The next time your computer needs repair, think about the person doing the fixing. You never know what that individual might go on to do someday. Inside him or her might be the makings of a big enterprise—one that could be a real game-changer.
For Brian Kaiser (B.S. 2006 CSE) — chief technology officer with the burgeoning online sports video coaching website Hudl, and co-founder of its host company, Agile Sports Technologies—fixing computers was just the beginning.
In the early 2000s near Kansas City, Kaiser was a high school student with a computer repair business. For college, he followed his interests to study computer science and engineering at UNL. He entered the Kauffman Center, where the Raikes School of Computer Science and Management immerses students in business and computing.
“For me, Raikes and my engineering education was the next big step,” Kaiser said. “It set the foundation for everything since then.”
IN KAUFFMAN, IDEAS WERE BORN
At Kauffman, Kaiser’s roommate was John Wirtz, and across the hall was David Graff—future co-founders of Agile Sports. A random combination, but their tech, business and sports mindsets fused.
“We fooled around with some other ideas, but one worked so well that it really took off,” said Kaiser. Their original vision was a tool for NFL and college teams to use for secure online viewing of coaching films. This platform would save coaches time in analysis by compiling reports and enabling play diagrams.
From its inception, their approach had appeal and took shape beyond the classroom. Kaiser recalled many brainstorming sessions, including — while socializing with the Raikes community—“kitchen conversations” with UNL Regent Jim McClurg. Jeff Raikes, namesake for the entrepreneurial program, has supported the company from the beginning as an adviser and investor. Another early adopter was Bill Callahan, Nebraska’s football coach while Graff interned with Husker Athletics.
After graduating from UNL, Kaiser formed Agile Sports with Graff and Wirtz; the Huskers were their first client. And when Callahan moved on to coach with the New York Jets, the startup gained its second customer. This was a big help in addition to the seed round funding of $90,000 they raised in business plan competitions, Kaiser admitted. The recent graduates rented a duplex in Lincoln and spent their first year in a blur of business travel, to raise funds and reach clients.
HUDL BREAKS OUT
Especially in the early days, the technology was the defining feature of what became Agile Sports’ Hudl software, which leaned on Kaiser. More recently the heavy lifting, he acknowledged, is with his colleagues, who have increased the customer base from 350 to 1,700 clients in a matter of months. Hudl continues its goal to “dominate” the competition (a favored phrase at the company) and reached 5,000 partner schools in October 2011.
Kaiser oversees Hudl’s large website operations: reaching (during football season) five gigabits per second of video streaming, with 120 million unique videos and 180 million video views per month. This activity is hosted on “a couple hundred servers” around the U.S.
While scaling up that infrastructure, he looks to expand Hudl’s offerings to high school and Division I and II colleges and pro sports. Much of Kaiser’s time focuses on “finding technology to fit our business needs.”
“We’re here to give coaches better skills, along with value that makes our products affordable and easy for them to use,” he stated. “That’s how we grow our market share.” Kaiser described one further aspect as a recruiting system to help high school coaches gain better exposure for their players: “with the video there, providing an add-on for making highlight reels coaches can use to promote players to recruiters.”
A BETTER PRODUCT CALLS FOR BETTER ENGINEERING
Kaiser still spends about a quarter of his time coding, believing “it’s essential for any tech leader to keep skills sharp.” But to deliver these major advances, he said it’s crucial that the developer team continues to push the boundaries.
While a student intern with Garmin and Microsoft, Kaiser experienced the challenges with software engineers. “Good engineers are hard to hold onto,” he observed, “especially in computing and especially if they’re good.”
The Hudl co-founders made Inc. magazine’s 2010 “30 Under 30” list and Kaiser was named to Forbes magazine’s version of “30 under 30” in 2012, but Kaiser said he’s most proud of helping “create a place where highly-skilled tech people can get better, especially to be better engineers.” Sometimes engineers are treated like work horses, Kaiser noted, and often their work won’t see the light of day for years. Kaiser, Wirtz and Graff address that issue by intentionally shaping the company culture.
“We’re a family,” Kaiser told a March 2011 conference on entrepreneurship in Nebraska. “Everybody comes up with ideas, and our employees get to vote on what we do next, which builds buy-in.”
“IT’S JUST SPORTS – BUT WE’RE MAKING A DIFFERENCE”
Kaiser also professed the company’s love for Nebraska and why its headquarters are here. Their office is anchored in Lincoln’s Haymarket, near the university where they have deep connections and a talent pipeline.
Kaiser explained that hiring the right people is hugely important. For Agile Sports and Hudl, it comes back to culture, ownership and transparency. “We want to be the place where highly-qualified engineers want to go. We want them to say, ‘At Hudl, they know what they’re doing. It’s a great place to be.’” Qualifications at Hudl are more about passion than GPA, and the leaders pay close attention to interviewees’ responses to the question, “What motivates you to be better?”
Customers are partners, too, Kaiser emphasized, and success is shared. He related the story from a coach’s blog about how the team went from a winless season to a 50 percent season, thanks to better organization by using Hudl products. Kaiser said he values appreciation from customers, and is pleasantly surprised that spouses of coaches using Hudl have written thank-you notes to the company because its products have allowed those coaches to spend more time with their families.
In the end, Kaiser concluded, “it’s just sports—not healthcare or anything lifesaving—but within sports, we are making a difference.”