Reformers [Episode 11]: Chris Meade, CROSSNET
The Founder & CMO at CROSSNET shares his thoughts on inventing a new sport, embracing alternative marketing channels, maximizing your product packaging, and strategies for landing marquee retail accounts.
For our eleventh (and 2022 season debut) episode of Reformers: The gritty details behind the world’s greatest bootstrap successes, we are excited to share our interview with Chris Meade, the Founder & CMO at CROSSNET, a new sport that combines the best elements of four square and volleyball. Chris founded CROSSNET with his brother in 2017 and has built it into a rapidly-growing sport with tens of millions in revenue, all while raising no outside capital. In this interview, Chris shares his incredible journey including key insights and lessons learned that can be implemented in your own business. You can listen to the full interview here:
Optimize your product packaging
Starting a business is hard enough, so the difficulty only compounds when you are attempting to invent something entirely new. In CROSSNET’s case, that something is an entirely new sport. One of the biggest challenges CROSSNET has faced is how to best educate their consumer on what the sport is, what the rules are, and how to properly use their products. To solve these challenges, Chris focused on leveraging CROSSNET’s product packaging to drive consumer education:
“It’s very important to make sure that our product packaging is straight to the point: What’s the game? How do you play it? How quickly can you set it up? Where can you set it up?”
To answer those key questions, all of CROSSNET’s packaging contains a QR code — with a call to action of “Learn Here” — that links to a CROSSNET video. This enables any consumer to walk up to their product, scan the QR code on the packaging, and learn how to play CROSSNET on the spot. This clear, educational packaging is critical for CROSSNET and a transferrable tactic for other consumer products. When selling through traditional retailers — whether you’re selling a game, a snack, or a beauty product — you are competing with thousands of other products on shelf and only have a short timespan to convert a shopper into a customer. You should therefore treat your packaging as you’d treat your website landing pages: continually optimizing to drive home the value prop to consumers and thereby increase conversion.
Explore alternative marketing channels
Startups today too often rely on traditional performance marketing channels to drive sales of their products. Even with the recent iOS changes, companies are still heavily leaning on Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok, and other social channels for customer acquisition. At CROSSNET, they embrace alternative marketing channels that can either drive mass awareness or maximize credibility for the brand and sport as a whole.
“I don’t think anybody at our company thinks of themselves as a marketer. We just think: how can we get more eyeballs on CROSSNET and get our products into the hands of more people.”
This mindset has led CROSSNET to pursue a number of unique marketing strategies. One example is the CROSSNET athlete program, which quickly capitalized on the new NCAA NIL (Name, Image, and Likeness) rules (updated in July 2021). When the NCAA began allowing collegiate athletes to earn money from endorsements, CROSSNET saw a great opportunity to drive awareness of the sport on college campuses across the country by leveraging a credible group of influencers: volleyball athletes. Chris and his team immediately began to sign collegiate athletes to deals that would allow the athletes to earn money in exchange for creating content for CROSSNET. Additionally, the athletes would be tasked with making CROSSNET a part of campus life by coordinating tournaments and setting up CROSSNET in key areas such as the quad. Within the first 15 days of launching this program, CROSSNET signed 100 athletes and now counts hundreds more on its roster. But the mission doesn’t stop there: Chris would like to see CROSSNET as a sport at every school in the country.
Additionally, CROSSNET has been deliberate about leveling up its credibility over time through association with other credible brands. Early on in a company’s lifecycle, it’s difficult to get premium brands or individuals to associate with an unknown quantity, so you must start small but think big. In CROSSNET’s case, they went from being mentioned on a local blog, to being written about in Huffington Post, to being featured in Forbes. Eventually, they were able to have their sport aired on ESPN 8: The Ocho and land an official partnership with USA Volleyball, to which Chris explains: “There is no more legitimizing stamp for us than USA Volleyball’s endorsement.”
Interestingly, on a related note, CROSSNET does no trade spend, which is thought to be a standard industry practice for brands selling through retailers. In many retailers, due to CROSSNET’s brand strength and credibility, the company has been able to receive free end caps or space for a TV that runs their how-to-play video on a loop alongside a full CROSSNET setup within the store.
Landing retail accounts
Many consumer products businesses follow a similar go-to-market playbook: (1) launch DTC on Shopify, (2) prove out customer demand, (3) expand into retail. While this is a logical progression of steps, the tactics for executing on step 3 are rarely discussed.
CROSSNET products are now sold in thousands of stores across the country — including Walmart, Dick’s, and Scheels — so Chris shared a few key insights that have led to their successful channel expansion into retail. First, Chris recommends starting with smaller accounts vs. larger accounts. While larger accounts have the allure of more revenue and more prestige, the stakes for startup brands are much higher.
“Start with smaller accounts because when you enter bigger accounts, there are going to be a lot of issues you run into that you don’t yet know how to deal with, and you’re going to screw yourself.”
By starting smaller, you can drive out any kinks and better understand the flows of product and dollars before moving into retailers with far more scale. Similarly, if things go well with the smaller accounts, you’ll be able to move into larger accounts in short order. On the flip side, if things go poorly, you will have an opportunity to fix what is wrong in advance of entering larger accounts (whereas if you’re selling in Walmart from the get go and something goes wrong — e.g. you’re unable to fulfill their POs— you’re unlikely to get a second crack at their stores).
Second, Chris believes that making realistic asks of the buyers has yielded better results and higher conversion.
“If they have 100 store locations, ask to start in 10.”
It’s far easier for a buyer to commit to a subset of stores before agreeing to a country-wide (or even region-wide) rollout. Additionally, starting in a smaller subset of stores will enable you to focus on proving out the sales within that subset, which should yield better sell-throughs and result in broader expansion within the account later on.
Lastly, one of the difficulties of getting into retail is how to get in touch with the buyers. Despite many people’s distaste for LinkedIn, Chris extensively uses the platform to connect with buyers at key accounts and direct message them, yielding results to which he swears by:
“LinkedIn has built CROSSNET into the empire that it is today. Without LinkedIn, we’d be screwed.”
Profitability is the north star
CROSSNET is bootstrapped, so there are no venture capital dollars to subsidize growth. That has led to a very simple mantra internally:
“It’s got to be profitable, otherwise we’re not doing it. Profitability is the biggest thing. We don’t do a single thing that loses a dollar. I never went into business to lose money. I’m not going to raise money and burn other people’s cash so that I can do cool sh*t.”
Chris and his co-founders started the business with $15k in the bank and grew to where they are today by constantly reinvesting profits back into the business. They were 4 full-time employees for awhile until they were able to generate a substantial enough profit to hire, having now scaled the team to more than 15 full-time employees. In 2020, CROSSNET achieved a very strong profit margin and was finally able to secure a credit facility from JP Morgan that has continued to help them scale.
Even today, with more employees, a larger top-line, and rapid growth, CROSSNET regularly evaluates how their capital inputs are converting into profits by tracking the following metric internally: each week, they calculate all the money the company spent in the past week vs. all the money the company made in the past week. They have a target number they try to hit and titrate future marketing spend based upon whether they’re hitting, exceeding, or falling short of that number.
Turn meetings into emails
Chris recently emailed all CROSSNET employees cancelling all internal meetings and urging everyone to reconsider what warranted a meeting going forward. He felt the company had gotten to a point where everyone was in meetings all the time, thereby decreasing overall productivity of the company. His new messaging to the company is simple:
“Less meetings, more work. Anything that can be an email, should be an email.”
However, less meetings does not mean no meetings for Chris. As the Founder & CMO of the company, Chris still attends two standing weekly meetings: one for the executive team, and the other for product development.
Ambitions beyond the core
While CROSSNET has succeeded in creating an entirely new sport, Chris’ ambitions have continued to expand. Their next phase of the business is CROSSPORTS: to become a juggernaut in sports across categories (they recently made an investment into UBALL as a first foray into new areas). Like many of you reading this, Chris grew up buying Wilson and Spalding products, yet there hasn’t been a changing of the guard for quite some time. He believes there is room to create new, innovative sporting products for years to come, and that CROSSNET is well-positioned to be the leading brand.
“We have the manufacturing, the supply chain, and the distribution. We have the team, the marketing channels, and the brand. It’s time for a change.”