When Chris Meade, 27, was growing up, he found volleyball frustrating. “I never got to touch the ball,” he says. There was too much competition on the court for a newbie to get a chance to spike it.
But that’s changed. Today, he’s a co-founder of CROSSNET, a Miami-based business that projects $12-15 million in revenue from a four-way volleyball game by the same name that he and his co-founders invented in 2017. The game—a cross between Four Square and volleyball—divides the court into four quadrants. “We’re selling hundreds a day,” says Meade. “The stores can’t keep it in stock.”
And Meade gets plenty of opportunities to perfect his game on the sandy beaches of Miami and the places he travels.
When Meade invented CROSSNET with his brother Gregory, 26, the company’s, CEO, and their childhood friend Mike Delpapa, 26, they didn’t realize they were creating the ultimate social distancing sport. With more people spending time in their backyards during the COVID-19 pandemic and schools looking for a safe activity for children in physical education classes, CROSSNET—where courts are divided into quadrants that are six feet by six feet—has been selling like mad. The startup now sells its products through Amazon and 1,500 retail stores run by brands including Academy Sports + Outdoors, DICK’s Sporting Goods, SCHEELS and Wegmans and will be selling through Walmart for the first time today, on Black Friday.
The education market has also been receptive: CROSSNET is now played in 10,000 schools, and the company just donated 500 games to underfunded schools, Meade says.
Rather than take on debt or raise capital, the co-founders have self-funded the company. “We’re paying ourselves humble salaries that get us by,” says Meade. “The money we make is constantly reinvested.”
When I last spoke with Meade, now the company’s CMO, for Forbes, in September 2019, he and his partners were on their way to growing CROSSNET from $87,000 in revenue in 2018 to $2.25 million in 2019 with no employees on payroll. They embodied a fast-growing trend, the growth of million-dollar businesses with no employees except the owners. In 2018, 41,666 of these “nonemployer” firms hit $1-2.49 million in revenue, the largest number on record—representing a 48% uptick since 2011.
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Since then, CROSSNET has grown so quickly the founders began hiring employees in 2020 and now have six others on their team. Gregory serves as CEO, and Delpapa is COO.
So how did CROSSNET grow so much, so quickly—and with so few people? Meade recently shared how this still tiny business is making big money.
Build on what you know. Meade and his partners dreamed up the game of CROSSNET when he was working as an account executive at a rideshare company in New York City. Meade was tired of spending his days making nonstop cold calls but with more than $100,000 in student loans to repay from earning his BA in film, video and interactive media at Quinnipiac University, he couldn’t just quit.
Looking for another way to make a living, he got together with Gregory and Delapapa one night in their hometown of Woodstock, Ct., and began brainstorming ideas that they could turn into a business. With the volleyball highlights appearing on ESPN in the background, someone suggested a new spin on volleyball, where they’d combine the game with Four Square. If they divided the court into four quadrants, they imagined the game would be “insane.”
When they typed “four-way volleyball” into a search engine, it didn’t look like anyone else had come up with an idea like this. Delapapa, who is an engineer, developed a prototype, drafting it in AutoCAD. Soon the team was reaching out to potential manufacturers they found on the marketplace Alibaba and working on preliminary projects like getting the trademark and patent secured, as well as recording videos to publicize their product online. They liquidated their collective savings to cover their startup costs, including more than $20,000 in inventory.
“I was $100,000 in debt,” says Meade. “What did I have to lose? I had worked my butt off to get that college degree. I could always get another job.”
Be patient. As they began posting their videos of CROSSNET games on YouTube and advertising their product on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, the co-founders took pre-orders through a simple e-commerce site they set up. That allowed them to conduct experiments on pricing to determine what price resonated the most with customers. (Currently, it is selling for $129.99 on the company’s website.)
Meanwhile, Meade and his partners found freelance work on Upwork to bring in money to pay their bills. Meade built Shopify sites for other entrepreneurs and eventually applied what he was learning to build the company’s website.
As they started attracting their first sales, they paid careful attention to their conversion rate—the number of visits to their website it took to make a sale. “We knew if we could get 100 people to our site, we would get three sales,” says Meade.
Armed with that knowledge, they experimented with using organic and paid social media promotions to improve that conversation rate. If they knew what it took to get to three sales, what would it take to get to 100? “It’s a big math equation,” says Meade.
Meanwhile, Meade used his sales skills to approach retailers via emails and cold calls. SCHEELS, a sporting goods chain in the Midwest, was the first to stock the game. When it sold out in two SCHEELS stores, the retailer decided to carry it in 22 stores. That success paved the way to others, like winning distribution through the distributor Spreetail, the distributor for Razor Scooters, which works with Amazon, Target and Walmart. Meade was able to quit his job by January 1, 2018.
Make sure your operations keep pace with sales. As CROSSNET grew, the company encountered unexpected challenges. During COVID-19, so many orders came in that CROSSNET had to put some on backorder. “We assumed there was endless supply but our factory told us they couldn’t make more,” says Meade.
He quickly found two more factories, bringing the total to three. Now manufacturing 35,000s units a month, CROSSNET has moved its warehouse from Willimantic, Ct., to Escondido, Calif., to cut down on shipping time to the U.S. from the plants, based in China, so it can get orders to customers more quickly. CROSSNET has also hired a global supply chain manager, Curt Hinderliter.
With demand in Canada exploding, the company also expanded its operations in the Toronto area. Before the company established its presence there, consumers had to pay $60-$70 in shipping costs for each order from the U.S. Now CROSSNET has two employees in Canada, one to run its warehouse and one to oversee the sales team. “They were volleyball fanatics,” says Meade. “One is a personal trainer, one runs a volleyball facility near Toronto.”
Build the right team. Meade and his co-founders have tapped their personal and professional network to staff positions as the company has grown. The company recently hired Chris Koop, an accountant, as CFO, after Meade met him at a friend’s wedding and they discovered they went to the same college. “We stole him away from Wall Street,” Meade says.
Building out the marketing team has been essential to generating more sales. Meade’s girlfriend, Lyndsey Townsend, became the company’s director of brand communications, sharing the marketing responsibilities with Joel Padron, who handles paid marketing, and Isis Marrero, social media manager. His childhood best friend and first employee, Kevin Dow, is now operations manager.
For work the staff doesn’t have the bandwidth to handle, Meade relies on virtual assistants he finds on the site FreeUp. The company also has a remote 24/7 customer service team in the Philippines. As CROSSNET, which operates virtually, has expanded, it has relied on technology such as Slack to stay connected. “That’s been reinforced since COVID,” says Meade.
Make the most of influencer marketing. To build the presence of the brand, CROSSNET has built a relationship with professional volleyball players. USA Gold Medalist Ryan Millar now hosts The Crossnet Volleyball Podcast. “He goes ‘cross the net’ with the most famous names in volleyball,’” says Meade.
The company has also created paid partnerships with professional athletes, who submit five video clips a month that it shares on social media. “We’re going directly to the source,” says Meade.
This type of content marketing has helped build a following for the brand. “We want to be viewed as a staple in the volleyball community,” says Meade. “A lot of people in the volleyball community are saying we’re making people want to play volleyball.”
With all of these initiatives in play, CROSSNET’s marketing budget has reached $1 million a year but the company is still profitable. “Our goal is to never sell a net at a loss,” says Meade.
Keep innovating. In June, CROSSNET released CROSSNET H20, a version of its game designed for pools. It is being sold through the company’s website and will become available on a wider basis in the spring of 2021. The company has also formed a partnership with Wilson to release the Wilson X CROSSNET – OPTX Replica Game Ball. Customers had been requesting a professional-quality volleyball. “We figured the best way to address that was to reach out to Wilson,” says Meade. Wilson, fortunately, was familiar with CROSSNET and was, well, game.
Stay lean. Although CROSSNET is growing rapidly, Meade and his co-founders plan to keep their team small as they invest in growing the company’s presence in Canada, Australia and the UK. Over the next six months, CROSSNET plans to build out warehouses and remote teams in those countries.
Meade is constantly on the hunt for vendors and suppliers on Alibaba who can help the company stretch its budget. “I’m constantly putting out RFPs for ways to save money.” That’s a change from the early days of the business when, he says, “If we needed something, we found a vendor and accepted the cost.”
Despite the demands of scaling up, CROSSNET’s team still find time to relax. Meade was living the Airbnb lifestyle when I spoke with him, visiting Mission Beach in San Diego with his team, before heading as a group to Tulum, Mexico. Although the COVID-19 crisis was limiting their activities somewhat, they still found ways to have fun. “Working out on the balcony is the best part of my day,” he says.
In the meantime, Meade has repaid $60,000 of his student loans—all of the private ones. “I paid them off three months ago,” he says. “It’s a very good feeling.”