports business and And1’s mistakes. Even though the interview is nearly six years old, I highly recommend it – most (if not all) of his insights have stood the test of time.

1) …in terms of knowing when it’s the right time: I don’t think we ever knew. I also think we got lucky with a few things that happened: Michael Jordan retiring, Lattrell Sprewell making a great playoff run just after they had signed him…. When the ball bounces, you say in hindsight, “Oh; that was the right time.” But when you’re sitting there, you’re crossing your fingers saying, “I really hope this is the right time.”

2) I heard over the radio that Michael Jordan had retired from basketball. Jordan at the time [was] a dominant player in basketball, so immediately retailers had hundreds of millions of dollars of Jordan clothing that they wanted to replace, because they thought no one was going to buy it.

Actually, the first time Jordan retired, his sales [dropped]. Since his second retirement, Jordan has continued to grow. But for the first couple of years after Mike stepped out, it created a huge opportunity for us when consumers and retailers wanted something different. If Mike had not decided for whatever reason to retire, you wouldn’t be interviewing me today.

3) When you start to grow as a business, [you want to] keep growing and be as big as you possibly can be. That conflicts with continuing to be true to who you are as a company and servicing the same consumer.

As a basketball brand [targeting young males], we started to feel like there was only so big that we could get. So we started to do other products. We did a slip-on shoe. We did a training shoe. We started to do training clothing. I really feel that it diluted our brand. We started to alter our logo so it wasn’t so basketball-only. The idea was, “Hey, we need to enable more consumers to feel that they can buy our product.”

I actually think that started our slide down when we really should have said, “Look, you know what? If we can be a $200 million, $300 million, $400 million, $500 million company, and it might take us 10 years to get there, that is as big as we can be.” That is doing the right thing for the consumer versus saying, “I want to be a $500 million company in two years. We need to expand our product line.” You forget why the consumer likes you.

4) Nike is probably the only brand in the footwear and apparel industry that has done a really good job of being true to itself as an athletic brand and yet somehow being able to bridge the fashion gap. Adidas tried it; they failed. Reebok did it; they failed. Under Armour is going to try and I hope they succeed, because Kevin is a good friend of mine. But I am not so sure.

5) [On when to start a company] But once you get used to the good life, you won’t go back. So if you are thinking about starting a business, start the day you graduate. You don’t need experience. You don’t need money. You don’t need someone else to tell you that you can do it. Just go start it before you get used to making all that money.

Can Basketball Training Products Become Mass Market? [Crowdsourcing, Wearables]

As someone who has tried a number of basketball products over the past years, I have been wondering is there a training product that hundreds of thousands of people would buy to improve their basketball skills? I’ve spent the past few weeks researching and talking to people to learn more about the potential. For the innovation side, I have been looking at the best crowdsourced products from services like Kickstarter and Indiegogo such as:

1) Jump Shot Pro: a device that goes around your entire shooting arm to help build muscle memory for the proper mechanics of a shot.

2) Hoop Tracker: Basketball Shot Tracking SmartWatch: a “watch” that tracks your shots around a basketball court. To track positioning, you need to attach another device under the hoop.

3) ShotTracker (not actually crowdsourced): very similar to the Jump Shot Pro, but the “wearable” is placed inside a shooting sleeve (see Allen Iverson wear one?) or armband / wristband. It also requires an installation under the hoop and uses a nice looking smartphone mobile app.

4) EVO ONE™ The Only Basketball You Need: a basketball with electronic sensor inside that essentially whistles (remember the Nerf Turbo Whistler?) to let you know if your shot has proper rotation.

5) 94Fifty: Freakishly Smart Sensor Basketballs: tracks the speed of your dribbling via special basketballs (again, electronics sensor) and smartphone app.

The Typical Player

When it comes to basketball training, I am much like the average American who diets for weight loss. I want to be a better player, but I do it inconsistently and inefficiently. Thus, I don’t see much progress and I quit. And then I restart 6 months or a year later. I’ve always had issues with my shooting mechanics and I have constantly (naively) wished for a magic fix. I have tried (Shotloc, Shooting Strap, Heavy Training Ball, Steve Nash MVP, etc.) and reviewed many of the basketball improvement products out there, including videos. To be realistic, all these products are good if you put in the time. But if you’re like me, the average American, it’s easy to get off track.

My failure is a failure in the product. I am lazy and I want results. I want to know that I am improving, and when I cannot, I feel discouraged. I cannot manually keep track of things because I forget (ever try to count made shots to 100 by yourself?) and get distracted. I need someone to tell me what to do.

The Product / Training

That said,  I am encouraged by some of the products being developed.

For example, The Hoop Tracker is a watch that can track all your made and missed shots around the court. The ShotTracker does something similar, but also has a nice mobile app to track your progress, using gamification tools to help you improve (it’s not out yet, so the actual execution is wait and see). In fact, the ShotTracker reminds me more of a Rocksmith (for learning guitar)-like experience in terms of pushing you to get better and showing you that you actually are.

The EVO One basketball sounds good, but I am not confident it can actually get you better. It’s a regular basketball that gives you feedback if your shot is rotating too much, with the theory that if you have ideal rotation, you will become a much better shooter. However, will you be able to use that feedback to change your jump shot permanently and have it stay refined when you play at game speed? Will you notice improvements quickly enough to not become frustrated and quit, as I tend to do?

94Fifty reminds me a little bit of the videogame NBA Baller Beats. It’s snazzy basketball and mobile app set that tracks your dribbling and can help set a training regiment for you. However, having to stop, pick up, and look at your phone constantly as you switch between exercises is dangerous for the phone and not a smooth experience for maintaining focus.

The Jump Shot Pro, developed by Rometra Craig, the daughter of former 49er great Roger Craig and a great athlete in her own right, sounds good as well, promising to build muscle memory of how to shoot properly. However, based on my experience with the Shotloc and Shooting Strap, I am not sure if muscle memory will be retained when not using the product. The issue with my shooting has been that my left wrist sometimes pushes the ball (I shoot with my right). I have tried both products for extensive sessions over a month’s duration, and my faulty muscle memory still existed after that. Again, perhaps if I put in six months work or broke my left hand on purpose, I would have been “cured”. But the products do not claim it should take that long, and I doubt the average player will be patient for that long a time period either.

I need to be told exactly what to do, and should see the results when I do that. That is why I believe a winning product should look at the Circuit Training experience. Apps like Sworkit | Circuit Training App give you no excuse but to get in better shape. Not enough time? No problem, Circuit Training can be done from 5 minutes up to however long you want. The exercises are intensive for that short amount of time, varied (no exercise is too long), and can be done with no equipment. Circuit Training lets you do different exercises consecutively, never staying on one thing long enough for you to become unfocused, but also varying the exercises so you work core muscles. You do the most effective workouts for your body and you can feel how you get better at them after just a few days.

A mass market basketball trainer should do the same. I propose a product that can show me how to improve in 20 minutes per day, 5 times per week. Just have me work on the most impactful basketball training drills that will help me see improvement in pick up games right away, including shooting, dribbling, and normal workout circuit training. There’s a reason why 8 Minute Abs and Circuit Training are popular – people need to feel that accomplishments are reachable. “Even I can have good abs / get in shape!” When I train on my own, I start focused, but put me on the court long enough, I get lazy and mess around, and soon enough, discouraged. Different levels of players should have different levels of drills, but players could also think of the trainer as the perfect warm-up tool to get them ready for a basketball game (for those who simply play pickup on weekends and do not practice).

At this point, the ShotTracker seems closest to this “smart trainer” idea, along with the 94Fifty. NBA Baller Beats may have been the best and most fun training product of them all, but by needing to be played in front of a TV (inside a living room?), it made accessibility too difficult.

The hardest part to any type of exercise, training, or learning, is starting and seeing improvement. The promise of helping people improve with a minimal, but consistent time commitment is key to making it accessible and practical for a mass audience. You need to remove all barriers to make it easy for anyone at any skill level to improve.

Wearable or Smartwatch

I do not believe that a device like a smartwatch can succeed in basketball. This is the biggest problem with the HoopTracker. It’s a watch, and if you have ever played pickup with someone wearing a watch, you know it is dangerous in terms of causing injuries. That means HoopTracker cannot be used all the time and this affects its value greatly – who wouldn’t want to know how he shot in a game? Most devices I’ve seen (including the Shotloc and Shooting Sleeve), are meant for practice time only.

The ShotTracker fixes this by putting the tracking device inside a shooting sleeve or armband. While you might complain that a shooting sleeve is not your style, overall, it should not hamper your playing ability.

If you need the player to wear something, it needs to be worn either through a shooting sleeve, or perhaps a customizable (fashionable!) armband. Both are things that you would normally wear in basketball and thus, both provide a fairly natural experience. If you need the device to be connected to a smartwatch or mobile phone, you need to create another sleeve or way for the person to hold the phone without risking it to damage (if you fall on it, or from sweat) and not be affected by its weight. If you have ever played basketball carrying a phone in your pocket, you understand what I mean.

Does Anyone Care about Basketball Training?

Originally, I had assumed that if the right device could be made for the right price (what is “right”?), lots (again, how many is “lots”?) of people would buy it. I am now changing my mind. Even though basketball players do spend substantial money on equipment, it seems to end at the shoes, the basketball itself, and perhaps basketball fashion apparel (the shooting sleeve, for example). I am the only person I know among basketball playing friends to have ever tried any time of self-improvement product.

Why is this? Does no one care about his skills? Are there simply no good products? For example, when I compare it to basketball, I see a serious investment in running improvement at a popular level; I can see the investment with my friends. Marathoners, for example, join running clubs to help them train. Look at the growth in wearables like smartwatches or the Nike Fuelband – their tracking features are more for runners than anyone else. I have never heard of a basketball “training” club. There are only pickup games – you train on your own. I believe may be the case because when you are running, it is really hard to run a marathon. Much harder, at first sight, than shooting a basketball. If I were to ask someone how he would improve at basketball, he might simply say, “shoot around for one hour each day”. For the runner, however, this is not enough, and he knows it. He knows he must train in a specific way, and he needs a guide to show him the way.

But what about these successful crowdsourcing cases, don’t they prove the market for basketball training? Upon closer look, I do not think these products are doing well. Not that they are bad products, but the support of these products is not strong enough to form real companies. 94Fifty drew a lofty $130,000 in funding, but $50,000 came from high end backers (meaning not your regular type of future customer) who contributed $2,500 each, leaving $80,000 in regular funding. In total, only 350 people around the world backed it on Kickstarter. The Evo One? $45,000 from just under 400 people. Hoop Tracker, the jump shot tracking watch, drew $37,000 (and failed to be funded) from 120 backers. The Jump Shot Pro has raised just $2,500 in its first month from 19 people with one more month remaining and is unlikely to reach its goal of $50,000. Perhaps these products will sell great once publicly available, but I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest this.

Combined from these 4 great products (the best on crowdsourcing I could find), less than 1,000 people all over the world were excited enough to put in money. And yet, one study suggests that over 26 million people in the United States play basketball, including over 15 million casual (non-organized) players, making it the most popular sport in the country.

So what do basketball players buy? 2013’s #2 selling basketball shoe (one specific shoe model, not a brand) generated $175 million dollars in sales, implying that over 1 million people bought this specific shoe that costs over $130. (Yes, I do understand that many people do not play basketball in these shoes, I am keeping the numbers simplified)

Is it possible to sell a training product that costs less than half of that shoe (under $65) to just 10% (100,000) of the people? If so, what is wrong with the current products out there? Do enough people know about it (marketing) or is it that people just do not care (market size) about training?


Beyond proving that we need to reconsider the market size for basketball training products, Kickstarter and Indiegogo have also shown that the traditional means of getting the word out there do not necessarily  drive sales. Look at this great book about Kevin Durant, the #2 NBA jersey and shoe selling superstar, that was featured in a ridiculous amount of basketball media coverage, including big names like Slam Magazine, Dime, and Sports Illustrated. Total backing? Just $3,750 out of $35,000 needed. (I backed it and was very sad it did not get produced.)

Look at HoopTracker, which also failed, but was listed in the following:

HoopTrackerHard to claim these guys didn’t work to get the product covered by the mass media. However, if you read most of the articles being posted about these products, they are generic PR filler, using copy (I believe) provided by the company. This is a problem in most blog / news sites, even professional ones, but one wonders that if these publications had done true explorative reviews of the products, if this would have had a greater impact on sales.

(Another example of this can be found in 94Fifty’s Amazon.com reviews. Though 94Fifty sponsored a surprisingly high number of test products to Vine (Amazon’s test program) reviewers, resulting in an excellent rating, the reviews are clearly from people who do not play basketball. You cannot tell how and if the product will actually make you a better player, making it difficult to qualify this $250 purchase.)

Also, I find it odd that although several of these products found difficulty getting funded, none of them replied to my emails of enthusiasm and support to help their products success from the business-side. To seek funding from the crowd, yet not bother to respond or create positive relationships with them…)

Nonetheless, let’s assume that adults reading these publications, for whatever reason, won’t be the main customers for these products. My assumption on why is that the average adult player may feel he already knows how to train / practice (“I just go shoot around a lot right?”) or may feel the product is too expensive to consider. Perhaps we change their minds over the long term, but for now…

Why not target youth?

I believe the the right approach includes 1) getting publications to write better in-depth, reviews after using the product for extensive time  periods, 2) approaching popular online basketball communities (such as the apparel / shoe forum http://niketalk.com/) to test drive the product and introduce it to their members, and 3) approaching youth basketball organizations (community leagues) and schools for testing and trial programs.

Finding The (Mass) Market through Pricing

If adults are too set in their ways to train, perhaps kids learning to play the game, with free time and enthusiasm, are not.

But current products are not affordable. The products range from $70 for the basketball (double the normal price of a quality basketball, and that’s technically the preorder price. It’s supposed to be $100) to hundreds of dollars. The ShotTracker, which I think is potentially the best pure training product, costs $200. 94Fifty is $250.

I won’t even buy these for myself (at least not without in-depth reviews as “proof of results”), so I would not expect typical lower and middle class families to buy a device for their children. I have observed that even with running wearables like the Fuelband, popular opinion feels that the products are overly expensive and do not provide enough value.

The Ideal Price: $50, less than the price of a videogame and the price of the cheapest wearables.

Once the pricing reaches a more mass market-friendly $50, I believe it will be possible to put the basketball trainer in stores, not just in the Sports section of your local Walmart, but also the electronics / phone section, along with running and fitness wearables. A small device (not a basketball) could be packaged and sold with little shelf space, improving the odds of acceptance into retail. You might see it at BestBuy or the Apple Store. It would be absolutely unique in its category, and as I mentioned, basketball is the #1 played sport in America, so this device is not for some small niche market. Perhaps the device will attract adults through these touchpoints, but if not, the device is priced low enough for youth, especially if it comes bundled with a fashion-customizable shooting sleeve or armband.

Once in everyday retailers, the touchpoint exposure to the normal American would reach mass market levels.

The real potential with kids is in schools. At this lower price point, you can market the device to school district Physical Education departments in mass bundle purchases, providing ways to motivate children and track performance. Schools can compete with other schools, kids with other kids. During elementary school, I used to fundraise by receiving pledges based on the amount I would run. Imagine fund raising goals based on student training performance with the device. Coaches could use the device to develop and monitor practice workouts for teams. Kids could compare their performance against team members.

Think the $50 price point is impossible? There are $40 Android Smartphones. This fantastic four inch Windows Lumia Phone, costs $70 (I have one). Technology gets better and cheaper, and at a more rapid pace every day. Remember how much MP3 players cost originally?

Making the Mass Market Basketball Trainer a Reality

My original question was: is there a product to be made that hundreds of thousands of people will buy to improve their basketball skills?

My second question was: is it possible to sell a training product that costs less than half of that shoe (Kevin Durant’s shoe is $130+) to 10% (100,000) of the number of people who bought it? 100,000 amounts to just four out of every one thousand people who play basketball, and that is only including people in the United States. FIBA estimates the worldwide number of players to be at 450,000,000 people! An affordable product simply expands the possibility of additional sales.

I believe the answer is YES. Such a product will be a naturally worn, circuit-training style wearable that will cost $50 and combine a tracking experience for fitness, dribbling, and shooting over website and/or mobile apps. At this price point, I believe that it can attract 100,000 customers – the majority, youth basketball players. Such a device can start a company and become a platform for extended uses and cross-selling over time. It can become a Fitbit or Jawbone for basketball players.

My Dream Device

Live Lids

Check out this awesome idea from LiveLids, the customizable LCD hat: http://www.livelids.com/. The cap is a bit expensive at $75, but that’s fashion.

Imagine that type of customization on an armband, on a device that could be used to track your performance or as a fashion item. Upload whatever image you want, your favorite team, player, or girlfriend.Jason Richardson Armband I am imagining what I would have loved to have as a high school kid.

As seen in basketball shoes, fashion does drive basketball product sales. Why not tap into that behavior?

To use the device, a typical user might:

1) Attach the device (and charge it via USB)

2) Set up a custom photo or logo for display on the screen when idle

3) Set up the device’s training regiment through a website or mobile app

4) This regiment would be based on the user’s past performance (gamification) as well as training preferences (workout time)

5) The device could be attached to an armband (creating the customizable armband as imagined earlier)

6) The workout would be loaded onto the armband through videos. See the Circuit Trainer video examples here: http://www.sworkit.com/exercises. Videos would be quick examples of a behind the back dribble, a free throw, or a pushup the player can replicate. As a Circuit Trainer-inspired product, the device would show small videos of each exercise and then track the performance of that player while he does it. He might then hear a beep or charm to let him know to switch to the next workout.

7) After the workout is complete, the user detaches the device, recharges it via USB and uploads his performance data.

This device, to keep prices down, would be minimal in features and only track physical movement data and show small videos. 1GB of memory would be enough, along with buttons to power up or place the device on sleep, as well as to start/pause/stop the workout – that’s all. Almost like a basic media player. The player would need to be set up via the website or app.

I would use the cheapest screen by finding the most mass-produced screen for portable electronics. If that is a touch screen, great, if not, the device will have a couple (at most) of small buttons.

I envision this package to cost $50, sold virtually at cost, and would include an armband and the tracking device. To track dribbling, you may actually need two armbands to track movement on both hands. The other hand would not need to be an LCD device, just a tracker that matches data with the primary hand. Depending on the engineering possibilities, the device itself could keep track of and store the performance date or send the information via low-energy-consumption bluetooth signal to a nearby smart device (like a smartphone).

(The latter would cause issues in the sense you would need to carry your smartphone with you. Since I believe the largest potential market is in targeting youth, this would require them to have smartphones.)

Because $50 is not a lot of money to produce an amazing device, this is why the initial device must provide clear benefits, but not necessarily tons of them. I think the initial device could track 1) dribbling performance and 2) fitness performance, basically regular circuit workouts. Shooting performance would be tracked with the purchase of an additional product. The Atlas is a recently funded example of such a device that can track beyond simple movement metrics.

I don’t expect the tracking capabilities to be perfect and they do not need to be. Any device can be cheated, but the goal is to accurately gauge when someone is putting the work in. As long as the device can do that, it’s a winner. Players can choose if they really want to cheat themselves.

Expansion – Revenue

With a low starting price, the goal is to maximize the number of people locked into the device platform, enabling future long term profit opportunities.

For future cross selling possibilities, I would focus on additional fashion options (armband colors and styles, shooting sleeves) that go with the device and new performance tracking (shot tracking) – only things that naturally combine with using the product. Particularly with the fashion options, the margins can be much higher. For new performance tracking, such as shooting, you would simply buy the device that is played under the rim / hoop.

Future versions of the device would add better functionality (matching the fanciness of the Atlas or other wearable products) for premium pricing, deluxe versions of the basic device.

Platform Expansion – Device and Online

On NBA.com, you can now see how much running players do during a game. I remember being amazed about David Beckham’s amazing work rate in soccer. This is the type of metric I would want players to see when they upload their data. Beyond that, players could see their performance history in each training exercise, and as the website develops, get a feel on how they are performing compared to others their age or in the same geographical area. Although the device would promise results in twenty minutes per day, this simply serves as an easy barrier to see improvement. From here, I believe that competition with peers and fun will encourage players to put in more time and do more workouts, strengthening the positive feedback cycle.

While the website could achieve some supplementary revenue by selling ads (not so great), I see bigger viral customer potential by allowing players to build their own circuit exercises and promoting them. The more players that load these exercises, the creators would be rewarded with prestige in the community but also credit to purchase products.

I would open the online platform to new devices, devices from engineering-oriented fans. New devices could track new physical activities, or replicate existing ones from the original device in better ways. The point is to encourage new innovation without needing people to create complete user experiences. They could rely on the platform and its existing users to supply potential sales, lower costs in development, and faster times to market. The company would then license access to the platform for a small fee per product.

Over the long term, this could mean that the company focuses more on the online tracking platform and supporting device developers – this would not be a problem and would continue the device’s original mission to help the masses improve their basketball skills. By getting youth (pre-professional age) onto this product first, I believe older adults will naturally follow later. This pattern can be seen from other youth-centric early adoptions, such as social networking (Facebook). The youth prove the utility, and the adults follow afterwards.

The Sum Up

The mass market basketball trainer is a $50 device sold at cost to help kids stay fit and improve their basketball skills though intense but short drills. It is a device that is customizable, not just in workout, but in fashion – it is something you would want to wear normally. The device would lead to sales of related accessories and new functions, but also grow an online community for players to share training information and compete against each other. Aspiring innovators could then connect to the same platform and take advantage of its users and performance tracking to develop and sell their own devices, further improving training made available at lower cost to the consumer.

Please let me know what you think! I appreciate it.