On June 16th, 2022, the New Jersey Institute of Technology unveiled a “mixed-reality” headset¹ that lets baseball coaches see statistical overlays on their players while they play. For about a week, the entire industry debated the future of coaching.
While augmented reality has yet to pervade the field, coaching technology has been building momentum for a decade. The other day, I spoke to one of the founders of TeamBuildr, a coaching application they created in 2010, to find out how it has affected the sport of football.
Hewitt Tomlin and James Peters were American football players and roommates at Johns Hopkins who would later become business partners. During their senior year, they noticed everyone on the football team had the same workout plans regardless of position or injury status. Why? Their coaches used legacy technology and Excel sheets to create training plans.
While working their first jobs after college, they created the TeamBuildr prototype, a simple tool that let coaches create customized workouts for athletes. At a time when technology caught on slowly in the coaching industry, Hewitt and James struggled to get their first customer.
But after one college sports program bought their software in 2013, they expanded to hundreds of teams just two years later.
Today, they run an application with $4 million ARR, 23 employees, and 3,000 customers. It’s not just football coaches, either – an Air Force battalion, a New Zealand military unit, and a municipal police department all use TeamBuildr to get the best from their teams.
Here’s how Hewitt and James created a coaching app dedicated to helping trainers, not replacing them.
Everyone Has the Same Workout
Hewitt and James were student-athletes at Johns Hopkins from 2008 to 2012. Coaches paired them from the start and made them roommates. In college, they would share a close relationship on and off the gridiron. Hewitt was the quarterback and James a receiver though Hewitt thinks coaches paired them for other reasons. “They made us do a survey and they matched us based on our answers. I think it was because we were both from big families.”
From the beginning, Hewitt says he and James knew they wanted to start a business together. “James is a builder and I’m a sales guy so we knew something was in the works. Senior year, we noticed a problem we wanted to fix.”
James and Hewitt observed their coach writing the same training programs for the whole team. That meant small, first-year wide receivers got the same workouts as hulking, fourth-year veteran defensive linemen. In a highly-specialized sport like football, having all athletes train the same way just didn’t make sense.
“We suspected there wasn’t a tool for writing individual training programs. Many coaches back then either did everything in Excel or the computer program, Bigger Faster Stronger. All it did was calculate your workout weights based on your one-rep max. Reps, intensity, and exercises were all the same.”
James and Hewitt’s idea was to update that spreadsheet system so coaches could edit workouts for individual athletes. James built the product using his computer science background while Hewitt began a sales campaign consisting mostly of cold-calling contacts in college athletic departments.
However, it was still some years before anyone bought the product. They took full-time jobs after college to support themselves. Hewitt, as the eventual Head of Partnerships at a software business called Contactually, and James working IT and sales gigs across multiple companies.
“Once we had our MVP, it was a very slow snowball,” says Hewitt. “We didn’t quit our jobs but worked full-time for two to three years and moonlighted. We didn’t want a deadline on success.”
In the beginning, Hewitt says he used a “brute force approach” – cold-calling coaches and asking them to try their product for free. Dubious about new technology, most said no.
“We wanted usage more than sales,” says Hewitt. “But coaches back then were less open to change and we weren’t introducing a competitive product to an existing market. Being first to market is advantageous when the market accepts new products but ours didn’t back then.”
However, Hewitt thinks that despite initial resistance, they were fortunate to create their product while SaaS was rising. “We came into the market at the time a lot of other SaaS tools were coming in. It was changing a lot of industries and I think that started to make more people come around to it in ours.”
Hewitt still remembers their first successful sale to a college coach in 2013.
“I cold-called Lynchburg College’s interim strength coach, Dr. Steve Smith. He said yes to everything and purchased our product’s subscription on the spot for $500. I still have that check. We’d broken a barrier. The first customer is the hardest. Everything changes once you have a product someone has paid for.”
After that first customer, Hewitt and James expanded their network through cold calls and referrals from other coaches. They had ten customers at the end of 2013, a few dozen customers in 2014, and by 2015 they had several hundred. After three years, they made enough money for Hewitt to quit his job and work on Teambuildr full-time. James followed shortly after.
Things have gone well since then. Last year in 2021, they had 3,000 paying customers.
A B2B Service For Coaches
TeamBuildr gives coaches more flexibility when creating team-wide training programs, letting them easily swap exercises and rep counts within larger workout plans.
“Athletes all have different strengths and weaknesses,” says Hewitt. “We have a process where coaches program on a high level and then personalize it for subgroups. Coaches must also take other things into account like recovery habits or previous injuries. It’s on our clients to account for these outside considerations. They use our tool as their action center.”
Hewitt specifies that TeamBuildr is a tool for helping coaches create workouts for athletes, not a tool for athletes to replace their coaches.
“We are a B2B service aimed at the professional strength coach,” says Hewitt. “We never directly sell to the athlete. The industry thinks the best programs are those designed by coaches specifically for the athletes. We frame it as a resource, not a product, but we have some product functionality. We want to serve the coaching process, not replace it.”
For example, TeamBuildr created an expanding list of features to help coaches better communicate with their athletes.
“On our mobile app, coaches choose the media to instruct different movements and track other things like running time. People can submit workouts or feedback to their coaches on our app. We’re adding a lot more organizational stuff like a Facebook-style feed for a team.”
TeamBuildr offers four subscription tiers that can be either annual or monthly, priced according to athlete count. “We’ve aligned features to what coaches expect from different athlete counts.”
How to Cast a Wide Net For Clients
Hewitt expects projects like TeamBuildr to do well in the future. Sports have only grown larger and more complex in recent years. Hewitt claims that Crossfit, a growing trend among semi-professional weightlifters, brought increased average consumer demand for coaching.
“Colleges today employ more strength coaches than they used to and are young and open to technology,” he says.
To keep up with changes in the industry, Hewitt and James are sinking large portions of their revenue into new product development. “Our cash flow is now significant enough to allow for that investment growth – it’s not as much of a constraint,” says Hewitt.
One of the hottest features they want to add? Wearable integrations, much like the VR headset referenced above. “Data from wearable tech like smartwatches can help coaches create their programs around real-time inputs from their athletes.”
And while there is competition in their space, Hewitt feels confident that their bootstrapped pedigree keeps them far ahead of the field.
To put it bluntly, VCs wouldn’t know our customers if they woke up in bed with them.
“All of our competition is VC-funded,” says Hewitt. “And, to put it bluntly, VCs wouldn’t know our customers if they woke up in bed with them. Every competitor has built their way into one vertical, but we pull revenue across the industry. We get high school, professional, and college teams along with military and local trainers. We built for a job function, not a vertical. That’s created more volume and let us price ultra-competitively.”
If You Have the Money, Take the Risk
Hewitt thinks one of their best decisions was taking full-time jobs while building their business on the side.
“I think if we’d had a deadline to gain traction, we wouldn’t have found our market like we have today.”
While he’s happy they grew sustainably, Hewitt wishes they had been slightly less conservative with their finances in the beginning.
When you bootstrap you can become constrained by a frugal mindset.
“I wish I’d known in the past that when you bootstrap you can become constrained by a frugal mindset. We were very conservative with our company, but we’re experts in the field. We should’ve taken more risks like hiring people earlier. We had little competition when we started. Now, it’s more competitive than ever to get customers and you might be stealing them from competitors.”
Despite hanging up his cleats about a decade ago, Hewitt makes sure he still looks the part of the athlete-turned-tech-founder. “I lift four days a week. I have to look like I work in the strength and conditioning industry. As they say, ‘Don’t trust a skinny chef and don’t trust the fat trainer.’”
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