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‘We help tennis players upgrade their skills, play more often, and win more matches’: Trond Kittelsen, CEO of SevenSix Tennis

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“It took a lot of gut, grit, and hard work to come from where we were to the first version of the world’s first AI tennis coach. Today we are present in 3,240 cities in 170 countries around the world.”

SevenSix Tennis is helping transform the game of tennis for both coaches and players. The platform predominantly focuses on enhancing player’s technique and overall game while also creating new possibilities for coaches. SevenSix has become the state-of-the-art technological innovation in the world of tennis and is taking the game to a newer dimension. The platform provides coaches with an opportunity to connect and boost performance at all levels while also enabling players to achieve the near-perfect playing they are seeking. The company’s biggest markets today are Brazil, the US, France, Italy, and Japan.

To highlight and further understand what SevenSix Tennis stands for and seeks to explore in this segment, I sat down with Trond Kittelsen, who serves as the company’s Chief Executive Officer.

Interview Highlights

Q. What’s your story? And what led you to the establishment of SevenSix Tennis?

A plane trip to Paris. A serendipitous meeting with one of the best tennis coaches on the way to the French Open made me jump off the corporate path as a regional director of Telenor, one of the biggest telcos in the world, to start the journey of building SevenSix tennis, the world’s first AI tennis coach.

I am a Tennis lover, player, spectator, and also a tennis dad. My background is in IT and the Telecom industry. I wanted to find a way to combine these two passions, to be at the forefront of technology and innovation. And I wanted to be in the driver’s seat.

Several trips to Silicon Valley (2007, 2013, and 2019) added fire to my dream and vision. The last trip lasted four weeks and gave me that last bit of inspiration, knowledge, and network to be bold enough to establish SevenSix.

Q. You have a passion for the game of tennis. Did this motivate you to build your own company?

Tennis is fun, progressive, and hard work, so I guess tennis has a lot of the ingredients it takes to build SevenSix. My love for the game motivated me, and that’s perhaps why I saw the unique opportunity in the first place. I realized that sports technology was on the rise, but tennis tech was not too well developed, lagging in 7th place in tech adaptation to other comparable sports. Also, a perfect storm was rising with cloud stacks, AI, and machine learning tools all available for a lower cost.

Q. Tell me about a situation where you were under a great deal of pressure because of numerous demands competing for your time and attention. How did you handle the situation?

You know, building a startup, there is always pressure like product development, paychecks, your first employees, technology challenges, running out of money, etc. Pressure is the name of the game, or as Billy Jean King said, “pressure is a privilege.”

I think back to the moment when we came home to Norway from the US Open in New York in 2018. We felt so inspired by all the good ideas we were generating and by the support of our friends. The atmosphere was electric. But we were out of money. The next couple of months were very hard—we didn’t even have enough money left to pay our salary. But we didn’t give up. We managed, in the end, to persuade new investors to join our quest to help more tennis players master the game.

As any entrepreneur knows, building a company is all about overcoming obstacles daily. It took a lot of gut, grit, and hard work to come from where we were to the first version of the world’s first AI tennis coach. We wouldn’t be where we are without a great team of people who want to make a difference, who believe in you and your mission. It helps if you are a part of an ecosystem. And, of course, we can’t discount the element of luck.

Q. Tell me about the most challenging customer encounter you’ve xperienced. How did you handle it?

SevenSix is distributed via the IOS App store to 170 countries and 3240 cities around the world. Mostly, we get very positive feedback and tips on how we can improve our app. This is highly appreciated, and it also tells us that the tennis audience is very much engaged. New technology can be challenging for users to adapt to. Some do not spend the time reading tutorials on how to position yourself to the camera properly. If a limb goes out of the camera’s field of view, for example, our AI engine cannot analyze the technique.

This motivated us to make the user experience as intuitive and friendly as possible via our AI coach. This is a truly personalized experience, and we want you to come away with the feeling that you have a trusted guide. The coach and the engine are not the same things. But one powers the other.

Q. Who do you look up to and why?

I am inspired by entrepreneurs who forge their own paths. Just now, I am halfway in Phil Knight’s story about how Nike became what they are today. I can relate to the struggles, the serendipity, the eureka moments, and the problem-solving. This inspires me. Phil often refers to the following quote by Douglas MacArthur: “You are remembered by the rules you break.” I get inspired by people who bend the rules of technology, strategy, and business to innovate. I get inspired by people who redefine innovation, from musicians to athletes to architects. Back in 2007, I visited Silicon Valley for the first time, and I had the pleasure of attending a seminar at Berkeley University where Jeffrey Staubel, Teslas CTO, talked about Tesla’s plans and visions. They all came to life.

Q. About SevenSix Tennis, how does the platform help players accelerate?

Our mission is to help tennis players upgrade their skills, play more often, and win more matches. We wanted to remove the barriers of setting up expensive cameras and wearables to get valuable data. Many players do not have access to professional tennis coaches. Also, we wanted to empower the players to improve their technique when they do not have access to tennis courts.

AI and computer vision gave us the power to analyze the biometrical movements of a tennis swing. We then picked the brain of some of the best tennis coaches in the world and transformed their unique knowledge and wisdom into algorithms. We were then able to compare any tennis stroke to that of a Pro player by focusing on the correct kinetic chain— energy transmittance from legs to hips and shoulders to the wrist. We also managed to capture the correct ball hit using audio physics. Our AI engine measures rotation and velocity on each limb compared to the Pros and gives a score combined with data-driven individual feedback.

We had our technological breakthrough in March 2020 when we confirmed our initial hypothesis after a series of testing. And we launched the SevenSix AI coach on the App Store in September 2020.

Q. That’s not all SevenSix does. What are its other focus areas?

These days, a lot of our efforts go into improving the product, adding more stroke types, camera angles, community, and referral projects. We will build the next state-of-the-art augmented reality training program where you can practice different drills with an augmented tennis ball on your phone. Yes, really! But also, we’re focusing on groundbreaking tech development.  We are also adding more biometrical points to the algorithms, for example, head movement and leg positioning. Computer vision and object detection libraries can help us to recognize racket positions.

Q. What plans for transformation are you pursuing to remain relevant now and in the future?

SevenSix is an ambitious sports tech startup, and we have many business verticals. Sixty-seven percent conversion rates and great weekly growth is helping us grow the company. But consider that we also collect a lot of big data that is valuable for many verticals in sports tech. We have started with tennis but are planning to apply the same concept to other sports and health markets. Our journey demands more resources, so we are searching for partners, investors, and new colleagues to participate in our growth.

Besides, we have recently signed a global agreement with one of the biggest tennis racket producers, giving their customers a powerful tool to improve their technique. This will lead to great customer experience and engagement.

The Visionary Leader at the Helm of SevenSix Tennis

Trond Kittelsen is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of SevenSix Tennis. With a background in IT and telecoms from industry-leading companies in Norway, he’s now on a mission to help tennis players improve their technique with cutting-edge artificial intelligence.

“We have already proven that we can set up and grow a big sports tech company from the fjords of Norway with a Silicon Valley mindset.”