Across the globe more than 150 teams in a wide range of the biggest sporting leagues and competitions have more than just bulging trophy cabinets in common. They can all attribute some of their success to a humble black box that monitors athlete training loads and analyses on-field performance.
This box, no bigger than a deck of cards, has in only a few short years revolutionised the way coaches, athletes, broadcasters and fans think about sport. By using the power of global positioning, athletes can now be tracked during training and matches to provide coaches with invaluable data that can be used to keep players on their field, and improve in-competition tactics and decision making.
This application of GPS technology into a sporting context was the brainchild of UC alum and former staff member Adrian Faccioni, who through his start-up company GPSports, was the first business in the world to sell GPS devices to professional sporting teams and athletes.
15 years and a buyout later, Adrian is now moving onto new and exciting products with his new company AxSys Performance. And once again for Adrian these products have the potential to be game-changers, only this time in the personal training and sub-elite sport markets.
When I recently sat down with Adrian to learn the story of his entrepreneurial journey that changed the face of sport worldwide, it quickly became clear that the story was more about the potential of AxSys Performance than the triumph of GPSports.
As a coach and academic, Adrian faced a steep learning curve jumping in the deep end as a tech entrepreneur.
“I’ve got a million stories” laughed Adrian as he started to recall the first of many lessons he learnt from the development and commercialisation of his GPS tracking system.
It’s not only AxSys Performance that will benefit from these lessons though. Like a true coach and teacher, Adrian is more than happy to share his greatest entrepreneurial discoveries with us so that others can also learn from his journey so far and be successful in their own ventures.
1) Don’t be in a hurry to get to market
Today GPS tracking devices are thought of as a necessity for professional teams. However in the early 2000s this was far from the case.
While Adrian was well known in the Australian sporting community as a speed and power expert, convincing coaches that a small black box and satellites could help their on-field performance was a tough sell.
“The problem was no one had heard of GPS before, so we developed it and a number of times I went to clubs and had the head coach stand up and say ‘I don’t know why we want this, I don’t understand’.”
At the time GPSports launched it was the only company worldwide offering GPS tracking and data collection for sporting teams and athletes. Now twelve years later there are more than fifteen players in the space, each benefitting from not only GPSports’ product development, but also their education of the market of the benefits of data collection and analysis.
even if there are a hundred guys in there you will all make money
“[being first to market] was a mistake. I thought when I first started that it was vital to be first to market. But that’s probably only true if it’s a market that’s ready to buy the stuff” Adrian explained with obvious regret.
“Our challenge was we were too early. So what we ended up doing being the trail blazers was that we developed the market and had people jump in behind us. We’re probably the company that’s going to make the least in the end because we were just too early.”
Adrian’s advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is quite simple, especially for those with a tech or highly innovative product. Don’t think you need to be first to market.
“Whilst it is important and you can’t wait years and years, don’t think that you’re going to miss the boat if you’re not first to market. The market- particularly if it’s a big market- is large enough that even if there are a hundred guys in there you will all make money.”
2) Understand your customer needs and requirements
An uneducated market wasn’t the only downside in being first to market for Adrian and his team. Being in the vanguard of product development also proved to be a steep learning curve for GPSports.
“We got to market and the clients said ‘we don’t want an LCD display. We don’t want 5 buttons, we want one. We just want to turn it on and turn it off’. So we wasted 18 months of development time when we could have gotten a product out much earlier.”
For Adrian, incorporating customer feedback into product development is essential for all new businesses and products.
“Make sure that you are absolutely clear that this is what the client wants and you don’t do more than what the client needs.
Apple is a fantastic example, they rolled their watch out and there are so many things that it doesn’t have and doesn’t do right, but does that mean you’re not going to buy the second one? No you can’t wait for the second one because it will have all the things the first one didn’t have!”
Initially less is more, just get it out there
This concept, better known as a “lean startup”, is now considered best practice for new business and product development.
“It’s all about taking tiny little steps and getting the clients and potential markets to review and then taking another tiny little step and getting another review rather than going along and spending a lot of time and money only to have the client say ‘oh we don’t need this’.”
Learning from his experience at GPSports, Adrian not only now practices the lean startup model with his own new ventures, but recommends it to those developing their own products.
“Initially less is more, just get it out there. Rarely will you do such a bad job that it’s dead in the water unless it’s terribly faulty and clunky and doesn’t work at all.
Just get something that works out in the market place and that will give you massive feedback, it will give you some revenue which then allows you to go raise some real money that you need to have a serious shot.”
3) Don’t be afraid to ask questions
While Adrian was a widely recognised as an expert in his professional and academic fields, he admittedly knew very little about the product he was developing that would quickly revolutionise professional sport across the globe.
“I didn’t even know what a GPS was, I’d never heard of it before!” explained Adrian laughing.
But while he can see a lighter side to his innocence at the time, this lack of technical expertise would prove very costly for GPS Sports in time, money and energy.
“In hindsight that was an error because we applied for a patent and we got a pretty narrow patent on GPS and heartrate and sport, but not these other things called accelerometers. I didn’t even know what an accelerometer was!
Because of that we later got sued by a competitor to try and knock us out of the market because they had put a patent in after ours but had included an accelerometer.”
The problem is you don’t know what you don’t know, but you can never ask too many questions
After years of legal action and plenty of stress and heartache GPSports survived, but much of the damage was done. In hindsight, Adrian frankly acknowledges that this simple mistake haunted the business not only through sales but also the company’s eventual sale price.
He now sees the importance of consulting those with relevant specialised expertise. But more importantly he now also understands that, especially in technology development, you can never find out too much information.
“The problem is you don’t know what you don’t know, but you can never ask too many questions.”
4) Seek out investment and partnerships to help growth
“If you can, you’ve got to partner with somebody. We tried to do it all ourselves, huge mistake.”
Of all the advice delivered during our chat about his journey with GPSports, I could tell that this was perhaps the greatest lesson Adrian was taking forward to his new business ventures.
That’s not to say that GPSports didn’t have investors, or try to find strategic partnerships with other businesses. Adrian acknowledges that they simply did not find people and companies with the right “fit”.
Traveling to the United States and Germany, Adrian met with global sports apparel and footwear giants Nike and Adidas to see if his GPS technology could be incorporated into their suite of products. Little did he know at the time that both companies were developing their own tracking devices for both the personal and team markets.
“They were probably the wrong partners in the end considering they were the gorillas. We probably should have gone to the second tier players in the market.”
Even if you’ve got to give a big chunk of your revenue away in the short term to get real penetration in the marketplace just do it
While GPSports may not have found a partnership to deliver its products, Adrian is adamant that all AxSys Performance products will only be rolled out through strategic partnerships which provide readymade brand awareness, goodwill and an all-important customer base. He strongly recommends that all aspiring entrepreneurs follow that same path.
“Even if you’ve got to give a big chunk of your revenue away in the short term to get real penetration in the marketplace just do it.
There are so many start-ups that just get dropped off because they try to do it themselves. That was fine 50 years ago but things are changing so fast, if you do that you’re dead.”
5) Learn from your mistakes
Over the next two years Adrian and his new venture AxSys Performance will launch new products into the market hopefully incorporating the lessons learnt from GPSports.
The AxSys Virtual Personal Trainer is a unique wearable device that uses gyroscopes and accelerometers to recognise exercises and count reps for individuals completing strength exercises. While the device’s exercise recognition and software is one-of-a-kind and revolutionary in the market, unlike the GPS tracking system it is not the first fitness wearable in the space.
“Every second American now owns a wearable of some sort, the market is ready to go. I don’t want to challenge those guys [like Fit Bit], but pick a vertical where no one is doing anything like gym wear. But it is an area where the elite and the consumer would like to know how they are going.”
“We will only roll this out with partnerships” Adrian added, citing possible partnerships with gyms, sporting bodies, coaches and apparel providers. With the ability to track performance and training loads to set programs, the prospect of remote coaching of hundreds of athletes around the globe using the device is an exciting prospect.
Another lesson learnt from GPSports is that the real money for many tech companies is in software and subscriptions rather than the sale of hardware. While GPSports products were purchased by clubs the world over, not providing collection and analysis services was one of Adrian’s real regrets.
The money’s not in the hardware, it’s in the subscriptions
The Virtual Personal Trainer will incorporate a paid app which not only provides individualised training programs, but also coaches correct technique and form. The device will also allow users to immediately download their training performance to an app and monitor their training loads over time to help reduce the risk of injury.
“The money’s not in the hardware, it’s in the subscriptions. Give the hardware away for free and make it appealing enough for people to use and sign them up for subscriptions that hopefully they continue to stay subscribed and you make money for no output really, just a website.”
While GPSports took three years to take their first product from concept to market, using a lean start-up model AxSys’ will launch its first iterations much faster.
“We’ve got this product up and running in a year, our first GPS system took three years and it was so wrong in so many ways. This product will be up and running in less than a year, not possible the first time around because you just don’t know the questions to ask.”
With so many lessons learnt from his first highly successful venture, it’s hard to imagine that AxSys Performance won’t again change the face of sport and exercise.
Words by Daniel Murphy.