An Ace Idea: How The Co-Founders of CROSSNET Built a Multi-Million Dollar Business and Used Email to Drive 30% of Revenue

Image of CROSSNET founders and customers playing the 4-square volleyball game. Direct-to-consumer marketing example.

Imagine having a job in the corporate world where you’re cold-calling prospects all day. It’s a fine job for some. But to you, it’s of little interest. Then one day, out of the blue, you get a call from a friend who’s also feeling uninspired by his career path. 

You chat about doing something different. You get together to bat around some thoughts. You come up with an idea for something you love to do. And you create a business that becomes a multi-million dollar smash all in only a few short years. 

That may seem like a dream. But it’s what happened for the team at CROSSNET, the popular four-square volleyball game that’s sold online and in major retailers like Walmart, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and Target

I recently chatted with Chris Meade, co-founder and chief marketing officer (CMO) at CROSSNET, who talked with me about his journey as an entrepreneur and the rapid growth he’s experienced. He also shared how he built his marketing team, how the brand got creative for their Black Friday/Cyber Weekend (BFCM) promotion this year, and what’s ahead for the rapidly growing brand. 

 

Katie Tierney: Chris, tell me about your experience as a co-founder. Where did the idea for CROSSNET come from and how did you get your business off the ground?

Chris Meade: My co-founders and I were just three kids when we came up with the idea for CROSSNET in 2017. I was 24 and my other co-founders were 22.

Mike Delpapa, one of our co-founders, came over to our house one night after graduating from Northeastern University with an engineering degree. He said he wasn’t ready for a real job and wanted to create something.

Mike, my brother Greg, and I met up one night and thought about the idea for a four-way volleyball net. We were writing down ideas all night and Googled four-way volleyball. We assumed it would be any good idea someone’s already had and there would already be a business, but there wasn’t one. So we said, “Why not us?”

The next day, we went to Walmart, bought two badminton nets, and cut out the center. There was really no engineering. We just put the two badminton nets together, intersected them, and rigged them up on the side of our driveway and the shed. We had our friends come over and play. And that was our proof of concept.

 

Katie Tierney: Did you get a patent for your design? 

Chris Meade: Yes, we patented four-way volleyball. It’s been helpful in terms of protecting us from knock-offs and it also helps grow the business really quick—stores really like that, as well.

 

Katie Tierney: I’ve heard your company has been growing incredibly fast and you’re generating several million dollars a year in revenue. At what point did you decide that you were going to focus your expertise specifically in marketing and become the company’s chief marketing officer (CMO)? 

Chris Meade: It happened naturally. Nobody really has titles when they’re founders. You do everything. Yesterday, for example, I was at the warehouse covering inventory with tarps, so we do a little bit of everything. 

But we knew we needed to keep growing and that marketing had to come first. 

Early on, I was heading up sales and figuring out how to build up the sales team. Then, as I was building out the sales team and developing retail partnerships, we then had to figure out how we were going to get products off the shelves. So we started growing our marketing.

Luckily for me, I head up the sales and the marketing teams now, and having both of them talk together is great. I’ve learned a lot of helpful stuff from my experience in the corporate world, but I’ve also seen that sales and marketing tend to be siloed sometimes. In the best organizations, sales and marketing are working closely together, and that’s when companies really excel. 

As a co-founder, I can say to the team, “we’re working with Walmart this week,” and I know they’re fulfilling those orders. But I also have to stay focused on how we’re going to sell all the units. So bringing sales and marketing together became a logical fit, and I’m glad we figured that out sooner rather than later.

Our only real spend outside of paying our employees and paying for our product is marketing. That’s the only other thing we really spend money on.

"We knew we needed to keep growing and that marketing had to come first. "

Chris Meade, co-founder and CMO, CROSSNET

Katie Tierney: Who were some of the first hires made as you expanded your marketing team?

Chris Meade: The first hire within the marketing team was Lyndsey Townsend, our full-time creative communications director who handles all of our email marketing now. She’s a rockstar. 

Funny story about how we decided that we needed her: I sent out an April Fool’s joke that said a hundred dollars off your CROSSNET. And then when you opened the email, there was only a $10 discount. People were not happy. 

After that, we realized we’re too big to be fooling around like that. We needed to get serious with our communications, so we brought her onboard to handle all of that and make sure the brand is on point. 

We also have Joel Padron who’s in charge of paid marketing. He oversees our spend on Facebook, Google, Snapchat, and all of that. We also have a full-time head of social media. She’s grinding away on TikTok and Instagram every day. 

For anything else, like graphic design stuff, coding, or other small projects, we use a website called FreeUp to outsource. I’m a big advocate of outsourcing to stretch our resources. I’d rather pay somebody three hours a week instead of 40 hours a week if I know there’s only three hours’ worth of work.

"We realized we're too big to be fooling around. We needed to get serious with our communications, so we brought [our creative communications director] onboard to make sure the brand is on point."

Chris Meade, co-founder and CMO, CROSSNET

Katie Tierney: You’re driving roughly one million dollars a year in revenue through email, specifically. Talk to me about why it’s been important to get people to sign up for things on your website.

Chris Meade: It’s huge. For us, the majority of our marketing spend—I’d probably say upwards of 75 percent—is on paid marketing to get traffic to our website. 

As a business owner, if I’m not doing everything I can to at least capture some information about you when you come to my site, then I’m just lighting money on fire. If you come to my site, and I don’t get your email, your phone number, or any information about you, I’ll never know who you are or anything about you. 

So I focus on, “How can I get visitors into those email channels or those SMS channels to monetize their visit?”

If you left my site and I didn’t learn anything about you, I just gave you a dollar for free or whatever it cost me on that day. I don’t like giving away free money, so getting visitors into the email funnel is super important.

Curious how CROSSNET’s using Klaviyo to grow?

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"As a business owner, if I'm not doing everything I can to at least capture some information about you when you come to my site (your email, your phone number, or any information about you), then I'm just lighting money on fire."

Chris Meade, co-founder and CMO, CROSSNET

Katie Tierney: I saw your Black Friday promotion on your website. Tell me about your strategy with that particular promotion.

Chris Meade: Right now, there are two things on our website. We have the popup form that asks visitors to sign up now to get instant access to our Black Friday/Cyber Monday pricing. As soon as you do that, you’ll get an email that gives you the 15 percent off code. We launched that on November 2nd and we’ll be running that up until Thanksgiving. Once you opt in, you’ll get an email. But if you want the code right away, you have to put in your phone number so we’ll capture you on our SMS list, as well. 

An example of CROSSNET's Black Friday/Cyber Monday email. Direct-to-consumer marketing example.

Then, rather than having an additional popup on our site, we have a banner at the top of our site that says, “Click here to get Black Friday pricing.” That’s always there on the site as you browse instead of just another popup on a page that gets closed. When you click on that banner and share your phone number, we’ll give you the discount there, as well.

Example of Black Friday/Cyber Monday promotion on CROSSNET's website. Direct-to-consumer marketing example.

Katie Tierney:  How did you decide that asking people to opt in to get specific pricing for Black Friday would be your approach to holiday marketing this year?

Chris Meade: We typically offer $10 off as a discount, so offering 15 percent off the $150 product is much more than what we normally offer. 

I know this holiday will be very competitive with big retailers taking everything online and our sales will need to start earlier than ever.

We’re in nearly 2,000 stores, so as a brand that has a huge big-box presence, we can’t do massive discounts. We’re not just the twenty-year-old kids trying to sell the volleyball net out of our garage. Each discount needs to be really thought out.

So we’re offering 15 percent off and in order to get that discount, you have to opt in. We’ll be doing our normal Black Friday sale on Black Friday, but we saw the opportunity to get more subscribers by running this sale earlier. We’ve got revenue from email up to anywhere from 20-30 percent on any given month, working alongside our partner Structured Social. The strategy has been working well so far.

"We'll be doing our normal Black Friday sale on Black Friday, but we saw the opportunity to get more subscribers by running this sale earlier. We've got revenue from email up to anywhere from 20-30 percent on any given month."

Chris Meade, co-founder and CMO, CROSSNET

Katie Tierney: Earlier, you spoke about Walmart. I’ve heard that you’ve also partnered with organizations like Wilson and Dick’s Sporting Goods. How did these partnerships come to be and what have they meant for your business?

Chris Meade: They’re huge and they came about in a couple of different ways.

When we were just starting out, I added pretty much every sporting goods buyer in the world that I could find to my LinkedIn network. I kept thinking, “I know one day we’ll get into Dick’s Sporting Goods and we’ll get into Walmart.” So, I added all the buyers to my network and I posted every single day on LinkedIn. 

Over time, they’d see me in their newsfeed, so when it came time for me to reach out to them, it was less of a cold touch. When it came time to actually reach out a year later, they’d tell me they’d seen me in their newsfeed for over a year or they saw somebody playing the game at the beach, so it was a much warmer touch.

Then, for example, Dick’s Sporting Goods actually came to us through a chat box on our website. I had been trying hard to get in touch with them and they never wrote back to me. One morning, I woke up to a message that came in from them via our chatbox. It was around 2:00 in the morning and it said, “Hey, this is so and so at Dick’s, we have an order for you.” So, chat boxes on your website are really important.

 

Katie Tierney: What are some of the challenges that you’re tackling now? 

Chris Meade: From a business growth perspective, as a self-funded company, we’re always asking ourselves if we have enough inventory, if we have enough cash to pay our employees and ourselves, our taxes, and everything else while funding the business. 

Up until about six months ago, we were a company that may have sold out if we had a huge sales spike. Or we might have had to shut down our online store for two weeks or three weeks if that happened.

Finally, we’re not at that point anymore. We have a well-stocked inventory, so we’re super happy about that. My biggest pain now is really just “let’s go sell them.” 

From a marketing standpoint, my biggest thing now is omnichannel marketing. If I spend money on Facebook to drive consumers to my website, they bounce and then they go buy the product in Walmart physically, do I make that attribution to Facebook? Do I not? How do I know if somebody walks into a Walmart in Boise, Idaho that they saw my Facebook ad? Did they not if I’m not doing any?

We’re really trying to better understand that model and it’s something none of us have ever done before, so it’s a challenge.

 

Katie Tierney: How early in your brand’s development did you start to sell directly on your website to consumers as opposed to other retail channels?

Chris Meade: We launched our Shopify store in 2018 and did $87,000 in revenue the first year. The following year, we did $2.5 million dollars, so it was quite the jump. And this year, we’ll do anywhere from $10 to $15 million, which is great.

We started selling only on our website. That was all of 2018. Right at the beginning of 2019, we started selling in a few stores. Towards the end of Q4 2019, that’s when we started to really build up our retail partnerships.

 

Katie Tierney: Given the kind of growth you’ve experienced as quickly as you have, what were some of the critical things you had to figure out that you had never experienced before?

Chris Meade: Inventory forecasting is super tough. When you’re dealing with a physical product, you have a supply chain. I need cash to buy the inventory. And I also need the inventory to arrive. But it might take 50 days from the time I placed the order to actually get it. 

How do we forecast properly knowing that we’re also a seasonal game? Things might slow down or things might ramp up really quickly. How do we keep on top of that? That’s been a really fun challenge and we finally hired a global supply chain manager to help with all of that.

Initially, my biggest mistake as an owner was not capturing email addresses or taking email marketing seriously. And I’m not just saying that because I’m talking to you. We slept on email up until the end of 2019. We didn’t start doing email marketing until January 2020. It used to just be me linking a Microsoft Word document and sending emails out to people. They looked terrible.

Capturing email addresses early and often, and also phone numbers for SMS, is huge for us. In a year from now, if you asked me that same question, I’d say sleeping on SMS marketing will have been my biggest mistake since we just started doing that this year. Not capturing that customer information early and often is such a big mistake.

"Initially, my biggest mistake as an owner was not capturing email addresses or taking email marketing seriously."

Chris Meade, co-founder and CMO, CROSSNET

Katie Tierney: Since you started investing in email and SMS marketing this year, what has that meant for the growth of your business? Where do you think you would be right now if you hadn’t done that?

Chris Meade: Well, I can tell you that we’d be out $1 million dollars or so. 

But I also think that email and SMS marketing also really matures the brand. Our company has really started to look like a real company. 

We’re not just four kids drop-shipping a cool idea for four-way volleyball. We have a legitimate partnership with Wilson. We’re sold in Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods and Target. We’re the second biggest sporting goods game on the planet right now, which is wild to say. Email marketing goes a long way toward legitimizing the brand.

One of our biggest pain points as a company is how we grow the sport. It’s great if you bought a CROSSNET, but if you’re not actively going out and playing and having fun with it, what’s the point? I want people to use my product and I want them to go out and be the biggest marketers for me.

When we started, I’d go set up the CROSSNET at the beach and 50 people would watch it and one person would buy it. So if I have you and 100,000 customers going out once a week playing, you’re doing my marketing for me so my cost per acquisition is much lower.

So, I need people to get you there, playing, and having fun. And that all starts with email because that’s the only way I can constantly communicate with my customers.

"I think that email and SMS marketing also really matures the brand. Our company has really started to look like a real company."

Chris Meade, co-founder and CMO, CROSSNET

Katie Tierney: What’s the number one thing that either you or your team love about Klaviyo, specifically?

Chris Meade: Being able to segment. My biggest goal for our marketing team is to get really smart about who we’re messaging and also how we’re talking. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting there. 

Within the next six months, hopefully, we’ll be able to identify our customers better and say this is our mom and dad audience. This is the 25-year-old audience that really cares about spiking. This is my physical education audience. And then we’ll be able to segment our messages to them better with all different campaigns and flows. 

It also constantly pushes our team to get better.

"My biggest goal for our marketing team is to get really smart about who we're messaging and also how we're talking."

Chris Meade, co-founder and CMO, CROSSNET

Katie Tierney: As a business owner who’s come up with a viable idea, who’s launched a business, and who’s built it into a multi-million dollars per year venture, what’s been the most exciting thing about this journey for you?

Chris Meade: The most exciting thing is walking into a store and seeing our product on the shelves. That’s such a cool feeling that not a lot of people ever get to experience. 

It’s also exciting to be driving the sport. 

As much as people may say CROSSNET is a fad, volleyball is going to be here forever. You’re going to see volleyball courts, so I really want CROSSNET to become a part of American culture. And global culture, too. 

I want people to walk into the park or onto the beach and see a CROSSNET and know how to play. We’re far from that, but it keeps me motivated.

"I really want CROSSNET to become a part of American culture. And global culture, too. I want people to walk into the park or onto the beach and see a CROSSNET and know how to play. We’re far from that, but it keeps me motivated."

Chris Meade, co-founder and CMO, CROSSNET

Wondering how omnichannel marketing differs from multichannel marketing? Learn more

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