Find Your Circle: Spikeball CEO Chris Ruder on How a Plastic Net Built a Community

Amanda Kahn
Amanda Kahn
Mar 19, 2024

If you go outside, you’ve definitely seen a group of four people standing around a roundnet trying to “spike” a ball back and forth to each other. Or, if you’re anything like me, you’ve tried to play the game yourself and failed—epically. 

In Episode 121 of Earned, Conor sits down with Chris Ruder, CEO of Spikeball, the world’s largest supplier of roundnet equipment—amassing over $1.8M in EMV growth during 2023.


To start, we dive into the background of Spikeball, which launched in 1989, before learning how Chris revived the name in 2004. With his original job being a sales position at Microsoft, Chris shares that he had no idea what steps to take, but that inspiration struck after seeing the game on a family vacation. Next, we explore the journey of building up to the re-launch, and how Chris was able to use his resources to create the product we know as Spikeball. Chris speaks to how he balanced running the Spikeball brand while simultaneously working his corporate job and claims that the energizing work he did on Spikeball was what kept him going. We discuss what Chris loved about having the autonomy to build a consumer-forward brand, and how it led to feeling fulfilled in his career.

By following the community of Spikeball players and monitoring what they’re asking for, Chris empowered a group of avid-roundnet players into a loyal fanbase itching to participate in tournaments. We then learn how Spikeball has maintained its focus on its competitive community while also maintaining the balance of making “at-home players” feel valued. Between the way Spikeball motivates its customer service to treat players as friends, the ‘Spikeballer of the Week’ newsletter, and its social media strategy, Spikeball is always chasing the idea of being fully human. To close the show, Chris shares his own level of skill at the game, and how much he admires those who dedicate themselves to the craft. 

We’ve included a couple of highlights from the episode below, but be sure to check out the full video above, or tune into the podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen!

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The following interview has been lightly edited for concision. 

“People are into this. We're going to support that”: How Chris Ruder Amplified the Love of a Game

Conor Begley: This is something that's more of a game for young adults. The layer on top of that was like, let's not only make this like a young adult game, but let's try to make this kind of a fully competitive sport that people play and compete in. What made you say, ‘Hey, let's try to make this a real sport, not just a casual game that we sell?’

Chris Ruder: Before we launched in June of 08, I had leagues going Thursday nights after work down at North Avenue Beach in Chicago. With the old sets and sometimes with some prototype sets that were just embarrassing. They were so bad, but we played there and it was a very high foot traffic area. Anybody who knows North Avenue beach in Chicago, when you've got nice weather, you've got tens of thousands people riding their bikes on the sidewalk or a bike path. What a great place if you're launching an outdoor product, to go there and get your exposure. June of 08, we're now in business and selling a lot of those early sales, or what I call pity sales—friends that just bought it because they want to be nice, but they have no interest in the game. Then, tournaments started happening. And by tournaments, I mean like 12 people. A clipboard and a pencil, tournaments. It was a lot of these guys from a suburb in Chicago called Arlington Heights. Those guys started coming in from the suburbs and meeting us down at the beaches in Chicago and the city and playing. They started having tournaments and we're like, okay, people are into this. We're going to support that. Maybe we'll start hosting our own tournaments, but this would be cool if a ton of other people would be into that as well. That could be a way to maybe prevent this from becoming a fad—even if it's not a tournament, you're playing against another team.

“I remember always thinking I wanted to write as if I'm writing it to a friend. I don't want there to be an ounce of formality”: Spikeball’s Chris Ruder on Maintaining a Human Aspect Behind Business  

Conor Begley: When I observe the tactics that you utilized, frankly I think a lot of that came from your background in sales, right? If you look at your early guerrilla marketing tactics, you were doing door to door sales with local volleyball players. You were sending personalized emails to every single customer that bought the product. I'm curious, do you think that the corporate background you had on the sales side contributed to your ability to succeed in this endeavor? How did you think about community building, and what were some of the tactics that you used that you think were really effective?

Chris Ruder: Yeah, I think the sales skills absolutely helped. Another thing that helped was that I didn't know any better. I don't have a degree in marketing, so I didn’t know how you were ‘supposed’ to do things. I am a very curious person, so not knowing what I'm supposed to do sort of gave me the license to ask the dumb questions. If I did have an MBA or a degree in marketing or whatever else, then maybe I would’ve learned it in a class, and heard this is the way you do it. I took this zigzag and I was writing that newsletter or social media post and I remember always thinking I wanted to write as if I'm writing it to a friend. I don't want there to be an ounce of formality. I've shared that advice with our team that does customer service, to reply to people as if they're a friend. Now, if this customer is upset, I want you to be as formal as possible and let's solve this problem as soon as possible. But if it's just a regular note about whatever, be casual, have fun. And, I want them to know there's a human being on the other end. We've got a plastic net and a rubber ball. There's not much human about that, but we want personality in there.

From day one, there was a lot of that. I remember in the early days of the newsletter, it was called ‘Spikeballer of the Week.’ I would email 10 questions to a friend and say, ‘Hey, answer these and send me a photo of you, with a Spikeball set.’ Some of the questions were something like, ‘tell me about high school prom?’ It wasn't, ‘tell me why you love spike ball or where do you play?’ There was some of that, but I wanted that human element to come out. I wanted people to see themselves in this person that was being highlighted. Even though nobody was applying to be Spikeballer of the Week, I wrote it as if it was this grand honor that this person had been selected amongst millions of people. I was having fun with it, and it had that human element which resonated. 

Keep up with new episodes of Earned by following the podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts, or subscribing to our YouTube channel. To catch up on our previous episodes, featuring leaders from brands like Revolve, K18, Instagram, and Roblox, visit our Earned Podcast page.