An outsider innovating cricket?
When I tell people what I do for a living, the question always comes, “What got you into cricket?” In the world of cricket, I am a nobody. I never watched a game in my life until I was 27. When you are born in the USA, chances are you rose on baseball, football, or hockey. For many of us, it’s not just about a game; it’s the story. Seeing the athlete fight to win, fight to be the best in every second of that match, and to watch them strive to overcome the odds in their domain. When my classmate and later business partner Pratheek Palanethra(a.k.a Pratt) introduced me to cricket, I saw an all too familiar spark in his eye. The spark for the game that many players lose as they get old. It was still alive and well within him. I saw it in every player I met since then.
There are very few sports. I see people have a love for more than cricket. Pratt and I were housemates during graduate school at Lehigh University. When he showed me his passion for the game, It wasn’t the sport that drew me in as much as it was the fans. Cricket has a fandom, unlike any competition I’ve seen before. While there might be mass appeal and love for the game, there are also problems, big ones.
It was quick to see the struggle in Pratt’s eyes when he talked about having to make the tough choice between academics and cricket. He had the potential to go into professional sports. Academics, unfortunately, had to take priority. The things he struggled with the most was seeing others with access to more opportunities to practice. He and many others didn’t have the resources that some other players did. He had to watch as extremely talented players lost out on their dream of playing at the professional level. Less skilled players who had top coaches and high-end equipment like electric bowling machines were rising to the top.
Everyone loves an underdog story, but it can be demoralizing when the game you love becomes “pay to win.” From my observations of the situation in cricket, people with more funding had a better chance of achieving their dreams. Thinking of the millions who play, that scenario did not sit well with me. On top of this, I saw something all too familiar. Innovation was severely lacking in the sport. I understand it is a traditional sport. Baseball had its roots also, however parts of the game had to change, especially when it’s at risk for losing its entertainment value amongst the younger generations. Cricket is a much older game, which is what surprised me. A game that has been around longer should be ahead of baseball, not behind it.
I saw an opportunity to bring the modern age into the sport. I’m not here to change cricket; I’m here to help invigorate a new love of the game for the new generations. I also want the kids who want to have fun a chance to enjoy the game honestly. Pratt and I are both engineers. He has the theory, and I have practical hands-on experience. Pratt had an idea that could give players who cannot afford the new high tech training aids an ability to provide professional-level equipment. He had an idea that could give them a fighting chance. We worked on the Freebowler Superthrower day and night. There were entire weeks I went without sleep trying to build a bowling machine that solved a lot of the problems that bowling machines had, including cost.
As the product developed into what it is today, we began to dream of innovations in other areas of cricket. Much like baseball did with the younger leagues in the US, we started designing cold bats for kids that did not have horrible stickers. After two years of non-stop work on the bowling machine, we finally had a design we could say was ready to be played. Driving all over the US and India, we showed the device off to coaches, parents, and players. Every person we showed it to put a little bit of themselves into this machine. This very first inexpensive, non-electric, and portable bowling machine designed for the customer using their feedback.
Empathy and Design
I began prototyping the concept out of wood, bolts, and off the shelf springs. I took what is virtually 2500-year-old military weapons technology and made it a machine that turns kids into professional cricketers. As an outsider that didn’t know cricket, I had a lot to learn. I studied videos; I watched live games, I learned how to play. There is video footage of me bowling in a match horribly. To make cricketers all over the world jealous, as an outsider, there is also a video of me getting a personal bowling lesson from R. Ashwin :). All this studying was crucial. To help cricketers solve their problems, I had to understand what it felt like to face that problem myself, as much as I could. To get the machine right, I interviewed stakeholders, studied the habits of a bowler, their measurements, ball types, speeds, pitches, and angles all to produce a proper bowl. It was not an easy task. In my research, I found that many players didn’t know the exact release point of their release. They would walk up to the machine, stand tall, hold their arm up next to the device and say, “this machine is shorter than my arm.” Studying the bowling action in slow motion showed the ball releases from a lower height because of how the bowler takes a wide step when throwing.
With that observation, I realized education and showing proof of its effectiveness was going to be a part of our marketing strategy. We did everything we could to make the machine something everyone could love. We realized it is impossible to please everyone. There will be people who needed a tool like this; no questions asked. There will be people who just don’t get it, and there will be people who just need time to see how it solves their problem. Empathy is most important when designing a hardware product. If you don’t get that part right, you’ll have thousands to hundreds of thousands invested in tooling that amounts to nothing more than a significant loss.
Struggles in Design
Making a hardware product that works and does all the things customers expect at the price they hope it can be difficult. Especially in a two-person team. The machine needed to be foldable but sturdy enough to withstand hundreds of pounds of force to throw a ball at 75mph (~135kph). The way I designed the machine, every little change was done to one part, affect everything else. A slight change in the angle made the machine more stable but made it harder to fold. Making it more accessible to fold made the joints weaker. Making the joints stronger required more parts, increasing manufacturing costs. That leads to another effect that leads to another. We were always chasing our tails. We spoke with engineers in and out of our networks to get ideas that could help. All of the testing, the input, and fine-tuning eventually turned into a game of “trying to make it perfect.”
Pratt had to hit me upside the head to wake up and realize it’s never going to be perfect. Engineers fall into this trap often. It leads to a lack of sleep and subtle insanity. Once I pulled my head out of the clouds, we found the best sweet spot for foldability, stability, and function we could. We needed to get a solution to market or else risk never going to market at all. We needed to prove to everyone our concept was more than just a whim. We had to show it would work, and people needed it. After three years, we have finally done just that.
Onward and upward
It has been quite a journey so far. I never grew up thinking I would be an inventor with a patent making sports equipment for cricket. Our product has been very successful so far, and we are just not done innovating yet. Starting a business is one of the hardest things I ever had to do. I have learned that most companies start with good intentions. The companies that last are the ones who are in it to solve real-world problems; it’s not about trying to make money off people. It’s about solving the problem they need. Our bowling machine continues to sell in 12+ cricket playing nations. We have partnered with top professional cricket talent and top manufacturers to bring this machine to market. With our extended formula for empathetic design serving different needs in the market, we will continue to give cricketers hope for the future of their game.