He may have put the cart before the horse when creating his business plan, but that snafu didn’t stop Robert Blackwell from turning his favorite pastime as a youngster into a successful company that is helping popularize the sport of table tennis.
“I really should have put the right team in place before launching the company,” laments Blackwell, 45, president of Chicago-based Killerspin L.L.C., a private table tennis manufacturer and event producer. “I focused more on the strategy, and that set us back.”
Lucky for Blackwell, the table tennis industry has hung in limbo for decades, which means just about any forward motion would be considered positive. “The industry is so behind that even in light of the mistakes I made, we still looked great compared to what else was out there,” says Blackwell, who introduced the 10-employee company in 2002 with a bang by sponsoring the Killerspin Extreme Table Tennis Championship in Chicago.
Looking to create an experience rather than just a company that sold table tennis equipment, Blackwell invested $550,000 of his own money to put on the event, which attracted 3,500 attendees, an ambassador from China, and the head of the Olympic Committee. “Many of them told me it was the best table tennis event ever held,” says Blackwell, who increased the event’s visibility by forming relationships with FOX and ESPN.
Generated by product sales (primarily through the company’s Website, www.killerspin.com), event ticket sales, and content such as DVDs and magazines, company revenues hit $1 million last year and are expected to reach $3 million this year. This success is a result of the “momentum we’ve built over the last four years,” says Blackwell, who is also president of Electronic Knowledge Interchange, the 100-employee, Chicago-based information systems consulting firm that he founded in 1998.
Blackwell says creating buzz around the company and its vision hasn’t been easy. Table tennis has been largely a “basement sport” for Americans and is overshadowed by popular sports such as baseball, football, and basketball. To broaden the appeal of table tennis, he spreads information on how the game improves cognitive development and “helps make your brain younger.” Blackwell also leverages relationships with sponsors such as the State of Illinois and the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut.
Blackwell is currently planning a large table tennis event for later this year. He says more apparel, shoes, and equipment are under development and will be introduced over the next few months. “I want to do things smart by focusing on having the right people in place first,” says Blackwell. “Then we’ll strategize on how to execute our vision and build this company into a $100 million firm.”
Killerspin L.L.C.; 33 W. Monroe St., 17th Floor, Chicago, IL 60603; 312-441-0124; www.killerspin.com