How a Tennis-First Technology Platform Expanded to over 20 Sports in 5 Years
PlaySight CEO Chen Shachar admits that proof of concept is key to the company in many ways.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Before establishing PlaySight, CEO Chen Shachar was the Chief Technology Officer at Rontal Applications, a startup in the homeland security market. Today, he is in charge of a visual simulation training system for sports with a specialty in tennis.
Shachar had that "lightbulb" moment to pivot to sports when he and current PlaySight CTO Evgeni Khazanov were watching Khazanov's daughter practice tennis and quickly became aware of how outdated the training methodologies had been at the time.
PlaySight's first tennis SmartCourt took several years of testing and engineering, but today the company is powering over 20 sports with its technology, including basketball, ice hockey and soccer.
I recently spoke with Shachar to learn more about how he was able to shift careers and build a successful business in a short amount of time.
How did you get PlaySight off the ground - first in Israel and then the U.S. - and market it to big time franchises?
Shachar: Although our company was founded and is still headquartered in Israel, we always had the world in mind when we launched. We established American operations in late 2013, and our first client came soon after - the University of Georgia Bulldogs tennis. We were a complete unknown at the time, and it was a lot of knocking on doors and getting the technology in front of the right people. For instance, meeting Gordon Uehling III, who runs Courtsense in New Jersey and is widely-regarded as one of the sharpest minds in tennis, installed our technology, which helped to shape our vision of the sport.
We are very grateful that we decided to begin with tennis. Not only was it a sport that, at the time, was second to last (in front of boxing) in terms of technology adoption, but we quickly saw that the market needed and wanted SmartCourt technology - an all-in-one video and analytics system for all levels of the sport.
We're now a multisport company with a strong presence in basketball and high school sports across the country. But our philosophy of finding key early customers (Golden State was our first basketball client) and partners (Verizon Ventures and Greg Norman invested last year) has remained the same.
What has the process for acquiring funding been like as a sports technology start-up? Can you share more about your strategy?
Shachar: We have been both lucky and opportunistic. I would say our overall strategy has been to focus on much more than just the money - we want to have strong strategic alignment between investors and our vision for connecting the next generation of athletes. We have said no to several VC companies and other investors because the timing or fit wasn't right. We definitely believe that our investor group is one of our competitive advantages as we continue to scale in a very active sports technology market.
We really do have a dream team of tennis players, coaches and ambassadors - besides Novak [Djokovic] and Billie Jean, we also have Ana Ivanvoic, Pete Sampras, Tommy Haas, Paul Annacone and Darren Cahill involved.
Can you share more about how much easier is to convince people the product is legitimate as you have more professional teams using it and the importance of "proof of concept?"
Shachar: Having the USTA, Golden State Warriors, UNC Tar Heels, and over 50 other NCAA programs definitely helps our sales cycles, which are significantly shorter than they used to be. Internationally, we have industry leaders in sport across Australia, the UK, Western Europe, Asia and of course Israel.
Proof of concept is key to us as a company in many ways. We promote and market the success of all of our clients, from pro teams to high school programs and youth academies. We also are always gathering insights from our customers and feeding them back to our product team - it is a constant innovation loop that is what drives our product and improvements each and every day.