On a hot, late-spring day in 2011, quarterback Mark Sanchez was whistling spirals to receivers during an off-season workout on the Mission Viejo High School football field, where he'd once dreamed of going pro. Sanchez, who grew up here in the heart of Orange County, California, was coming off his second season with the New York Jets--and his second deep run in the playoffs. His laid-back Cali style cloaked his Super Bowl ambitions as he worked on his timing with his wideouts and tight ends.
Wherever sports stars like Sanchez go, the hangers-on swarm. There are reporters, agents, club promoters, energy drink entrepreneurs, electronics brand reps, all of them hoping to get something from the athletes. "There would always be people like that at these camps. 'Hey, try this, take a picture with that,' " Sanchez says.
Walking to the sideline after his last snap, Sanchez recognized one of the supplicants: Anthony Katz. While in college at the University of Southern California, Sanchez had frequented a weekly pickup basketball game Katz organized at Capistrano Valley High School. The invitation-only games drew the region's best players, some of whom, like Brandon Jennings and Klay Thompson, would make the NBA. Katz's former baseball coach, who was now at Mission Viejo, had tipped him off to Sanchez's workout. Katz hadn't come merely to watch; he wanted to show the players a new postworkout recovery aid he'd been tinkering with.
As Sanchez approached, Katz was fitting his device onto the shoulder of another player. An ice pack concealed inside a black compression sheath, it looked like a cross between a wetsuit and a medieval knight's pauldron. Always searching for new gear that gave him a performance edge, Sanchez was intrigued. "I'd never seen anything like this," he says.
Equally striking was Katz's vibe, which was unlike that of the other hawkers and hustlers. "He just has such a calm presence and easygoing demeanor," Sanchez says. "He wasn't pushy. He just let the product work for itself." Impressed on both counts, Sanchez told Katz to call him if he ever needed help raising money. A year later, after convincing his financial advisers that Katz, until recently a high school history teacher and basketball coach, was the real deal, Sanchez bought an equity stake in Hyperice, the name Katz chose for both his company and his first product.
Most startup founders would consider themselves lucky to have one story like this to tell, of a famous influencer volunteering his personal funds and public imprimatur to a fledgling brand. Katz can reel off a dozen. Blake Griffin, the L.A. Clippers forward and former number-one draft pick, is the primary face of the brand and an equity investor. Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, Arsenal striker Olivier Giroud, Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn, Sacramento Kings forward Rudy Gay, and U.S. Soccer goalie Hope Solo are also among the dozen pro athletes who have put in their own money. The NBA's LeBron James and Kobe Bryant were among the earliest adopters; James touts Hyperice to his fellow players while Bryant uses the company's newest product, a vibrating foam roller called the Vyper, while resting during games. The Houston Texans' J.J. Watt, football's most dominant defender, is an avid Vyper fan; he's been photographed toting his around.
Thanks to these relationships, Katz's products are rapidly gaining traction in all levels of sport. Hyperice's cryo-compression gear is used by pros in all of the major U.S. leagues and the English Premier League, by U.S. Olympic athletes, and by such college powerhouses as USC, Stanford, and the universities of Texas, Kansas, and Oregon. Launched through a Kickstarter campaign last July, the Vyper went on sale at Dick's Sporting Goods, Sports Authority, and REI locations nationwide in February. Deals are in the works with several major gym chains. College and professional teams have been ordering the $200 device by the dozen. "I don't know how I'm going to make enough to supply the demand," Katz says. His plan to outsource final production overseas will help. In 2014, the company did about $1.5 million in business, all of it in direct sales. This year, Katz projects sales of at least $5 million. He hopes to launch a new product every year, each one targeting a segment of the $4 billion-a-year U.S. market for fitness and sports recovery equipment.
So how did Katz go from high school teacher and basketball coach to founder of a company with products that attract celebrity investors and free publicity? Like most success stories, his is a mixture of preparation, inspiration, and serendipity. None of that would have counted for much, though, were it not for Katz's ability to weave weak connections into a fabric of opportunities. It's a talent he struggles to explain. "It doesn't seem like it's ever been that hard," he says. "I don't have any tactic. I'm not very forceful. I don't know." Maybe. Or maybe Katz knows exactly what he is doing.
As a young man, Katz had modest ambitions, entrepreneurship not among them. After college, he went into teaching because "I really liked history, and I liked the fact that you got summers off and I could coach basketball. I loved coaching," he says. "I thought I was going to do it forever." With his thick dark hair and down-turned eyes, Katz bears a resemblance to Kyle Chandler, the football coach from NBC's Friday Night Lights.
While he was earning his teaching certificate, he organized and played in the Sunday-night pickups that drew Sanchez and other area talents to Capistrano Valley High, where he had coached after graduating from college. After Katz had entered his 30s, he noticed that his usual two or three games a week were leaving him increasingly sore and fatigued. A bad back sometimes kept him off the court altogether. So he started researching how pro athletes mended their war wounds. "A lot of my happiness is tied to my physical activity. I wanted to get the level of treatment the pros were getting," he says.
Around this time, trainers and coaches were realizing that faster recovery and healing, not harder training, was the key to peak performance. Teams that once stocked their charter planes with beer for the flight home began substituting smoothies to replace the nutrients the players had just sweated out. As a data-driven Moneyball mindset spread throughout the sports world, nutrition, hydration, sleep, and soft-tissue therapy went from afterthoughts to pillars of every serious athlete's daily regimen, and huge brands like Nike and Gatorade began marketing recovery product lines. "We've paid a lot more attention to recovery in the past 10 years," says St. Vincent Sports Performance executive director Ralph Reiff. "In fact, I would say we never paid attention to it previously."
The trend was particularly visible in the NBA, where a dense season of night games played on hardwood floors makes for one of the world's more physically grueling leagues. Griffin arrived on the scene in 2009, just as the new conventional wisdom was taking hold. "Some of the older guys I've played with, when they were rookies, they didn't even ice after practice," he marvels. "They used to eat McDonald's before games."
Katz knew players plunged themselves into ice tubs and that many teams had invested in a $4,000 motorized machine called Game Ready, which circulates ice water over injured body parts. But he saw that outside the locker room, on the bench, they did the same thing they'd always done: they strapped plastic bags of crushed ice to their muscles with Ace bandages or Saran Wrap. That couldn't be the best portable solution, Katz thought. He bought a length of neoprene from a local wetsuit manufacturer, picked up several ice bags from a drugstore, and set to tinkering.
Soon he had his first crude prototype. He knew the easiest way to test it out would be on high school athletes. Once he'd worked the product's bugs out on them, he could try to interest elite players. But he also knew that in sports, trends filter from the top down. A product that wowed high schoolers wouldn't necessarily satisfy a pro with access to a multimillion-dollar training and rehab facility. "These guys, when it comes to their bodies, they use only the best," Katz says.
Katz decided to go straight to the top, but that meant finding professionals willing to serve as guinea pigs. Katz had a strategy, though. "I thought, instead of trying to go guy by guy, what if I get it to a trainer who sees all these guys?" He decided to approach Robbie Davis, a former trainer for the Clippers who now had his own company, Gameshape, through which he trained numerous NBA stars in the off-season. Through a mutual friend, Katz scored a meeting. Davis told Katz that a similar product already existed. No one used it. It had the same problem as ice in plastic bags: As the ice melted, air pockets formed, making it less effective. Davis showed Katz how he tore a small hole in each plastic bag to let air escape, though it let water drip.
Seeing this gave Katz an idea--a pushbutton valve for venting air as it built up, creating a vacuum-tight fit between flesh and ice. But he needed someone to design and produce it. The first company he approached turned him down. "They were like, 'Who are you? You're no one,' " Katz says. Then, at a going-away party for Keith Wilkinson, a player Katz had coached who was shipping out to play pro ball in Ukraine, he got to talking about his vision with Wilkinson's father, a former NFL lineman. Jerry Wilkinson's friend, Tom Bengard, owned a large stake in a company called Marton Precision Manufacturing, which made parts for the aerospace industry. Following up on the lead, Katz scored a meeting with Rob Marton, a company engineer and brother of the founder. Marton was not persuaded by Katz, who had almost no backing and only a rudimentary business plan. Afterward, Katz got an email from the company saying "no, thanks."
Katz's usual reserve cracked, and he called Bengard at home. "What do you mean, no?" he demanded. "This is going to be amazing!" Katz believed the door wasn't entirely closed. "I just thought I needed to work on them a little bit," he says.
He persuaded them to take a follow-up meeting, and then another. As Katz detailed the feedback he was already receiving from pros, including Bryant, their skepticism melted. "What I was selling them on was, 'If you can build this, I have the connections to get it on the right people,' " he says.
The firm agreed to handle the engineering and manufacturing of Hyperice's air-release cap in exchange for a 33 percent share of the company. "What real leverage do I have? I'm a guy driving around with cut-up neoprene and ice bags," Katz says of signing away the stake. "Whatever it takes to get the product made." Katz retained another third of the equity, and the rest was set aside for new investors.
"He was extremely, extremely persistent," says Marton. "Anthony knows what he wants, and he gets it." (That includes Marton, who is now Hyperice's director of operations.)
Almost a year later, in the summer of 2010, new and improved prototype in hand, Katz showed up unannounced at Davis's gym. Davis thought the new version was on the money, and he agreed to help him. Davis relayed one of the new prototypes to Bryant, who adopted it as part of his recovery regimen when the Lakers' season began that fall.
At that point, Hyperice was little more than a name and a patent application. But it wouldn't be for long. Katz had quit his teaching job and was living off savings while he focused on his project full time. He and Davis spent long hours at each other's kitchen tables gluing together devices designed for different body parts--knees, shoulders, backs--and discussing how to make something athletes would be comfortable wearing. "We kept saying we want it to look like armor," Davis says. "Athletes don't want to look like they're hurt."
Early in 2011, through yet another friend-of-a-friend hookup, they got a prototype to Polamalu, the hard-hitting safety and Head & Shoulders spokesman. He loved it and, with several partners, bought 15 percent of Hyperice for $500,000. His connections, however, proved even more valuable than his money.
In February 2011, Polamalu was in Dallas to play in the Super Bowl, and James was in town to watch. A member of Polamalu's retinue raved about Hyperice to someone in James's inner circle, and, in weeks, Katz was on his way to Miami to demonstrate his gear to Mike Mancias, James's personal trainer. Six months later, "King James" invited Katz to a charity basketball game he was hosting in Miami.
Arriving early at the arena, Katz ran into Chris Paul, the All-Star point guard then with the New Orleans Hornets. Paul, who had already been introduced to Hyperice by James and Mancias, told Katz he'd been looking forward to meeting him. "I'm like, 'You wanted to meet me? I'm no one,' " he recalls. As he went around the locker room after the game, helping Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant, Rudy Gay, Carmelo Anthony, and Amar'e Stoudemire ice their knees, Katz got the same sort of reception from the other players, who called him Ice Man. "They gave me respect because I wasn't some guy hawking a product. LeBron wanted me here." Katz was in the club, and has been ever since. "I was, like, a made man," Katz says. "That was a big day."
If he were younger, Katz admits, he might have been starstruck in that moment. At 34, what excited him was access to the world's most exclusive focus group. "I'm an opportunist," says Katz. "My interest in them is that they're the best in the world at what they do."
Nobody would mistake Katz, who eschews all forms of personal social media, for a spotlight seeker. When he met James, Hyperice still didn't have a website. Far from holding back the growth of his network, it strengthened it. Before mid-2012, the only way to get a Hyperice was to contact Katz directly on his cell phone. That allowed Katz to get feedback from elite users and make the product better; it also meant the athletes could approach him about investing without their handlers interfering. "The key thing for me was the control," Katz says. "Most people in our business are always dealing with athletes through the agent or the business manager."
His strategy worked. Katz is now busy scaling up operations. Hyperice has only eight full-time staff, but Marton, who joined in 2012, built a supply chain that stretches to Germany and Hong Kong. Until now, Hyperice used a local vendor to assemble the final products, but it plans to relocate that work to Hong Kong. "You want to learn all the issues and solve all the problems right down the street before you kick it to someone on a different continent," Katz says.
Some people go into the sports business as a way of getting closer to their idols. Katz has turned that around. He has forged close relationships with idols as a means of building a sports business that erases the distance between professional and amateur. Nike did something like this 40 years ago, popularizing the idea that wearing the same high-tech shoes as your idols was a way to be like them. Today, it's an $80 billion company. Katz thinks Hyperice can be the Nike of recovery. "I want to take the same tool we give LeBron James and Blake Griffin and give it to the guy who plays pickup basketball or plays tennis or runs," he says. "You don't have to be a professional athlete to care about your body."
The Rules of Celebrity Viral Marketing
Anthony Katz lives by the first rule of building relationships with celebrities: Never let them see you sweat. But there are some other crucial dos and don'ts when cultivating the kind of high-voltage exposure that the rich and famous can bring to you and your products.
- Do pursue sponsorships based on real affinity. Fans know too much about the stars they admire to be fooled by marketing that's not rooted in reality, says Elizabeth Lindsey, managing director of consulting at Wasserman Media Group. "You can feel what's genuine versus something that's a product placement," she says.
- Don't assume you get only what you pay for. For a brand that's just starting out, pricey endorsement deals that aren't directly driving sales have all the value of a cement life jacket. Besides, flashing cash is often not necessary when the fit is right. Athletes and entertainers are people too. "We all love to evangelize for things we believe in," says Lindsey.
- Do know who influences the influencers. Beyoncé in music, George Clooney in film: Celebrities have idols and role models they strive to emulate. Hyperice targeted athletes admired by their peers for their performance (LeBron James), their longevity (Kobe Bryant), and their ability to bounce back from injury (Lindsey Vonn).
- Don't mistake yourself for the product. Snagging a selfie with an A-lister may seem like a way to show the world your company is legit, but it sends the wrong message. Katz never asks athletes to pose with him. It's his way of letting them know he's in it for the relationship, not the photo op.
- Do pay attention to celebrities' needs. Katz always seeks ways to make high-profile customers' jobs easier. And it's not just athletes. He placed a Vyper at the Bunker, a Hollywood gym popular with celebrities, and earned a fan in Bradley Cooper, who used it to recover from his physically taxing role in The Elephant Man.