Russ: Hi, I am Russ Capper and this is BusinessMakers USA, coming to you today from Seattle and today featuring one of the Puget Sound Business Journals’ fastest growing top 100 private companies, PickleballCentral. And my guest is Edward Hechter, partner and CEO of PickleballCentral. Edward, welcome to the show.
Edward: Thank you very much for having me.
Russ: You bet. Tell us about PickleballCentral.
Edward: PickleballCentral is the world’s largest retailer devoted to the sport of pickleball. We serve the needs of pickleball players all over the world and have found our niche by providing great service and an amazing set of products to them.
Russ: Ok, let’s say someone is watching that doesn’t know what pickleball is.
Edward: So pickleball, imagine a sport that would combine maybe elements of table tennis, regular tennis and it’s played on a court about the size of a badminton court. It has a net, the net is just slightly lower than a regular tennis net. But the neat thing is the sport, which is generally played with paired teams, but it can also be played as singles, is a much smaller sport and therefor, in terms of size of court, it enables players of all ages to really play together and to be competitive regardless of skill.
Russ: Ok, real cool. So are there tournaments are there leagues and all this stuff in pickleball?
Edward: There absolutely is. There’s an international governing body, the USAPA has been involved in helping nurture the sport by being the entity that helps define rules, and helps facilitate ambassadors that bring new people into the sport. They have been incredibly successful at helping nurture sport from its infancy in 1965 here in the Puget Sound, to a sport that now has up to three million active players just here in the United States, more players than hockey or lacrosse.
Russ: Oh my goodness, it’s just hard to fathom that that is happening and it is growing rapidly right?
Edward: It is, you know, the sport in terms of, if you measure the growth of the sport maybe by looking at the number of facilities that are opening to provide services in a particular court, it’s growing at a rate of about forty percent a year on a compound basis. It’s amazing how many new courts are being established every single day.
Russ: Ok, well it’s interesting the point you made about how people that are kind of slowed down can play it, at even my age. But do you divide it up, this is a below forty league and a below sixty league and below eighty league, or do they compete with each other?
Edward: Most of the activity goes on at a club level, and the clubs tend to be social entities as much as they are competitive entities. But it is not unusual to see players competitively that might be thirty, forty years different in age being able to hold their own, whether it be someone very young playing someone very old, it’s no guarantee that the younger one has an advantage in the sport. That is one of the really unique things about pickleball.
Russ: Well do young people embrace it too?
Edward: Absolutely. Some of the best players in the world are under the age of twenty five. But also some of the best players in the world are over the age of fifty.
Russ: Wow, can you actually put spin on the ball and that sort of thing in this sport?
Edward: You absolutely can. And some of the… when you see some these absolute world class players playing, you recognize how amazing of an athlete they are. And in the same way you might see someone in tennis, or racquetball, in ping pong or in bowling have incredible control of the ball, the same sort of thing occurs in pickleball.
Russ: I guess males and females are probably equal, right?
Edward: Absolutely, and so you see at a tournament level, there are a number of different divisions. Some are mixed, some are gender based, there are ages groups, there are open categories, there are all sorts of different ways to find your competitive niche within the sport.
Russ: Ok, well this is a business show so we need to get into the business side instead of the sports side. So what triggered the idea to start PickleballCentral?
Edward: Well my partners, they are the co-founders of the business, Anna and David. Anna actually got involved in this because her parents started playing. She was looking for product and gifts for them, and when she went online and her online shopping experience, she was having a tough time finding pickleball product available for sale. So in 2006, she and David decided they needed to try and serve that niche of the marketplace. They saw this sport at a very nascent stage starting to grow and grow quickly and sort of get to a critical mass, and they wanted to be a part of it. And so they founded PickleballCentral to be… their stated goal right from the get go was to be the largest retailer of pickleball equipment in the world.
Russ: And that is where PickleballCentral is today?
Edward: That is where we are today, the largest independent company devoted to retailing pickleball equipment worldwide.
Russ: And how long ago was it when they said, “Man this is big enough, we need a CEO”?
Edward: About two years ago. So we are now going into our sixth consecutive year of over fifty percent compound growth. From very humble beginnings they… the typical entrepreneur success story. This is a business that operated out of their garage and off their kitchen table. And then it became a million dollar business, then it became a multi-million dollar business. And I have a relationship with David that goes back almost thirty years. I have some experience in e-commerce and online retailing. I was sort of semi-retired and there was an opportunity for me to come in and help build out the management team and take some things off their plate. It has been an incredible ride ever since.
Russ: So were you already a successful pickleball player?
Edward: I had never played until I got involved with them. We have a court in our warehouse and I am often schooled as one of the worst players in the company but I still enjoy it never the less.
Russ: Does the company host tournaments?
Edward: We don’t host in our own facility, but we participate as a sponsor of literally hundreds of tournaments around the United States every year.
Russ: Describe the product line.
Edward: The product line includes a couple of main categories. Paddles are the one thing people think about when they think about pickleball equipment. It tends to be the most expensive element someone would purchase when they start to get involved with pickleball. Pickleball is not a very expensive sport to get involved with. For less than a $100 you can equip yourself with a paddle, with balls and you can jump onto the court and start playing, as long as you have a nice pair of shoes, go for it.
Russ: How many different paddles do you guys carry?
Edward: We carry, right now, almost a hundred different models of paddles. And there are right now, by our count, about twenty five active manufactures who are producing paddles. Some of these paddles are featuring absolute state-of-the-art aerospace materials. Kevlar, graphite impregnated, honeycomb core materials. The paddles, the ones that are most sought after by our higher end customers, are very light, they generally weigh less than eight ounces. And you are making contact with a ball and trying to strike a ball that might hit a speed of 50, 60 or 70 miles an hour with one of these paddles. So there are a lot of interesting engineering that goes into production of these highest end paddles.
Russ: Wow, so I keep getting curious about the game itself. How does it start? How does the serve, I know how a serve starts in tennis, I know how it starts in table tennis. How does it start?
Edward: It’s more a kin to the way table tennis operates than tennis. You don’t see these big throw the ball over your head and smash, it’s an underhanded approach. But it’s a nuance sport, it’s a sport that is really about strategy. So the idea of starting play is really about, how do I place the ball into my opponents side of the court in the right position to allow myself the best opportunity to come forward and try and get close enough to control the volley.
Russ: Ok I don’t know if I envisioned this wrong, but I kept envisioning doubles, but are singles played also?
Edward: Singles are played and doubles. We see a little more involvement in the doubles side of the sport, but I think it’s as much of a social aspect as anything. If you look at the demographic of the typical pickleball player and of a typical pickleball club and when you have a finite number of courts available for a club to use, it makes more sense to get more people out on the court and doubles is that way, and it’s also more fun.
Russ: What is the company supposed to look like three years from now, five years from now?
Edward: Well, the sport is continuing to grow. Right now we are seeing different numbers that say there are between two and a half and three million active players right now with estimates of as many as eight million players by the year 2020. So, we are preparing ourselves to handle that growth. That growth is being driven both domestically through the explosive growth here, not just at the recreational level but also at the institutional level. A lot more schools and parks, recreation programs and municipality programs are getting involved in pickleball because there’s an opportunity for them to take a facility that maybe is not being used fully and get much more use out of the facility because they adopt pickleball. It’s a way to access the senior community and provide a physical activity in the senior community. Internationally we are now seeing governing bodies popping up in India in Spain and other places in Europe. So our international business is expanding as well.
Russ: And I also remembered suddenly, you shared with me a press release about an acquisition even of another company.
Edward: We are humbled at the opportunity to acquire the organization that invented the sport, Pickleball Inc., which is founded right here in Seattle. A company that operated for many many years just right up the street here. They were involved as one of the families originally invented the sport out of Banbridge Ireland out of their vacation property in 1965 with wood paddles and a wiffle ball and a dog who is notoriously the reason it is named pickleball. They took incredible care to create this sport that had a very unique personality, a very social personality. And they were an amazing steward of the game as it evolved from a backyard game of a few families to a sport now played by millions around the world.
Russ: Edward, I really appreciate you sharing this real interesting story with us today.
Edward: Thank you very much, we appreciate the opportunity.
Russ: You bet. And that wraps up my discussion with Edward Hechter, partner and CEO of PickleballCentral. And this is BusinessMakers USA.
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