The Importance Of Customer Feedback And Getting Designers In Front Of Users – With John Wirtz of Hudl

by Tim Jahn on December 7, 2010

John Wirtz co-founded Hudl, a website that helps coaches in high school, college, and pro sports win by utilizing it’s powerful video system.  They have the New York Jets, Brett Favre, the Cleveland Browns, and countless college and high school teams as customers.

And they listen to their customers – a lot.  John brings the whole team out to tradeshows to get to know the customers – from interns to developers to designers, everybody goes.

I interviewed John to learn more about how they go about getting customer feedback and how important it is to get the whole team out there listening to customers.


John Wirtz: I’m John Wirtz. I’m the chief operating officer here at Agile Sports. And our main product’s, our flagship project is Hudl, H-u-d-l if you’re searching for it. And what Hudl is all about is helping coaches win. So at any level of sports, we want to help coaches win and its kind of two facets. Its helping them prepare for games, for meets, for tournaments more effectively. And it’s saving them time so they can spend more time on the field, on the court, on the mat with their athletes.

So the two big things around here is treating technology for coaches that saves them time and gives them competitive advantage in the sport. And for us, that’s all about video. So if you look at anything we do at Hudl its all around getting video from the coaches camera up to the Internet in a secure environment, and then allowing them to share that video, analyze it, voice over it, break it down into all the ways that are meaningful for sport and get it shared out to their athletes so there athletes can be studying the game more, they can be studying the game from home and not be held at the facility after long practices.

So just letting them use their video more effectively to help them win and save time. So it’s all about coaches for us. We’re a coach driven culture here at the company. We love our coaches, love working them, love helping them out, love hearing their feedback. So kind of the mantra around here is just helping coaches help.

Tim Jahn: Are any of you cofounders coaches or have you guy’s ever coached teams?

John Wirtz: Yes, I coached diving. My background is kind of gymnastics and diving from an early age. So I’ve got a good understanding of the individual sport world and the diving world and I dove through high school and I coached while I was in college. We’ve got coaches on staff here from the swimming ranks, from football. Almost all of our employees have some kind of direct sports experience.

But we’ve actually kind of — some of our competitors would build companies more formally around coaches. And in some cases that works well. In our case, we wanted to build a company that was driven by engineers, driven by the technology side, driven by innovation and then make sure we’re staying really in close contact with our coaches to get that feedback and make sure that our products are really well designed for what a coach needs. As opposed to some of our competitors where the company is run by three or four coaches that are strong in coaching but not as strong in technology. And I think that at some point can risk getting you up against kind of a brick wall when the technology really needs to take the next leap. When you’re looking at like really complex, hosted web applications like Hudl, you really need to have a company that’s at its core, a strong engineering, technology driven company.

So the long story short on that is we have really strong coaching influence. We drive most of that from our partners, from our pilot programs, from our actual customers. And internally here we’re driven a lot by having just great engineers, great technology monks.

Tim Jahn: How — I imagine it helps that you guys are coaches or you have coaches working at the company in terms of like your thinking like your customer. I mean, you probably as a coach think, oh this would have been cool to have and then you probably check with your customers. How important is that feedback from actually checking in with your customers and seeing how they’re using the product?

John Wirtz: It is huge. The most important thing hands down is getting regular feedback, not fooling yourself that what you’re developing is really cool, that you’ve never heard an actual end customer say it to you. I mean, it’s just; it’s kind of crazy how many companies are out there. And even in our early days we weren’t as good as it, of just getting caught up in how cool the thing is that you’re creating; the product, the website, the service. And just taking it for granted that your customers are actually going to feel the same way.

So we have probably, five, six, seven different ways that we’re constantly getting feedback from our coaches. We have them on staff so that’s a great way. Greg Nelson, one of our support reps here who also handles a lot of testing for us is a completely fully active coach. And so he’s using Hudl everyday with his team during football season and giving us awesome feedback. We actually do lunch and learn sessions where Greg will be in the conference room with us. For the non football coaches in the room, he’ll just walk through a film session just like he would with an athlete, with his athletes and with Hudl show us here’s what I did yesterday essentially with the team. So people are seeing a coach using the software in the same room, firing away questions.

We also have — we use user voice which is really cool tool to get feedback from your customers. I know there’s another site called Getsatisfaction that’s the same type of tool where our coaches can post enhancements, ideas, features, they can vote on each others idea so the top ones kind of bubble up for us. They can comment on them. And then they get feedback as we start working on those ideas.

So we can take an idea, and mark it as in progress, or under review, or completed and those coaches will get an email automatically that that piece of feedback actually got acted on and it’s now in the software, and go check it out. So we have about three or four different tools like that from twitter to Facebook, to user voice, to just direct emails.

Tim Jahn: Yeah, you guys are all over the feedback.

John Wirtz: Yeah, it’s huge.

Tim Jahn: That’s — how do you get people to give you feedback? People like Greg, how do you get them to com in the room like that? Because I think about myself and when I use products, and I’m a pretty vocal person but I see all the time on sites where it says like a little thing pops up and says, “Give us some feedback.

We’d like to learn more about the site.” I don’t really respond to those very often, I’m usually just doing other things. How do you actually get customers to give you valuable feedback or to give you any feedback at all?

John Wirtz: Yeah, that’s a good question. I mean, I just think it’s surprising for a lot of people how many of their customers are anxious to give the feedback if you just give them a really easy, low overhead way to do it. A lot of it is us practically making calls to the coaches that we know are digging into the system and chatting with them on the phone. So it’s completely hands off for them. They pick up the phone, ask them if they have a little bit of time, and just mention that we really appreciate you using the system, you’re one of our top users, really digging in and so we’d love to hear from you how we can make it better.

It takes real energy on the company’s part to make it easy for the end user. I think just putting a link up on your site that says, “Submit feedback” is only going to get feedback from your most, most engaged customers. It’s going to be skewed towards the more tech savvy of your customers. So you have to counter balance that with proactively really reaching out any way that you can. We also do from kind of January to march especially; we’re out at trade shows every single weekend. Some weekends, ten, twelve, fifteen shows that we’ll be out. And these are coaching clinics around the country where coaches are presenting to each other on different offenses, different defenses, leadership.

But then there’s also a tradeshow component going on. So we’ve got a booth there and that’s where we’re getting just flooded with feedback from perspective coaches, from current users, in person at those clinics. So we’ll do 100+ clinics a year with a pretty small, pretty tight team. We spend a lot of time as a team going out and being hands on with the coaches. And that goes for interns, developers, sales, marketing; everybody’s going out to the trade shows to get to be in front of couches and hear things first hand. So that might be the biggest way we’re getting feedback doing that time period of time.

Tim Jahn: So you have people from all aspects of your staff coming to these clinics, not just marketing or PR people, but you have developers, you have designers?

John Wirtz: Yep, absolutely. Designers is one of the most, I mean, important group to get out in front of the users at any chance. If you’ve got a designer on staff that doesn’t want to take every single opportunity to be out there, in front of your users, I would be a little concerned about what they’re doing with your u-ax and your design. So that’s some of the most important people; the people that are driving design.

And we have one person here Cal Murphy who is our head of u-ax, he’s a lot of clinics interacting with coaches, he played high school football at one of the top teams in the country, played high school basketball. It’s all about being in touch with your end user and knowing that this feature sounds really cool but a coach is never going to use it because whatever that reason is as minute as it might be, it’s critical.

I’m trying to think — there’s a whole list of features that we’ve toyed around with in the past, some that we’ve released that sounded like great ideas but if you just listen to the feedback, we probably could have understood ahead of time this just isn’t, it’s not going to be the right fit. And the really, really tricky part is taking the feedback from coaches that say they want a feature and being even able to look past that and understand given the whole universe of coaches and what you know about their workflows that even though our coaches are demanding this feature, its actually going to be a better experience for them to leave it out and go ahead in a different way. And that’s really challenging.

Like on our user voice forum, there’s a lot of things that have bubbled way up to the top, gotten a lot of votes from coaches, and we’re commenting and having a regular dialogue on user voice about why we haven’t done those things yet. But in some cases, it’s just, we’ll have a better understanding when it comes to the technology and some areas have to make the better call for some of our coaches. And usually it’s about keeping things more streamlined than what they want. And then overall, the end product ends up being better for everybody when you’ve taken out half of the buttons, half of the confusing features, half of the overhead and kept it really clean. That’s a super long answer.

Tim Jahn: No, but I think that’s an important point because I can just tell you guys are — the way you explain, you guys are so ingrained in learning from your customers, and constantly getting that feedback loop closed. But I imagine you do run into a ton of ideas, a ton of features, a ton of bugs.

I mean, how do you — especially the features. How do you sort out what is important? If a coach says it’s important and then another coach says it’s important, I mean, how do you even keep track of that and decide what actually — because you guys are a small team, you can only do so much at once. How do you decide what is done?

John Wirtz: It’s tough. I think one of the approaches we use that’s been helpful is to kind of put things into buckets. So you have kind of in one bucket you have kind of our vision going forward for the product. So we know things that are important for us in addition to the coaching tools are recruiting. We’ve got a mobile strategy that we’re acting on and it’s starting to develop. So getting on to devices like the iPad in a really smart way, that’s beneficial for coaches.

So we have a vision that we know we want to take the product that’s taken into account kind of within the next year or two where we see things going. Two years is probably too far out, really within the next year. So that’s one bucket that’s helping us act and prioritize. There’s a bucket of things that we’re hearing during the season especially where a coach is just saying, “This dialogue box is getting in my way. I just need to move it out of the way.” And we hear that from enough coaches.

It’s just a really straightforward change. It’s disrupting their workflow and it’s very clear. And those are the kind of things we’ll act on even during the season, during those releases and get on. So you kind of have that bucket that you always have to be looking out for and getting feedback fro. Just the things that sound small but are getting in your users way. And then you have the bucket of just — the biggest bucket is just all, like you were saying, all those ideas, features, enhancements that sound really cool that don’t necessarily fit clearly in the vision but maybe should be. And those are just really tough to sift through.

As a company, we all vote — when we have a new release coming up we actually have our own user voice forum where we post our ideas for the upcoming releases. We internally are voting on them and we’re using that in addition to the coaches voting on user voice in addition to just all the other methods of getting feedback from coaches. And we sit down as a steering committee before each release, kind of a core group of people take all that into account and there’s really no magic, magic recipe but taking that into account as best as we can, try to prioritize the release. And then you have all the nuts and bolts in the background that nobody even thinks about that we have to handle like how do you invoice the coaches the most effectively.

All the billing related challenges, making credit card processing more affordable and efficient. These things you’ll never hear from a coach but they’re really important for the experience. We have to make sure that we’re bringing those onto the forefront internally because nobody else is going to do it.

Tim Jahn: I love your attention to detail and the way you kind of — I just feel like you refer to your coaches almost as like these partners and these friends, and not so much like these non face customers that will blank avatar.

John Wirtz: Yeah, exactly. In fact, you mentioned non face which is particularly pertinent right now. We follow 37 signals pretty closely. We really like the culture there and their take on business. Some of it takes, some of it doesn’t. But we always like what they have to say. And one of the things they’ve done recently is create a photo wall essentially in their office that they’re building of their current clients to really keep it real.

And we love that idea so we’re actually just made some blog posts and tweets, started getting photos in from our clients as well. We’re just going to straight rip that idea off of 37 signals. But we love it, so actually we came in a couple days ago and we’ve got corkboard up now in our boardroom and we’re ready to start pining up photos. I mean, we want — so faceless, when you mention that is spot on. We want to literally have those faces here in our office. Always remember that what we’re doing is to help coaches win. It’s important; it’s a really important group of people to help. I mean for — I’m not sure if you played sports back in high school or along the way.

But those coaches shape such a big part of your life. For a lot of high school athletes, these coaches are more influential than some of them that are in situations where their parents aren’t really involved in their lives; their coaches are going to be. Sports is hugely positive for the most part for millions of high school athletes.

So next to teachers probably, probably parents, teachers and coaches are all right in that same realm as far as influencing the people that are growing up today and we love the fact that we can serve and help that group of people.

Tim Jahn: So I was reading an article recently when I was looking at all the cool coverage you guys have. And it said that recently or whatever Brett Favre was signing with a new team or when he signed with a new team he used Hudl to learn all the plays for the team.

John Wirtz: Yeah, when he joined the Jets. So he — when he joined the Jets, it was pretty, really close to season starting. I mean, he didn’t have the benefit of being able to prepare before camp and through camp the same way a normal new quarterback that just joined the team would. So they actually used the Hudl system. The Jets have been a client of ours for a while; they’re a phenomenal client and doing great this season which is a lot of fun to see. And so they used Hudl to deliver the playbook, video, lots of targeted content which is what Hudl’s all about with coaches notes on top.

And in a lot of lot of cases, Brett Favre’s notes on top where he was marking up plays with his feedback and sending that back to coaches. And so I can’t remember the exact stats offhand but essentially allowed them to get 50, 60, 70% deeper into the playbook by the time the season started than they would have been able to do dealing with paper and the tools that were at their disposal before Hudl came around.

Tim Jahn: So you guys have clients like you have high school football teams. We were talking you have Bradley University soccer team now so that’s college level. Then you have the Jets. How did you land these types of clients from high school up until the Jets?

John Wirtz: Sure. So we got our start with NFL in division 1. And so back in ’06 when David and Brian and myself founded the company, we started with Nebraska, they were our first beta client, paying beta client which we were really proud of. And expanded from them to the Jets the following year. And really we’re developing a system that was all about the high end of sports.

Tim Jahn: Your first beta client was an NFL team?

John Wirtz: It was Nebraska, so Division 1. And then our second client, our second kind of full client was the Jets.

Tim Jahn: I’m curious, how did you go about getting a division 1 client as your first client and then a NFL team as your second client? I mean, you guys were probably a brand new startup in Nebraska. Which I’m from Chicago so I’m all for the Midwest. But that’s pretty uncommon. How did these guys even pay attention to you?

John Wirtz: It was just all about relationships. So our CEO David who founded the company with us worked up in sports information at Nebraska for a coach Callahan at the time and coach Solich before him, and was in that world, did a lot of work for coach Callahan directly at the time. So he had a really good relationship with the coaching staff. And he just kind of seen over and over again how archaic a lot of the stuff was that Nebraska was doing just because of the tools they had. And they had the best in the business and they were still forced to use DVD’s to get video to players which is unsecure and just kind of clunky to use.

Paper playbooks, paper scouting reports, post it notes on lockers. Those are kind of the clear examples of where they were just struggling and getting held back by their tools. And so eventually David sat down with Brian and myself and we started talking about the problem and thinking about there’s got to be a better way. It’s pretty straight forward to create technology that could really bring this together. And so we put together a prototype, showed it to the coaching staff at the time — just asked them for 30 minutes to come in and show them what we put together. And they loved it.

They wanted it a month later for spring ball at the time and so we told them, there’s a lot more smoke and mirrors in this prototype I think than you realize. Which is good, it’s a good testament to Brian’s prototype that we put together. But — so we’re just like if you give us some more time, we’ll have it ready for the ’07 season which was going to be essentially give us a year to really get the company put together, really work on the product, get it rounded out. And they’re like absolutely.

So it was a lot of work to get the agreement written up with Nebraska. They were working with a company definitely that didn’t exist until a month before we really started sitting down and writing the agreement. But we were able to structure something that made a lot of sense for them. They were able to get in at the ground floor and really shape the product which they were excited about. And by the time we rolled it out in ’07, the coaching staff was digging in full steam and super fired up about it. And then coach Callahan transitioned to the Jets.

Nebraska stayed on board and coach Callahan introduced the Jets to this product and Eric Mangini the head coach there at the time was all about getting on board with this as soon as possible. So within a week of coach Callahan landing at the Jets, we had solved with the Jets. And then coach Mangini moved from the Jets to the Browns the following year and took Hudl with him to the Browns. So that’s kind of the initial Nebraska, Jets, Browns; all three of those were clients by the time we hit 2008.

Tim Jahn: That’s awesome. I mean, its like this one, that one first client you landed and this one coach in a sense was that one seed you planted and it just spread from there it seems like.

John Wirtz: Yeah, coach Callahan, we’re blessed with him and coach Norvell and the coaches that were there at the time and had a great vision for what technology could do and really understood how to translate the coaching tools they wanted into technology tools with us. So that got us off to a great start. And coach Callahan has, he’s just been a awesome advocate for us from the very beginning.

I know his time at Nebraska didn’t turn out like Nebraska like he wanted. He’s still just a phenomenal coach and has really come, I think found a great spot at the Jets to really take full advantage of his talent. So we’re just blessed to get involved with him early on and he’s been a huge advocate for us all along. And then in ’08 just to I guess kind of round out the story. In ’08, we had the Browns, Nebraska and the Jets on board. But one of our, our big frustrations was the sales cycle that you go through working with the NFL or a division 1 team. And we probably have 15 or 20 teams that we had been working with, traveling, meeting with, on the verge of signing but for whatever reason hadn’t signed yet.

And so that combined with the fact that just hundreds of high school coaches were emailing us at this point asking, “Why can’t we get this tool? I read about it in the New York Times or I saw you guy’s website online. We want this same video tool for our teams.” And it became kind of undeniable at that point. So in April of ’08 we sat down, charted out how we were going to adapt the system to a really lightweight hosted version for high schools to use. And started developing and roiled it out and piloted it that August for the ’08 football season. And from there, high school’s become a huge part of our business.

We went from 12 teams that first year as a pilot program to about 350 teams in ’09 and now we’re sitting at about 2,500 teams that are using Hudl this year. So a really explosive growth in all of our markets. But high school, you got 16,000 teams compared to a few hundred teams looking at NFL, Division 1, pro kind of at best.

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