Have respect for the individual. This is one of the well-known “three core beliefs” instituted by Thomas Watson, Jr. and memorialized in the IBM Business Conduct Guidelines. These words were ingrained deeply in IBM’s culture (and in me) in a way that shaped the way that employees interacted with customers, partners, and with each other internally. The culture of companies and the culture of work have changed dramatically in recent years. This business principle remains timeless.
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rich Hempel.
Rich Hempel is CEO and co-founder of eCoach, the world’s first comprehensive digital platform for elite sports instruction that is developed, built and co-produced in partnership with the National Basketball Coaches Association (the labor association that represents NBA coaches), and other top professional sports coaches and organizations. Before eCoach, Rich spent over two decades as a founder and senior executive of numerous start-up and early stage technology ventures, including IBM where he began his career. As a thought leader in youth sports coaching, Rich’s prior experience in technology combined with e-learning compelled him to democratize access to sports coaching and break down the barriers of time, distance, and financial limitations that prevent athletes from reaching their full potential.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Starting in college and throughout my career, I have always been drawn to new innovations and the next wave of tech-enabled disruption on the horizon.
While working as an entrepreneur on my second early-stage venture in the online learning space, I was also spending my off hours coaching my kids’ youth sports and noticed that there were millions of families investing thousands of dollars on travel teams, club and league fees, camps, clinics, training facilities, personal lessons — and more (youth sports has since evolved into a 25 Billion dollars global industry). Access to top coaches was out of reach for most families based on financial limitations, where they lived, or simply the lack of knowledge of how to connect with a top coach. The families that had the financial means had access to the best coaches — providing a distinct competitive advantage for their young athletes over their peers of equal or greater ability. That bothered me. Why shouldn’t the family and child with less money and possibly more talent get access to the best coaches and training in the world regardless of where they lived? At that point, the light bulb went off — and the idea of applying an online learning approach to sports coaching was born. Thinking back, I would have never expected that my job as a Dad would ultimately define a career opportunity to change a global industry at the intersection of three of my greatest passions — technology, online learning, and sports.
Soon after, a long-time friend, entrepreneur, and recognized industry thought leader who had successfully operated top sports training facilities for many years reached out to me to discuss his vision for how to address this problem through a digital platform and a new approach to instructional content designed specifically for sports coaching. Together, we founded eCoach with a mission to democratize access globally to the best coaches in the world.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
eCoach created a first-of-its-kind collaboration in sports with the National Basketball Coaches Association that provides a unified platform for the top professional coaches in the sport, NBA head and assistant coaches, to teach the game to the world online and through mobile devices. To date, we have worked with over 40 NBA coaches, including well-known names like Golden State Warriors Head Coach Steve Kerr and Boston Celtics Head Coach Brad Stevens — to create the largest basketball instructional video library and curriculum of its kind available on the eCoachBasketball digital platform. Players, coaches, and parents at every level can now learn any aspect of the game directly from an NBA coach.
Basketball is a global sport, with over 300 million participants in China alone, and the
NBA is a global brand, creating an addressable market of nearly 1 billion people. To reach such a vast international audience, eCoach is establishing groundbreaking distribution and promotional collaborations in India, Africa, Mexico, China and other countries to assist the consumer and enhance the sports learning experience from anywhere in the world.
Our approach to developing content and technology is based on the premise that we view sports coaching as an education industry because there are teachers (coaches and parents), learners (athletes and coaches), and a continuous transfer of knowledge. Unlike traditional education verticals such as academia and corporate learning, personalized coaching in team sports such as baseball, basketball, football and soccer has yet to be disrupted in a meaningful way by technology or through an effective online model. This has driven the initial phases of development of our platform that extends the in-person athlete-coach relationship digitally. On our product roadmap is the integration of AI, machine learning, and other emerging technologies to personalize recommendations, feedback, and the customized delivery of content to help athletes and coaches get better.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I left my corporate job for my first start-up nearly 20 years ago, entrepreneurial support ecosystems did not yet exist in the Midwest where we were located, and local tech entrepreneurs to tap into for advice were few and far between. I discovered very quickly that my expectations for a straightforward path to building a new tech business were dramatically different than I could have imagined! The software product the company was started around never sold, but the process of being in the trenches with customers and attracting highly talented people to the company led to opportunities to pivot into other lines of business that we could have never predicted and that went on to be successful. The primary lesson learned from that first experience was a simple one — the success we had in attracting the right team of people was far more important than having the perfect business plan.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
Mentors are a critical part of anyone’s journey, and for me, have been vital both in business and practically every aspect of life. What I have benefited from the most in recent years has been less about mentoring relationships in a traditional sense, and more about being impacted directly from the observations of the people I am fortunate to be surrounded by or have the opportunity to interact with. These people include some of our own company stakeholders and business partners, community leaders, faith leaders, entrepreneurs and business leaders in our region, and even some of the NBA coaches who we work closely with at eCoach. What cannot be understated has been the influence of a special group of family members and friends through the examples they have set in their day-to-day lives or the way they have met certain challenges along the way.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
The traditional structure of sports coaching at every level and every age is one that has definitely withstood the test of time from the standpoint that nothing can ever replace the in-person coach, and that the value of the interpersonal athlete-coach relationship is paramount. That said, in the process of being disruptive, we have realized that the opportunity to create positive change and have a social impact across the world is far greater than first anticipated.
We knew from past experience that if we were successful in executing the eCoach model, we could use the power of our platform and partnerships to serve communities in many areas such as providing access to quality coaching to inner-city youth and help keeping kids active in sports; helping parents find a coach to improve their athlete-child from a skills perspective and from a personal confidence level, enabling the first-time recreational coach in a rural community to teach the game the right way to youth team, and providing online coach certification programs in countries where there is a severe shortage of properly trained coaches.
What we have since experienced first-hand is why many countries and world leaders now consider sports to be one of the most influential drivers of a culture. Countries like China, India, and others are investing billions of dollars in grassroots sports for that reason. Our platform is providing an opportunity to not only teach skills and drills, but also teach values, leadership, and character through the lens of sports on a global scale.
Our partnership with the NBA coaches provides us with a powerful and respected voice to teach values such as team and leadership, even in the most remote or impoverished regions in the world. Individually and as a group, the NBA coaches we work with are as passionate about the social impact on the regions, communities, and families we are reaching through the eCoachBasketball platform as they are about growing the game of basketball around the world.
Through our non-profit partnerships, we have introduced eCoach through clinics and events in some of the poorest areas of Mumbai, Nairobi, Guatemala, and remote China and watched the barriers of language, race, religion, and economic status completely melt away when sharing a common experience on a basketball court. It is true what many say that the two most universal languages are music and sports.
The “not so positive” aspect of disrupting an industry in our case is the initial perception in some cases that online coaching is attempting to eliminate the role of a coach. This is the furthest thing from the truth and why we named the company eCoach. We are driven every day to assist the coach in their position, whether that be a recreation coach, a school or university coach, or a coach that makes their livelihood from paid coaching lessons, camps or instruction. We are driven by three key goals in our quest to help coaches, athletes and parents: i) providing knowledge from the greatest minds in sport; ii) making these great minds accessible through affordable technology platforms; and iii) demystifying the digital experience for coaches, enabling them to effectively amplify their knowledge to the world in a way that allows them to become an enhancement and extension of the in-person coaching experience.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
In retrospect, I was fortunate to receive many helpful words of advice that fundamentally shaped my thinking as a corporate employee, as an entrepreneur, as a board member of various organizations, as an investor, and even as a coach. These three lessons continue to resonate in my current endeavors:
- Have respect for the individual. This is one of the well-known “three core beliefs” instituted by Thomas Watson, Jr. and memorialized in the IBM Business Conduct Guidelines. These words were ingrained deeply in IBM’s culture (and in me) in a way that shaped the way that employees interacted with customers, partners, and with each other internally. The culture of companies and the culture of work have changed dramatically in recent years. This business principle remains timeless.
- The best way to predict your future is to create it. This well-known statement often credited to Abraham Lincoln embodies much of what has driven my journey as an entrepreneur and continues to drive our work at eCoach. There has never been a better time in history for companies and for individuals to create their own future.
- Always think in terms of what’s best for the team. One of the NBA coaches we work with, Billy Donovan, recently shared with us his perspective that accomplishing individual goals is often much easier. He has always been fascinated and excited about being a part of something bigger than him, something that he could not accomplish on his own. This resonated with the advice that had been instilled by one of my college coaches that you can’t be successful if you don’t work and think first about what would be best for your team. Being in sync is everything. I’ve been on teams that have won and lost, but we’re learned how to support one another through good times and bad — and that’s what makes long-lasting friendships/relationships and ultimately leads to success.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
In the midst of the global pandemic, every leader of every industry has a responsibility to recognize this moment as the time to re-imagine the new future we are facing, not to wait for a return to the previous strategy or roadmap.
With most of the world still sheltering in place, the transition to a “digital-first’ approach to working, educating, and communicating at scale has created a new paradigm for all of us going forward. It is clear that there will not be a return to normal, and that certainly applies to sports coaching. The shift from digital coaching and training being a “good idea” to “mission critical” may have been accelerated by a decade in just the past few months. Sheltering restrictions around the world will be in place for the foreseeable future impacting the resumption of sports and most forms of traditional sports training. The need for our coaching content and technology for athletes, coaches, and families at home has never been greater. This is the most unique event in any of our lifetimes, and the biggest to impact sports in history.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
There are two podcasts that I listen to that frequently impact the way I think about our business now and what will shape the future. One of the greatest sources of insight and learning for me has always been the origin stories of other founders and their ventures. Guy Raz’s “How I Built This” podcast on NPR has become a go-to resource for listening to founders from a wide range of companies candidly discuss what led to their idea, how they got started, and the many unexpected challenges and pivots they have worked through to get to where they are now. For a visionary roadmap of the future, Peter Diamandis is one of the most highly regarded experts. I have followed him closely through his “Exponential Wisdom” podcast that he co-hosts with Dan Sullivan, through multiple newsletters, his books, and his work at Singularity University with other futurists including Ray Kurzwiel from Google. The podcast centers around how exponential technologies across multiple industries are creating massive opportunities for entrepreneurs and the global impact of hyper-connectivity among billions of people.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.” Among many great quotes about family, faith, success, or happiness that I count as favorites, this classic from Wayne Gretzky has evolved into a core belief in business and in day-to-day life.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
According to Peter Diamandis and many industry experts, within the next 4–5 years it is expected that nearly every person on earth will be connected to the world wide web. Eight billion people will be connected at speeds and bandwidths that were unimaginable only a few years ago and at nearly zero cost. With 4.6 billion people (59% of the global population) as active internet users today, nearly 3.5 billion new “minds” are being added at the most accelerated pace of network growth and connectivity in history. The impact of 3.5 billion new people who will be empowered by having on-demand access to knowledge and connectivity to the rest of the population will be transformational for the world, for every industry, and for eCoach given our focus to provide sports access on a global scale but also for social good.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!