Our founder Hind meets SportTechie’s editor Tom Taylor at the pool for a swim followed by a chat. You can find the original article here.
(Photo courtesy of Instabeat)
Swimming has long been low tech, the least connected of modern sports. Being fully immersed in water creates significant challenges for collecting even the most basic metric (heart rate) and prevents easy reading of data during a workout. Though products made by major manufacturers such as FitBit, Garmin, and Polar incorporate water resistance, most cannot record heart rate during swimming. And while standalone fitness apps such as Strava and TrainingPeaks include swimming options alongside the other sports such as cycling and running, competitive swimmers rarely use wearable devices.
But that could be changing. Two weeks ago, SportTechie spoke to Dan Eisenhardt, whose company, FORM, is building augmented reality swimming goggles. Yesterday, we caught up with Russell Mark, USA Swimming’s high performance manager, to talk about the future of the sportand the analytics startup, Aspiricx, that he advises.
Now we introduce you to another swim-tech entrepreneur, Hind Hobeika, whose company, Instabeat, has created a small device that clips onto the side of swimming goggles. An optical sensor reads a swimmer’s heart rate from blood flow in the right temple, and displays it via colored lights in the swimmer’s peripheral vision. Green means the heart rate is in the correct training zone, blue means it has dropped too low, and red means it has risen too high.
The idea is to provide swimmers with just enough information to help them train more effectively in the pool, without overwhelming them and disrupting the workout with excessive data. Instabeat weighs 27 grams, roughly the same weight as a pair of goggles. Hobeika says it has a 93% success rate with goggles across the swimming market, defining that success as “you would not feel it while you swim.”
After each workout, Instabeat can sync up with iOS or Android devices, providing a detailed analysis of your swimming session. Algorithms can also determine the type of swimming stroke from motion sensor data on the device. Instabeat currently retails for $249. SportTechie recently met up with Hobeika at a pool in San Francisco to learn more about her entrepreneurial journey from Beirut, Lebanon, to Silicon Valley.
SPORTTECHIE: Where did the idea for Instabeat come from?
HIND HOBEIKA: I started the company in Beirut, in 2011, when I was swimming competitively. I was practicing every day for two hours and all of our workouts were heart-rate based and we were measuring them by counting the pulse manually for 10 seconds.
Our coach had three zones that we would work off of and he would ask us to swim in a certain zone. But you wouldn’t know if you swam in the right zone or not only after the set when you measured it. It’s kind of useless information to have. When you’re doing sprint sets, it’s kind of easy. You just sprint and you know you have to give it to your all. But when you’re doing 400, 800, 1,000 meters, it’s very hard to understand whether you’re putting in the right effort or burning yourself too early. So that’s really how the idea started to come about. I was also on the track team and we had watches and chest belts. Back in 2011, there was really absolutely nothing for swimming.
With swimming, because you have the buoyancy, and also you’re horizontal—it’s the only sport where you’re horizontal—you don’t have the normal feeling of the Earth. Also the water temperature cools your body down so you don’t really sweat in the pool … the perceived effort versus the real is a much wider gap than in other sports. And you can’t really compare yourself against other people. It’s very hard to gauge your efforts in swimming.
SPORTTECHIE: What was the experience of launching a product through Indiegogo like?
HOBEIKA: We had a crowdfunding campaign in 2013 that did quite well. We sold in 56 countries, a few thousand units, which was really a great response rate … and then manufacturing was a nightmare and we weren’t able to scale. We had really low yields on the production line and it became very expensive, very quickly.
We were making very short-term manufacturing decisions in order to fulfill the crowd-funding campaign, which were not necessarily the best in terms of scalability and cost effectiveness. It’s short-term patching and short-term patching; then you’ve made 10 short-term patch decisions and it’s kind of an irreversible design that cannot be fixed unless you decide to start again from scratch. Which is what we decided to do in 2016. That’s when Alexander Asseily, the founder of Jawbone, joined me here in San Francisco and we decided to redesign from scratch. A new team, a new product.
SPORTTECHIE: What was the biggest thing you learned from the first product that impacted the redesign?
HOBEIKA: One of the limitations of our first-generation product was that we only tested on Lebanese people, because I was still based in Lebanon. They all have the same skin color, pretty much the same heads, pretty much the same way of swimming even. You’d be surprised at how much people from the same country swim similarly. Our algorithm was fitted on the Lebanese people, the heart rate on Lebanese people. Once we started shipping in 56 countries, I understood how limited our scope of testing and designing was.
The great thing about being in San Francisco is that you have people from all over the world living here. We made sure to always—in a very politically correct way—include people that are very diverse in our test panels in order to make sure that we’re not completely missing on a segment of swimmers. We want any person in the world be able to use this.
I spent a year in China for the manufacturing of the product and I was very lucky that there was a 50-meter pool next to the factory. I was going there every single day. You can’t imagine in a year how much more people were swimming. It’s such a growing sport there.
SPORTTECHIE: Why did you move to China?
HOBEIKA: No manufacturer in the U.S. would accept to do the product. They claimed it was way too difficult because we inject the rubber on top of the electronics, which makes it very likely to break because of the heat and the temperature of the plastic. No one in the U.S. wanted to take on that challenge.
When I started going to China, I was trying to avoid the very large [manufacturers]. And I ended up with a really small one. They were experts in waterproof silicone electronics. We kicked off the project with them and a month in they were sending me pictures. They were like a small team of five and I was trying to zoom in, asking questions, but it got to a point where I was asking too many questions and wasting their time. I figured, “OK, let me just go there and see what’s happening.”
And then I go there and I realized that there were a lot more problems than they were discussing on the chats. So I ended up staying for a month instead of the week. And then what also ended up happening is that, when I was there, they would just move everything so much faster. I’d give them feedback and then they would change the tool in a day. We’d get new samples in three days. I would go to the pool that same night, test it out, have feedback for them in the morning. The cycle was so quick that it didn’t justify me leaving.
SPORTTECHIE: Building products in China is often associated with a risk of IP theft. How did you mitigate that?
HOBEIKA: I think it happens very often, and I think it happens for more mainstream products. I think the way to go around this is to try to distribute factories, so that not everything is in one place. For us, the algorithm is done in the U.S. and so that is protected. The electronics factory is different from the plastics factory and both are fairly complicated, so they’re not so easy to replicate.
SPORTTECHIE: What are the biggest lessons that you have learned from building Instabeat?
HOBEIKA: From an entrepreneur perspective, I didn’t realize that the hardest thing ever would be to manage a team versus actually building a product. The difference between having a B-player team and the difference between having an A-player team, it’s not a few dollars. It’s months and months of development and research. And I can tell from having a team in Lebanon—I don’t mean to offend anyone—they don’t have experience in product design and development versus working with people here who’ve worked on multiple wearables before. We were having designs in weeks versus it would take months and months if not years to get to that level in Lebanon.
Crowdfunding, it was a very good experience for us, but I think it puts you in a position where you’re consumer-facing. Most of the time you don’t have the answers when you come to manufacturing a product, and you start having to make up answers on the fly and you miss deadlines and it makes you look so bad when you’re not ready to answer these questions. This is something I had completely underestimated. Clear communication with everyone, with the backers. Lots of them are very angry. But then just when you reply say, “Hey, I don’t know, but let me get back to you soon.” A lot of them appreciate that. But a lot of times you get caught in the fear of not having the answer and you end up either not answering or promising something that you’re going to miss.
In manufacturing, never ever trust the timelines they give you, they’re always wrong. No bad intentions from anyone, but I think the way to protect yourself in a startup is having the right agreements in place. One of the mistakes we made in our first generation is having lots of hourly billing contracts with some of our contractors and those can add up so quickly.
SPORTTECHIE: What has been your personal experience of using your product?
HOBEIKA: For me, swimming with Instabeat is always more engaging and I push myself more because I see the light. My mind always wanders off, but then when I see it go back to blue, I just push myself to be in the green again. It always helps me be more engaged. I would say now I’m more of a very engaged fitness swimmer. I hated competing so I stopped that, and I’ve also taken on lots of other sports. That’s opened my eyes a little bit on what’s happening in the fitness industry and what works for me and what doesn’t. The spinning model of having a big screen and your data in your bike, I found it fascinating because I hate spinning and I’ve just been going again and again because it just hooks you so much.
SPORTTECHIE: What is next for Instabeat?
HOBEIKA: Downloading the data is something we’re working on, and integration with Strava and TrainingPeaks is the second thing we’re working on. I would say for swimming, the near future is for Instabeat to become a training coach. You download the workout and this is your workout plan. I would love to create some experience, class experience around it—similarly to you going to a SoulCycle class or Flywheel class—to create an experience where swimming becomes more of a community sport. Because the interesting thing about swimming, we all go to a pool to swim, right? And we’re all in the same body of water. But we don’t interact and make use of that community space together.by