Pocket Coach – the GSK App-challenge winner

By: December 30, 2014
Pocket Coach The story of Pocket Coach is one rooted in a childhood friendship

What makes a great app – what are the ingredients that need to be ‘mixed’ together to ensure the app is a success from a user’s stand point and the app developer’s bank account?

It’s a mystery that has haunted app developers since the iPhone was launched nearly eight years ago, but there are a few essential ingredients. First the app must be useful, it must give the user a solution that they need time and time again. Secondly the app must be ‘sticky’, the user must feel the need to use it daily or even more. Thirdly the app needs to be original, it must do something no other app does. And fourthly, the people behind the app must be unique, they must have an original vision and understand why people would use their app and they must understand their target audience better than they understand themselves.

Declan Traynor, GSK; Owen Cooney, ProductFitter; and Ciaran Ó Conluain, Pocket Coach

Declan Traynor, GSK; Owen Cooney, ProductFitter; and Ciaran Ó Conluain, Pocket Coach

The team behind the Pocket Coach app, the recent winners of the GSK App-challenge, are certainly unique. Each one of them is an athlete. Most of them are elite athletes as well as being business people, entrepreneurs, explorers and dreamers. They have a vision for their app and it’s a global one.

Also, the app itself is original. There is nothing like it on the market and its potential target market is vast. To say the app has global potential is an understatement. “Our app is designed to give professional level coaching to leisure riders around the globe,” says Ciarán Ó Conluain, one of the lead founders of the app. The leisure cycling market around the world is enormous and growing very quickly. Ireland, for example, has over 400 registered leisure cycling events each year with Britain having over 3,000. There are hundreds more that are not registered but very well attended. America has hundreds of leisure cycling events which have close to 10,000 participants each. Britain and America separately have over 400,000 yearly leisure event riders, and this is a target market that is growing each year. It’s also a market that likes to spend money on anything that will improve performance.

Knowing what riders need

Sitting down with Ó Conluain, in the RHA Gallery in Dublin over a cup of coffee, I got the sense that he and his co-founder, Anthony Walsh, know more about cycling and the needs of cyclists than anyone else in the sports app development sector.

“We both cycled at a professional level,” says Ó Conluain, “and Anthony is a professional coach as well, so we know what cyclists want. Everyone who gets into the sport, for leisure or for competition, feels the need to start coaching at some point.”

However, traditional coaching is expensive. “This is where Pocket Coach can really get traction,” says Ó Conluain. “By lowering the barrier to entry to coaching, we know we can help millions of people around the world reach their cycling goals. Every individual rider has individual goals, and the beauty of Pocket Coach is that it is able to adapt to create personal training sessions for every single user. No two training sessions will be the same, just as no two people are the same.”

The story of two childhood friends

The story about how the idea for Pocket Coach was born is one rooted in a childhood friendship – a friendship that brought two young Dublin lads to the heights of professional cycling and coaching; only for a series of serendipitous events and meetings to come together in a way that resulted in the birth of Pocket Coach.

“It’s funny looking back, how we came to this position,” admits Ó Conluain.

The two lead founders of the Pocket Coach app grew up next door to each other in Clontarf. As best friends, their first interest in sporting life involved a soccer ball and endless hours honing their skills on the nearby pitch.

“Before cycling, we played football together,” says Ó Conluain. “Anthony’s dad was a soccer coach and we did a lot of training together. It was our first introduction to the idea that no matter how naturally gifted you are, to be the best you must train in the correct way. Practice, practice and practice again. That’s what we learned from an early stage.”

Everything was going well until one day Anthony, who was now in his early 20s, asked if Ciarán would like to go for a cycle.

“I asked, ‘To where?’ and he said Howth. But he didn’t want to just go once and back, he wanted to go twice and back. Keep in mind this was on really poor bikes and we certainly had no cycling gear.”

From this inauspicious start, came a passion for cycling.

“I had limited success in football, the highlight was winning an All Ireland title with Bohemians FC,” says Walsh. “Cycling came into my life at a time when I was ready for a new challenge. Initially it was to rehab some football injuries but it soon became all consuming.”

Ó Conluain’s introduction to the cycling ‘bug’ came on a trip to France to climb and ride some intimidating slopes. “It was Anthony’s idea, as usual. However, this time I took it more seriously. I went to the UCD bike shop and bought a Paganini road bike for €600. It was an enormous sum of money to me back then.”

He found himself climbing a hill in France with Anthony in the lead. Ó Conluain then had to stop to take a phone call.

“I was still technically at work, so I had to take a business call. Anthony shot ahead of me. It was when I got back on the bike that I decided I’d try and catch him. And I did, I found him eventually and he was busted, just exhausted, sweating salt … and I passed him and got to the top before him. That’s when the bug hit me, that’s what sealed it for me. I loved the chase.”

Cycling then became “a science project” for Ó Conluain. “I wanted to improve all the time. I started to change my diet, for example, which gave me massive performance enhancing benefits.”

Ó Conluain also started to research training methods. “The Cyclist’s Training Book was the Bible at the time,” he says. “I read everything I could about cycling, always trying to improve. At that time my goal was to be able to finish a 60km race in Ireland and I set about training for that.”

Anthony Walsh, however, was taking the sport even more seriously. “I was soon training with the Irish national track team and competed for the Irish team in the World Student Games. In my final year of studying in King’s Inns I had established myself as one of the top amateur riders in Ireland and as I wrapped up my studies in King’s Inns I assumed I would head down a pre-defined route to the Four Courts but I was offered a contract with a French team, Apoge Super U,” he says.

Life in France was simple – basic food and basic accommodation and a very basic wage of €50 a week. “I had a big student loan hanging over me and lots of spare time, so I needed to find a way to make use of my skills and to make money. That’s when I set up A1 Coaching. It was born out of necessity and has been expanding ever since.”

As Walsh’s coaching business expanded he realised that creating individual performance reports for individual riders was very time consuming. Surely there must be a way to use technology to streamline the process?

“When Ciaran and I sat down and chatted about this project we initially aimed to capture a small part of the Irish market. We saw the app as a small project, but the more we learned and the more we talked to people about our idea the more we saw the app’s potential,” says Walsh.

“There just aren’t any proper coaching apps on the market,” says Ó Conluain. “We researched the sector and found plenty of GPS apps but none that could actually work for the individual rider in a coaching capacity.”

An app that learns from its users

The core strength of the Pocket Coach app is the algorithm. “The algorithm has inbuilt artificial intelligence so it’s capable of learning a rider’s preferences,” says Walsh. “It takes into account fatigue, diet, sleep and many other variables. It uses all the information it gathers one day to modify and adapt the next day’s session based on these results. It’s going to change the way we think about conditioning athletes and its application is incredibly wide.”

The app isn’t just for elite athletes. Walsh says it can benefit “everyone from a house wife to an Olympic athlete,” and it is applicable to “a wide range of sports and to the wider market of non athletes who are just hoping to lose weight”.

“It’s going to give athletes the tools they need to make smart choices about their training,” says Ó Conluain.

“Previously, people training for events were throwing punches in the dark and hoping something landed. The app will take all the guess work out of the training and the conditioning an athlete,” says Walsh.

The team behind Pocket Coach is currently seeking to talk to Series A investors to further develop the app. The app also has a revenue model from the start. “It’s a subscription model,” explains Ó Conluain. “The basic training package will cost €2.99 a month while the more advanced package will cost €7.99.”

Cyclists, especially leisure cyclists, are very fond of new gear and anything that will add to their performance.

“No longer will a cyclist have to go for a bike ride and wonder if what they are doing is helping them get closer to their goals,” says Walsh. “That’s the killer feature of the app and it’s something everyone who takes cycling and fitness seriously will want.”

Ó Conluain says that the team behind the app is exceptional and are driven to succeed. “We work with brilliant people, all of them with a passion for athletics and a deep appreciation of coaching and how it can improve performance. The potential for this app is enormous and that’s what we are focused on.”

The team behind the Pocket Coach app

hiwCiarán Ó Conluain, Irish, 33, business and marketing specialist, business owner, former professional cyclist.

AnthonyAnthony Walsh, Irish, 31, lives in Dublin, lawyer by trade, athlete by nature. Owner of A1 Coaching and a former professional cyclist.

dutchNicolaas Nijman, Dutch, 29, engineer, two-time Iron Man finisher, cyclist and runner.

HayaHaya Al Ghanim, Qatari, 29, MIT Sloan MBA graduate and former MD of the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition. Cyclist and runner, training to be the first Qatari female to run the Qatari marathon.

santeSante Kotturi, Californian, 25, retired tri-athlete, outdoor explorer, graduate degree in Neuroscience and now Machine Learning specialist and programmer.