Let’s talk sports tech.
We often put the tech world in one lump category. But the truth is, there are niches upon niches when it comes to tech. Sports tech is a little-known sector that doesn’t come with a playbook. You have to find your zone as you go.
”What’s best for the community, your users and your customers? At the end of the day, that’s what is going to sustain you through the tough timesAlex WuFounding Member of NEX Team, Inc.
Finding Your Zone in the World of Sports Tech with Alex Wu
Katie Hankinson (00:01): Hi, I’m Katie Hankinson.
Mickey Cloud (00:03): And I’m Mickey Cloud.
Katie Hankinson (00:05): And welcome to Building While Flying, our new podcasts from the Sasha Group, where we interview business leaders about how they tackle challenges, stay resilient and navigate ever changing skies.
Mickey Cloud (00:22): Welcome to today’s episode of Building While Flying, a Sasha Group podcast. Super excited to have Alex Wu with us. I’m Mickey Cloud, our hosts for today. And so, Alex, we’ve known each other for a long time now and I’ve been so impressed with your career. Love to actually just do a quick second to give a little bit of quick intro and then maybe explain your current role with HomeCourt.
Alex Wu (00:41): My current role is a founding team and VP of MarComm Strategy and Partnerships for NEX Team, which is the developer for HomeCourt, the AI basketball training app that we have. And so, that’s what I’m doing right now. I live in San Francisco, California. I’ve been here actually, since we graduated, Mickey, so seen a lot of cycles here in the Silicon Valley.
Mickey Cloud (01:07): That’s awesome. Well, I know we’ve known each other since our days at UVA, but I guess I would love for our audience to get to know you a little bit better. If you could wind us even further back to give us that comic book 001 story.
Alex Wu (01:19): I was actually born in New Jersey. I don’t have to go to way back, but then I actually moved to Taiwan when I was nine. My dad moved back to start a company and so we moved back there. And so, I actually went to international school there until I graduated and then ended up at UVA. Funny story about that is at the time, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer and go into politics and I’ll revisit that in a second but… My first choice of school was actually… I really wanted to go to Georgetown and I didn’t get in.
Alex Wu (01:59): And I remember the first day when I went to UVA… UVA was obviously an amazing choice. Very glad I went there instead, of course. Thank you, Georgetown, so to speak. But it turns out the dean of international admissions there, this guy named Greg Roberts actually… Obviously, didn’t get in but but I met him actually, when I went to go visit the school. And when I got to UVA, it turns out he actually accepted a new job as a admissions officer at UVA and he actually happens now to be the dean of admissions for UVA.
Mickey Cloud (02:33): Amazing.
Alex Wu (02:34): Yeah. I just thought that was a funny coincidence that I didn’t get to that school, but I got into this one. Anyway, went to Virginia, was there on a few scholarships and stuff like that, which is a big choice of my decision. UVA was one of the best values and still is. I actually was in the commerce school with you Mickey, but I also did American politics on the side. That was my first major that I was focused on before enrolling into the comm school. Later on, I did marketing and management there. I think we overlapped with a bunch of electives together. I guess I took one of the few interesting things that not a lot of people in our class did at the time, which was move out to California right after college. I wouldn’t say there was any master plan or anything like that.
Alex Wu (03:21): It was very much just a cool opportunity for the company, called MarketBridge, that offered me help start a satellite office there and really focus on basically marketing consulting for companies out there, like SAP, Microsoft. And I thought that was really fascinating because again, at UVA, we didn’t actually get a lot of exposure to, I think, the tech industry at all. And not that I was thinking about that too much when I was there, but it really was a more of a just wanting to be out in California, and then happened to get a lot of tech exposure. Again, got lucky again. You’ll see this trend a lot throughout my career, just getting lucky. That just happened to be… Obviously, we graduated in ’07 and was just lucky to have a job obviously, a year later, given the recession. But fortunately for me, it got my foot in the door and in tech industry, just by happenstance, by luck. No grand plans of… I wanted to be in tech, wanted to go work out West. It wasn’t really anything like that.
Alex Wu (04:34): Went to go work for actually, the Obama campaign in ’08. I actually stayed at my first job for about six months. Not something I recommend for people who are just lucky to have a job out of school at the time but it was a once in a lifetime thing. As I mentioned, I was in politics. It’s always been one of our first passions before, and then eventually, I was able to actually go work on the campaign in ’08. That was pretty awesome. What was cool about it was, there was actually a huge tech… It was one of the first tech forward campaigns in presidential politics or campaigns. One of the lead tech folks at the time was this guy named Chris Hugues, who was actually working for the Obama campaign, was also co-founder of Facebook and we had built our own political campaign, social networking platform for volunteers and stuff, and then got really inspired from there.
Alex Wu (05:28): And then we used Facebook a ton when we were organizing and we actually just started using Facebook at a time for the younger listeners out there, what, in ’05 at UVA, something along those lines. Really, at the time had a very narrow view of Facebook, which was connecting with friends, drunk photos, stuff like that, but then really saw it in action on what impact it could have on community and society when I was on the campaign and really was inspired by that. And so, I eventually went to go work at Facebook right after Obama. And then after Facebook for about five years, was a variety of different startups from Quora to Uber to ed tech called Newsela, starting some venture capital stuff, and then eventually back to I am today at NEX Team.
Mickey Cloud (06:16): Got it. It was the Obama campaign that opened your eyes to what Facebook was doing from a marketing perspective and led you that way.
Alex Wu (06:22): Yeah, I think when we thought about the internet back in ’07, again, just personal experiences, like email, social networking and stuff like that, and you don’t really have… Maybe e-commerce stuff like that, but you didn’t really have the broader, societal impacts it could have on organizing and stuff like that and just really inspired by that And you really thought this… I was on it all the time anyway so I was like, “Hey, it’d be great to get paid to work on this, if I could [crosstalk 00:06:51].”
Mickey Cloud (06:52): Well, what I love about even just the last 15 seconds of you clicking off all the different companies starting from Facebook, where it took you from there, you really have experience across all spectrums of the tech startup space. You’ve been at hyper-growth companies like Facebook and Uber. You’ve been at early stage companies like Quora and Newsela, and now you’re part of the founding team at NEX Team HomeCourt AI. I guess having that breadth of experience across all those different sized companies and stages, when you hear the phrase, “Building while flying,” the name of our podcast, I guess, what immediately comes to mind for you? “
Alex Wu (07:24): I mean, it resonates so much because at every stage, especially in technology where I think in other industries, there’s some playbooks out there, right? You have a guide. And I think with technology, especially when you’re doing something really new and certainly, it resonates even more so today with what we’re doing now with mobile, artificial intelligence, which is really on the cutting edge in some ways, when stuff never been done before, you’re really like… It’s not just building while you’re flying. You don’t even know where you’re going, right? It’s almost that extreme, but that’s also part of the excitement, right? I find a lot that especially that I think when we graduated, I think for a lot of folks in our class when job opportunities… The year before was crazy good and then our year and the year after were slim pickings in some ways… I don’t know. There’s something about when your back is against the wall and you have to force yourself to innovate.
Alex Wu (08:32): And we’re going to use a lot of sports analogies in this conversation but there’s something about finding your character, so to speak, when you have to, when there’s no “safety net.” And that’s actually where a lot of the creativity and innovation comes and that’s really fun because I think when you get too comfortable, that’s when you stop learning and growing and I think that was… As I look back again and again, not a lot of these things are necessarily planned, but I think one core principle I had was like, “Where could I go and what position could I be in where I feel like I can learn the fastest, I can get the most learning?” And I was really optimizing for putting myself in environments where I felt… Even choosing UVA was an example of that, but putting myself in environments where I’d be forced to adapt and learn as quickly as possible.
Alex Wu (09:25): And for me at least, that was learning by doing and through experience is always a benefit. And the good news is when you’re young, you can make a lot of mistakes and that’s okay, right? But that’s actually how you learn and in sports the same way, right? You got to push yourself to the point of being uncomfortable. I remember just learning to dribble with my left hand and I remember a trainer/coach telling me, “I want you to lose ball control as often as possible because that’s when you know you’re actually getting better,”-
Mickey Cloud (09:54): Mm-hmm (affirmative). That’s good.
Alex Wu (09:55): … in the sense that you’re forcing yourself to make mistakes. If you’re not making any mistakes, you’re actually not getting any better. You’re just playing to your comfort zone and I think that the same is true in startup land.
Mickey Cloud (10:04): I think what is unique about your evolution through startup land is that you went from having leadership roles at startups to now actually taking that first step of being part of a founding team, right? And so I guess, even as maybe small on a piece of paper as that transition looks, it’s a big gulf in terms of mindset and responsibility. I guess, how did you meet your co-founders and how long did it… I’d love to know the founding story of HomeCourt.
Alex Wu (10:33): Well, I think… I’ll take a quick step back there because I think one of the things in your career… You start to figure out what are the things that should be true for you to do your best work, for you to be in the zone, right? Again, using sports analogies, there’s some players who are not great on certain teams and then they finally find a team that’s the right system, with the right coach, with the right teammates, and they become all stars. It’s crazy, right? And I think one of the things I realized in my career is that when I was doing my best work, I was the most engaged, was the most creative, really felt in the zone, was during those early… The primary of Obama, where we’re just doing stuff from scratch, were the underdog. And at Facebook where we weren’t the biggest company yet and we were just trying to figure stuff out, that’s where I felt the most energy and passion.
Alex Wu (11:27): And then once it got to a point where it really was more about optimizing, and I still could do a good job with that, I didn’t feel like I was learning as much as I used to, right? And it took me a while to figure that out, but I realized I was always trying to search for that. And so, the next company I joined was okay. At Quora, it was a Series B company, but I had the opportunity to really build out the marketing and partnerships function there from scratch and I was like, “Well, that’s not something I’ve done before. Can I take what I learned here and apply it in this way?” And then it just went younger and younger and younger and I actually went to a point where I went back to… When I went to Uber, it was a bigger company, from Quora to Uber, and I realized that when I was at Uber, I was like, “You know what? It definitely held true.”
Alex Wu (12:11): I wasn’t feeling as… There was thousands of employees already at that time. I was working on something there that was… Uber for business that was a startup within a startup situation, but didn’t feel the same in the zone. I was being productive and I felt I was adding a lot of value, but at the same time, it wasn’t… It didn’t really have the same feeling, right?
Mickey Cloud (12:33): Got it.
Alex Wu (12:35): And so, Newsela, I got back to that a little bit, and I think after that, I was like, “You know what? I’ve been at these…” Again, you build five years of experience, being at the leadership level for a few of these different places and then wanted to take a step back. And I was, “Okay, is there something that…” I’m at a certain point where there’s something I wanted to do. And so, I actually left Newsela and started, with some other UVA grads actually, as more of a learning exercise for us, but started a small, venture capital outlets investing in different companies, and that actually gave me the opportunity to really see a much broader swath of different ideas and companies and stuff like that.
Mickey Cloud (13:18): Got it.
Alex Wu (13:18): And that’s actually how I got introduced with the founding team here at NEX Team. And again, the Valley’s small, right? It was through one friend who I worked with at Facebook said, “Hey, Alex, I know you’re really interested in sports and technology. There’s some guys that have a really cool prototype of some stuff that you might want to check out. I think you guys can find some ways to work together.” And that’s really how it started. I still remember meeting David and Phillip at a basket ball court at Stanford. It was raining and they’re like, “Hey, I’m not sure if this is going to work. We’ve never tested this in the rain before, but it’d be still fun to show you now that we’re here,” and that was a really, really fun experience.
Alex Wu (14:05): Look, at somebody who’s not technical out here, I think one of the things… You got to know at what point is the right time for you to be where you can really add value, right? And I think in technology and product, if there’s no technology and no product, I mean, what are you gong to do?
Mickey Cloud (14:19): There’s no marketing. There’s no partnerships.
Alex Wu (14:21): That’s what I mean. Yeah, what are you going to do, right? And so, I think the timing is important, but the good news is I think there was a working demo that I thought we could do a lot with. And so, we did that and we took it to a startup competition because we were like, “Look, we don’t have any industry really know-how here. None of us had worked in sports or for a while.” We do knew we had a really strong technology that we really thought was… Never seen anything else like it. And when we did our demos with the Stanford basketball team and others, the reaction in the residents was really, really strong. We actually went to the MIT Sloan’s Sports Analytics Conference and competed in a startup competition there. We didn’t win so another sports analogy. “It’s not how you start. It’s how you finish.” And we’re able to really meet a lot of folks there for our seed round that really helped us on the next stage of our growth, which is really powerful.
Mickey Cloud (15:23): Awesome. Awesome. Could you give just the quick pitch on HomeCourt and what you guys have built?
Alex Wu (15:31): Yeah. NEX Team, which is the parent company, we are a mobile, artificial intelligence companies focused on sports. Our mission is to make athletes better and I think we use athletes here broadly, as in everybody has an inner athlete, so to speak. And we started applying that technology to basketball first and the thesis was that the same type of feedback you get as a runner or a cyclist with your Apple watch with essentially GPS technology, for example, on your phone or watch, that type of feedback, real-time feedback, wasn’t really available in sports. And so, pick any sport, but basketball was the one that we decided to focus on for a variety of reasons and we’re like, “Well, you can’t improve what you can’t measure,” and the same way that I practiced basketball as a kid, by myself with a hoop, counting my shots, was basically the same way that kids were practicing today.
Alex Wu (16:25): It hasn’t changed much, especially if you’re by yourself, unless you’re at the really elite, professional level. And so, we’re like, “What could we do with technology today to help provide feedback?” Really basically, can we count shot just with your camera? It was very simple concept, but you got to start something like, “Can we solve that particular problem?” If we can solve that problem in a really easy, user experience way, then maybe we have an opportunity to build a broader product experience from that. That was the genesis.
Mickey Cloud (16:57): Yeah, and when you say, “Started with basketball,” you’re not only, from a product development perspective, but also from an investor perspective, you literally got into the elite basketball world, right? With the NBA, you’ve got Mark Cuban, Steve Nash, Sue Bird, Sam Hinkie as already investors. I guess, was that from the Sloan Conference? Was that from just connections? I mean, how did that connection lead-
Alex Wu (17:20): Again, I think the basketball community is also relatively… It’s pretty tight knit. There’s not a lot of… And sports tech in general is a little bit of a niche within the broader technology ecosystem, right?
Mickey Cloud (17:33): Got it.
Alex Wu (17:33): And so, if you go to the conferences and stuff, you see all the same companies and stuff for a while. I think that’s changing now, by the way. But I think very early on, we thought it was very important. We knew what we were good at. We knew that the team was a lot of ex-Apple, Google, Facebook people, and we knew that we had those credentials. But in order to make… If you’re going to build a product and say, “Hey,” to a basketball player, “This is something you should use,” you have to have credibility in the basketball side. And so, we want to make sure that if we couldn’t impress those elite level, Steve Nash and stuff like that, then maybe we had some more work to do. The good news is that we met Steve at the MIT Sports Analytics Conference through a few mutual connections and was able to do a demo and start to build a relationship together.
Alex Wu (18:23): And the good thing is, I think folks like Steve and Jeremy Lin, who were our early seed investors, they’re the exact archetype for a lot of reasons. One is they were underdogs, right? Steve, the only D1 scholarship he had with Santa Clara. Jeremy actually never even got a D1 scholarship. And so, they understood this type of technology would be immensely beneficial to kids like them and kids today like them, who are basically not in the ESPN top 100, are not widely scouted, and they need tools and opportunities to really showcase their talent. And they’re also, by the way, obsessive players, when it comes to their craft, right? They think about… Just the amount of detail they go into, which has been extremely valuable for us as we try to build out the experience that’s going to be valuable for basketball players of all ages and really taking their insights and how to build them into the product in a lot of ways.
Alex Wu (19:22): But it was important for us to be able to… If we can’t prove to them that this is going to be valuable, then we knew that we had more work to do. But fortunately, I think we made some good headway there to get that credibility. And then once you have a few, then I think, you still have to make the pitch, but I think other people start to like, “Oh, okay. Well, there’s really something here.” Yeah, it builds on top.
Mickey Cloud (19:45): That’s the definition of a strategic investor, getting the feedback, but then also getting the access and the credibility that they bring. You being the head of marketing partnerships strategy, you’ve got an official strategic partnership with the NBA now. And so, I know you talked about digitizing physical education and that you were looking for… You started just with basketball as a sport, so I’m sure there are other sports on the roadmap for you guys. But how do you prioritize growth across all verticals that you could go into? You could go into basketball and hockey and all these other things against maybe delivering for a high profile partner like the NBA?
Alex Wu (20:23): Sure. Why did we choose basketball? My dad wonders why we didn’t do golf first because that would have been helpful for him. And it really just came down to… First, we all play. It’s something that you’re willing-
Mickey Cloud (20:40): Something you love.
Alex Wu (20:41): You love. And we all had left jobs at various companies to pursue this and we’re like, “Look, most startups don’t exit and et cetera, et cetera.” And we’re very like, “Well, worst case scenario, we do this, at least we’ll have a good time. At least we’ll have a fun experience and we’re pursuing something that we all are personally interested in it fundamentally.” And we knew that ideally we could have the opportunity to pursue another sport, but we were really focused as like, “Hey, let’s make sure we can… Does this thesis of getting feedback in sports, accessible feedback in sports, is that something that people want? Is there a real problem that we’re solving there? Can we prove that out? And if so, then maybe we earned the opportunity to prove that out in another sport.”
Alex Wu (21:27): And we’re a small team and so I think focus is really important. And we knew that when the opportunity came to partner with the NBA, as they were thinking about growing the game of basketball globally and finding different digital tools to help them in service of that mission, we jumped at the opportunity. At first, just very… Never would have thought, right? If you had told me, “For your Series A, you’re going to be able to partner with the NBA and do all these things,” we’re like, “You’re dreaming.” I’ve never heard of them do anything like that before. But I think our technology and the product that we built was pretty compelling. We had a year of, after our seed round, to really show what we could do and the timing just worked out and I think… But the good news is the NBA, and I’ve heard commissioner Silver say this all the time, there’s a broad, just participation in sports in general.
Alex Wu (22:29): That is very much their ethos, right? And so, a lot of basketball players, especially here in America, play a lot of different sports before choosing one. And then generally those are just good for the ecosystem overall, right? And so, while there is a focus there, we also knew that the NBA had a general mission of just to support youth sports in general, across the board. Obviously, they care the most about basketball, but it’s a much broader mission than that. Adam talks about him being a runner at first and not necessarily a basketball player and how…I think that there’s a lot of… We knew that they would be good partners, not just today, but also in the future.
Mickey Cloud (23:06): Got it. Got it. And something that has come up obviously this year, the idea of a pivot is super well known in the tech world, but obviously this year a pivot around the pandemic is something that every business, tech or not, has faced. I noticed that you guys made the app free in March and during the spring at the start of the pandemic. How do you navigate when and where to lift the pay gate and then put it back in and how’d you navigate through that?
Alex Wu (23:36): I wish we had a smarter answer. It was very much a, “Hey, this…” There’s no for these things so again, building while flying situation. I think every company, any person who’s worked at a company during this time has really… Everybody’s gone through it. Two years of business schools is squeezed into a few months. But for us, it was really came down to the principles of, “Hey, what can we do to support our community,” and that was the core of it, right? And so, we knew that schools were being canceled. A lot of basketball was being postponed. There was no end in sight, so to speak, and we’re like, “We don’t want to be a burden. Let’s just make sure that we can support the community during this time and then see what happens.” And fortunately, it was crazy. I think that the whole people looking for at-home, physical activities, sports and fitness, just went crazy during that time and we certainly benefited from that change in behavior, so to speak.
Alex Wu (24:39): And we always knew that this would happen, but it really accelerated the adoption curve, so to speak, and that was really exciting for us. And so, that really was the core of it. I mean, obviously it was… We had a few meetings about it, where we did some analysis on revenue, whatever. We’re also very like, “Look, end of the day, if people fall in love with our product because of this, we eventually will be able to extract some value somewhere, sort of way in the future but that wasn’t really the near term forecast, for sure.
Mickey Cloud (25:09): That adoption of at-home ways to work out or get feedback and practice, in basketball or whatever that might be, do you have any data that’s showing you how sustainable that’s going to be as we… I mean, obviously we’re still in the middle of this thing, but as you look towards ’21 and beyond, I guess, how much of these headwinds are you going to be, or tailwind [crosstalk 00:25:28]?
Alex Wu (25:28): Yeah, that’s a great question. Summer was great, but when school came back in the fall, look, this is a extracurricular activity, right? And so, September was interesting. We were already a very cyclical, seasonal type of… Basketball in general, is in that motion. And so, it plateaued a little bit but then now with winter basketball season coming up, but then COVID still being not resolved in a lot of places and actually getting worse, and places going back to different lockdown situations, we actually made it free again, right? And so, we actually “You know what? This is what we just want to do.” We feel there are other ways that, free to use at least and free to play, and we want to continue to serve that community that way. And so, it’s just having the… Again, back to the principles like, “Are we doing what’s best for the community?” Obviously we need to be a sustainable business, but these things, it’s over a very long period of time.
Alex Wu (26:32): And so, I think having that in mind and having a little faith that… Especially in technology, we also know that adopting new technology is not necessarily a easy job, easy leap to take. And so, why create more friction to that adoption early on? And just getting people used to the idea that using your phone and the cameras to do this thing is actually, has really never been done before. It’s actually a very, very new way of interacting with your device. And we still get the feedback when people first learn about it like, “This is magic.” But it also takes some time to feel like you got value out of it because with basketball, it’s not like you’re going to use HomeCourt one day and suddenly, it’s like the Matrix, like I know Kung Fu, right?
Alex Wu (27:22): It helps you build good habits, but that takes a while to see the fruition. We also felt like, “Hey, maybe we were being too aggressive with the paywall and not thinking a little bit longer about how long it takes somebody to really realize the value.” But now we’ve been doing this two years and we’re like, “Yeah.” We talk to our users all the time and they show us videos like, “This was me dribbling six months ago and then this is me dribbling, six months later.”
Mickey Cloud (27:49): Amazing.
Alex Wu (27:49): “We’re using home court a few times a week and it’s night and day,” and they a hundred percent attribute it to their HomeCourt engagement. And so, we look at that and we’re like, “Hey, maybe we need to be rethink a little bit more the traditional, 7, 14 day free trial.” It’s probably not enough time for people to say, “Hey, like I’m willing to pay a monthly subscription for this.”
Mickey Cloud (28:08): Sure.
Alex Wu (28:09): And so, that was in the back of our mind but this is again, building while flying. We didn’t know this at the beginning so you’re just looking at the data and you’re talking to your users every day and you’re like, “Okay, now we know more and we are smarter. Let’s not hold onto our whatever beliefs we had before and make those adjustments,” just like you should in a basketball game, right?
Mickey Cloud (28:31): Yeah. I mean, there’s so much marketing content in there as well with the user like, “Here’s where I was six months ago. Here I am today.” My mind immediately goes to that. Well, this next question, this one’s a little bit for me because we’re both huge University of Virginia basketball fans and I need this for all of my Duke and Carolina friends. Does your app have data that shows that Tony Bennett, the coach of the UVA basketball team is the best college basketball coach? And if so, please tell that story.
Alex Wu (29:02): I will say that UVA was a pretty early adopter of HomeCourt. A lot of it had to do with Joe Harris being involved with us early on too. I will say, I don’t think there’s any data per se directly correlated to that. I will say one of the things that I think the Virginia program particularly, and we could do a whole podcast on this, that one of their core things that I think attract people to the program is they’re focused on developing skills with their players, right? A lot of the players, they usually finish three, four years at the program and they use that time to really focus on player and skill development and I think what that translates to HomeCourt is they’re always using forward thinking technology in their program, whether that’s us, Noah, they just… Talking to Johnny Carpenter, who’s one of the assistant coaches there, they’re all over that stuff and they think whatever it is that’s going to help their players get better at their skills and know their strengths and weaknesses, they’re all for it and I think that just shows.
Alex Wu (30:06): That is one of the things that makes Tony, I think, one of the best coach in college basketball. I won’t say [inaudible 00:30:12]. We’re biased, but we’re allowed to have some [inaudible 00:30:14] because he has that… Again, as a founder, you do appreciate this. It’s not about a quick win. If you’re really trying to build a long lasting program that’s going to be able to compete at a high level every year, it’s not looking for the shortcuts. You really have to build the culture. You really have to focus on the details and getting there and technology can certainly help with that and they embrace it. And I think that’s what makes the program, and obviously coach Bennett, one of the best because they embrace the process, but then they always are looking for things to help them improve that process and they’re always trying to get better.
Alex Wu (30:58): I think that’s the other, really powerful thing. And when we work with UVA and we look at some of the stats, their players are using it and they say it helps them. It keeps them on their toes. They’re competing with one another. It helps them build a better happens. It helps them better understand their game and we’re just grateful to be part of that journey.
Mickey Cloud (31:21): You and I might need to start a UVA basketball podcast-
Alex Wu (31:23): Yes, sir.
Mickey Cloud (31:25): … on the side and just dive because you’re right, we can do a whole other episode just diving into Coach Tony. Awesome. Well, my last question, we love this building while flying analogy because of how much it speaks to entrepreneurs and business builders needing to have the nimbleness, the flexibility, foresight, but also because pilots are renowned for their checklists, right?
Alex Wu (31:44): Sure.
Mickey Cloud (31:46): When things hit the fan, they know, “All right. Well, I’ve got to check this, this, this, and this,” and they remain cool under pressure that way. I guess when you’ve talked about being your back against the wall a little bit before, and you enjoying and finding your zone in that, but if you’ve got to make a tough decision for the business, what’s that internal process or checklist for you?
Alex Wu (32:04): Yeah, it’s pretty straight forward and I wouldn’t say this is unique to us. It’s really like what’s best for the community and your users and your customers? I mean, end of the day, that’s what’s going to sustain you through the good and tough times. Are the decisions you’re making adding value, creating value, I should say for the community that you’re trying to serve? End of the day, as long as we go back to those principles, everything gets really clear, right? Is this the best decision for our community and our users? And then you’re like, “Okay.” Then you can go back to that. Anytime when you feel a little, all over the place or a little distracted… And we’re not immune to this. There’s always opportunities all over the place and certainly, we’re not immune to the mirage sometimes of what some of those opportunities can be. But you always go back to your… We have a saying is “A high expected value customer, that we think a lot about that basketball player between the ages of 10 and 18, and are we doing what’s right for them?”
Alex Wu (33:09): And if we do that, we believe that will create a lot of value. We’ll be able to create a successful business eventually, right? But it’s not linear, I would say. It’s up and down and you got to try a lot of things to see is that really creating value for your community because you could have good intuition about it, but intuition is also built your experience over time, especially in technology when you’re doing something really new. And we always just go back to them. It’s pretty simple. We don’t have five things fortunately, not like a pilot does. They do have to check a lot of things. I think for us, it’s just the main question, “Are we doing what’s right for our community?” If we at least we can do that, then we know that we are on the right path.
Mickey Cloud (33:54): Awesome. Awesome. Well, Alex, thank you so much for taking time today and chatting with us and look forward to more basketball success this winter from Tony Bennett, but also from you and the team. All right. Thanks, Alex.
Alex Wu (34:06): Thanks Mickey. Appreciate it.
Katie Hankinson (34:10): Well, now that we’ve finished that thoroughly interesting interview, we’re getting ready to land, but before we do, Mickey and I spent some time unpacking some of the key takeaways that really stuck out to us.
Mickey Cloud (34:20): We liken this to the post-game show, where we break down the really extraordinary nuggets that we can all benefit from, including us here at the Sasha Group. Get ready for the Sasha sidebar.
Katie Hankinson (34:38): Mickey, Alex and you back at college days. How was it reliving those memories?
Mickey Cloud (34:44): Yeah, it was a lot of fun. It was a lot of fun catching up with Alex. He’s someone who I got to know really our third and fourth years of school at UVA. We were both part of a undergraduate business program and we had a lot of classes together and did projects together. But post-graduation, didn’t really stay in touch as much. I stayed connected with him over Facebook and LinkedIn and things like that and so we would like each other’s comments every now and again and that stuff, but we weren’t super… We didn’t get to stay in touch a lot and so, having this conversation was actually a great… Personally, to just catch up and hear about the awesome things that he’s been doing.
Katie Hankinson (35:21): Yeah. I mean, his career trajectory was so interesting because if you looked at it in isolation, it doesn’t feel like it really has a thread, but when you hear him describe how one thing led to the other, it makes sense where he ended up as a founder of the firm that he’s at.
Mickey Cloud (35:41): Yeah. He took learnings from all those different experiences and it’s definitely a sports term, I think, finding your zone. But I think it certainly applies. I know for all of us as we’re going through our careers, it’s like, “Yeah, what makes you happiest? What brings the best out of you? What brings your energy up?” And when you find that thing, stay there, maintain that, and try to keep that going.
Katie Hankinson (36:06): And basketball is clearly something you both enjoy and speak about. And what I loved about the whole thing at the end was the metaphor… I almost couldn’t see where the business metaphor and the basketball metaphor stopped and started but whether you are a founder or coaching a team, the importance of realizing that building a real brand or program doesn’t happen overnight, that you truly need to build a culture and a community. You will need to try and get better and you always need to understand your game and be able to look at it all from all angles in order to improve. Yeah, he made a perfect metaphor for his own business by describing his product, very meta. And then the final thing in his checklist, or what his-
Mickey Cloud (36:48): So good.
Katie Hankinson (36:48): … building while flying advice would be, was pretty, perfectly straightforward. When there’s too many objects on the table or too many shiny objects or things or you’re losing focus, just take a step back and think, “Is this a decision that will add value to my consumer or to my audience?” And that simply is all you need to think about.
Mickey Cloud (37:06): Yeah, what’s best for our community of users? Laser focus on that and everything else falls into place.
Katie Hankinson (37:11): Makes so much sense. I think the question we have off the back of today is, given that we’ve been talking about sports and teams, we’ve all played sports as we were growing up. What is the best team that you have been on throughout the years and why?
Mickey Cloud (37:29): What made it great? Was it the coach? Was it the teammates? Was it the practice? Was it the competition? What made it great?
Katie Hankinson (37:36): Thanks for joining us for Building While Flying today. I hope you learned as much as we did. We’ll meet you right back here next time for another flight.
Mickey Cloud (37:47): If you’d like to hear more about how business owners and brands are navigating these times, tune in to the next episode. And if you’re so kind, please rate and review us. Plus, we’d love feedback so let us know what you think, what you’d like us to dig into next on Building While Flying, across brands, businesses, marketing, and more.
Katie Hankinson (38:02): This podcast is produced by the team at mustamplify.com. Original music by Fulton Street Music Group.
Welcome to Building While Flying!
This weekly podcast is brought to you by the Sasha Group. We’re the consultancy meets agency arm of the VaynerX family of companies. We help ambitious companies build strong brands that flex with the times through strategy, branding media and marketing.
In ever-changing times, businesses and brands have to shift and adapt. And across all sectors, there is an air of experimentation. Business owners are trying new things out in the wild; building the plane while flying.
Alex Wu is finding his zone within the sports tech world with HomeCourt.
From marketing to startups to presidential campaigns, Alex has had quite the career. Now a Founding Team member of NEX Team, Inc., a mobile AI company, he gets to combine his love of sports and tech. Alex’s small talented team consists of former Apple, Google and Facebook employees navigating the primarily untapped market of sports apps. HomeCourt is the first smartphone app built with NEX Team’s core tech. It allows you to use your phone camera to count, track and chart your basketball shots in real-time. It then provides instant video review and stats analysis to challenge yourself and improve your game.
In this episode, Mickey gets the opportunity to relive his UVA days a bit with his old friend Alex. Besides the basketball talk, they get into the nuts and bolts of what it takes to start a project like HomeCourt. Like everything else, a pivot was required when the pandemic hit, so they dive into the logistics of “building while flying” in the sports tech world. When creating such an innovative product, it’s essential to find your zone and not expect a slam dunk right out of the gate. It’s all about patience, adapting, and serving your community of users.
Other in-flight topics:
- Alex’s diverse career background
- Working on the Obama campaign
- Forcing yourself to learn
- Pivoting in unprecedented times
- Alex’s in-flight checklist