2019 SVP Startup Profile: TopForm
TopForm is one of thirteen Babson startups presenting at Thursday, July 25th’s Summer Venture Showcase at the Federal Reserve Bank in Boston. Register to attend our showcase at bit.ly/2019svp!
There are few feelings in sports more satisfying than the smooth swish of a basketball falling through the hoop, making a shot with nothing but net. Inspired by one co-founder’s basketball sibling rivalry, SVP team TopForm is helping youth basketball players improve their shots through wearable technology and instantaneous feedback. To learn more about the progress TopForm has made during the Summer Venture Program, I spoke with founders Mike Carlson MS ’19, Peter-Paul Grootens MS ’19, and Isaac Lewis MS ’19. Here are the highlights of our interview:
Tell us a bit about yourselves and TopForm?
Mike: I’m the CEO and one of the co-founders of TopForm. The idea for TopForm came about because I have a younger brother who’s about three or four inches taller than me and a lot more athletic than me, who would mercilessly and constantly beat me in basketball. It got to the point where I would try to drive to the hoop to go for a layup, and he would just loudly swat the ball out of my hands. So, I did some thinking and realized that the only way to beat him as someone who’s a little bit smaller was to outshoot him. It was going to take practice to improve my shooting, so I had the idea to develop a device which would provide data about my shot. I put the first prototype together in like a week using a Velcro sleeve.
Peter-Paul: I am the co-founder and platform developer, and I came into TopForm with previous startup experience and little basketball experience, which is the perfect combination because I’m someone who actually needs to use a product like this to improve their shooting. So when Mike recruited me, it was a perfect match.
Isaac: I handle the athlete experience of TopForm. Having played college baseball, I had already used athletic sensors for hitting which were attached to the end of the baseball bat. They were helpful to me as both an athlete myself and as a coach for younger players, being able to analyze the data the sensors captured on my smartphone. My role with TopForm is creating a similarly positive experience for the basketball players and coaches who use our products.
When did your team come together to start TopForm?
Mike: TopForm began in October 2018 when I was working with circuit playgrounds in one of my classes, and I realized there could be a potential application of the technology for basketball shooting form. I sent an email to my IT Professor Ruben Mancha about the idea and he said, “Yeah, it’s an idea that could work.” From there, I got my hands on a couple of the circuit playgrounds and started building and testing, creating a working prototype just before Thanksgiving break. Excited by my progress, I pitched it into our second semester LEAP class as a project and it got selected.
Peter-Paul: I was recruited by Mike to join the team for LEAP in December. During LEAP I did a lot of customer interviews and research as we continued to develop the product, and now that we’re in the Summer Venture Program I’ve been able to take that process to the next level.
Isaac: I didn’t officially come on as a full-time team member until this spring. Unofficially, I was behind the camera for Mike’s first test video and you can hear me yelling “whoo” in the background!
What activity or resource from SVP has helped you the most so far?
Peter-Paul: For me, it was definitely the one-on-one sales training with Kate Merritt, which was an experience I had never had before and has really helped us.
Mike: Joe Caruso has been my favorite outside speaker SVP has brought in. Even though we’re not quite at the stage of seeking outside funding, being able to talk entrepreneurship with someone as experienced and renowned as him helped put everything we’re doing into perspective.
Isaac: Working with Martin Sinozich during the Lean Canvas Workshop was an experience that really stuck out for me. To have such an experienced business professional dive into our business and give us individual feedback so early in the program went a long way.
In what ways have your SVP peers and mentors supported you and your venture?
Mike: Working with an SVP community of entrepreneurs who have faced some of the same business hurdles that we’re facing at the different stages of their businesses has been a great source of feedback. A person who comes to mind immediately is Richard O’Brien MBA ‘20 (SVP entrepreneur and founder of Hoamsy), who has been a great person to bounce ideas off of because he was a college basketball player as an undergrad.
Peter-Paul: It might sound a little cliche, but we’ve been motivated by our SVP peers. Although they’re in different industries from us, they’re all here grinding it out every single day which has helped us stay motivated.
Isaac: I have appreciated the like-mindedness within the group of helping each other towards launching businesses. The Hot Seat presentation provided us with a lot of feedback from our SVP peers reflecting on their own experiences and saying, “These would be problems that I would think about if I was building TopForm.” Being part of such a close-knit SVP cohort has allowed us to similarly look at the challenges other SVP businesses have faced as case studies, thinking, “If TopForm had to face this type of challenge tomorrow, how would we respond?”
What major milestones or accomplishments do you hope to achieve during your time in SVP? Or have you reached any already?
Mike: A big technical milestone for us was being able to take a shot and map it. It took a little bit of work to get to that point, but we were able to figure out the launch angle and the velocity of the ball all from putting sensors on a player’s wrist. Separate from that, we’ve also been able to develop a more plug-and-play solution for fixing your shot that we call the “Shot Box.” Being able to iterate that kind of idea and test it so quickly has been huge as we look at all the solutions to the problem we set out to solve.
Isaac: We haven’t talked about this milestone yet, but Peter is slowly getting better than Mike at basketball. We play a lot of basketball ourselves when initially testing each iteration of our product, and I’ve noticed that Peter is catching up to Mike. We’ll see where the rivalry stands by the end of SVP!
What is a valuable challenge or learning experience you have faced as founders?
Peter-Paul: A valuable challenge I learned from working on a previous startup was to be lean, focusing on getting a minimum viable product out there and then using customer validation to guide the next steps. I was developing a social media platform, and I always was telling developers, “No, it’s not ready. We need to make it perfect.” By the time we launched, we had spent so much time perfecting features we would have known the customers wouldn’t use had we released an MVP first.
Mike: None of us came into this as techies, so as the development of our technology became increasingly advanced we had to learn to ask for outside help. It took guts to look in the mirror and be totally honest about our blind spots as a founding team, but knowing exactly where we needed help has allowed us to seek solutions quicker.
Isaac: The biggest challenge for me as a founder has been balancing my work on TopForm while also developing a healthcare and exercise product. Prioritization is key for me, because if I’m not putting a good effort towards everything I do the results start to dwindle. It’s really tough to say no to things, but you have to prioritize when you’re helping launch two business concurrently — and that’s why we have a team of people working on each.
Do you have any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Mike: My biggest advice for entrepreneurs is to try to solve a problem that they really want to solve, not necessarily the most world-changing or large-scale problems. You and your customers will get the most out of you solving the problem which is most relevant to you.
Peter-Paul: My advice for young entrepreneurs is to be comfortable taking risks. You’ll have more responsibilities later on in life, so if you’re young don’t wait to take the entrepreneurial risk. You should also learn to be okay with pivoting because every single entrepreneur will have to pivot in order to solve problems. Our LEAP Professor Andrew Zacharakis told us, “A lot of entrepreneurs fall in love with their solution, but it’s not about that. It’s about falling in love with the problem,” and I think this was valuable advice.
Isaac: If there’s a problem you’re looking to solve, give it a try. Don’t wait and be left thinking you should have done it, just start. Regardless of what happens, you’re going to gain something whether that’s monetary or just the experience. You should also try and find a co-founder for the journey, but make sure they are someone you can be completely honest with about how the business is going and that you have a common goal.
Where can we find TopForm online?
You can learn more about our technology at our website www.gettopform.com.
If you enjoyed learning about TopForm’s progress in SVP, be sure to stay tuned for more SVP team profile blogs! To meet the entire SVP cohort and celebrate its progress, join us for the Summer Venture Showcase on Thursday, July 25th. RSVP at this link. We can’t wait to see you there!