My Journey to Building the ADV Tennis Bag(s)
Every two to three years, like clockwork, I'd find myself in a familiar situation. I'd be on the hunt for a new tennis bag, desperately seeking a replacement for my trusty old racquet-shaped duffle bag. You know, the one – it had seen better days and had somehow turned into a chaotic black hole for all sports gear. But the problem was that each new tennis bag I bought never quite met my expectations.
At first, I was lured in by flashy fabrics, Rafa-inspired neon colors, and the allure of matching what the top players were carrying. However, as my collection of tennis bags continued to expand, I realized I needed to establish some better criteria for my purchases.
And then, it hit me, like a perfectly executed Federer backhand (maybe not that perfect). "I own a tennis (now racquet sports) gear company. Why don't I just make my own bag?" The idea really hit me when I accidentally smacked my head one last time with my old duffle-style tennis bag while biking.
"Yes," I thought. I could design a tennis-centric bag that started from scratch, addressing the pains of players and coaches like me. Not some half-hearted adaptation of a basketball or baseball bag that happened to have a side pocket for tennis balls. No, I wanted a bag that holds the same passion for tennis that I do, and from discussions with many ADV members, it is also important to you.
It was 2020 when this bag-smacking idea struck me, and if there ever was a year to dive into a project fueled by energizing commitment, it was that year.
How Unfit Can You Be?
I may be an engineer with a background in interaction design, but professionally, I know the product (launched a few apps from soup to nuts, a few of which have 1 million plus users). My skills screamed strong potential for a superb tennis app game. Crafting a complex bag design, on the other hand, wasn't exactly my forte.
So, while ADV started with tennis dampeners (yup, that humble and sometimes polarizing accessor), we quickly moved into grips, wristbands, and more. But diving headfirst into the world of creating a next-gen tennis bag was a whole different ball game (pun intended). Let's just say, it required a real product designer, preferably one with bag expertise – bonus points if they could be a fellow hitting partner.
Enter Paul. You see, there are moments in life when serendipity comes knocking at your door, and you'd be a fool not to answer. Meeting Paul was one of those moments. I didn't find him through some friend of a friend who happened to know an amazing bag designer. Rather, I took the entrepreneurial route (yes, scoured contracting platforms). I filtered through candidates and slipped in sneaky call-to-actions (in the middle of a detailed job posting) to weed out the true attention-to-detail folks. Those who read through stood out. Ultimately, it led us to our product designer.
My meeting with Paul was fantastic from the start. Not only did he have previous experience running his own bag company (which he had sold), but he also had worked to build bags at a large tennis company building their bags. Not going to say which company, but I guarantee you know them. Paul was stoked at our brief as it was imaginative and daring — going beyond just focusing on the exterior bag aesthetic (something he’s seen all too often). Beyond Paul’s company building and tennis brand experience, he brought connections to production facilities, including the one we currently work with to develop the ADV bags. Most importantly, Paul is pretty cool to work with.
First Tennis Bag Prototype
Getting to that first prototype was a journey that felt longer than some of the epic tennis matches I've watched (and, in my version of epic, have played). And let’s be clear, it was.
At the time, I'd only been out of the coaching game for about a year, and we were all stuck indoors due to the pandemic. So, the frustrations and feedback from players were fresh in my mind, and I had plenty of time to contemplate them (mainly inside my tiny basement “office”).
Our brief was straightforward: create the ultimate, perfect tennis bag that checked all the boxes – organization-first, top-end quality, functional, minimalistic, and novel. These weren’t just buzzwords, but really our guiding principles. We focused on inspiration outside of tennis to help us break from the traditional tennis bag mold and think broadly about how to address players' and coaches' frustrations.
The result of our creative escapade led to the ADV Pro bag prototype – it had sharper modern lines, an aesthetic that nodded to the easy-to-carry duffle shape (less so racquet shaped), but with a lot less "fluff." Yes, "fluff" is our super highly researched, technical term for all that unnecessary extra space in your typical tennis bag.
Let's talk about the bag shape. First and foremost, the bag was designed to carry the most important items — your racquets, shoes, energy/fuel source, and clothes. Estimating how much space we’d need to fit these practically (e.g we knew we wanted to fit at least four 27.5-in racquets for the first Pro bag and updated to 6 in a future iteration), we started prototyping the optimal shape and built off this starting point.
Next, we moved on to identifying materials. To deliver on our durability and practicality pillars, we trialed and tested materials that would withstand different tennis training conditions — be it being caught in a rainstorm on the way home from the courts (while on a bike…oof), or being dragged on the floor across a clay court (your bag that is, not you…hopefully).
After reviewing many books of material options with different feels, properties and looks, we landed on two and, ultimately, decided on Kodra Nylon. It was the winner because it hit all the marks — it passed our two scenarios above and also delivered the modern standout look and feel we believed our tennis lover and tech aficionado desired, and didn’t have today.
Let’s talk colors. I want to preface this section with a bit about me. I like loud-colored clothes - not sure why, but I do. It’s fun. It took a lot not to make the entire bag neon blue, yellow, and red. Anyways, from surveys, we learned that a lot of players and coaches wanted more neutral colors but still with some element of color. That’s what led us down a path of more neutral main exterior colors with brighter accents and interiors. We plan to market more exterior and interior/accent colors soon.
Turning our attention to the interior of the bag, that’s where the true innovation unfolded. My team and I spent months researching and collecting feedback from players and coaches. I didn't just ask them what they didn't like; I observed them, watched them trip over their gear, and witnessed their frustration firsthand. I leaned on those experiences as much as I could.
What did I discover? Players in the trenches, those who truly love the game, had a few critical needs:
Managing the Multi-Bag Challenge: Journeying to the court often felt like preparing for a camping trip, given the cumbersome multi-bag carry situation. To streamline this, while incorporating a crucial, often-neglected, feature — a pocket for energy fuel essentials — we introduced specialized pockets, including an insulated cooler. Because let’s face it, no one celebrates a lukewarm drink post an intense match (and I’d unreasonably be angry at my bag for it…and you should be too).
Quick Access During Breaks: Players expressed a need to swiftly grab essentials like a towel, water bottle, or a quick snack and return to the court without delay. We designed the bag for easy access to these items, ensuring minimal downtime.
- A Reliable, Hassle-Free Bag: Delve into any tennis forum, and you’ll encounter the universal struggle with bag zippers. Even the best bags fell prey to zipper malfunctions, leading to broken zips or entangled towels. Having experienced this one firsthand, I was passionate about creating a bag that wouldn’t let your gear easily snag or, worse, have valuable items fall en route to the court (so we created the ADV bag using the same zippers you’ll find among top luggage brands…such as one that starts with the letter T and ends with I).
After honing in on these key chapters, from shape, to materials and key functionalities, the first ADV Pro prototype came to life (yes, it took a bit).
Going to Market
The first ADV Pro bag was ready to hit the market in the spring of 2022. We made a sizeable yet thoughtful investment, reflecting our belief in the product but also being cautious as we had no idea how this was going to go. As a team, we set a goal to sell out of the bags by the end of the year.
In terms of marketing, we dipped our toes lightly into events and paid ads (for all those marketers out there — it was mainly across Meta). But our main source of communication came from our existing network of players and coaches, thanks to my previous life as a coach and the community members who had witnessed ADV's growth from its infancy.
And, of course, forums helped us. You know how it is in tennis – people talk and want to know the truth about feel, design, and reliability. When the ADV Pro bag hit the scene, it sparked discussions (albeit few) on tennis warehouse forums and received shoutouts in private community Facebook groups and word of mouth.
This grassroots effort led to our first run selling out by the end of summer. Seeing the momentum on our side, I placed a second order that, (un)fortunately, didn't make it to the holiday season. During that first holiday season, as we navigated the pandemic, witnessing the rise of racquet sports like tennis (and yes, even Pickleball), I couldn't help but feel a twinge of regret. I wished we had taken a bigger risk with the order, much like a player taking a bold shot down the line, hoping for a game-changing winner.
The ADV Pro V2 ... and One More
By Thanksgiving 2022, we had enough “evidence” than a hawk-eyed line umpire to confirm we were on the right path with our Pro bag. We didn’t receive a flurry of suggestions for improvements; instead, players had six key updates in mind. These ranged from fine-tuning the racquet(s) fit (maintaining a sleek look while adding a bit of extra space) to improving the bag’s versatility in terms of carrying (we introduced removable handles) to smaller, yet impactful things like adding utility loops to the bags to allow for credentials and bag tags to be easily attached.
Our manufacturing partner quickly embraced the changes — having a great line of communication with them has been important in our speedy journey to market. Additionally, our production process combines the precision of machine (manufacturing-grade) stitching as well as meticulous manual detailing. The added organization, for example, is integrated after each bag comes off the production line.
So, that holiday season, we worked on optimizing for the Pro bag. However, we also received a number of requests asking for a more compact and flexible carry option.
It made perfect sense. We decided to work on both. That holiday season, we created prototypes for what would become the younger sibling of our Pro version (our tennis backpack). We were committed to preserving the key features that players loved — the cooler pocket (which, at the time, was as rare in the tennis bag market as a golden set (I know, I just cringed, too)), the ventilated compartment for shoes or the sweatiest of gear and multiple pockets for organization.
Now, when it came to aesthetics, we made it a matching set. With the Pro as our initial baseline, we had a clearer picture of what to target. Goodness, there were a lot of tennis puns there. Sorry, and you’re welcome.
Here’s the evolution of our ADV tennis backpack (from, again, another one of our sketches to an early sample):
We had enough to comfortably make an inventory order equal to the combined sum of our previous Pro bag orders. The backpack, we anticipated, would generate even more demand due to its portability, coupled with an early market read (aka advice we specifically received from our community). But stepping into this arena was a bigger leap, a challenge that encouraged us to explore funding options. We considered a loan, early angel investments, and a slew of alternatives. And then, there was the prospect of micro-investments or diving into a crowdfunding campaign.
I had a brief chat with my team. We recognized our bias for scientific, data-backed approaches, but in this instance, we leaned more into our intuition or gut feeling. Interestingly, it served us well because, you see, Kickstarter isn’t exactly for well-renowned tennis success stories. It’s more known for highly engaging (and funny) board games and groundbreaking tech (e.g., the EcoFlow portable home battery — yes, a bit boring but helpful). However, we kept gravitating back to Kickstarter, a platform I both know and appreciate, as a nice share of my home belongings started there.
During that holiday season in Q4, 2022, as we fine-tuned the v2 Pro bag and developed the backpack, we simultaneously crafted our Kickstarter campaign, set to launch in March 2023. Spoiler alert: we hit our goal in minutes; more importantly, we gained a community of backers with whom we continue to connect for very candid and helpful feedback.
As 2023 draws to a close, reflecting on ADV's journey from the humble tennis dampener to our first Pro bag highlights a vital truth: our growth is rooted in active listening and a commitment to the tennis community. We're on a rising path, fueled by excitement for what lies ahead.
To capture the essence of ADV's burgeoning success and the growing buzz around it, consider it akin to a series of thrilling tennis matches, each more exhilarating than the last. It's like witnessing (on YouTube) the intensity of Serena Williams' historic 2019 Grand Slam victory, followed by the classic rivalry of McEnroe vs. Borg in 1980, and finally, the unforgettable Federer-Nadal duel in 2008 Wimbledon. ADV's trajectory mirrors this escalating excitement and anticipation. We're just serving the opening game, and the passion for the game within our community promises an even more thrilling match ahead.
In essence, I see ADV's journey as a steadily ascending crescendo of energy and anticipation. We're just at the beginning, and the enthusiasm, momentum, and passion that people have for the game will only continue to grow.
Thanks for accompanying me on this remarkable journey.