What I Learned from Spikeball Founder Chris Ruden

One of the biggest perks of going to a school like Northwestern is that cool people from all over the country come to the school to speak, and I get the opportunity to engage with people who have successfully navigated successive challenges to get to the place they want to be.

Last week, Spikeball Founder Chris Ruden shared his life story in my Entrepreneurship class. After working at Microsoft for a decade, Chris decided to quit his job and redesign his life. He is the founder of Spikeball, a sports that has gone viral in the United States. More than 4 million are playing! I extrapolated four incredible lessons from Chris’ story that I think would benefit all of us.

First, It is possible to redesign your life at all ages. When Chris first conjured up the idea of Spikeball, his opportunity cost of quitting his corporate job was high. He is a husband and a father of three children, and shoulders onerous responsibilities at home. Quitting his stable and well-paid job at Microsoft would mean losing all the benefits that came along with it, including security benefits and prestige. Nevertheless, Chris’s long dissatisfaction with his working environment pushed him to make the difficult choice. A lot of times, we hear adults say that they are stuck in a job they dislike, but they refuse to do anything active about it. Instead, they blame it on something else. I have a family to feed, they’d say. The opportunity cost is too high, they’d say. But I am about to be promoted, they’d say. Chris is live proof that all these statements are nothing but excuses and fear. When you have enough will, determination, and passion, you can redesign your life anytime you want.

Second, Take risks. But more importantly, take calculated risks. Instead of altogether quitting his job at Microsoft, Chris came up with an even better plan. He worked on Spikeball from 8 P.M. to 1 A.M. everyday while working for Microsoft during the day. Chris found a way to redesign his life without compromising stability. He took what he calls a “calculated risk”. Granted that Chris has to work his ass off and be incredibly persistent, but he pulled it off. Five years later, Chris reaped the fruits of the risks he took and quit his job to go work full-time with Spikeball. 

Third, taking things slow can lead to magical results. It took Chris 5 years of sitting on his idea of Spikeball before he actually put it into practice. He would hurl out the idea of Spikeball at his friends, talk about it with strangers, and share his vision with those around him. He wasn’t in a hurry to get started, and he took things slow. A lot of wantrepreneurs today jump into product development impatiently, without spending enough time on customer development. But Chris’ patience set him apart and paid off eventually. 

Last, but perhaps most importantly, compassion and human connections matter. Chris’ success with Spikeball largely stems from his ability to foster human connections. While Chris was advertising for Spikeball, he would ask basketball players to give out free Spikeball sets to their opponents. The losing team who received the Spikeball set almost always reacts with the largest surprise and smile on their face upon receiving the gift. The gesture of respecting your competitor shows compassion and sportsmanship, and people started to associate Spikeball with genuineness and kindness. Chris also requires all 24 employees of his to do customer service shifts, no matter what position they are in. All his employees start their emails to customers with greetings like “Hey Mike!” and “What’s up Sarah?!”, instead of the typical, monotonous “Dear Customer”. For Spikeball, every customer is valuable, and they want to convey this message through they way they interact with their users. Chris genuinely cares about connecting with people, and he is set out to make Spikeball a community that symbolizes love and inclusivity for whoever plays the sport.

Chris changed my understanding of an entrepreneur. I always thought entrepreneurs are sort of just really techy and really smart, but it turns out that entrepreneurs can be some of the most patient, kindest, and caring people out there.

Alexandra HuangComment