ND Founders Profile #145: When COVID Smashed His Professional Tennis Dream, this FouNDer Discovered Entrepreneurship and Is Acing It

Author: Melanie Lux

Eliot Fb Web Nov21


Company Founded:
Uclips LLC (Uclips.co)
Anticipated Graduation : 2024
Title: Founder Degree: M.S., Science, Technology, Engineering and Entrepreneurship (ESTEEM)
Location: Notre Dame, IN    

Growing up in West Paris, France, Eliot Ekindi had one dream: to be a professional tennis player. There was little time for childhood games. Ekindi was committed to tennis. And he was very, very good.

There are no collegiate tennis programs in France, so his coaches suggested he pursue a scholarship with a Division 1 university in the United States. There he could continue to hone his court skills and get an education. Ekindi took the advice and at age 18 began playing tennis for Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. He chose Environmental Science as his major but didn’t know exactly what it was.

“I always wanted to make stuff. Maybe I thought it was engineering?”

College was an end to a means: professional tennis. At any one time, 100,000 people around the world dream and work to go pro. Only 150 or so make it into the top ranks. Even then, success is for an infinitesimal few. “It is unbelievably hard,” Ekindi explains. “You have to be super talented with a lot of money to pay coaches and facilities. Even if you make it to the top, you see that three guys won 95 percent of the titles over the last decade: Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.”

Despite the odds, Ekindi continued to focus on his dream. It took a global pandemic in early 2020 to stall his dream. With American universities shutting down academics and athletics, Ekindi returned home to Paris. Undeterred, he turned to weightlifting to stay in shape. Because all public commercial gyms in Paris were closed, he was forced to create a home gym with limited space and money.

“I was still very serious about tennis. My father had some plates, a barbell, and dumbbell handles in the basement. It took a long time to set up the weights to work out. Additional weights were expensive. I wondered if there was something out there, I could use to get more out of the weights I had,” he says.

Ekindi knew about adjustable dumbbells available at his university athletic gym and began working on ideas to optimize gym equipment. With the goal of getting more functionality out of less equipment, the first challenge was getting the dumbbells on the barbell. He wondered what else he could do with plates that he could not do with dumbbells. Could dumbbells substitute for plates? How could he optimize dumbbells?

Post Covid, Florida A&M lost their budget for tennis, so his agent worked behind the scenes to secure another tennis scholarship in the United States. Ekindi was offered the opportunity to play tennis for St. Louis University in Saint Louis, Missouri, accepted, and promptly changed his major to mechanical engineering. While at Saint Louis University, Ekindi worked with a computer-aided design (CAD) software called SOLIDWORKS. He didn’t have access to it at home but found other software to start designing a solution.

Collegiate athletes can be challenged to meet the demands of classroom and competition. Not Ekindi. He remained committed to his idea, now dubbed UClip, that would revolutionize home gyms. One day, he presented his product design concept on UClip to one of his engineering classes. To his surprise, his classmates gave him a standing ovation.

“It was weird getting rewarded for my design. It made me think, ‘Hey, maybe I have something here,’” Ekindi says.

His entire life until this point had been tennis and engineering, but the passion ignited while trying to solve a personal challenge changed the direction of Ekindi’s life. His dream to go pro was replaced with the reality of being a startup entrepreneur. “I realized I wanted to be an entrepreneur the whole time.”

Over the span of 18 months, Ekindi went from original concept to prototype to his first minimally viable product (MVP). It was not smooth sailing. He used an online service to 3D print his first prototype in plastic. The dimensions were off, and the dumbbell wouldn’t fit so Ekindi tried sanding and sawing it to the right specs.

It broke.

“I had no idea what I was doing.,” he admits. “I got ripped off.”

Still, he was making progress. After continuing to finetune the UClip design, he found a professional machine shop to produce his MVP. Production was made more complicated because of the thickness of the steel. The machine shop had to do “step bending,” a process of taking a large bend radius and dividing it up into multiple smaller bends in to approximate a larger radius.

“The machine shop said they could do it, but the holes in the clip didn’t align so the barbell wouldn’t slip into the clip. They quit because the production process was too complicated,” Ekindi says.

Now this was a problem as Ekindi had taken pre-orders for the UClip. While he was trying to figure out what to do next, a customer called and asked where his clips were. “I explained I had a manufacturing issue. It turned out the customer was CEO of a larger equipment company. He recommended a Chinese partner. He solved a six-month production problem in a couple weeks.”

From the very beginning, Ekindi has listened carefully to potential customers and customers, which has driven design improvements. Early on, general feedback was that UClips were nice but expensive. Others were concerned that using a UClip would damage the knurling (texture) on their barbells. Ekindi responded by simplifying the overall design, made the product symmetrical with a D ring on each side and added a soft interior layer of plastic to protect knurling.

Once the UClips website went live in august 2022, Ekindi encouraged customers reviews, which was a smart—and cheap—way of getting constructive feedback. “I only produce 1,000 to 2,000 UClips a month so that I continue to get reviews and iterate based on what I learn. I get a lot of five-star reviews, but when I get bad reviews, they’re usually on the same issue. This is good because I know the problem’s real and can improve the design.”

When Ekindi heard from multiple weightlifters using UClips for landmine rows that the inner lining was peeling away from their clips, he quickly found a solution, designing a new lining that won’t peel. Another time, users commented on the clip’s D-rings had a lack of stability, which led to Ekindi using heavier bolts to secure the D rings to the clips. Each time he does a new iteration, it is rolled out like a new product with benefits clearly stated.

Today, Ekindi bills UClips as the “universal gym clip,” something akin to a Swiss Army knife. The website shows a variety of ripped weightlifters using UClips as a dumbbell to barbell adaptor; to load bars with dumbbells, kettlebells, bands and chains; link grips to barbell shafts; load dip belts; and build a belt squat. Videos show just how well the UClip leverages one’s weightlifting equipment and space. The customer comments are seemingly endless and Ekindi answers each one personally.

Unlike many young founders, Ekindi has chosen to bootstrap UClips and has taken no money from investors other than a small amount from his parents early on when seeking a patent. Fortunately, his expenses during the first 18 months were low. Now that he is actively manufacturing, marketing and selling UClips, he uses his profits to fund scaling the company. Ekindi draws no salary.

“As a resident of France, I can’t work in the United States without a Green Card. I am working on getting one, but until then, I may have to start working in France to get paid.”

Ekindi says the biggest challenge to date has been sacrificing his personal life to his startup and learning how to run a business on his own. “The more time I have dedicated to UClips, the more other parts of my life suffer. I have lost highly valued friendships because I saw the time going out with friends as time I could be spending on UClips. So I didn’t go out; ninety-five percent of my time was spent alone, struggling with UClips.”

Ekindi found his solution to both in the University of Notre Dame’s ESTEEM Program, which combines the principles of business and entrepreneurship with science, technology and engineering. He applied in early 2023 and was accepted into the class of 2024. “I realized I had no idea what I was doing in business; my expertise is mechanical engineering and tennis. If I acquired the business skill set with my engineering background and real-world experience, my next company would be a ten X.”

Now that he’s at Notre Dame and part of the ESTEEM Program, Ekindi has found more balance in his life. “I really appreciate my cohort. It’s quite fascinating. There are so many smart people in one room. Lots of expertise and I am making great connections and friends.”

Recently, Ekindi realized his past dedication to tennis has finally paid off—just not on the courts of Roland Garros or Wimbledon. “For 18 years, I got on the court every day and worked very hard to realize my dream of becoming a professional. Every day, tennis was survival of the fittest. Although I did not turn pro—very few people do—the mental toughness I achieved in tennis helped with UClips. I didn’t realize when I started UClips how difficult it would be, but that didn’t stop me. And now, I’m here.”

Here being commercial success, have achieved six figures in sales from his UClips website. Here going from $2,000 a month in sales in January 2023 to $20,000 a month in October 2023. Here being an invitation to have his product featured on Garage Gym Reviews alongside those of Bowflex, Rogue, Titan, Peloton, and Nordic Track, a leading website for home fitness enthusiasts and potential gamechanger for Ekindi. With his latest iteration of UClips launching in December, the January timing of a review could not be better.

“When Garage Gym reviews your product, you either blow up in sales or you die,” he says. “When they approached me about reviewing UClips and being featured on their website, I was excited because of the potential sales and brand awareness. A good review could also lead to deals with wholesalers or a move to larger retail platforms like Amazon.”

That kind of success would definitely make all of the sacrifices made over the last 20-plus years worth it.

Asked what advice he has for others interested in starting a company, Ekindi has this: “If you are not obsessed, don’t do it. You can’t make it work unless you are completely and unreasonably obsessed. You will spend 95 percent of your time struggling to make it work, and even then, success is not a given.”