After rediscovering Spikeball in 2003 on a Hawaiian vacation with childhood friends, Chris Ruder quickly realized the potential of the hybrid volleyball-, foursquare-style game. He also sold Daymond John on it in 2015, when he convinced the Shark Tank judge to invest $500,000 in his company. The deal fell through after Spikeball's episode aired, but Ruder says the TV exposure did wonders for the brand. With nearly $7 million in 2015 sales--and 1,500 teams competing in 250 tournaments across the country--Spikeball is now on its way to household-name status. Ruder credits his company's success to good old-fashioned word of mouth.
--As told to Skyler Inman
I first found out about Spikeball in 1989, when one of my buddies picked up a set at a toy store and brought it back to our neighborhood in Kankakee, Illinois. He introduced the sport to the neighborhood, and we fell in love. Years later, sometime around 2003, my future wife and I went on a trip with those same neighborhood friends to Hawaii. They brought their old Spikeball set, and we played for five days straight on the most beautiful beaches. As we were playing, strangers would walk up and ask us what the game was, how you play it, and where they could get a set. We could never answer that last question, because as far as we knew, the original company that sold them had gone out of business. People kept asking, though, and a light bulb went off. I wondered if we could actually bring this thing back to life.
It wasn't until a year or two later that I finally did my homework about acquiring the rights. We did, and between us, my friends and I pooled about $100,000 total for our launch. In June of 2008, after finding a contract manufacturer in China who could make our first order of 1,000 units, our website went live. Sales started trickling in slowly, but since Spikeball had zero full-time employees, our costs were incredibly low; we didn't need to make that many sales.
For the first five years, I ran Spikeball as a side gig to my job in online advertising sales. I had never been an entrepreneur, and had worked only at big corporations whose business was totally unrelated to sports, so I could not have been more ill suited to starting a company. Yet, on average, we have more than doubled our revenue every year since we launched. I would absolutely argue that this growth has come from our focus on community.
Since all of our revenue came from e-commerce in our first few years, I made a point of emailing every single customer who placed an order with us. It wasn't automated--it was me actually typing out a note to them. I would thank them for their purchase, and say, "If you don't mind me asking, how did you hear about Spikeball?" A lot of people ignored the email, but many of them actually replied.
Three groups emerged from this: PE teachers were buying sets to use in schools, which made sense to me; Ultimate Frisbee teams were buying our products, which I found surprising because I had never had anything to do with the Ultimate world; and the third group, which was a little more bizarre, was faith-based youth groups, especially one called YoungLife. Somehow the seed got planted there, even though I had never heard of it.
Identifying those groups allowed us to market with a laser focus. Before those emails, our target market was 18- to 34-year-old males. No company in the world has enough money to target everyone in that group, especially not us. So I started shipping free sets to these communities, all over the country, and just asked that, in return, they send us photos of them playing.
Although I didn't realize it at the time, those emails planted the seeds for a much bigger community. This year alone, there are going to be about 250 tournaments, and from a business standpoint, that's huge. A crowd of 100-plus people who are outside, enjoying themselves, causing a commotion will make other people around them ask what they're doing.
In 2013, we hit $1 million in annual revenue, despite the fact that we had done almost no outbound marketing and still had no full-time employees. At that point, my wife and I agreed it was safe for me to quit the day job.
One thing my team hears me say a lot is that we don't want to be the ones who light the fire; we want to be the ones who pour gas on the flames. I want our entire team of 13 employees to work hard to identify the fires that have already been lit. If we can do that, I think we'll be just fine.