May 13, 2014

WOO! Kiteboarders Take Off

3,702 / 3,472 / 3,499 / 7,716 / 857 - Those are the number of miles from Germany, Netherlands, France, Cape Town & Lake Superior, Michigan, respectively, to Boston. A metric we have been able to measure for decades. Their relevance? Each location represents the home of a core team member of WOO Sports, a Boston-based startup who has set out to change the extreme sports game by delivering metrics never before attainable.

I covered these guys a couple of weeks back after they presented at the Techstars Boston Demo Day. Given my sports background, they caught my eye pretty easily just based on the space they’re playing in, but once anyone sits down to talk shop with them, they will buy into the hype and become believers.

The Team.

Out of Germany is Leo Koenig, Co-Founder & CEO, who came to Boston in 2007 and held an engineering internship at that time. From the Netherlands is Ytsen Zielstra, Co-Founder & COO. In 2010 Zielstra’ss wife came home from work with a job offer in Boston and his only concern was proximity to the water, which clearly isn’t an issue (he’s wasn’t overly familiar with Boston). So Zielstra agreed and a few weeks later his family was Boston bound.  Co-Founder & CTO, Johnny Hujol stems from France and is an engineer who came by way of studies in 2000. Heading up Marketing is Sally Berold from Cape Town, South Africa, who had been through Boston in previous roles with Movember & Red Bull. Ultimately, she met a guy and settled here in Boston. Last, but certainly not least is lone American-born team member from Lake Superior, Michigan, Kirk Anderson, who is the Head of Product.

It all boils down to kiteboarding bringing them together and Boston being the perfect place for this business – nowhere else can you find the perfect kiteboarding setting just 5-minutes from downtown.

(Pictured below left to right: Berold, Koenig, Zielstra, Hujol, Anderson)

Koenig, Hujol and Anderson met and have been kiteboarding together since they met on a beach in 2007. Along the way they met Zielstra - also on the beach, kiteboarding.

In 2012 Koenig got himself a “beach-pad” in Winthrop, MA, which would eventually turn into the first office space for WOO Sports. A perfect setting (and apparently a hot spot for the all-important easterly winds) for this group of friends, the beach pad quickly became the go-to spot and the site of many hours of friendly competition in the water. 

Around March of last year they started looking for what they assumed was already available - a device to measure their kiteboarding activity. After coming up empty, they set out to build one of their own and quickly realized there may be a bigger opportunity here than just seeing who’s buying the beers when they leave the beach. By June, they had quit their jobs and started working full-time out of the beach pad. As is the case with many entrepreneurs, they were told they were crazy and stupid - Johnny for quitting his job after he just purchased a new house (in Winthrop), Ytsen for leaving his 7-week old position and overall, because some people just don’t appreciate risk/reward nor have the passion or vision entrepreneurs live by. They ignored and pushed forward.

Product & Progress.

Here are some specifics about this product generating a lot of interest among investors and the tech ecosystem. The unobtrusive device, or, The WOO, (picture below) attaches to a kiteboard (focus is solely on kiteboarding now as they test and work out any flaws) and is able to track specific metrics of the boarder’s performance – providing measurements such as rotation, height, speed & g-force. It’s easy to see the inevitable transition into snowboarding, skiing and virtually any other extreme sport and beyond.

The data from the WOO syncs up to the WOO App where kiteboarders can immediately see on their phones, where they rank among leaderboards of users across the globe or create private competitions among friends; making it much easier to place those friendly wagers on the beach.  

As traction started to build (they secured a letter of intent from Red Bull in September) meetings took place with several potential investors, many of whom came to the beach in suits and formal business attire. As these guys are stepping off the beach it’s easy to see how chemistry might not spark…

Enter Woody Benson, who discovered WOO through LaunchPad and made the initial outreach.  Koenig recalls “looking out the window and seeing this guy step out of the car in shorts” and knowing they’d all hit off – and they did. WOO secured its initial investment in October (approximately $850,000 total to date). With funding secured, Kirk and Sally were brought on full-time and the team was off and running.

Benson, who is on the Board of Directors, would play a key role as to why WOO (Kinematiq, Inc. at the time) landed in Techstars. When asked about the Techstars experience Koenig said they would certainly do it again if they were to turn back the clock. The simple fact that of being one of twelve chosen out of over 1,000 says a lot in their eyes. The Techstars journey wasn’t free of conflict though as the team remembers often being committed to requirements that would pull time away from focus on product development. Admittedly, this was a small/mild negative element of the overall experience. The network and credibility built throughout the experience is hard to duplicate elsewhere.

Moving Forward.

So where are they now? The WOO team, now based in a shared space with Pingup on Elkins Street in South Boston, is anticipating closing a seed round of $1.5M soon. Their current investors are split almost 50/50 between Boston-based investors and international investors.  Spark Labs Global Ventures, who participated in their first round, has committed to be part of the next as well. The WOO, which are being beta tested (the team is kiteboarding), will soon be available across the BEST Kiteboarding distribution network so the team has put together sleek, eye-catching packing. With their new website now live they are hashing out their sales and distributions strategies and looking to bring an algorithm developer on board.

This is a team of fun, laid-back, but highly focused and driven entrepreneurs looking to change the sports space they are all so very passionate about. There could be an X-Games in the not-so-distant future using The WOO in place of judges. We could see the next Shaun White or Lindsay Vaughn get discovered because Burton tracked his or her stats on The WOO and ponied up a sponsorship. The metrics provided could be the focus of viewer engagement for the Rio Olympics in ’16. The opportunities are plentiful and I find my mind cycling through ideas.  One thing I am sure of is we’ll be hearing plenty from WOO Sports moving forward. 

If you’re eager to meet this high-flying team yourself, just head down to Pleasure Bay in Southie any afternoon with winds of 15 MPH or better and see them in action.

Josh Boyle is Director of Community & Marketing, VentureFizz.  You can follow him on Twitter: @jb_sid