Sports Entrepreneurs Turn Passion Into Gold

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- It's 10:00 a.m. and you just finished your third unproductive meeting of the day. Next to you sits a cold grande caffe latte from Starbucks and an Everest-sized mountain of paperwork. You ignore them both, choosing instead to stare at your reflection in the sliver of glass that Human Resources has the nerve to call a window. Your blank face says it all.

There has to be a better way to make a living -- but what?

If you're the literary type you could go off the grid and live in the woods for a while. You'll have no boss to answer to, but you may not be so happy when you're stuck selling your vampire trilogy at the local flea market.

Another answer to the professional doldrums is to start your own business. After all, you'd be hard-pressed to find an occupation that requires more passion, drive and all-out mojo than being an entrepreneur.

Even more effective: Start a company in the sports industry. It won't be easy, but you'll likely benefit from a healthy, active lifestyle, and the lines between work and play may start to blur. If you're lucky, they'll fade away entirely.

"Quite honestly, I never work," says Jeff Archer, co-founder of YOLO Board, a stand up paddleboarding company based in Miramar Beach, Fla. "I'm always working, but I never work -- it's just how it all flows together."

For the past seven years, Archer and co-founder Tom Losee have spread the gospel of stand up paddleboarding, or SUP, across the Southeast. The company is small but growing. Last year they expanded to San Diego, and they've set their sights on the rest of the country.

"We see this as the water bicycle," says Archer. "It's something everyone can do. We're seeing giant growth in places that are just lakes and rivers, places you've never heard of before that have nothing to do with the coast or ocean and have more to do with just water.

"It's not a fad, it's not going away. It's a little bit of a drug -- gliding across the water is something special and makes you feel like a kid again."

Jim Spiers, founder of Predog Snowskate of Santa Cruz, Calif., is passionate about another form of water: the white, fluffy kind. Spiers has "been a snow dude forever" and discovered snowskating, or skateboarding on the snow, in 2006.

Snowskaters don't use bindings and most ride bi-level snowskates, with a top deck like a snowboard and a short, narrow ski below. This allows snowskaters to perform many of the same tricks as their dry land counterparts, including kick-flips and "ollies."

At first, Spiers viewed snowskating just as a way to spend time with his wife and four kids.

"This all started because of having fun," says Spiers. "There's something about getting out somewhere in a dedicated space and playing with your family."

Over time, Spiers became more serious about the business, almost to the point of obsession. While working as a program manager for a software company, he tinkered with dozens of different combinations of decks, skis, trucks and bindings. Last year, he launched his first complete snowskate and now sells three versions, each for around $400. Spiers hopes to make Predog Snowskates his full-time job in the future.

"I don't want to give it up because it's a passion, right?" says Spiers. "It's something I enjoy and I can see the growth happening. It's where snowboarding was in the '80s. It's the birth of a new sport and it's coming in hard."

Bill Gibson, founder of Kronum LLC of Villanova, Penn., also knows a few things about newborn sports. He should, because he fathered one in 2008.

Looking at popular team sports, Gibson concluded that, "to a large degree, the athletes had surpassed the game." The big sports had "evolved in the early years but kind of got locked down."

Whereas many sports fans would probably shrug and reach for another beer, Gibson instead created Kronum. Blending soccer, basketball, team handball and other sports, Kronum is played on a round field where participants throw, kick or dunk a ball into four soccer-like goals, each topped by five rings.

By day, Gibson runs an enterprise software company, and that experience comes through as he describes developing the game.

"In some ways it resembles open source software. There's an element of contribution to it and there's a commercial element to it. The main motive is to support the community to co-create and spread this game, this modern sport for the modern athlete and sports fan."

So far, Kronum is played primarily in the greater Philadelphia area, but social media and word of mouth have fueled its popularity. According to the Facebook page for Kronum France, more than 300 student athletes participated in a Kronum tournament in Toulouse last April.

Clearly, growing a community of consumers is a key success factor for sports entrepreneurs today.

"We have close contact with our customers, who give us great feedback," says Gary Hawkins, founder of San Diego-based Ride Fit, a series of live-action cycle and elliptical training videos.

"We tend to reach out to cycling clubs. We also spend a lot of time blogging, obviously to improve our SEO performance, but also to place our product for review on blogs looking at the cycling space."

Ride Fit videos provide a first-person perspective of actual rides on the road, and include a digital dashboard with workout instructions. The aim is to help riders combat boredom when they can't train outside, such as during the winter months, or if they're injured.

"When we get feedback we generally find our product is pretty well received," says Hawkins. "We get a lot of repeat customers, so it's great to be doing something that's having a meaningful impact on people's lives."

For Jerry Lee, cofounder and CEO of Newton Running of Boulder, Colo., developing a community was the only logical way to take on the giants of the running shoe industry. After all, that's what Nike did.

Newton Running first sold shoes from a tent at Ironman events.

"We looked at how some of the great companies like Nike started, and that was really grassroots," says Lee. "You know, selling shoes one at a time. So we thought we'd just take that approach and go slow."

Speaking of Phil Knight, one of the founders of Nike, Lee said, "I admired what he did. He took a gamble, a risk, and he sold shoes out of the trunk of his car. We weren't quite that dramatic, we were a little more mature than he was, but it's the same concept."

Newton Running initially intended to license its impact reduction technology to other companies but changed course and launched its own brand in 2007.

Since then, the innovative technology, distinctive colors, and emphasis on "natural" running of Newton Running shoes have attracted a loyal following. According to Lee, the company's growth over the last five years has been "phenomenal."

"Tell your story. If it's believable and people understand and can relate to it then you can grow a company," says Lee.

At the time of publication, Mollenauer had no positions in stocks mentioned.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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