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Keeping their Eye on the Ball

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This post originally appeared on the Auburn University New Venture Accelerator Newsroom.

For Tennibot, the Auburn NVA company developing a robotic tennis ball retrieval assistant, success today is all about focus.

It always has been.

Founded in 2016, Tennibot designs and builds portable, lightweight and easy-to-use autonomous robots that collect tennis balls during hitting practice, navigating around the court on their own while avoiding obstacles like the net, fences, benches – even other players. The groundbreaking systems are driven by advanced navigation algorithms that enable them to move smoothly across the court, saving players otherwise wasted time picking up balls themselves and helping create the best tennis practicing experience possible for players and coaches alike.

The company has attracted the attention of venture capitalists, strategic partners and a host of top-tier media – with coverage in Time Magazine, Forbes, BBC, Yahoo, Huffington Post and the LA Times. They’ve also collected design innovation awards and recognition from prestigious organizations such as Silicon Valley Robotics, the Consumer Electronics Show, TechCrunch, European Product Design Awards and the Tennis Industry Association for their product’s innovative design features and the company’s unwavering attention to detail.

Auburn’s New Venture Accelerator caught up with Haitham Eletrabi, Tennibot co-founder, CEO and Auburn University Samuel Ginn College of Engineering Ph.D., to get a sense of how the company is doing.

NVA: Let’s start with a status update – how’s business?

Haitham: Business is great. While Covid impacted our supply chains right when we started shipping initial models to customers, it didn’t impact R&D at all. That turned out to be a blessing, really, giving us more time to fine-tune the product based on the feedback we were receiving from a few dozen initial customers and then incorporating their findings and suggested revisions into the very small number of systems we were producing. We’re talking about batches of five or ten systems at a time rather than pushing out higher quantities all at once.

NVA: Can you talk about your commitment to getting those initial models into the hands of customers and the process you’ve established for collecting feedback? That focus on a select few early adopters seems to be top-of-mind for you vs. selling as many as you can to anyone willing to pay for them.

Haitham: Yes, and that’s intentional. One of our early investors advised us not to yield to the pressure to ramp sales too quickly but, rather, take the time to listen to early adopters – find out what they like most, what they feel needs to be improved, additional features they’d like to see, etc.

One thing Tennibot co-founder Lincoln Wang and I committed to beginning Day One was appreciating the value of direct interaction with our customers, a practice we follow to this day. When possible, I still personally deliver units to nearby locations like Atlanta, walk the customer through how to use it and encourage them to offer their candid opinions directly to me, personally. I hand them my business card and ask them to call or email me if they have any questions or problems. We don’t just ship them the system in a box with a link to an online feedback form.

NVA: That seems like a lot of work – and not something we’d expect most start-ups to have the time or resources to do early on. What’s the strategy behind this approach?

Haitham: One thing we need to always keep in mind is that our Tennibot systems are premium products targeting people who care a lot about tennis and are in a position to pay a premium price for the high-quality features and performance we offer. The $2,195 list price we charge comes with an understandably high expectation for premium performance.

Another characteristic of this target audience demographic is that they tend to be very social – online, yes, but perhaps more importantly, in person. Many are on recreational tennis teams, some are members of tennis clubs – by definition, tennis is not a sport that can be played alone. The highly social aspect of this sport literally screams word-of-mouth marketing.

As tennis players ourselves, we know the shared experiences and shared needs that pervade the recreational tennis market. And let’s not forget that almost half of all tennis players worldwide are women. That’s a higher percentage than we see in golf, for example, or literally any other adult recreational sport, for that matter. Women tend to share their experiences with their friends more than men, meaning a good recommendation from them goes a long way.

NVA: That makes perfect sense when it comes to the positive reviews spread by happy, satisfied customers – but how do you handle the problems that inevitably pop up in early versions of such a highly engineered product?

Haitham: Interestingly, even the problems that arise – rare as they are – offer opportunities to build our brand and reputation as well. If someone has an issue, we send them a loaner right away. The customer simply puts their original system back into the box it came in, slap on the prepaid return address label that comes with the unit, and drops it off at their local UPS store.

That level of customer service extends to virtually everything we do, and it certainly is appreciated by our customers. A customer in California recently had a small problem with a system he bought and sent us an email. I saw his phone number in his email signature and simply gave him a call to ask him about his issue.

He was blown away, saying “I bought a tennis ball launcher that wasn’t working right and it took the company three weeks to finally get back to me. Here I sent you an email and you’re on the phone with me the same day!”

You can bet we’re not the only ones he’ll be talking to about that experience. We turned a potentially negative experience into an overwhelmingly positive one.

NVA: How do you plan to keep that level of service going as volumes scale – is that sustainable?

Haitham: Yes, we believe it is sustainable. We’ve built the capability to provide this high-touch customer service into our pricing, margins, and overhead. For us and our premium product, quality of service and customer satisfaction are of utmost importance. We’re not rushing to outsource what makes our products unique purely for faster growth, however, over time the cost of production will come down as manufacturing efficiencies kick in thus making our model even more sustainable.

NVA: That brings us to how you build your systems – not just now, but going forward as the pent-up demand we see from your website’s pre-orders kicks in.

Haitham: The supply chain issues everybody has experienced over the past few years have shown us a lot about the suppliers we were using and how those multiple partners have to all be meshed together to deliver the customer-ready systems. We’re in the process of reducing the number of suppliers we use while increasing the amount of work each one does for us, moving from buying sheet metal alone, for example, to having some of the components already incorporated onto many of those materials before sending us these more complete subsystems for final assembly.

We do that final assembly right here in Alabama, conduct final testing and then they go directly to customers, as I described earlier. While we don’t want to rush into outsourcing all of our manufacturing just yet – there’s just too much risk of losing control of quality, which I mentioned is critical to us and to our customers.

Outsourcing everything right now would also increase the risk that our IP could be compromised. Of course, we have a robust portfolio of patents and trademarks, but litigation is costly. We’re focusing on engaging with trusted partners and recently hired a San Francisco-based supply chain expert that previously worked with Tesla to help us structure that important transition.

NVA: I understand you are in the middle of a financing round – can you talk a bit about how that’s going?

Haitham: Sure. While I don’t want to talk too much about the specifics of that raise, I will say that it is coming along quite nicely and that we expect to close the round sometime in May. A large portion of our past investors have been impressed by our progress and were eager to write new checks for this current round. There are also some great new investors whom we are excited to work with and learn from.

One thing I believe has served us well is our diligent stewardship of the money invested in our company – our unwavering commitment to conserving cash. This is especially important in the current environment.

NVA: Finally, can you talk a bit about how the New Venture Accelerator helped you, Lincoln, and your team achieve the success you’ve had so far?

Haitham: The NVA and Auburn professors were instrumental to us, especially in the early days of Tennibot. Back then, I used to stop by to meet with Dr. Swamidass and Dr. Baker in their offices all the time to ask questions about everything from business models to intellectual property. Having that support and guidance gave us a lot of confidence to keep moving forward and pushing through.

In the end, it’s all about keeping a keen focus on three key stakeholders – our customers, our investors, and our evolving team of trusted supply chain partners. So long as we do that, we’ll continue to succeed.