Brothers Greg and Chris Meade, and their childhood friend Mike Delpapa had the idea of merging four square and volleyball into a new sport. Leaving their corporate careers behind, the trio founded CROSSNET, the world’s first four-way volleyball game. In this episode of Shopify Masters, Chris shares how they invented a new sport, manufactured products, and expanded their business with retail and media coverage.
- Store: CROSSNET
- Social Profiles: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram
- Recommendations: CartHook, Privy (Shopify app), Spin-A-Sale (Shopify app), Klaviyo (Shopify app), Bazaar Voice
Four square meets volleyball
Felix: Where did the idea for CROSSNET come from?
Chris: We created the world's first four-way volleyball net, and it essentially combined four square, which is a childhood recess game, and volleyball. Pretty much my brother and I and our good friend Mike, we all grew up together on a small farm town in Connecticut, and one night we were just brainstorming new ideas and products that we could invent, and four-way volleyball came to us after watching ESPN reruns for like six hours straight. I had been working a full-time job at Uber headquarters, I was one of the sales executives over there. And Mike had just graduated with an engineering degree from Northeastern, and he really didn't want to get into the real world and have that nine to five life, so he said, "Hey guys, let's meet up and let's try to come up with something". I was kind of stuck in my ways at my nine to five and was really looking for a way out, and we all just got together and luckily came up with a great idea that night.
Felix: Once you guys had the idea in mind, how did you test out the idea’s potential?
Chris: What we did at first was, we straight up googled it, tried to find if anybody was selling a four-way volleyball, that had ever thought of it before. We couldn't find anything. So we went to our local Wal-Mart, we rigged two nets up together and invited our friends over, and it was just so much fun. We made up rules right on the spot, and it was pretty much, game to 11, win by 2, you can only get a point when you serve it and stay live, and everybody just had an absolute blast. We played probably for like seven, eight hours that day.
Bringing an idea into production
Felix: What was the next step to making this into a real thing?
Chris: So we had the prototype we made, we then engineered a model on AutoCAD, found a manufacturer overseas with the help of Alibaba, now Express, and then we waited patiently for about two months while they manufactured it, gathered the parts, gave us a mock quote, and then the version came to us. It's far from the final version that we have now, but it was good enough to get the ball rolling. So we then took that to the beach to really test it out, and from there hundreds of people would just come up and ask us, what it is, can I play? It was like we had an alien on the beach, it was wild.
Felix: How did you first find the manufacturers that you wanted to do a test run with?
Chris: What we first did was we looked up volleyball manufacturers because we knew that those would be the people who had experience in our industry. So for anybody listening, search for manufacturers that are kind of within your niche, if you're looking for a t-shirt manufacturer, obviously find a clothing goods person to do that. So we reached out just to the top three of four, which had a good reputation online, good feedback, good reviews. We wrote them a private message, pretty much saying, hey, we're just a bunch of kids, but we have a great idea. I don't have a ton of money to invest yet, but promise, work with us, we guarantee we're onto something. So we found one that had really good communication skills, was flexible, had good payment terms and wasn't asking an arm and a leg from us, and then we decided to move forward with that one person. Then we waited patiently once we sent over the model, for the first prototype.
Felix: What are certain terms that new entrepreneurs should look out for when they are trying to negotiate or work with a manufacturer?
Chris: We're a self-funded company, we started with right around $10,000, so we knew that we weren't going to be able to order a lot of quantity right in the beginning. And nor did we want to, because if we had to order 1000 units, we didn't have any cash flow to build a website, to run marketing, to do fulfillment, so we really needed to stay lean. When we were looking for a manufacturer, we wanted somebody who was open to making 25 or 50 and was willing to work small and then scale. So a lot of the times you'll talk to manufacturers and they only take orders of 1000, or 5000, and that's where companies really start in the red. You end up agreeing to these ridiculous terms, and you have 5000 units, but now you need to buy a big warehouse, you out of a lot of cash, you don't have money left for marketing, all because you got a price break or you couldn't negotiate good enough.
Felix: What do you think made them willing to work with you at such low order quantities?
Chris: I think at this point we just had a really good idea, and they were surprised to even see it, and they were also very surprised that it wasn't something out there. So we were doing something brand new. We had a patent, they really saw the future of the business and that it had the potential. We had promised that if we order these 50 originally units, we're going to come back and order 100, and then we're going to order 250. And now we literally went from buying 25 at a time to buying over 12,000 at a time, so it was worth the risk on their end.
Felix: What did the manufacturer need from you in order to produce the first run?
Chris: For the first run, we simply had to send over the blueprint and the dimensions, and essentially what we wanted for the net quality, the ball quality, pretty much every single measurement we needed to really map out because if we didn't have those measurements mapped out properly, the net would fall and collapse. So it took a lot of mapping to really make sure this would stand up properly and work.
Felix: When you got that first order back, what were some things that you want to iterate and improve on the product?
Chris: So the first thing we saw was height adjustability. It was too small, we were like dunking over the net and we're barely six feet, so it was something that we knew that we wanted to get bigger. And then also we were seeing after playing it on the beach the first couple of weeks, people of all different sizes played. So we quickly made the polls be able to be adjustable really quickly, you could just take one or two out and it quickly adjusts to men's, women's, and children's heights.
Bringing players into the game
Felix: How long did it take for you guys to be happy with the product and sell it to the masses?
Chris: The typical lead manufacturing time is about 30 days, and it takes about another 30 days to receive the product, so it's about a 60 to 70-day window from the time I place an order, from the time I get it. So after about three of four rounds of revisions, which would come out to be almost like nine, ten months, we had a version that we were super happy with, the retail box looked good, everything looked really good, and we were ready to really focus our efforts elsewhere and grow the business and grow the company, and not worry too much about the product, because we were stoked on the product, had tons of good reviews and we were ready to move forward with it.
Felix: Was there ever a point where you guys just looked at each other and couldn’t believe what was happening?
Chris: The moment that happened was, we woke up one day and the Latvian Olympic volleyball team, of all places, randomly put up a video of them playing Crossnet. I rolled over and I checked my phone in the morning, and it had like 3 million views on this video overnight, and like hundreds of thousands of shares, and that was the day when Crossnet really took off, was this one video. Our sales were not the greatest for like the first pretty much year. We'd sell like two or three a day, on a good day. Our product's cost is 150, so it's a little bit higher than the normal product that's sold on ecommerce. It was a tougher sale for us, and then all of a sudden we started getting enough nets at each location, that customers were taking them to the beach, and then it was this spider web effect down. Then when you pair that with some crazy high-quality content from professional volleyball players, things just kind of aligned at the same time, which was that summer.
Developing a direct to consumer experience
Felix: Where do you focus your efforts after finishing the product development?
Chris: The immediate effort was increasing our website, making it look way more legit and trustworthy. You have all these retailers out there, like Amazon and Wal-Mart and Target, that we'd eventually go to sell our product on, but in the beginning our website, none of us had coding experience, none of us had website development experience, so we took a lot of our effort into building the website into what it is today, making it trustworthy, capturing emails that way we could re-target, and just really putting huge focus on it. I remember, almost every day for pretty much a year, I'd make some type of tweak, to kind of A/B test to see the day's before feedback.
Felix: Do you remember some of the changes you made that had some sizeable lifts in conversions?
Chris: One thing was obviously, we just added a CartHook, so that was a huge thing for us, which helped the checkout flow. CartHook was really good. But even back in the day, things just like color testing the add to cart and the buy now buttons, I remember when we changed the buy now button to like a blue, compared to the yellow we had back in the day, it converted a lot better. So little things like that, even adding like motivation in the header, like we were running an always-on 50% off sale for the longest time, just to get the first initial interest. So we'd have like a sale or a discount code in the banner, that really drove a lot of traffic too, which was great. So essentially what CartHook does, it's an expensive app, but it really works for us, essentially the checkout process normally is three steps, it's the customer information, the shipping address, and then the billing, and now it's just all in one page. So it's a super-easy way for customers to check out and get to the final transaction that much quicker.
Felix: What are some elements that you changed to the site to improve the trustworthiness?
Chris: One thing was definitely getting like a warranty policy in place. If you look at our website now, we really try to enhance just the visual experience, we have customer service around the clock, we get our product out within like 48 hours, 30-day warranty, we're the first product of its kind, really get those support tabs up in the customer's face so they know that there is a human element behind it and that we're a real company. Then eventually we started getting the logos too. So we started working with Wal-Mart, and Target, and Amazon, and all these big, big companies, so once we added those logos to the website, people started to believe that this is a legit company.
Felix: What was working to capture emails on your site?
Chris: So we haven't changed our strategy too much. Since the beginning of time, we had a wheel that pops up when you visit the site and you try to leave, and we motivate customers with a spin the wheel, you get 5, 10, 15 even a free net sometimes. So that's a great capture, we use a tool called Privy for that, and then we just switched over to Spin-a-Sale, which integrates with Klaviyo that we use now. So we use that, and then a normal like welcome newsletter popup, just to cap the email, and we always offer $10 off for that.
How players are the best marketing tool
Felix: What are you doing to re-market to them through email?
Chris: If you are a customer that actually goes all the way down into the funnel and actually purchases, you'll get a segment of emails geared towards actually using the product, and how you use it, what are setup instructions, gameplay, tips and tricks, all of that good stuff. And if you're just a customer who we're trying to turn into a sale, you'll go into a different funnel. So we've become really smart about doing different custom messaging based off where you are in your journey. If you haven't made a purchase yet on our site, you're going to get more motivation, you're going to get more sales and discounts and FOMO, and videos of oh, this looks so much fun, this is how your beach day should be spent, so that type of messaging.
Felix: You mentioned too that different type of email pathway or series you sent out is after they've made a purchase because they're more focused on how to use the product. Why do you think this is important?
Chris: Because user adoption and making sure that customers are going in the world and actually playing, is huge. It's free marketing for us. Yes, it's great to have them turn into a customer off the jump but after that, them going into the world and playing, is even more important, because now they're marketing the game to hundreds if not thousands more people, they're getting their friends involved, and they're spreading the sport. So it does not stop when they make the first purchase, it's only just begun.
Felix: How do you set up your ads to make sure you're targeting with the right messaging, to the right person?
Chris: So we ran ads on all different platforms, Facebook, Instagram, Google, Bing, YouTube, Pinterest, the list goes on. But as we've matured as a company, we found that making niched videos per different demographic is the most important. What I mean by that is, if we are setting our demographic to sell to moms, we're not going to show them the high-intensity volleyball players who are spiking the ball in people's faces. We're going to show them the more leisure content of what it would look like set up in their backyard, where their 12-year-old is playing with their friends. And then on the opposite end of the spectrum, if you're selling to somebody like myself, who's 27, looking for competition, I'm going to be targeted with that high intensity, crazy rallies, really getting me pumped up and ready to go meet up with my friends, and I don't want to see that leisure stuff.
Finetuning ad spend and A/B testing
Felix: So once you do understand the segments of your market, what's your process for A/B testing?
Chris: Typically, what we're doing is we're running probably anywhere from three to four different ad copies on the same video, and then basing it off different demographics to see what works best. We're lucky that we work with an incredible copywriter, actually two copywriters, so they're always doing the best to kind of split test things. And we'll test things for about a week or so, and if they're not working, if the CPA is too high, we cut it right away. We do the same with email. We're always A/B testing every email we wend. We use Klaviyo to kind of send maybe 25% of our email list these two different headlines, and then after that 25%, we could see what subject line is performing the best, and we'll send that same subject line out to the remaining 75% of the people.
Felix: When it comes to A/B testing, are there any fundamentals that you've seen that seem to work most of the time?
Chris: We're always running video ads. Typically, we're never running photos, just because video converts so much better with a four-way volleyball game, people spiking and having fun. As for the actual ad copy, it's always creating a sense of urgency, like, you're $25 discount code is expiring tonight. Buy now and we'll get it delivered within the next 48 hours. So we're always looking for urgency because there is really is no better time to go outside and play and have fun.
Building interests and relationships with publishers and retailers
Felix: Besides the Facebook ads, were there any marketing strategies that helped you guys accelerate your growth?
Chris: We've gotten into retail within the last year. We're now sold at Wal-Mart, Target, Dick's, Academy, Scheels, and about like 15 other places. The retail allowed our product to really help with conversion because when they're on our website, it builds trust when they see the world's biggest vendors there. On the PR side, getting into Forbes and all of those things, when you can bring those logos in, it really helps with conversion on your site.
Felix: When it comes to getting into a big publication like Forbes, how did that happen?
Chris: Just a simple LinkedIn message actually. I added a bunch of writers into my newsfeed on LinkedIn, I don't message them immediately, because nothing is worse than when you add somebody on LinkedIn and you get a message 14 seconds later. So I kind of let time pass, I post my products, if you follow me on LinkedIn, you'll see that I post videos of CROSSNET, I post photos, things I'm proud of, not super spammy or salesy, just like this is what's going on at CROSSNET today. And over time, the people in my timeline become accustomed to my messaging, and they see the product, and they become familiar with the brand. When it was time for me to reach out maybe a month later, it was a much warmer touch. Hey, this is Chris from CROSSNET, I don't know if you've seen before, and they're like, of course, I've seen it. The video looks crazy, I was actually on the website the other day. And then, that's where good conversations like that could happen.
Felix: What's the approach to getting featured on a publication?
Chris: So I keep things very short and simple. I like to speak in the way that I speak, I don't make it sound like I'm a robot or somebody just writing a resume. It's always going to be easier when you have the stats. “Hey, my name is Chris, I invented the world's first four-way volleyball net. Have you seen it? If not, we just did 2.5 million and we're sold at these stores, think we have a good story here. Like super casual, and more than likely, they'll write back.
Felix: How do you start engaging with a buyer, like a physical retail location?
Chris: Pretty similar. Numbers for them obviously even mean more than for PR. They want to know that the product sells and if they take a chance on you, it's going to sell. So same thing, super conversational, but on the other end of the spectrum, I gear it towards them. I say hey, I know that you're a buyer at, let's just say, Dick's Sporting Goods, we have something really good here in the outdoor sporting goods game market, and the industry is a little bit boring as you know. We've created a revolutionary product, here are our numbers, they don't lie. I think it would great at just a few locations. I always ask for just the minimum. I don't come in there and say, hey, we need to be nationwide with Wal-Mart tomorrow, that's just unrealistic and also could really hurt your business if you don't have the cash flow. So I say hey, let's start in five locations and see if they sell. And if so, it makes us both look good, and then we can scale it.
Consistently optimizing their online shopping experience
Felix: How do you find what’s broken on your site?
Chris: Literally every day I'll ask friends and family and people for like, areas on our website that we can improve, like I'll text my friends and say, hey guys, I'll send somebody 25 bucks right now, find me one thing that's broken with our site, or doesn't look good, or 404 page that you could find. So I am my biggest naysayer, I'm always looking for the negatives on our site. We use freelancing sites all the time, and just hire people for a couple of hours to improve things. I'm not a coding expert, I may need to do something in the line of code, or move some spacing up, stuff like that, and I just take action on it as soon as possible.
Felix: What were somethings you’ve fix this way?
Chris: One thing was, on our home page, if you scroll down after the top video, there was a ton of negative space, and the product actually wasn't in the fold whatsoever, because there was just so much blank space and the text was really big. So being able to go into the code and deleting some of that blank negative space, and moving up the text, and bringing the product into the fold on mobile, really helped with the conversion. We say people getting the product into their cart sooner because they didn't have to scroll past all this negative gap. Another thing was investing in high powered reviewing system. We had a lot of people say, hey, we saw this on Facebook, but we don't see any reviews for it. So we purchased a reviewing software to help customers leave positive reviews, and positive obviously go far, far away. So there are tons of other things that we've done on our website, just like adding a testimonial block. We got quotes from a professional volleyball athlete, we got one from a physical education teacher, and we put that front and center on our website.
Felix: What's the app that you used for the reviews?
Chris: We moved over to Bazaarvoice, which is a more premium option. But what Bazaarvoice allows us to do is, it syndicates the reviews from our website, and it also puts them on Wal-Mart, and Target, and all the major retailers. So that was really important to us because when we started working with them, our product would show up as just no reviews, just like a ghost on the internet. And then when we used this app, it allowed us to move all the good stuff from our website over to their websites.
Growth plans for the future
Felix: You mentioned that you did about 2.5 million last year and you guys are on track to doubling or tripling that. What has changed over the last few months that you're seeing this kind of traction?
Chris: It's two-fold. One, retail success just keeps growing. We just locked in a nationwide partnership with Academy Sports, that's 250 stores. So they're going to be ordering that for all their stores and those will sell out over the summer, and they'll put a few more orders in hopefully throughout the year. Then on the opposite end of the spectrum is the physical education sector. We're in about, give or take, 4000 schools right now, and more and more teachers are buying it for their classroom, they're setting it up. The kids are having the time of their life with it, and then they're running home to their parents and having their parents buy it for them.
Felix: So nowadays, what do you spend your time doing at the company?
Chris: I do a variety of things. My job as the CRO is to handle all of the sales and a good majority of the marketing. So I'm overseeing the launch and preparation that we're doing with Dick's Sporting Goods and Academy Sports, whilst trying to get into a few more retailers. I handle the good majority of email marketing. I own the website pretty much, doing all the changes and any coding and anything that needs to be done on the Shopify site of things. And then I'm also hiring freelancers for gaps. So anything that we need work on, we don't have a content creator on staff, we hire a graphic designer pretty much hourly. So if there are things that we need, tournaments popping up that we need content created for, that's all me just hiring those people out on a project by project basis.
Felix: Have you held a similar role from the beginning of the inception of the business?
Chris: Oh yeah. So team consists of myself, my brother, and our partner Mike. The reason we've been able to grow so quickly is that we all have different skillsets. Mike is an engineer by trade, I know nothing about engineering, so I'm going to let him roll with that. Then my brother Craig is really good at social media marketing, so that's all him and I don't touch that. So those are the avenues there that we just are kind of siloed, we're the best at what we do for our company, and we don't step on each other's toes which is nice.
Felix: What were some of the most important things for you to focus on in the very early days and how is that evolved over time?
Chris: In the early days, it was a lot of like customer service, and also just building the website. In the beginning, I didn't know how to use Shopify. Thankfully it's been so easy to learn and catch up on. But building the website, capturing the emails that we still sell to, and customer service, were things that I was focused on in the early days, that I've kind of taken off my plate to an extent. I don't deal with the customer service anymore, we have that outsourced by another team member. I'm building the website, but now I have a team that codes as well. So I've kind of been able to get those responsibilities off my plate a little bit.