FREEBOWLER: A HARDWARE STARTUP STORY DURING THE CORONA PANDEMIC

Jeez. It’s getting a little exciting and nervous out here in June 2020. I’m pretty sure that even the best of the elite cricketers are going to feel the same when they step out on the playing field for the first time post lockdown. Although they made the 22-yard strip of turf their own over the years, it’s kinda going to feel like the ‘first time’ again. They have been there and done it time and again. But this time, there’s an awkward feeling — a sense of uncertainty, insecurity, and curiosity to see what’s next and what to look forward to. One can’t get ahead of themselves too much but also not restrict the flow of emotions through their body that empowers them. If it’s right for people who have kinda ‘made it,’ then it holds good for small players like us and the businesses around the celebrated cricketers. Irrespective of what we’ve done up until this point, it’s still a new beginning. Life’s just different from a couple of months ago, and we are going to have to accept the fact that we are starting the process all over again and building up the momentum from scratch. That’s life and business both at the moment. With that said, here’s how we are preparing as a small business for the post COVID era. We have focused on four essential elements that matter the most to us right now — fundraising, reopening manufacturing operations, new product development, and the content generation strategy.

FUNDRAISING & MONEY TALKS

We had no other option but to take on debt. As a hardcore hardware business with relatively higher overhead costs, we need to infuse some kind of external cash for the cash circulation not to collapse. Debts, loans, and external funding through friends and family are how early-stage hardware businesses scale-up, and we are no different. We’ve not taken the institutional fundraising route with Angels and VCs, but the traditional small scale business loan under the Micro, Small, & Medium Enterprises(MSME) scheme. We are not in any way directly benefitted by the current government relief loan package awarded for the small businesses, because we are not eligible for that. But somewhere down the road, we might be indirectly benefited. We’ve moved the proposal by submitting all the necessary documents to the local community bank by pledging the collateral, and we are hopeful of availing our first external funding in the days to come. We’d still consider this a tick mark on our’ traction portfolio’ given the current situation.

RESTARTING MANUFACTURING OPERATIONS AND MARKETING CAMPAIGNS

Matrix Sportz, our manufacturing partners, deserve a big shout-out for being there with us thick and thin. A huge thank you to the entire team for coordinating the manufacturing facility reopening process. Still early days, but we’ve managed to at least open up and begin planning the next production batch. We have finalized drawings for the latest iteration, we have some raw materials ready from the last batch, and the remaining ones are out for sourcing and acquiring. We’ve closer to around 25 orders in-hand (approximately worth $10,000) to fulfill that we had initially reluctantly taken on. Things were so uncertain a month ago, and we had no clarity on what’s happening next, so we weren’t willing to risk people’s money/time and commit to unknown delivery timelines. But as we stand today, we are in a much better position, and we’ve begun retaking orders. Cricketers are dying to come out of lockdown and play cricket. We’ve been continually receiving order requests and inquires that we have forcefully put on hold. But we sense an opportunity here, a big one, and we are excited about what COVID presents for us in solving people’s cricket training problems. New social distancing norms are here to stay from some more time, and our product innovation could just fit the need. Time will tell. Our global marketing campaigns on Facebook, Instagram, Google, YouTube are due to start in a month. We are excited about exploring TikTok ads this time around.

SUSTAINED PRODUCT INNOVATION

It has always been our favorite part as we love problem-solving. Ideating, conceptualizing, and customer discovery is a fun process, and we thoroughly enjoy it. We went back to our roots and stuck to our core competency in product innovation. We have recently had some luck with the introduction of the semi-automated handheld cricket ball thrower.

 

Like they rightly say — necessity is the mother of all inventions, the Corona lockdown also pushed us to think outside the box and imagine a scenario of how cricketers would survive if lockdown continued forever and in eternity. Basically, reverse engineer cricketers' mental setup and by being in their shoes — What would cricketers do to fulfill their cricketing hunger? What’s that one gadget they’d want to keep with them for a lockdown scenario that helps them get through it.

We did our homework and quickly turned things around. We prototyped an already existing device(used in baseball) to show people what would their favorite tool look like if they were to use it in a lockdown scenario in their homes with limited spaces. And people went nuts over it. We just wanted to put it out there and see what happens and how the crowd responds to it. But to our surprise, people were ready to pay for it, and it showed there’s a market for it. We realized there’s a massive potential for a compact, easy to use, affordable knocking or a throw-down machine. This activity helped us generate some leads, encouraged us also to go ahead and engage a dedicated design team to work on it to come up with feasible ideas, more thoughtful models, and designs that we can further test with people. So, new product innovation, market research, and deploying a professional design team to build on top of the concept done during this phase. We are pretty happy to have stayed the course and maximized the down-time through some result-oriented business developmental activities. Or at least started with it.

THE ‘CONTENT’ GAME

Let’s face it; we’ve not done an excellent job at this during the pandemic. It’s not that we couldn’t have done it, but it just slipped as we caught up in our heads. We see a lot of companies and brands putting out content in various forms like pictures, video, and audio in the form of interviews, podcasts, guest talk shows, and building on top of the leverage they’ve created. And they are also mostly media companies who’s job is to generate a ton of content. And they don’t have products to sell at this stage. So they don’t have to worry about product innovation. Still, they are doing a tremendous job in building a customer database and access to industry leaders through their virtual business meetings packaged and putting it out in the form of educational and entertaining talk shows for the audience. I think it’s a great business strategy, given the current situation.

 

Fortunately or unfortunately, we are a product company with innovation as the core focus. Our product narrative is so experiential in the sense that it’s hands-on. It’s easy and natural for us to build compelling stories around the ‘experience’ that the cricketers get through the batting training aid. The lockdown has made it tough for us to get out there for product demonstrations. And also for cricketers to go out for practice with the machine and send videos for us to repurpose. But a few cricketers have got creative and found ways to practice with the freebowler training aid amidst lockdown following safety practices and social distancing in private practice facilities. So we’ve been able to make use of those stories to show the world as to how a training aid like the freebowler superthrower non-electric and portable ball thrower comes in handy during extreme cases as the pandemic. But it all happened in limited quantities. We would have liked to have more.

So, all in all, our content generation strategy and branding has taken a beating. And we own it; it’s all on us, we take full responsibility for not being able to up our content game during the lockdown. We were so dependent on the product and the product itself that we failed to get out of our comfort zone and get creative to produce content like the Expert Talk Show from NFSporTech, Around the Wicket, and among others. But as we get into the business end of the post lockdown era, we are hopeful of doing a better job. In implementing and executing a thorough and thoughtful approach for the contextual content creation, generation, curation, and distribution across social media platforms that matter the most(I mean all).

https://youtu.be/p81_UEODhTo

WHAT’S HAPPENING AROUND THE WORLD — BUSINESS, INTERNET & TECHNOLOGY 2020

Luckily, we are still in the ‘necessity’ business, unlike some of the other ‘luxury’ lifestyle businesses. And there’s a further breakdown of ‘must-have,’ and ‘nice to have,’ we see ourselves inclining to the former. Like most businesses, we’ve been badly hit too by the pandemic. Still, it’s also made way to improvise our business model and taught us the best lesson to go direct-to-consumers(DTC) like never before in the history of retail business.

 

Tobi Lutke, the founder of Shopify, just said, “Luckily for e-commerce businesses 2030 is here in 2020, and we don’t have to wait till 2030.” There’s going to be such a tectonic shift in the way businesses are run post-COVID; that’s equally important to catch the 2030 train in 2020 and take advantage of the early ride. It’s now or never for small businesses to up their game on e-commerce and build a brand.

 

For further proof, Facebook just announced ‘Shops’ on Facebook and Instagram. This feature allows customers to make the purchase right on Facebook and Instagram apps without being redirected to another landing page. The infrastructure supported by eCommerce giants like Shopify, Woo Commerce, Big Commerce, Magento, and others to enable other retail capabilities like database management, shipping logistics, fulfillment, customer service and support, and more. So a lot is going on and a lot to catch up on. Just have to feel lucky and fortunate if small businesses were able to take advantage of the latest internet developments and get through this tide, made it on the other side without dying. It’s a year just to stay alive, surviving as a business is a victory. Let’s talk about P&L, margins, cash flows, CAC&LTV next year. Hopefully, at freebowler, we’ll still be alive to discuss this and more next year around this time of the year again.