Jeff Raikes on Backing Agile Sports, a Startup Focused on Football, Built on Microsoft Tech

3/23/09Follow @gthuang

Even the chief executive of the world’s largest philanthropic institution has a little time for his boyhood passions. Jeff Raikes, the CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, grew up on a ranch near Omaha, NE, rooting for the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers, a national college football powerhouse. Raikes made his fortune at Microsoft, and since June 2007, he has been an investor in a Lincoln, NE, software startup called Agile Sports, which helps coaches and players communicate, prepare, and scout talent and opposing players.

It’s one way Raikes is giving back to his home state. Agile Sports’ customers include the Cornhuskers (its first big-name client, through a connection with former Husker coach Bill Callahan), the New York Jets of the National Football League, and nearly 90 high school teams. The company is focused on football and basketball, and is looking at Major League Baseball as well.

But first, some more background on the Seattle connection. Raikes joined Microsoft in 1981 and rose through the ranks of the company’s top brass to become president of the Microsoft Business Division; he is perhaps best known for running the Microsoft Office division, which did sales of more than $9 billion a year under his watch. Last September, Raikes left Microsoft to focus on his new role at the Gates Foundation.

Xconomy recently had a chance to learn more about his football side. “Jeff Raikes helped form the vision of Agile, and he’s a member of our board,” says David Graff, Agile’s co-founder and CEO. “Raikes’s passions are technology and Husker football.”

So what’s the idea behind the company? Sports coaches (especially in football) capture huge amounts of video of games and practices from many different angles. In game preparations, they break down each play, and each player, annotating the videos with the game situation, what to watch for, and other notes. Players and coaches have to study these breakdowns at the team’s practice facility, or else burn DVDs and watch them at home. It can be a clunky and tedious process.

Agile’s software, called Hudl (pronounced “huddle”) and Hudl Pro, lets coaches put these videos online in a secure and interactive Web environment that resembles a video game. Coaches and players can access the videos on their laptop wherever they are, draw on the screen with their cursor or stylus to mark players and patterns, record voiceovers, and so forth. The company uses Microsoft technologies like Windows Presentation Framework to develop the interface and make the software compatible with Xbox 360 controllers, as well as Silverlight to deliver video over the Web. “Microsoft has been a supporter and advocate,” says Graff. “They see their technologies in the freshest stuff being deployed and used publicly.”

In an e-mail interview, I asked Raikes about his involvement with Agile Sports, the future of Web-based sports technologies, and the football prowess of Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, among other topics. Here are Raikes’s responses from Nairobi:

Xconomy: Can you describe the genesis of Agile Sports and your involvement with the company?

Jeff Raikes: In the late 1990s, I proposed the ideas for what became the Raikes School [of Computer Science and Management] at the University of Nebraska. One of the key principles was for the students to get involved in “design studio projects” that would give them real-world experience; work on projects at the intersection of computer science and business with real business customers. I had always wanted at least one of these projects oriented to helping the Cornhusker football team.

A few years ago, with some encouragement from members of the athletic department, I contacted the Raikes School program director (David Keck) and some of the students (now the Agile Sports leadership team), suggesting that they initiate a software project to help improve preparation of players. The Agile team members responded to the suggestion and came up with something much better than I’d envisioned—what is now Hudl Pro.

X: Talk about your role as an advisor to Agile Sports, and your decision to invest. Which areas of your expertise are the most relevant?

JR: I enjoy working with very smart folks who are passionate about how technology can improve work and lives. The Agile leadership team epitomize this. Their hard work paid off with some outstanding solutions, Hudl and Hudl Pro. I introduced them to several of my sports contacts, and seeing their positive reaction to Hudl made it easy for me to decide to invest. Whenever they feel my experiences in business and software over the last three decades are helpful, I’m glad to provide advice—might be on sales and marketing strategy, or business/team structure, or working with investors, etc. But these are very smart, dedicated folks who are driving the ultimate success of Agile.

X: Given your experience at Microsoft, what is special about Agile’s technology and business strategy, and what does the team need to do to continue its success?

JR: There are at least a couple of important ingredients to their success, that build off their smarts and passion for software.

1. They listen very closely to their customers—to the point where they can envision ideas and features that are technologically possible, but the customer might not even know to ask for them (because they don’t understand what the technology can do). In my experience, this has been part of the most successful software products. A customer might not know to ask for digital ink annotations on video, but Agile could see the value and then “delight” the customer with that as part of the solution.

This thoughtful, active listening to the customer began with the inception of the company and I believe was part of their training at the Raikes School. E.g., originally the suggestion was some sort of video game-like preparation approach. They considered that idea, realized the limitations, listened to problems the Husker coaching staff wanted to solve, and created Hudl—that’s exciting stuff!

2. They have some very strong software talent and excellent knowledge of the latest in technology. E.g. they were one of the earliest users of Windows Presentation Framework, underlying software technology that enabled the ink annotations on video. I had them demo this use of WPF to Bill Gates and Ray Ozzie—they were blown away by the idea.

X: How do you see the future of Web-based sports software playing out? Will systems like Agile’s be used by the Mariners, Seahawks, or Huskies anytime soon?

JR: I envision Agile solutions being used by sports teams, from high school to college to the professional level. Once you get past the “old school coaches,” i.e., ones who haven’t grown up using and being comfortable with computer technology in their everyday lives—which of course is just a matter of time!—coaches and players see how easy it is use technology to significantly improve player-coach communication, playbook usage, and player preparation.

[Editor's note: Graff said Agile had talked with the Seahawks, but not the Huskies yet. But nothing has been announced.]

X: OK, I have to ask. Who is harder to tackle in the open field, Gates or Ballmer?

JR: Well, I think I’m the hardest to tackle! But of those two, I’d say Bill would be the toughest in the open field. I’d use Ballmer as my blocker!

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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