This Startup’s Product: Remote Coaching From Maria Sharapova, Michael Phelps, and Other Olympians

In the midst of increased remote work, a new company is showing what the future of coaching might look like.

The startup, called The Skills, launched on Tuesday with a website that lets users watch instructional videos on skills ranging from spiking a volleyball to perfecting the breaststroke. The tutorials are given by some of the world’s top athletes, including 23-time Olympic gold-medal swimmer Michael Phelps, career Grand Slam tennis champion Maria Sharapova, snowboarder Shaun White, beach volleyball player Kerri Walsh Jennings, and NFL wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, among others.

Founder and CEO Omer Atesmen says the idea for The Skills was inspired by MasterClass, the company that offers online courses taught by experts in subjects like photography and acting. Atesmen thought there would be an audience for a similar product focused exclusively on sports.

“We were able to pretty quickly get a lot of the athletes to come on board, despite the fact that no one knows who I am,” Atesmen says. “So I think that speaks to the idea.”

Atesmen previously founded solar company Clean Energy Experts, which claimed the No. 79 spot on the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing private companies in America in 2014 and the No. 337 spot in 2015. He sold the company to Sunrun, the largest residential solar firm in the U.S., for more than $50 million in 2015. 

Atesmen used some of those funds to start building The Skills last year. He got help from his friend and former co-worker John Harper, now the COO of the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics, to sign up elite athletes. The Skills raised a $2 million seed round last fall that included investment firms Global Founders Capital and Maveron.

The product is increasingly relevant in the age of social distancing, even if Atesmen didn’t plan it that way. “People are becoming more accepting of being able to educate themselves in a remote environment,” he says. “I think it’s a trend that’s going to become stronger and stronger.”

The courses cover technical skills as well as topics that transcend the court or field. In one video, Sharapova talks about the proper grip and technique for a forehand; in another, she talks about developing the ability to maintain focus amid distractions. 

“This was something that hadn’t been done specifically in the sports world,” Sharapova says, adding that she tried to share some of the knowledge she gained from her father and her coaches throughout her career. “I hope anyone watching can learn lessons that could be valuable not just in sports, but in their careers and their lives.”

A crew recently filmed Sharapova over the course of two days in Los Angeles. The tennis great says it was a new kind of experience for her. “When you’re an athlete, so many of these things become second nature,” she says. “So I really had to get into my own mind to become a teacher.”

Sharapova and Fitzgerald both have taken advisory roles and own equity in the company. Atesmen set aside equity for some of the first athletes to come on board. “That’s a really big thing for athletes nowadays–to have equity and feel like they’re involved with the company, not just transactionally, but are invested beyond that,” Atesmen says. 

The Skills has seven full-time employees, all of whom work remotely, with plans to grow to 15 or 20 by the end of the year. The startup hires an L.A.-based production crew for each shoot, which can take place locally or on location–like for White’s, which took place on a snowy mountain in Colorado.

In addition to several-part courses from star athletes, the platform will also offer one-off videos from others who aren’t quite household names, like X Games medalist skateboarder Dashawn Jordan and Paralympic track and field athlete Scout Bassett. Its yearly price ranges from $69 for a single athlete’s full courseload to $149 for everything on the site. The company plans on releasing new videos weekly to keep customers engaged.

Atesmen says The Skills’ target demographic is youth through college-age athletes, but he hopes it will appeal to all age groups. “We’ve already seen the sort of weekend warrior casual athlete purchasing it in our beta testing,” he says. “The vision is to be able to have a platform that engages sports fans in general: If you like watching that documentary on Netflix about Lance Armstrong and his career cycling, you’re probably going to like watching Michael Phelps teaching.”

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