Ep. 43: Building the Spikeball Community with Chris Ruder
In each episode of The GameDay Playbook presented by FanFood, Rob Cressy discusses how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate gameday more efficiently.
Listen to the Gameday Playbook on:
[00:00:04.680] - Rob Cressy
Welcome to the GameDay Playbook presented by FanFood, a discussion around how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate game day more efficiently. I'm your host, Rob Cressy, and joining me today is Chris Ruder, Founder and CEO at Spikeball. Chris, great to have you on the show.
[00:00:29.580] - Chris Ruder
Thanks for having me, Rob. Appreciate it.
[00:00:31.140] - Rob Cressy
Can you give a quick overview of who you are and what you do?
[00:00:35.910] - Chris Ruder
Exactly as you said, founder, CEO of Spikeball. So, I am trying to steer the ship and mission of the company is to create the next great global sport. So everything we do is in service to that.
[00:00:50.160] - Rob Cressy
I love it. You and I actually met each other a long time ago in terms of early in my entrepreneurial journey. I'm not sure where Spikeball was in that time of your life, but we're both working out of the coop, a co-working space at the Chicago Brown Line Station. I think for me, I had just started bacon sports and we just sat next to each other. And I've loved following your growth and the maturation of the company. It always made me feel warm inside. And even if you didn't know this, no matter where I went, if I saw something that was Spikeball. So, for example, my wife's family lives in Sarasota. So we'd be down in Siesta Key and I would see like twelve Spikeball sets. And I'm just like I just get so happy and excited to see your growth on a global level like that.
[00:01:47.990] - Chris Ruder
Appreciate that. That's been one of the most surprising things and that we have so many people, whether I know them well or whether they're complete strangers, that are just cheering us on, they want nothing more than to see us succeed. It's great getting the letters from the random aunt or uncle that’s on vacation in God knows where. They walk up to them saying "my nephew is Chris" and they're all super proud and I love it. All the other employees have experienced the same thing. It's been a really, really nice element of everything we've been doing.
[00:02:24.610] - Rob Cressy
So I do want to start with something that is foundational and actually very high profile for you. You appeared on Shark Tank. Can you give us a little bit of insight into what that experience was like for you in the company?
[00:02:38.380] - Chris Ruder
Yeah, it was fantastic. It was there was a while ago right now. We aired in 2015. So about five years ago. But it is this gift that keeps giving and the fact that we still get reruns occasionally reruns are happening all over the world. Like, you know, a little while ago we got e-mails from a bunch of retailers in Norway saying they wanted to carry our product and we find out that they heard about it through a shark tank rerun. Mark Cuban, even though we didn't do a deal with him. There have been a few journalists over the last few months that have been interviewing him on other topics. They'll say, hey, Mark, what's the one deal that got away that you wish you would have invested in? Two or three separate times his answer has been Spikeball. And, you know, when he speaks, people listen. So just the amount of branding and just kind of general awareness. It's it was a fantastic experience. We did do a deal on the show. The deal did not actually happen in real life. That was fine. But with that said, it was a great experience.
[00:03:45.370] - Rob Cressy
What was your preparation like for the show? I mean, obviously, you're going to go in there, you know the opportunities, so you're going to crush it. But what was it like for you? I think people would be curious about someone who's been on the show.
[00:03:57.440] - Chris Ruder
Yeah, it was nerve-wracking. And the most nerve-wracking part was they think about, you know, an entrepreneur walks through the doors and the music starts playing. The entrepreneur stands there and delivers. They're like a minute or two long memorized pitch. Memorization has never been a strong suit of mine. I'm actually terrible at it. My grades would show it would attest to that from school. So that was the part that I made sure I just did like driving to and from work I would just say it out loud to myself if I wasn't doing the pitch, actually speaking it, I had recorded it. That's what I would listen to. Like walking around the neighborhood all the way up until the night before. You know, we're staying in a hotel in Culver City, California. Some random hotel a couple of miles from Sony Pictures Studios. It was me and then we had four guys who were the players. You know, they kind of like demoed at the point, but it was probably eleven o'clock at night. The night before we're filming. We're standing in the parking lot of the hotel and the parking lots empty. There's nobody there. And there's like four, maybe five rocks that are literally about the size of bowling balls kind of sitting on this little. And we pretended that each of those was the sharks.
[00:05:13.300] - Chris Ruder
They were all lined up in a row and we'd walk up. OK, so do we all start with our left foot or right foot? We need to make sure that we're all walking in a coordinated fashion and then, OK, I'm going to stop on the X, and then I'm literally pitching these five rocks pretending that they're sharks. If I messed up my words sorry guys, we got to do our entrance again and start over. We must have done that a dozen times that night and that was the 782nd time that I had had done that. So I knew once I got beyond the memorization part well that's when I could be myself and be comfortable. I knew my numbers, I knew we had a great business. If you see that somebody just gets beaten to death by the sharks, it's because they did not prepare.
I feel you deserve it. If you didn't prepare and you're on a national stage like that, then sorry, you deserve to be messed with. I mean, even Mr. Wonderful was complimentary. You know, I think he called me “articulate” a couple of times and he made an offer but we didn't do a deal with him. But yeah, they were all super cool to me. I think they were because they knew that I just respected the institution and I was taking it seriously and I had spent a lot of time doing my homework.
[00:06:29.350] - Rob Cressy
How could you not prepare and take this seriously? I know we've all seen the ones that don't go well, but it's like the biggest opportunity in your life that how could you not just be the most polished version of yourself?
[00:06:43.090] - Chris Ruder
I forget who it was, but it was a while ago. And they asked the sharks, ask the person what last year's revenue was and they had to really think about that. Like that should be a lay-up question where if you're woken up at three o'clock in the morning and you have a half-second to answer and somebody asked you at last year's revenue is that's not one you should have to think about. But this person really struggled with that was like, all right, this is gonna get ugly and sorry, but you kind of deserve it.
[00:07:10.240] - Rob Cressy
So this certainly. To your success mindset. And one thing that I'm interested in is you founded this as a bootstrap startup. And let's talk about doing more with less. Because when we talk about sports technology, fan engagement, content creation, marketing, the various ways to grow a business team league, so often excuses get in the way. Why we can't do things. But those who find a way to do more with fewer resources end up. I mean, this is very much from obstacles, the way is stoic philosophy where you take the obstacle and it becomes the way where because you have a lack of resources that ends up becoming a positive for you because you continue to succeed despite it. So talk a little bit about more about doing more with less.
[00:08:01.590] - Chris Ruder
Yeah, I didn't have the opportunity to have "more". I do think venture-backed companies, they have more. And not only do they have more, but they're forced to spend that money within a certain amount of time. And I think that's kind of like if you want to compare it to steroids. Right? Like, yeah, you get that initial boost and maybe you have a good game or two. But if you're trying to build something long term, then, you know, in my experience, I don't think it's necessarily the way. So, you know, we raised a total of about one hundred thousand dollars to start the company. Now it's between me, my brother, my cousin and a couple of other childhood friends. I don't know, half to three-quarters of that went to hiring a designer to help with the logo, the branding, the packaging. Our first order was a thousand Spikeball sets. I remember being scared to death, ordering that many thinking it was gonna take us 10 years to sell that many sets. We had to pay for the factory to make the molds so they could actually make the product. And I think when that was all said and done, we maybe had 20 grand left. So it's like, yeah, that's not going to get you very far. So I ran the company for five years as a side job. I worked for Microsoft for about four years and Bill Gates has absolutely no idea how critical he was to the early days of Spikeball. But, you know, I was able to hold my day job occasionally sneaking away during the day and doing Spikeball work. Then at night was when Spikeball work really began. I'd do that you usually start probably around eight or nine o'clock at night, go until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning. Our first warehouse was my basement. I'd go down there around midnight or so, grab a set or two. There is a late-night post office not far from my house. I'd drive there and literally handwriting the labels in the early days and we just didn't have the resources. So there were very few times where I was like, should I spend the money on this or should I just do it on my own? We just didn't really have the money. When I when you and I sit next to each other in the coop, I would imagine there's probably a lot of Spikeball phone calls you heard, even though I had a day job. The good news about the day job as I was in sales. So for the most part, I consider myself a pretty good salesperson. I was over quota, so I didn't feel as guilty about doing Spikeball work during the day. But yeah, I was just getting scrappy, like I was talking to a friend the other day who was considering starting a company that was around like shoe design or something like that. And he was telling me like he got some nice momentum and all that and then kind of ran into a roadblock about trademarking the name of the company. That was enough to sort of stop everything he had built and like it. I was like, wait, just find a new name of the company or we can figure that out. That seemed to just like like, wow. Oh, well, if that's going to stop you, then I'm not sure sort of the entrepreneur lifestyle is sort of right for you. Maybe it is. Maybe I just misunderstood. But yeah, I'm rambling now.
[00:11:28.920] - Rob Cressy
So with this, you touched on something that I think is extremely important and it actually relates to me as well, because when I originally started my company, I was at work doing sales crushing quota and all I could think about was doing anything other than what I was doing right now. All I wanted to do was create content and I would just keep on doing it and doing it and doing it and still crushing it until I got to the point where I said I'd regret it for the rest of my life if I did not give it a shot at making my dreams happen. So I want you to take us to the day where you quit your job and went full time at Spikeball.
[00:12:08.790] - Rob Cressy
What was that like?
[00:12:11.840] - Chris Ruder
It was incredible when I started Spikeball, but I'd never thought it would be big enough someday to where I could actually employ me, one person, full time. That was not even on the radar, you know. We have 28 full-timers, 2 living overseas. It's a million times larger than I ever thought. So when the sales kept doubling or tripling every year and they started getting much bigger. It started to become a reality. I was like, wow, this actually could happen. When I did get to give my two weeks, I was based here in Chicago and my boss was in New York. So I called him up and gave it two weeks, like one of the best days of my life. It was just absolutely fantastic. There was a lot of planning that went in before that. You know, I'd been in the corporate world for over ten years, so I was making pretty good money, full benefits, the whole thing. And wait, I'm going to walk away from all that for this weird trampoline game thing. At that time when I did give the two weeks, we had hit a million dollars in annual revenue that year with zero full-time employees. I'd been talking to some mentors and others that are much smarter than me who said "Chris, you need to quit immediately and go full time. This rocket ship is taking off without you." And if it doesn't get the attention it needs, then it will crash to the ground. So get moving. So I was very nervous. And a lot of people, you know, if you look at it at face value, it's so risky. I think entrepreneurs are actually some of the most risk-averse people. But we actually just do. I think almost everybody that we'll be listening in this podcast or anybody that's ever walked on the earth, you have some sort of idea for a business. Oh, man, I really should do that. Few people actually take that first step and actually do something about it. I think that's the big difference between an entrepreneur and people with ideas. So I took that first step. But I can't tell you how many conversations I had with my accountant in a year leading up to the time I quit the job. And it's like your day job pays X. You pay me this much. Is there any way Spikeball could come close to that and give me three different scenarios? OK. Next month, give me three different scenarios and we just beat that until it was dead and allowed me to make that call.
[00:14:31.030] - Rob Cressy
The bigger risk is not taking the risk itself. For a lot of us, myself included, it was way riskier to sit there the rest of your life and wonder, what if. Just run and jump right in and do it. And you're right, we are risk-averse, but we're also very action-oriented. So because you made this move, one of the amazing things that have blossomed from this is the Spikeball community and for me. I believe that Spikeball was one of the gold standards when it comes to fan engagement and community building because it's something when I'm working with companies, I'm auditing the best companies out there in terms of fan engagement and community building. And Spikeball is always one of them that I'm looking at. And there's a reason for this because the majority of companies out there do not see themselves as building a community. They like to say, buy what we're selling, buy what we're selling. They're not community-driven. And when I look at the marketing and content from Spikeball, it is is a large majority of user-generated content, people sending in videos of them playing with their friends or doing amazing trick shots or amazing saves. So can you talk about how you guys embraced and built a community of Spikeball?
Yeah, back in 2008 when I launched and I made this explicit decision of, yes, we're going to build community and we're not going to be produced first. It was you know, I just didn't know any better. And, you know, when we launched, we only sold on spikeball.com. And the beauty of that is we now have direct communication with one hundred percent of our customers. You know, back then we did. And when an order would come in. I remember in the early days, I was actually shocked that an order would come in. Like, who in the heck bought this? And if somehow somebody from San Francisco bought and I'd send them an email saying, thanks to its Ryan from Spikeball, I see you live in San Francisco, I actually used to live there. What a beautiful city. I'm actually on my way to the post office tonight. You should get it in the next couple of days. By the way, if you don't mind me asking, how do you hear about Spikeball? And about 100 percent of our customers got that email in the first couple of years and most people ignored it. But other people, I think we're just intrigued. Like, what kind of weird company is this? Like the CEOs emailing me, telling me that he personally is going to drive my package to the post office and mail it. Like what? But I think they just like to that sort of human element. Those that did reply, I'd reply to them, and relationships were formed and I got to know what they were about. If I thought that they had some friends, that would be the end to it. Like we gave away tons of free sets. I think it was just my just genuine curiosity of who are these people that are actually giving us their 50 bucks and are into this thing, like I know I'm into it. But how did somebody in suburban Nashville hear about it or wherever they were? Yeah, I think we just got lucky in that. I think most companies when you do design your widget for the most part. The first thing we need to do is get into a store like we need to get in a Dick's Sporting Goods. And once we get in there, then all of our problems will be solved. A few years after we did start, I reached out to the Sports Authority and tried getting on their shelves and actually went to Denver and met with them.
[00:17:53.920] - Chris Ruder
I think they actually shot us down. The terms they offered were terrible. And but thank God right, they shut down a few years after that and tons of companies got burned right when they shut down. You don't get your inventory back. That becomes a part of the bankruptcy process. That would have been a really, really expensive thing for us to deal with. So by doing that e-commerce, that allowed us to have direct relationships with everybody and we didn't have any marketing budget. I remember, in the early days, random players that I'd get to know would be texting me cool photos that would become an Instagram pic or a Facebook post or whatever. I just like having that that human element to it or that organic element to it. Like, if we were to hire beautiful models and that would be our only form of marketing, that's hard to relate to. You know, it may be nice eye candy, but you may not really be able to picture yourself in that.
[00:18:51.610] - Rob Cressy
What I liked about what you said specifically about hiring models to be in your marketing is I see a lot of companies out there that take such a polished approach that it ends up being a negative because you cannot relate to it. I think about stock photos or getting things that are so perfect. I believe it is actually the authenticity side of things, seeing people who look like the people who play spikeball on your social media marketing, that helps grow the brand. And I think more specifically on the word of mouth side of things. So how important has word of mouth marketing been for the building of your community?
[00:19:34.090] - Chris Ruder
Word of mouth - without it, we would not have a business. I cannot tell you how allergic to stock photos if there's ever a stock photo used at Spikeball, that will be a very sad day. We're fortunate in that, one person buys our product. They have to go find three people in order to play. There is a viral element just built into our product. So we're lucky in that. When the people do go play, they're most likely going and playing in a public area. Not so much right now with COVID-19. But normally they go into a park, to a beach, etc. and strangers are going to walk by and see that. So that is by far our best form of marketing. Way better than a Google ad or Instagram ad or anything like that. The brand is way better known today than it was back then, but especially back then. I remember a lot of people talked about Spikeball as if it was sort of like secret cult and kind of have our own language and kind of our own way of doing things. There was just like similar to like if you're the one that is the first one to discover the cool new band, your street cred goes up a couple notches. If you were the first one to discover Spikeball of your crew, then again, your street cred goes up a couple of notches. So that just drives that word of mouth. If you're the one that discovered it, you want to make sure you're the one that's telling your crew. We just want to fan those flames. You know, that's not something we can manufacture in a marketing meeting. That just needs to happen organically.
[00:21:15.950] - Rob Cressy
Do you try and quantify word of mouth? Because I agree with you. I believe it is one of, if not the best forms of marketing, which if we follow sort of the lifecycle you say user-generated content, and then that is posted on social media. Then when you show them, love, guess what they're going to do, tell other people or when other people see it. So you're building this natural funnel for word of mouth. But it is also something that a lot of companies out there say, well, you know what, Rob and Chris? I can't really quantify that. So we're not going to invest in that.
[00:21:49.790] - Chris Ruder
Yeah, we do not have a way to quantify it. What's the line if you can't measure it, you can't manage it or something like that. And some people will take that so far. Like we can't measure it, Let's just not do it. I believe in the power of the gut. And it's really hard to measure the gut, but you need to trust it, at least in my experience that's what I've been doing. We'd give away an ungodly amount of free sets we did in the early days and we still do to this day. And I cannot give you a number that says, yeah, for every free set we give away, we say on average, you know, 19 other people will experience that product. Two of them will go buy. No way can you ever measure that sort of stuff.
[00:22:35.450] - Chris Ruder
You just got to be comfortable with not knowing. I'd love to somehow do an experiment where we completely turn off all paid advertising for an entire year. We only do word of mouth or we only do organic and that would be a very risky thing. You know, we all sleep at night because we can see our ads and just all the other nice black and white numbers that we get. But I don't think those are the real movers of what we're doing. It is people actually playing. It's people telling their friends about it. Same with apparel, right? Our general apparel, that revenue doesn't really add up to much. But I know whenever I'm walking around town with my Spikeball backpack or if I'm at O'Hare, any airport, I was actually in South America a month or two ago and I saw a guy with a Spikeball backpack. I was like, Are you kidding me? So I walked up. We started chatting. How many people have I now told that story about? How many is he going to tell about it? The value that that apparel that the T-shirts, the backpacks, etc. that brings. We'll never be able to measure it. It sure isn't showing up in the revenue report, but there's tremendous value there.
[00:23:48.090] - Rob Cressy
And, of course, that speaks to the power of community. So now let's look on the tech side because as your community continues to grow, the community starts to want a little bit more from you. Hey, Chris. Hey, Spikeball. We really like this. We want to know how else can we engage further? So we're now going next level in the community building where you're serving them. You're showing them love, but now you're even going to support them more so. What is Spikeball been doing in terms of building an app or finding other unique ways to bring the community together?
[00:24:23.720] - Chris Ruder
Yeah. So the community, word of mouth, and focusing on the players is what we do. We just happened to make the equipment that we do to service them. Yeah, we developed this Spikeball app a couple of years ago. We're actually in the process of re rebuilding it from the ground up. We're going to new launch of it in the next month or two. But that came about not because we were sitting around saying "apps, everybody's building an app. We should build an app to just do it." No, it was in direct response. We get emails from people all over the world saying, hey, I love playing. I'm sick of playing with my same friends. I want to meet more players or I want to meet better players.
[00:25:03.260] - Chris Ruder
So we developed the app. Let's say you and I live in Chicago. We don't know each other, but we both play and we both have the app. I can post a game on the app that says, Hey, I'm playing in Wicker Park Tuesday at six o'clock and I hit publish. Your phone and everybody else in Chicago's phone that has the app will now Buzz saying local pickup game post and click here to RSVP. So we are now introducing strangers to each other and also within the app you can see the level of play, sort of how good each player is. We've got a sort of a grading system if you will. You may not want to play with a level 1.0 player, but a level 4.0 player. That's what you are as well. So you'll actually enjoy playing with them. So that's been a terrific way for people all over the world to meet each other. Unfortunately, I've had to turn off the pickup game thing due to COVID-19, but there's still tons of people posting all sorts of content. They're meeting each other. I just don't want to be reliant on Facebook or Instagram or any other third party platform to actually reach my community. So it is kind of nice that we now own our own app. We own that ecosystem. We don't have to pay Facebook or anybody else to reach them. It's ours and that feels pretty nice
[00:26:24.530] - Rob Cressy
That is so important and also so difficult because I think back to the original. When Facebook changed the algorithm and there was media publishers who had built on the Facebook algorithm where they say we are 100 percent Facebook, we get the overwhelming majority of our traffic organically via Facebook organic reach, and then they changed that. And all of a sudden overnight, 90 percent of the organic reach went away. And you're like, oh, my God, what are we going to do? Here comes Instagram. And it's like, oh, my God, here's the savior. We get 20 percent organic reach now that Facebook is like, oh, you thought you liked that. Let's keep bringing this bad boy back a little bit more. It's why it is so important to understand the various channels that you can use for yourself. I think email is a great example of something that's for lack of a better term you own because at no point is Facebook going to say you can't do that email. I think that's another reason why podcasting is so interesting because your audience is going to you to listen to it and you don't have to say we've got to pay more to get people to listen to our podcasts. It's also the beauty of video and some of these non-social platforms when you can realize we can build assets for ourselves in the social is just distribution because they're going to come and go. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, MySpace. So like you could have built on MySpace and you're like, oh my God, just see them as a distribution platform and then figure out what are the ways where I can have more direct contact and ownership with my community.
[00:28:04.540] - Chris Ruder
Absolutely. On day one, it's very daunting, right, because, you know, on our Instagram, I think we've got maybe four hundred fifty thousand people. And if we were looking at day one of our apps. Right, we have zero, man. It's just so much easier to write another check to Instagram to engage that audience. And does it really make sense like it's going to take forever to build that app audience? Like should we really and thank God we did it. Our app audience is still smaller than Instagram, but the engagement is through the roof. Like those are hardcore fans. Those are the ones that are actually going and telling their friends about tournaments. They're the ones that are spending their hard-earned money getting on an airplane, flying to a tournament. Three years from now, that app audience is going to be crazy big and we're going to be that much less reliant on that third party. Not having that control really, makes me nervous. Big fan of owning your own platform. Yeah.
[00:29:02.630] - Rob Cressy
And I think a lot of companies don't understand that relationships are built over time. So when you do invest in the community or in content, you don't understand. No different than dating. You aren't going to marry somebody on the first day. So like starting at zero because guess what? Everybody starts at zero. Even your four hundred thousand Instagram followers, you started at zero. Is that consistent trickle just every day showing up there for the community that is going to help you grow it.
[00:29:31.300] - Rob Cressy
So, Chris, I continue to be a fan of you and all that Spikeball is doing. I wish you continued success. Where can everyone connect with you?
I am on Twitter and Instagram at @spikeballchris. We are on all platforms at @Spikeball
As always I’d love to hear from you about this episode. Two questions: 1. Have you ever heard of Spikeball and 2. Have you ever played Spikeball. It's a bonus if you send in a video or picture of you playing. You can hit up FanFood on Twitter @FanFoodOnDemand, on Instagram @FanFoodApp or onLinkedIn.and you can hit me up on all social platforms at @RobCressy.