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Founder Interviews: Sergey Vasyliev of TenniRobo

Sergey is the founder of TenniRobo, a startup creating table tennis robots and its software.

Davis Baer: What’s your background, and what are you working on?

Sergey Vasyliev: The TenniRobo team consists of two people at the moment. Our project is an innovative compact robot for table tennis that combines a skillset of the professional trainer with intuitive control via the mobile application. It connects to the smartphone via Bluetooth and allows the user to set up any kind of shots or their combinations with (the most important feature) realistic human-like balls’ behavior. TenniRobo users are able to create their shots and programs via the mobile app to emulate any game situation.

My name is Sergey, and I’m the initial founder of this project, a “true” engineer with a huge technical background in electronics, software and mechanic design. I developed a lot of electronic devices and was selling them for years all over the world via eBay and my online store. Also, I’m a developer and owner of a guard system, which is widely used in Ukraine by patrol agencies.

My partner, Bohdan, is a marketing manager with decent experience in the promotion of small and large businesses. About eight or nine successfully grown projects are in the list of his “victories”. The common range of his duties: content management, e-mail marketing, SMM, SEO, budget/schedule management and analytics. Also, he’s an expert in sales funnel construction and business growth & scaling.

The table tennis community shows great interest and enthusiasm in our product, we’re getting tons of questions and requests to participate in testing the robot. The first batch of robots has already been sold, and today we have even more purchase requests. But our total revenue at the moment is only about $1500 per month because the robot gets its final upgrades and I want it to run like a clock before the mass production.

What motivated you to get started with your company?

TenniRobo is a classic example of how expertise in a certain area leads to the creation of something absolutely new. I always loved to play table tennis, but only a few years ago decided to take up this sport seriously. As my playing skills improved, I had faced some difficulties other tennis players experience frequently: the absence of a partner for the game, contradictions between the partners’ desires and skills, and therefore the need to hire a coach, arrange a certain time for training sessions and pay, pay a lot to make some progress.

And I thought that a robot that ‘knows’ how to serve balls like a coach would be a good option in this situation. But as the research has shown the actually good robots are too complex and too expensive, and the cheap ones do not have the necessary functions. Moreover, even the expensive machines are often unable to provide “human-like” ball behavior. So, suddenly, it became clear that many table tennis players have the same problem of choice.

In a few months, the first primitive but working prototype was ready to use. Apparently, the local community was captivated by it, so very soon I sold it out. Actually, it was the first validation of the idea, and the time when I realized that my hobby project can become very useful for the table tennis community business.

Within a few years, several iterations of the robot were reworked, which ultimately led to the current TenniRobo prototype. Today, almost all players and coaches who are fortunate enough to participate in testing TenniRobo note the striking similarity of pitches it makes to the real player performance. I’m really excited to have the first customers who acknowledge TenniRobo and a small queue of people waiting for a new batch of robots to be made.

Single ball
Custom program with 3 different balls
Strong backspin

What went into building the initial product?

I started developing TenniRobo when I had a decent experience behind my back — the years of engineering, and a small but profitable business in Ukraine. Also, it should be said that at the initial stage the new project was considered mostly as a hobby, and only over the time I started to work on it full-time (mostly due to our user feedback). The initial idea of the project was born in 2014, and since 2016 I’m involved in it full-time. Last year, TenniRobo project won the “ST Embedded World Contest 2017” with a 3D printer as a prize, which helped with the design issues.

The experience of an electronics engineer was very useful, but while I was working on a project, I was also taking a course in the specialty “Software engineering” in one of the universities of Kharkiv. This combination of skills, as well as income from my core business, allowed me to develop a prototype without attracting third-party investments, and reduced the cost of the development process itself. In fact, everything from the design and electronics to the firmware and mobile application was developed on my own.

The continuous communication with the targeted audience made a great impact on the future result. Last year, I brought a prototype to our local tennis club in Kharkiv to make first tests, but then decided to leave it there. During all this time, the machine was broken several times, and I modified it again and again until all the main issues were finally resolved. As it turned out the collected information helped me better understand my customer’s needs, and to define the directions for future improvements.

The community also helps me with the translation of a mobile application — one of the first optional languages was … Japanese, and now we are finishing translating the application into German. I’m also grateful for invaluable support from my friend Paul from the Preston Table Tennis Association. He has a lot of experience in table tennis and gives a lot of priceless advice — thanks, Paul!

How have you attracted users and grown your company?

I think that the trial sale of our three robots this summer can be considered as the first start. It was quite an exciting moment because there were some concerns about whether everything would work fine, whether robots won’t break. But everything went very well. For example, recently, we received a letter from one of our first users — he’s very pleased with the product and continues to follow the development of a project with great interest.

It’s notable that the project turned out to be so interesting to people that we didn’t have to make any effort to attract the first users — just created our own website, a Facebook page, several topics on the forums and uploaded videos of how the robot works on the Youtube.

This year, another person officially joined the project — Bohdan. I say “officially”, because earlier before he was involved in the project as an adviser (we are friends for a long time). He’s an expert in marketing, has about five years of real-life experience in promoting products on the world markets and a Ph.D. degree. So, the responsibility for the SEO & PR part of the project today is on him.

I just want to say that sooner or later every founder has to attract other specialists to work with him/her on their project. Today, looking back, I can see the mistakes I was making — I tried to do everything by myself. But even if you are able to do everything on your own, you simply face the lack of time and start to understand that it is much more efficient to delegate a part of the work to someone else. It took me some time to come to this simple conclusion. Perhaps the reason for this is the fact that initially the project was my hobby and I was completely absorbed by it.

So, if you want to grow — delegate responsibilities!

What’s your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?

Currently, we have only one model to grow revenue — the sale of robots. We are a combination of a hardware and software startup which imposes some restrictions on our growth model. The fact is that the iterations of the development of any hardware startup require much more time than for the “pure” software startup. You can earn money on hardware in several ways, but in any case, you need to fulfill the initial requirement — your product has to be mass produced.

This requires high initial investments, which is a limitation for us at the moment. However, we are confident that we’ll overcome this obstacle and get the investments needed to launch mass production. Introductory price for the robot now is $690 which is several times lower than the existing analogs. However, TenniRobo outperforms its competitors in many ways, and this attracts customers a lot. So far, we can slowly produce a small number of robots per month, which gives us revenue of about $1500 per month.

But the sale of robots is only a first step in our vision of the future development of the company. TenniRobo itself is a great partner for the game, but we are sure it can also be an excellent coach. And we have our own plans for this :-)

What are your goals for the future?

At this stage, it’s very important for us to move to mass production. We have to refine the design of the device, to make the calculations regarding the launch of mass production, and also to get investments for all this. Yes, it’s obvious that it may take some time, so the short-term goal is to start the production of small numbers of robots right away. This will allow us to have some revenue coming in and use it for the further development of the project.

Speaking of long-term plans… If you just go to Wikipedia, you will find out that there are about 850 million people in the world who are fond of table tennis. It’s one of the most popular and affordable sport in the world. Every day, a huge number of people ask questions about how to improve their game on various forums and in numerous FB groups.

Many people want to learn how to play, but they can’t do this at home. TenniRobo has a unique feature — a fully digital control over its motors and thus over the balls’ spin and speed. It uses real rotation-per-minute value for each motor what other robots cannot do. Thus, any settings could be transferred between TenniRobo machines, and they will do the same shots.

While having this unique feature, we want to create a web-based system for remote coaching sessions, which connects a coach and a player via TenniRobo. The coach can create personalized programs for different players, and they will follow the exact instructions and train exact techniques with their own robots. After that, the coach will check the player’s progress by watching the video they upload into the service. It’s an effective way to monetize training sessions with TenniRobo. The goal is to attract as many coaches to this system as we can, and we will get even more players on our side.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced and obstacles you’ve overcome? If you had to start over, what would you do differently?

As I’ve already mentioned, this project was initially my hobby, and in some ways, it wasn’t bad, because it allowed me to save some money on the development. But nevertheless, I also consider this fact to be my biggest mistake. Back in 2014, I had an idea that was validated by the market and the working MVP. But I wasted a lot of time and the opportunity to launch the project a few years earlier. I would like to advise everyone to be more attentive to the opportunities you get and to believe in what you are doing. Do not hesitate to catch a tailwind :-)

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

We are currently studying at YC’s Startup School (SUS). In some aspects, the received information simply changes the way you handle the situation. In addition to a large amount of useful information about various aspects of the startup creation, the school participants have another super useful opportunity — to communicate and ask questions to other founders through the “ask me a question” format.

For example, the most vital issue I had was related to the mass-production. I thought that it’s necessary to start the factory production immediately and only then to show the finished product to the world. But I managed to get a comment from Eric Migicovsky, co-founder of Pebble Technology, who told me the story of how he was starting the production and sales of Pebble Smartwatches.

He gave me a simple but useful advice — to start the production and sales immediately, even in limited amounts, because this activity has its own advantages. And today I realize how accurate was the advice. If you start with limited amounts, it gives you flexibility in decision making, an ability to think twice about the weak points of a product, to optimize it and make it more efficient. There’s simply no time for these moves amid the conveyor production.

What’s your advice for entrepreneurs who are just starting out?

I began my career as an employee, which is probably not surprising and quite natural for most university graduates. However, I always liked to create something that people need, and I was always attracted by the opportunity to become independent.

After some time, I realized (this is my personal opinion) that people are nominally divided into those who are inclined towards entrepreneurship and those who prefer not to leave the comfort zone. If you have an idea and you feel you can bring it to life — just do it! Perhaps your friends and family will advise you to stay on your job — start your project anyway!

Do not let your own fears and the skeptics that surround you to doubt your abilities. In my life, I have twice been in a similar situation, and both times I luckily made the right choice. In case of failure, you will always find a new job (having such an awesome experience in startup creation), but you also won’t have a reason to blame yourself for the missed chances.

Where can we go to learn more?

You can always follow our progress on this blog — www.tennirobo.com,

or Facebook page — https://www.facebook.com/tennirobo

Here’s our Youtube channel, where we show some of the new robot’s features — https://www.youtube.com/c/TenniRobo

Do not hesitate to contact us, ’cause we are always glad to communicate, ready to answer your questions and heed your suggestions!

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