Over the next few weeks or so, we’ll be interviewing the companies in the third cohort of Velocity Indiana’s 100-day accelerator program. Some of the companies are familiar, operated by people whose names you’ve seen on IL regularly. Some are local but have either flown under the radar or are just starting out. And others are from across the country and, yes, across the sea. First up: Soccer Sidekick.
When Ryan Maina was a boy in Kenya, he and his friends played soccer all the with homemade balls. He eventually became good enough get paid to play for a team. Maina says it wasn’t much money, in fact sometimes he just received a new pair of cleats or funds to cover travel expenses. But it still meant he was really good.
When he came to Louisville in 1996, he wanted to be a pilot at Bowman Field. Or thought he did. Turns out he couldn’t conquer his fear of heights enough to complete the training. So he went back to school, did odd jobs and eventually earned his computer science degree from ITT.
But all the while there was soccer. Maina said that when he got to America he was surprised young players had such little depth of knowledge about the game. “And then I asked myself ‘how did I learn to play?’ — I spent a lot of time with the ball.”
Maina saw a problem, and he set about fixing it with a soccer ball and the elastic from the waist of a new pair of underwear. (Maina insists he bought new underwear for this DIY project.)
Maina demonstrates the result, now called the Soccer Sidekick. It’s a soccer ball attatched to an adjustable handle by color-coded elastic rope (that part was once made of underwear elastic). As he kicks the ball and watches it snap back, he can’t see the slack-jawed wonder on my face. But another entrepreneur in the cohort can. He mouths to me, “I KNOW. IT’S AMAZING.”
What I know about soccer could fit in a thimble, but when you see the way the Soccer Sidekick works, it just makes so much sense. Each color-coded section of the elastic rope corresponds to a body part: foot, knee, chest and head. You thread the elastic through the handle til it hits the color corresponding to the body part upon which you want to focus and then you hold it by your side and kick the ball. If the rope is on green, the elastic will bring the ball back to your foot. If it’s on red it will come back to your knee. No matter where you kick it, no matter how tall or short you are, the Sidekick returns the ball where you tell it.
There’s even a setting for goalies that allows them to throw the ball and dive for it as it returns.
As Maina said, its important the budding Mario Gotzes of the world spend a lot of time with the ball. And, he says, when you’re playing soccer “control is everything. The ball is always in motion.” The Soccer Sidekick keeps that ball going.
His competitors’ practice balls attach to players’ waists and don’t allow for nearly the range of motion that Sidekick allows. The handle allows you to yank the ball, change its trajectory and you can increase the level of difficulty.
Maina estimates he’s already sold around five thousand units. And he’s touched every single one. The balls are made in China, but Maina physically attaches the rest of his setup to each and every ball. He does this in his basement.
One thing he hopes to learn from his time at Velocity is how to scale up production. Also, he wants to learn how to keep him from having to personally build each Sidekick (he says it takes about six minutes) so he can focus on the business end of things.
Balls retail for $34.99 and are available on his website, Amazon and Soccer.com. But he does most of his sales face-to-face at tournaments, where he almost always sells out. Maina would like to have enough product where he could hire employees to hawk the Sidekick at festivals and tournaments for him.
At Velocity, Maina also wants to learn how to run a corporation and “think like a CEO.” A lot of that, he admits, is learning how to spend time wisely.
Watch videos of Sidekick in motion and maybe order one for your budding Jazmine Reeves at the website.