Anyone who has ever played any kind of racket sports has surely looked at themselves in the mirror to check on their stance at one point or another. Inspecting the fine points of one’s form a mirror is an indispensable practice tool, but it’s not enough on its own to quantitatively evaluate performance.
The QLIPP device that came out in 2015 from Singapore start-up 9 Degrees Freedom may be just the thing to free players from the constraint of the mirror. Just attaching this clip-on device to your racket enables this exceptional sensor to track the kind of spin you are hitting the ball with, the kind of speed you are getting on your serve, and even whether you are hitting the ball with the racket’s sweet spot— all information that can be indicators serving to advance your playing skills. Besides this real-time feedback, QLIPP is useful for exchanging opinions with other players if you use the video image playback function.
“Supporting the advancement of tennis players’ skills, so they are able to enjoy playing tennis even more.” Donny Soh is the CEO of 9 Degrees Freedom, but behind his vision is a well-aimed marketing strategy.
The BRAIN PORTAL editors decided to learn about how to assess markets and create relationships that serve to further advancement to global markets by covering the success of 9 Degrees Freedom in setting its sights on Europe and America as an Asian enterprise.
The Concept of Calculating Backwards
——Sports-related IoT products, chiefly wearable devices for baseball, golf and running are coming on the market in droves. Can you tell us why you chose to develop a device for tennis?
Donny Soh (below, Soh): The technology we used in QLIPP can obviously be applied not just in tennis but in all kind of areas including running and golf.
But in running for example there are already a lot of strong competitors involved in the market, like Garmin and Polar. The same is true in golf.
As a small, young company, in getting into business we wanted to be predominant in our chosen field. In terms of markets, the world competitive tennis population is really large, but there are still only four companies involved in tennis-related hardware. That’s why we thought we would be able to prove ourselves in that market.
—— So tennis was like a blue ocean area for an IoT start-up.
Soh: That’s right. There is good potential here for differentiating our own product against the competition, and if we can offer through our product something better than what the competition is offering, its value will probably rise. That’s something I felt very strongly about.
—— I got the impression that QLIPP is fairly modestly priced compared to similar devices from other hardware start-ups. How was its price determined?
Soh: By the time we initially embarked on R&D and manufacturing we had already been exploring price brackets and researching the market segments that we wanted to get into. When we actually looked into the tennis and golf markets, we found that price ranges and price points for products in those markets were quite different.
Golf price points are very high, while tennis is somewhat cheaper. Running is quite low. In ultimately determining the price bracket that we needed to be selling our product in, we constantly calculated backwards to figure out our optimal manufacturing cost, from the very first stages of conception and all through our continuing research.
—— I see. So behind this choice was a scrutiny and well thought-out study of the market. How did you specifically gather information about calculating backwards to find your manufacturing cost?
Soh: I learned about calculating backwards to find cost while talking to a number of my mentors. For example, people with plenty of experience in the hardware industry, people from HP and Dell. When I asked for their thoughts on the process, they told me that manufacturing cost should be kept at a maximum of 1/3 of the price. For example, if you want to sell something for $3 your manufacturing cost cannot be greater than $1, if you want to sell at $100 it needs to be $33, and so forth.
The reason that having this kind of close grip on manufacturing cost is important is because there are many other costs that you need to think about. You need to set aside at least 50%-60% of the price to cover costs of distribution and marketing. For example if you are selling to stores, the store needs to take at least 20%-30% as its profit, if you are selling through a distributor they will take at least 30%-40%. So you need to consider these factors as well.
So we went step by step to identify our manufacturing cost, by calculating backwards from our ultimate selling price.
Building Relationships for International Development
——9 Degrees Freedom as an enterprise is based in Asia, but 90% of your business is in markets in America and Asia. What did you do to make this kind of international growth possible?
Soh: I had the opportunity to go to America in May last year (2015) to participate in a conference, and my encounter there with some Indiegogo staff (technology-centered crowd marketing) ended up being extremely profitable. That’s because they put me in touch with some excellent, low cost PR companies there.
Originally my stay in America was only supposed to be to learn about the American tennis industry. But I ended up gaining some insight into new ways to get into the tennis business there.
——Specifically what kind of insight did you get?
Soh: Specifically, I was advised to create connections with the major American and European tennis associations and tournaments. That’s why we initiated our partnership with RPT last year (global scale organization that provides educational and coaching programs for tennis players). It was pretty rough going to get to this point, but the most encouraging point was when a UK national who I had gotten to know in Singapore volunteered to act as intermediary with the local RPT people.
Recently we have entered a partnership with the Tennis Industry Association (business organization that works to promote and grow tennis commercially), and have already been invited to serve as technical partner for a tennis event that is being held in Miami very soon.
——How did you build relationships with mentors and business advisors?
Soh: What I did first was to build a network locally in Singapore of people in the hardware industry who understood the product that we were trying to make. So most of my mentors are in Singapore.
After that, little by little I became able to make connections with Europeans and Americans. Starting with the person from the UK who I mentioned earlier, and through others who could serve as intermediaries with the locals, I grew to have opportunities to talk with people in the same industry.
—— So your connections in those local markets led to growth for the business. What other mental preparation if any was needed to develop new users on a global scale as you have done?
Soh: The hard part about developing on a global scale is in figuring out, for example in getting into countries like Spain or Italy for the first time, how to deliver the product in the context of each different culture. This is because obviously the European markets are totally different in nature from the American market, and you have to understand regional characteristics like how the consumers are going to being using the product and how they will be buying it. We had to consider these elements even when it came to deciding which markets we were going to get into and figuring out what was the best means to do that.
——Specifically, what differences did you see between Europe and America in terms of the consumer behavior of tennis players?
Soh: In Europe, most players listen to what their coach tells them, and base their product purchases on that advice. On the other hand in America people are enjoying tennis more as a fun thing to do, so that is pretty different in terms of purchasing habits.
Marketing strategy and distribution are also different for each culture, and you need to understand and stay aware of all these different perspectives. We are learning something new every day even now, and we know that we still have a long way to go in understanding what we need to about the individual markets and distribution methods.
——Finally, let me ask about the future for you. What do you see happening once you have players all over the world connected with QLIPP?
Soh: Our ultimate wish is to make QLIPP a product that everyone will use starting on their first day of playing tennis. Newcomers to tennis can use QLIPP to learn the proper way of delivering a forehand shot, they can see the details of how to hit a proper serve using the video playback, and be able to advance their skills using QLIPP. We’d like to stay right up close to players through that whole process. Players will be able to see and feel their progress for themselves as they improve their skills, and they will be able to compare themselves to players all over the world. In this way we would like to support players all the way from complete inexperience until they become really good.
QLIPP, successfully brought to market based on well thought-out research and cost calculation.
Besides being consumed as a attractive “new technology,” I felt that QLIPP was strong because of the concept that its makers created of a continuing cycle of learning, and I also felt that the well thought-out planning the makers did before selecting tennis as the field to bring forth their new technology was a very strong element behind their success.
And now 9 Degrees Freedom is working to steadily scale up the business with the support of people from both inside and out of the company. Soh’s words of appreciation for his team members and outside partners issued forth without pause during our interview, and I felt that I was witnessing in the way he spoke one model of a way for Asian IoT enterprises wanting to spread their wings out into the world.