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Our lives are full of “first world problems”. It’s annoying to tie your shoes… you ran out of milk… your drink is a little too warm…

You might think they’re meaningless… but what if you could turn these “first world problems” into a business that sets you up for life?

Chris Gronkowski did exactly that after taking an NFL “first world problem” and turning it into The Ice Shaker.

In this episode, he’s here to show you how to get Ice-Shaker success, even if you aren’t an NFL celebrity.

If you’re looking to launch a new business or get recognized by VCs, you can’t miss this episode.

Listen now!

Show highlights include:

  • How to take a “leaky tap” problem and turn it into a firehose of profit (3:44)
  • How to bring your first prototype to life while spending almost $0 in R&D (5:26)
  • The simple strategy that gets your business idea a “yes” from all 5 Sharks (or any venture capitalist) (6:15)
  • How to get massive growth by riding the next social media wave (without dying a sudden death at the next algorithm update) (7:50)
  • Why skipping business school gives you a competitive advantage MBA graduates could only dream of (12:01)
  • Why hiring “trustworthy” employees is holding your business back, and letting “unknowns” take the wheel will unlock new levels of growth (13:06)
  • The 3 business characteristics that will have wealthy businessmen fighting each other to acquire your company (14:23)
  • Why businesses are incentivizing their employees to stab them in the back (and how to make them bring you profits while you sleep) (15:14)
  • How to bring an underperforming team member back into line without a “disciplinary meeting”, HR department… or even saying a word! (21:04)
Read Full Transcript

Matt: Hey guys, welcome to Built on Passion. I'm your host, Matthew Dello Buono. And today we have on Ice Shaker founder, Chris Gronkowski. Ice Shaker makes high quality double wall vacuum, insulated water bottles and shaker cups. Now, Ice Shaker like most successful companies, was born out of the necessity and the mindset of taking something that already exists and making it better. When Chris retired as a professional football player, he was looking for the next thing.

He dipped his toes into the business world a bit, helping his wife build her business, but was looking for something to call his own. It didn't take long for him to realize that he had a solution staring him right in the face. Every time he went to train, it's safe to say that as a professional NFL player, Chris Gronkowski has spent years in the gym training. So it's no surprise that a lot of electrolytes and protein supplement mixes have been consumed to stay fueled.

The problem is with working out in the hot Texas sun, Chris found that his beverage would heat up and cleaning it afterwards was a huge pain, no one wants to drink hot electrolyte mix or hot protein jake, after playing around with a few different designs. Chris finally found something that he was really happy with. The bottle itself is double wall vacuum insulated. So it keeps the beverages at a really perfect temperature.

The inside is lined with a food grade steel to keep things clean and smelling fresh. It has an ergonomic lid that's easy to close and open and easy to drink. And lastly, it has a twist off agitator to make mixing supplements and protein as cinch. In this episode of Built on Passion, Chris Gronkowski shares what it was like going from playing in the NFL to starting a brand, some of the tools that he took with him to help him succeed and the how and why behind Ice Shaker. [01:39]

Before we actually jump into this episode, I just wanted to say thank you for supporting everything we're trying to do. Thank you for tuning in. Thank you for being engaged, being curious, and just being there, supporting the show. We work really hard to put together a really interesting show and have on guests that are truly doing something progressive, interesting and building something truly special.

If you are looking for a way to show your support and help us continue to do what we are doing, one of the biggest things you could do. And I know it seems like a really small thing, is to leave a review, plus it helps inform other people what your experience of this podcast has been like. So that's basically it. I just wanted to say a big old thank you, to you the listener, please leave a review. It is extremely helpful and you look great and that's it. So to start it off, Chris, who are you and what do you do? [02:37]

Chris: Hey, thanks for having me today. Name's Chris Gronkowski, the middle of the five Gronkowski brothers. Best known for playing in the NFL, the middle of the five went on to play for the Cowboys Broncos Colts. And then after that, that's when the fun began. So I started my own business, was able to get on to ABC shark tank, got offers from all five sharks, and landed a deal with Mark Cuban and Alex Rodriguez. And then it's been a fun ride since.

Matt: I feel like there's not many people who get on shark tank and land a deal from all five sharks.

Chris: I was about half halfway in it and didn't have an offer yet. I was a little bit nervous myself just to get one offer is amazing. To get offers from all five is definitely not common. So it was super pumped to walk out of the shark tank with offers from all five.

Matt: So we're here to talk about Ice Shaker. What is Ice Shaker?

Chris: So Ice Shaker, this is a product I created for myself. It's coming out of the NFLs working out sometimes twice a day. I was here in the Texas heat. It's super hot and I'm going to the gym with those cheap plastic shakers that I got for free with some supplements. And by the time I got there, it was sweating everywhere, smelled awful, took a sip of it and I was like, man, I just wish my drink was cold. That would be cool, after making little designs on the ground with the sweat ratings. [03:57]

I was like, there's got to be something better out there. So I went home that day, looked for an insulated bottle that would actually mix and blend powders up. And there's just nothing out there at the time. So that was kind of the “aha moment”. I'm like, I'm just going to make really the best bottle I can for myself. But I wanted to be able to use it for everything. It wasn't just for the gym, I just wanted one bottle for all day. So use that at home as just a regular cup, bring it to work, go to the gym, mix stuff with it, bring it on the airplane. It's like, I'm just going to make the ultimate bottle, simple guy. Like I just want one cup at the end of the day, let's do this. So that's how Ice Shaker began. Just as a product that I wanted for myself.

Matt: It kind of makes sense. I mean have that one Swiss army cup. I have a ton of to go cups in a cupboard somewhere and it's not like you could drink all of them at once. You just stack pile them up when you're done using them and then what are you going to do? [04:47]

Chris: Yeah, That's what's happening with me. I had a cabinet full of plastic ones and I'm like half of them are broken, they are taking up a whole cabinet and they're all exactly the same. And the category just hadn't been updated for probably 20 years. So it was a great idea that no one had done yet. It was so simple, so easy, just taking a good product and just making it a lot better.

Matt: I feel like that's the thing that sticks. How did you go through the R and D to the prototypes to figure out what you wanted exactly. The shape, the size. Was it just a matter of kind of seeing what's out there, combining all the different components or did you work with a manufacturer? How did that work?

Chris: The beginning was hilarious. It was really just a basic cup that we put a shake top on. That was it. We took two cups, double walled it, insulated it, really just a basic shaker bottle made it insulated. That was pretty much it to start with after that. That's when the research and development really came in, but the first couple was super basic. Take what's already out there, insulate it and that was pretty much it. And just really, it was a proof of concept. We could sell those, we knew we had something and then from there use that and really put the time and effort into it to make it a lot better. [05:58]

Matt: Did you end up going on shark tank before you actually developed the actual product or did you actually have something that you can show them and have them help you take it to the next level?

Chris: For sure. So we were about six months in, at that point when we got on the show just to pitch the show. I wanted to make sure that I had some kind of sale, so in the first three months we had about 25,000 in sales. That's when I reached out to them, pitched them on the idea. And by the time we actually got on the show, we were six months in and had about 80,000 in sales. So it's tough to go on a show with no sales. I knew that I wanted to try to get it up as high as I possibly could, so I could get somewhat of a favorable valuation on the company, by the time I got there.

Matt: That makes sense, something to show when you show up. So once you went through that experience, you got great offers from Mark Cuban and Alex Rodriguez. That's phenomenal, I know you’re carrying some cloud from the NFL too, so you kind of have that to support it. What was the growth like from there? [06:56]

Chris: So getting on the show was massive. I mean, that's everything that you hope it's going to be, , you get 5 million people watching you that day, you get all the reruns, you get all the stuff for the next couple weeks. You get dogs and kids screaming in the background too for the whole interview, which has been good.

So no, it definitely skyrockets it, it does exactly what you think it's going to do early on six months into a company that's huge. And then having proof of concept, all five sharks offering you, that's a dream come true. You could use all that for advertising , marketing, after that take something from the ground up. That's like the most ideal situation that you could have.

Matt: Was there any particular thing that you think really helped you take Ice Shaker to the next level? Once you came out of shark tank, you were ready to pound the pavement, start making things happen. Was there anything that you did that really just helped Slingshot you forward?

Chris: Yeah, for sure so many things over the years, the first thing was Facebook ads a couple years ago were absolutely amazing. It's definitely slowed down. The iOS updates, just the cost of them has significantly increased since then. But you know, when we launched in 2017, Facebook ads were the gold mine. They were crushing, there was a great way to reach a lot of people for cheap and get massive exposure. [08:13]

So after the shark tank wave ended, we went and explored Facebook ads. That was really the go-to, spent a lot of money. Spent millions of dollars there, we rode that wave for a decent amount of time. Luckily for us, we started to really diversify ourselves. We started to build out a sales team, make relationships and partnerships as we continued to grow.

That was huge because later on, just last year with the change in iOS updates, it significantly slowed the return down in the [ROS] on Facebook ads, so that's the first thing for sure. Obviously a lot more steps came along that really took us to the next level as well, since then. Building out a sales team was big, building out just really good partnerships where everyone wins has been big for us. And then really just making it a team.

You grow and you get better with people is really what it comes down to. You can take our product, it's going to be very similar to a lot of other bottles on the market. What really separates us and really any company from any other product is the people behind it. So building out a really strong team has taken us to that next level. That's really what it comes down to, is great people in your organization and structuring your business the right way, where everyone is a part of it and everybody wins. [09:26]

Matt: So what was it like going from playing in the NFL to starting a business? Was that in itself, a weird stepping stone? I'd imagine you could leverage a lot of relationships there too. I mean, you talk about hydration and just making sure you're getting the actual supplements that you need to be taking to perform better.

Chris: So that huge step you go from being an athlete, that was your whole identity. That's all you knew. And now you step into the unknown. So I think I was pretty lucky. I first went into my wife's business, worked with her for five years. Really learned a lot about business before starting Ice Shaker and then started Ice Shaker as a side hustle.

It wasn't something where I had to have the money or I even had to do it. It was something I was doing because I loved it. And I was super passionate about it. So no, it is hard. It's extremely hard. You're actually kind of behind the ball. Most people come out of college, they're young, they get that experience. They work in big businesses. They see that structure that's already built out. [10:35]

I left the NFL. I'd never worked in a big business. I'd never seen that corporate structure. I had no clue how to actually run a business. I learned everything on the fly. The good thing I had going was the hard work, the work ethic, I wasn't afraid to dig in and work long hours. I was going to grind it out, that's for sure.

One thing that was going against me was that I had this ego that I could take on everything myself. I didn't realize how important a team was. I was probably three years into it. And when I was almost forced to build a team because of COVID, because having three children and just not being able to be everywhere. Like I was at the beginning when I didn't have those other responsibilities.

So those things, I wanted to take to that next level. I wish I saw it earlier because I was in these amazing team organizations. And you would think, as an athlete, you're all about team.. You saw it all. It should be simple to just put that into your business, but you're just so competitive and you want to do everything yourself, you don't see that at first that same team atmosphere in business, and it's really your job as the leader to then create that, and it really took me about three to four years to finally see that and implement that into our own business. [11:30]

Matt: It's tough to give up the keys to your baby. I mean, you made this thing, this is your vision. You are solving your own personal problem. So you want to make sure people are talking about it the right way and presenting it the right way. And you’re not going to scratch the paint on everything that you built. I feel like you go so much further when you don't have that hard business school background. You're not in a box, you can think beyond it being like, “you know what, this can kind of be whatever”, you're not really thinking in terms of what's already been done. You can create new, which you pretty did.

It's like you said it yourself, the shaker bottle hasn't really been updated in forever. It's always been like that cheap, plastic, whatever the metal ball inside. And this is answering a lot of things that I know I've heard a lot of people complain about personally over the years myself. So it's kind of an interesting thing to add in. What's been the hardest part about starting Ice Shaker? [12:25]

Chris: Everything, now starting anything from the ground up is extremely hard. There's zero customer base. There's no trust, you have to build everything from the ground up, the branding, all that, which you can't do that overnight, no matter how much you spend, it definitely takes time. The partnerships, relationships, all that stuff takes a lot of time as well. And you figure things out as you go. So hardest thing for me still.

I would say, was letting go of some of the responsibility and delegating those responsibilities to others and building that team like that still bothers me, that it took me that long because we could have progressed so much further if I gave up some of that responsibility earlier on and started building more of a plan and being more of a coach instead of a player is what it comes down to.

So I still think that it's so hard for a lot of people that they never do it and I'm glad I finally got over that hump, but I would probably say that was the hardest thing. You start with hiring friends and family because you don't trust anybody. And eventually that doesn't work, it sometimes causes more problems. And then you finally say, I'm going to hire someone I don't know, for the first time I can't do this. [13:35]

You know what if they steal from you, I can't trust them, all that kind of stuff. And then you finally do it, you say, wow!! Why didn't I do this earlier? So it's incredible, but every entrepreneur goes through these things. So I wish I started a little bit earlier with building the team and hiring and really game planning. But again, that's just something that I learned as I went along and now we have a great team and we continue to build every year. Just hired a couple more people this week, so it's been pretty good.

Matt: Congratulations, do you have any grand aspirations to keep on growing it, keep it up, keep adding to the team or is it just building out the stability? Keep operations flowing as it comes?

Chris: Yeah, we'll definitely keep building out. We got big goals now. We have a really good forecast. We have a good game plan, is what it comes down to the first three years, there was zero game plan. Then after talking to a lot of people that have been there, that have sold their businesses for a lot of money, it was kind of the same feedback every time. There's really a couple key components that take a business to the next level. The first one that I've hit on multiple times now is the team. [14:40]

The second one is just a great forecast and budget, you have to know where all your money's going. You have to know how to grow it, you have to know how to cut your cost. And everyone else needs to know that too on your team, so that they can also perform the third thing that I really learned, especially talking to these people, was there was always some bigger incentive, especially the key people in the business.

So finding a way to incentivize everyone was huge and doing that as a team instead of an individual was even bigger. So the biggest example I could pull out of it is, you have a sales team and they're putting in orders, and sometimes they're putting in orders that aren't really beneficial to the whole team, but they're trying to close a sale, right? So instead of just incentivizing them we said.

Hey, let's do this as a team. The person that leads the fulfillment team is also in on this as well goal, they're not a profit center, they're a law center. So their goal is to minimize cost. The sales team obviously is there to maximize profit, the marketing team the same way. So let's put everyone together, let's set end goals and then let's have everyone be incentivized by that end goal. [15:46]

So before when the sales team put a big order in the fulfillment, it was like, oh man, you're going to put the 5,000 piece in on a Friday. We got to work late. We're going to come on Monday. Monday's going to be rough, there's going to be all these other orders on there.

Now, it was almost like a drag to get a massive, awesome order in, so we reincentivized everything and all of a sudden now, my sales team puts it, make order in, everyone's slapping each other up, they're congratulating the sales rep, they're giving each other high fives. They're asking when the next one's coming, everyone's super pumped to be there. And to win together as a team now at this point, so just a completely different culture change now it went to feeling like just you're back in the locker room.

You know, that was the end goal. I want to feel like I'm walking into the locker. I don't want to walk into my own business or warehouse and be like, I don't even want to be here. Everyone looks like they're miserable. You know, that's kind of how it gets to, if you don't do it the right way and you don't set it up the right way. So now we walk in and it's like, what's going on? Like, you're crushing it this month. [16:51]

This is awesome. Let's keep rolling kind of atmosphere that everyone wants to be in. And everyone thrives in and everyone knows how to win. So those three things have been huge. Absolutely huge. I recommend anyone with any business at some point finds a way to put those same things in place because it's been massive.

Matt: Does sound kind of on point. You create that buy-in across the company. There's no lack of everyone has a stake in what you're doing and incentivized to support each other. I'm surprised I haven't heard of that yet. Even from talking to hundreds of people on here beyond this, you're the first person to really work in like a true unified incentive.

Chris: Yeah. It was my dad's plan. My dad's been doing it for 32 years selling fitness equipment. He's the second largest distributor in the US. And he created this plan himself like 20, maybe four years into business. So 28 years ago he did the same thing and actually had a consulting firm come in, they told him a couple of different things. They told him, Hey, each pillar of your business should be different. [18:00]

For him, he had a sales department, he has delivery department, he has all these departments with his and it was the same way as the warehouse and all that. And he was like, Hey, these need to be split up as well. And they all need to be incentivized. So he created the program 28 years ago after probably telling me about it probably 10 different times.

I finally listened to him, was able to put it into play myself and it's been incredible. And it feels good. You reward people for doing an amazing job. And at the end of the day, I felt like I won when I'm paying out these massive checks. Like if I'm paying out big bonuses, it's like I just won big time too. So everyone's winning together and everyone's pumped for each other, which has been absolutely awesome.

Matt: What have been some of the biggest mistakes you've made in building Ice Shaker?

Chris: Way too many that just right off the bat, like quality control on the product, we got crushed first order, half the product was bad and really what it came down to was just better partnerships really at the end of the day, build great partnerships with people that want to be a part of it as well. And get out of them when they're not working. [19:08]

Don't just keep writing it out cause it's easy. You have to make those changes, which are super hard, especially with products. Like once you have stock and you have this full line and it's so easy to just keep selling the same thing, but if it's not working, the orders are coming in late. The quality is just sometimes great.

Sometimes not so great. You got to find a way to move on. So that was definitely a mistake for us. We kept holding on for way too long with certain suppliers that just weren't sending quality stuff and whenever they could, they cut corners, which you work very hard for a customer and to lose just one, it hurts.

It hurts big time. So that stuff we held on too long, because it's easy to keep doing the same thing. So I say that was a mistake, game planning was always a week off, it was like, Hey, what do we got this week kind of thing? which is a massive mistake. You have to plan for the future. You have to know what's coming next and you have to have a plan in the first place so that you know how to pivot in order to make changes as well. [20:11]

So I really didn't have any of that going into it. It was all, Hey, let's just grind is what it came down to, which is cool at first. But once you start grinding and you get some results, you then have to put a game plan in place if you want to get to that next level. So game plan, budget, forecast, planning, team, hiring, delegating responsibilities, all stuff. I was terrible at took me a while to learn. And if I could go back earlier, I would definitely speed that process up, is what it comes down to. Eventually I got there, it just took a long time to get to where I needed to be.

Matt: Did you ever get burned out going through it? Like in the process of taking on people, obviously get to the point where you're just like the grind is endless. Did you ever get seriously burnt out? How did you manage that? How did you fight?

Chris: Yeah, burnout's, it's real, but for me it was once I started this thing, it was hard for me to not follow through on it. So I don't know. I mean, always been raised and taught to just grind everything out. So i was used to working hard, used to working long hours, that part didn't really affect me. It was more of I hated disciplining people.

That was my thing. It was just such a grind because I was putting so much work in, if you feel like someone else wasn't it was like, man, like that was mentally, that was really taxing. That was hard. So finding ways to put in different incentives and really entice people to work hard was huge for me. Once I did that, it kind of took the stuff that I hated out of it and that was burning me out, you know, put it on them instead and put it on the team instead. [21:51]

So if someone's not holding their weight, it wasn't on me to discipline them. It was, Hey, you know we're a team, this part isn't holding up. How do we fix it? Is it something that you're not doing the work? Is it just not the right game plan? Let's talk through this as the team and let's fix it. So that was kind of what was burning me out.

And I had to just find solutions for what was just mentally taxing me. So far the worst part about being an entrepreneur was that I didn't like at least was the discipline part. Like I'm as a boss, I didn't want to be that guy that goes in there just dropping F bombs, telling everyone what to do. It’s more about, let's make this team work and let's find solutions as a team if it's not working, not only is the person that's not getting it done not getting their bonus.

Neither is everyone else on the team. So they better pick it up or the entire team's going to suffer, which just puts so much more on you. When you have a full team that's counting on you. So that's how I restructured that, so that the burnout was gone. I showed up every day, pumped to be there and not having to worry about dropping F bombs on someone that day. [23:00]

Matt: I got one more for you. What advice would you give to someone? And I feel like you already gave out plenty of nuggets of information and advice, but what advice would you give to someone who wants to start a business?

Chris: Yeah, I definitely don't think I hit on this. Maybe hit on this a little bit, but my advice is, you better be super passionate about what you're doing when you start it. If you're going in for it, just for money, it's not going to work out because it's just like me. My first shipment was trash. I sat upstairs in my house. It took months, the chips switched out every single lid on every bottle. And if I didn't like what I was doing, I didn't need to continue man. I was good, I had enough money. The other business was doing really well at that point. I could have just said, “I thought I was going to make a lot of money,” but obviously this is way harder than I thought. And I could have just gave up on it at that point.

So if you're not passionate about it, if you don't love it as a business owner, you're going to give up on it. So find something you love doing. I always say start as a side hustle, start small, prove it as a model first and then go all in on it. And that's how I started everything. It was a small side hustle, loved what I was doing. It started making money. I was able to support myself on it. [24:08]

And then bam, I jumped on it and you could say, you don't have enough time in the day to do something like that. But when it comes down to it, if you work 40 hours a week, even if you sleep eight hours every single night, you still have about 72 free hours a week to do a side hustle. So even if you work on it for a couple hours a day, there's plenty of time to start something small up. And especially if you love it, it's really not even going to feel like work and then build from there. So that's always been my advice, start something small, prove it, let it grow, have some fun with it. And then, start putting some serious time and money into it.

Matt: I think that's super smart, especially what you threw in there towards the end. Have some fun with it. I feel like if you're dipping your toes in starting small, you get the opportunity to have more fun with it. And you can actually really explore like, is this a passion? Is this something I'm going to be about? Or do I have to go back to the drawing board without any kind of real consequence? [25:05]

Chris, thank you so much for coming on and chatting. It's cool to watch you go from playing in the NFL to full blown entrepreneurship and building a business like this. I've talked to a lot of people who end up going through career changes. I think this is the most sharpest left turn and it seems like you're completely nailing it, for anyone who wants to find out more about Ice Shaker, obviously grab one of their own. Where's the best place for them to head?

Chris: For sure, I wouldn't say I'm completely nailing it yet, but we're getting there. We're definitely getting better every day and that's really what it was all about, you just got to do it. You got to go in and start actually doing stuff, figure out how to fix it. So I did a lot of figuring things out over the years and if you keep getting better every day, you're going to get pretty good at it. So check us out, follow me at Chris Gronkowski all over every social media platform, grab the product. We are national vitamin shop, GNC lifetime fitness. We'll be in Walmart this month as well in 1900 Occasions. And check out the website. That's really where it's at new product drops, custom bottles, all that at ishaker.com [26:14]

Matt: Awesome Chris, thanks again.

Chris: Absolutely. Thanks so much for having me.

Matt: We made it. Thank you again for tuning in to this week's episode of Built on Passion. Hope you learned something, hope you grew as a person. Maybe you have a new entrepreneurial idea, maybe all of the above. Maybe you got a new perspective on your favorite hobby or favorite piece of gear and you just fell in love all over again. I'm hoping for the last one. That last one actually sounds pretty good. I'm going to ask one last time for the people in the back.

Please leave a review. It is super helpful and a great way to show your support of the show. And if you know someone who might be interested in this episode specifically, share it to them and all joking aside. Thank you for everything, for supporting what we're doing in any event. That's it for now. I will see you next week. On another episode of Built on Passion. [27:02]

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