Meet Chris Gronkowski, Former NFL Player-Turned-Entrepreneur Who Invented ‘The Ice Shaker’ — A Vacuum-Sealed Protein Shaker

by 1 year ago

John Elway has car dealerships. Rosevelt Colvin has cupcakes. Drew Brees owns a few Jimmy Johns. Peyton Manning owns a stake in a Budweiser distributor in Louisiana.

It’s a common trajectory: After years in the NFL, figure out how to successfully start a hustle of your own. For Chris Gronkowski, older brother to New England Patriots superstar Rob Gronkowski, that hustle is next all-time great Bro invention: The Ice Shaker, a vacuum-insulated, stainless-steel protein shaker that holds ice for over 30 hours. That’s even longer than a Yeti Rambler, RTIC Tumbler, or Ozark Tumblers.

As a fullback, Chris was a journeyman around the National Football League, with stints from the Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos, the Indianapolis Colts, and the San Diego Chargers before ended his career with an injury.

“So my story’s kind of crazy…” he tells me over the phone earlier this month.

“I was playing four years in NFL, bounced around. Started three years, three different teams. Fourth year, went into it, got hurt. But what ended up happening during that time was my wife — well, my now wife. At the time, my fiancee at the time and she was like, man, this sucks…”

I chatted with Chris for about 40 minutes as part of BroBible’s LIVING THE DREAM series of entrepreneurs, adventurers, and dreamers living their best lives.  Gronkowski shared the story behind his adventure into entrepreneurship with the Ice Shaker. after leaving the NFL, which started with his wife’s custom laser engraving business for weddings.

“At that point, I started making more money than I was making in the NFL. I left the NFL and my salary increased. So I was kind of a good transition.

Read or listen to our entire conversation below. And as a special deal for the Bros of the world, Chris Gronkowski is offering BroBible readers 10% off their order via IceShaker.comJUST USE THE CODE “BROS” UPON CHECKOUT.

BUY IT NOW: $25

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“Every time you go to a new team, I got to get a new job. And so finally, after the second team, she’s like – ‘Yo, I’m going to figure out something I can do at home, because this is just not working. Every new city, new job, once a year — we move five times in five years since college ended.’

“So she started hand painting wineglasses at home and I kind of brushed it off and kind of laughed about it. But she started selling them like crazy. And at that point, it took so damn long to do each glass, you know, 15, 20 minutes to hand paint them that it wasn’t really worth the time. So at that point, I told her to try to find a way to scale this better, faster, and more efficiently.

And so she went out and got a vinyl cutting machine and she started doing bottles, tumblers, double tumblers, and pretty much personalized them for the wedding industry. And at that point, it really started to take off. She started making some decent money. And at the same time, I got hurt playing in the NFL and took an injury settlement from the Chargers.”

What year was that? 

So that was in 2013.

At that point, I came back and I saw that the personalization market was just absolutely huge and pretty much limitless, especially with the wedding industry – People will spend whatever they have to spend on a wedding. So at that point, we took some of my money and started investing in industrial machinery so we could personalize gifts by laser engraving them. We bought a couple of machines to scale this company and then take it to the next level.

So at that point, I started making more money than I was making in the NFL. I left the NFL and my salary increased. So I was kind of a good transition.

That is crazy. This is all before you debuted the Ice Shaker bottle too, correct?

That’s correct. So what happened with that was we actually were doing a lot of other cups and these stainless steel vacuum insulated cups started coming out. And a lot of people were buying them from us for groomsmen gifts, wedding gifts, or just holiday gifts for Christmas and stuff like that. So I got introduced to them and I loved them, but I couldn’t bring them to the gym with me because they didn’t have the classic pop top or didn’t open up easy or they just didn’t have a top on them at all. And at that point, I was like, man, these are cool. I use one every day. But I’m going to the gym once or twice a day, so I want to bring the cup with me.

I was using the same plastic shaker that everybody else was using. I had cabinets full of them. I’ve probably had hundreds in my life. And finally, one day in the summer– about a little over a year ago now — I get to the gym and by the time I got there, my water was warm and my cup holders in my car were full of condensation. My hands were all wet. I was making little circles all over the gym floor. I’m like, man, there’s got to be an insulated bottle I could throw my pre-workout in or my post-work shake in and bring it to the gym with me and actually keep a cold and not sweat all over my hands and in my car.

So I went home. I looked everywhere. I went on Amazon, Google. I went everyone I possibly could, and there was no shaker bottles in the market that were insulated. So I’m like, ‘Man, this is crazy to me.’ I had connections already to a manufacturer from our other company because we were already importing a lot, manufacturing a lot.

So we used our contacts and I said, man, I’m going to make the best shaker bottle I can. So, from there, I used the same design as a classic shaker bottle because it’s a great design. It’s easy to fill. It’s easy to clean it. I went and made it with stainless steel because it’s a kitchen grade and it doesn’t absorb odors, same kind of materials you use with your forks, your spoons, any kind of kitchen grade material, or stainless steel is. So I went with that. And then we were able to vacuum seal it, which allows it to hold ice for over 30 hours in a 75 degree room.

So I actually took the cup that day and I put it next to other cups on the market. And it was 36 hours later, the first sample we got in. It still had a little bit of ice left in it.

That’s awesome.

I’m like, man, this is legit. So it’s topped– it’s capped off, unlike some of the other bottles, so it, will actually hold longer than the cups that are on the market.

At that point, I was pumped, man, and you think your product’s going to be there in the next week or two, and it’s a huge process. It takes months. And we were trying to rush it in before Christmas and it just didn’t happen. And we ended up launching pretty much the week of Christmas, but we missed all the sales.

Right, right.

Just another learning process, because you’re not going to get your product when they say you’re going to get it. You’re going to get it a couple of months or at least a couple of weeks later, so you have to prepare in advance and you got to be ready for that kind of stuff.

That’s wild. So did you originally have a Yeti Rambler tumbler? 

Oh, yeah. That’s what it started with. We were engraving thousands of those at Christmas. And we weren’t just selling them for their $40 — We were getting them and then we were personalizing them and selling them. People were buying them for $120 a piece from us. And it was just getting crazy. And that’s kind of where I’m like, what is this thing you? You know, why is everyone bringing these into our store? You know, what– I don’t even know what it was at the time.

Right.

That’s when I started using one. I’m like — ‘Hey, those are legit.’ But I can’t bring it to the gym. Or it spills when I– so I started doing that, too, was– we have so much stuff on our counters at work and someone would throw something on the desk, would shake it, and it would spill. My keyboard would be there, my phone would be there, and all of that. I’m like, man, can’t they just kept this thing? Or could we get a bottle? And I just love the easy open pop top where you can just throw your favorite drink in there and sip on it all day.

It’s funny because really when you think about it, these are very similar just with a protein shaker cap on it.

Yeah! It’s just simplest idea that nobody did.

Right.

Everyone was like, man, I thought of that three years ago. I’m like, well, thanks for not doing it, you know? I mean, a lot of people think of it. It’s just it’s hard follow through on an idea, because you need money, you need the know how, you need the drive. I mean, it’s never easy. So at any point, you can easily give up if you don’t have that motivation or you just don’t have the drive to do

And it was frustrating. I mean, 20 prototypes later and we’re still having issues.Iit’s a lot harder than you think it is, to just come up with an idea. Everyone can think of ideas. The key is actually executing on that idea.

So your R&D took a total of 20 prototypes, then, all things considered?

Yeah, it was to the point where every time you shipped a new one, there was a new problem. And just with capping and sealing and manufacturing dents and polishing it and putting our logo on it, all kinds of just little problems every single time a new shipment came in. And I just want it to be perfect.

It just drove me crazy. We tried a whole bunch of different seals to try to find the perfect one that wouldn’t leak. So I couldn’t just go out there and launch with something that I couldn’t prove for myself, I didn’t use everyday myself. I wanted this product for myself because that’s the reason I created it, was so I could use it.

Right.

I wanted to make sure it was legit, because I wasn’t going to walk around with something that wasn’t legit.

How did you prepare for marketing the Ice Shaker? Because that’s a different beast on its own.

It is. It’s absolutely huge. And I thought it would be a lot easier for me because first off, my following. It’s not huge, but I have a decent following, just from playing in the NFL.

Having a brother that’s famous helps as well. So that helped as well. My brother definitely helped me launch it. He put a few posts up. I also sent the entire team the entire Patriots team during the Super Bowl run, I sent them all shaker.

Nice.

It didn’t blow up our sales, but it got the name out there and it put it in front everyone, and then, once we started marketing towards them, then they were like, ‘Oh, man, this is awesome.’ Now I know what it is. I heard about it, but now that it’s in front of me, now I know it is. And we started getting a lot of sales from that. Other than that, started– just a lot of teammates that I had in the past, even our friend that’s in the WWE. We sent him a bunch as well.

Mojo Rawley?

We approached all wrestlers. Mojo Rawley — yeah, man!

All right.

Yeah, so he was a teammate of mine. And we just kept in touch. And yeah, he’s a superstar now, man.

Yeah, Mojo’s stock is on the rise! 

Mojo’s the man. So we got him to give us some shout outs, stuff like that, and then we did really well just on Amazon as well. It’s a huge marketplace for nutrition, supplement bottles, all of that stuff. So we targeted them early on because they have the customer base.

Right.

It’s not a long term strategy for us, but it was a great start for us. And we still sell a ton through them. We’re one of the top rated bottles on Amazon right now as well.

As an entrepreneur, why was it important for you to have inventory for fulfillment, et cetera, stuff like that right away, versus going the Kickstarter, crowdfunding route?

Man, I didn’t even look into the whole Kickstarter crowdfunding. I didn’t– the potential’s there. I’ve looked into it recently because we’re trying to get our second round of product going, but it’s more than– you think you just go on there and people find you.

You have to still advertise. You’re still paying a ton of money, you’re making professional videos, you’re given updates, you’re doing all kinds of stuff. It’s not just through your product on there and all of a sudden, a million people are going to give you money. You’re getting your name out there as well. So I mean, the thing– the reason I didn’t do that was because I had the money, so I didn’t need to go out there and say, ‘Hey, yo — I need the money to make this product.’ I had the money already saved up. So I don’t even think of it as an option at that time.

You said that SEO is big for you?

Absolutely. So we’re a new website, and it’s very hard to rank within your first year, any of the top pages. What I’ve been doing, though, is just trying to get as many back links as I can, trying to get as much PR as I can about the product. I’ve been pretty successful doing it lately. It’s something that just started about a month or two ago. Also, just making sure my web page is optimized for all the search terms that I’m looking for as well.

But in the last, I would say the last couple of weeks, we’re starting to get up there for the bigger search terms for us, that are like, shaker bottle, shaker cup, protein shaker. We’re now on the second page for all those terms, which are the three biggest terms for the exact product that we’re looking for. I also try to push my own name and my family’s name because it’s very highly searched as well.

I was able to get my name up there. It’s like 10,000 hits a month on it, and I got it up to, I think, number four in the rankings for a little bit. So it’s bouncing up and down. But I was on the front page for that as well. So I think SEO’s huge. I’m all about organic search, getting your name up there. And once you do it, so when has to come and beat you out, so you could be up there for years and years and years and it’s just all free traffic coming in for you.

Right. So in terms of next steps with retailers and distribution and stuff like that, do you want to– obviously, online is the big push right now, but are you trying to get in bigger retailers across the board?

Yeah, we’ve tested it a little bit. I’m in 14 GNCs right now in the Dallas area. I’m in a couple Nutrishops as well. So what we did with that was I wanted to get out there. I want to see how it did, so the guy that– they loved the idea of working locally with one of the owners here that owns 11 of them, one of them owns three.

They said — ‘hey, let’s try it out.’ We can help you push it to corporation, but let’s see how it does first. And I said, yeah, let’s take it slow and make sure it sells, because the last thing you want to do is throw a product in a store that doesn’t sell, because it’s just coming right back to you, then. You’re going to lose a lot of money. They’re going to lose money. It’s going to sit on a shelf and then they’re going to ship it back to you or ask you to buy it back if it doesn’t move.

So I wanted to make sure the demand was there first. I want to get the product out there. I wanted to make sure it sold before I went and made the big play on it. So as of right now, they’ve reordered four times, now, from me, and it’s only been a couple of months. So it’s doing pretty well.

But what I’ve found out so far is that it’s doing well in a store like GNC because their salesmen are pushing the product. I asked them to put a commission on it, to start it with, and they’re able to then go and push the product as you get the customer when they walk in. But if this went into a big box store where it was just sitting on the shelf, I don’t think our consumer base is educated enough about the product yet to really do well with it. So at this point, we’re still trying to get our name out there, and once we feel comfortable with that, we’ll start going after the big box.

Right. That’s when you put the three Gronkowski Brothers on the front of it. 

Yeah. We’ll see that do well in the Northeast but anywhere else, we might get crushed for it.

Maybe not in Atlanta. It might not go over very well there.

No, not at all, man. Yeah, I’ve been asked that question a lot as well, like, why didn’t you name it the Gronk Shaker? Why didn’t you put your name on it? And for me it was — it does well in the Northeast. It does well in Boston and you’ll kill it. But this product isn’t– I wanted to make sure, first off, that it wasn’t just something that every time Rob posted it, it did well.

I wanted to make sure it was a legit company that I could actually spend time on it an go all in on before– you know, it wasn’t just, hey, Rob posted. I sold a couple of thousand. This is awesome. I’ve got a great company.

So that was one reason I didn’t do it. And then the second reason was it really does limit your customer base because a lot of people, they are die-hard Cowboys fans or they’re die-hard 49ers fans and they will not purchase a product that has another athlete’s name on it. I didn’t want it tied to a bad game or those fantasy gurus out there who get mad if, you know, he didn’t have 50 points that day and go ‘he sucks and I’m not going to buy his shaker.’ I’m going to go leave a bad review now because he didn’t win the game for me because he only scored 40 points.

Right, right, exactly.

 

So I think it’s the best of both worlds by naming it what I did and not putting our name on the box.

I think the customization is so cool. You know, the optional customization. Because that’s the thing about if you go to Dick’s Sporting Goods to buy Yeti, you’re not going to be able to get your company name or your name or something, whatever, etched onto it. How much of sales, currently, really want to have the customization aspect of it?

It’s a lot. So anyone that comes to our web site, it’s more than 50% of them ad customization on it. And I think it’s a huge selling point, because first off, we turn it around in two to three days.

Yeah, it’s super fast.

Sometimes same day, for the most part. And we can do pretty much anything, as long as not a colored logo, because the laser doesn’t print in color. But, I mean, it’s– we could do it all. I mean, we get pretty complex designs on there. They look great.

That’s fantastic.

It’s huge. I think it’s huge for the fitness industry as well, because people always are looking for that little extra motivation, or that quote on their bottle that’s just going to get them pumped up for the day when they kind of don’t feel like working out. So I think that helps a lot. And then, yeah, the logos, we do really well with the logos because people want to bring them to work with them and kind of just show them off. And go to a business meeting, they put their cup down, it has their logo on it, and everyone sees it. It just looks good and people remember it, then.

Totally. It’s a great swag present. It really is.

Oh, it’s great.

How many have you sold to date so far?

So last time I looked– let’s see. So we did in the first six months, we sold about $85,000 to $90,000 worth of product.

That’s awesome.

So it’s a pretty successful launch from going from zero to $90,000 in six months is pretty good for no one’s ever heard of it. We weren’t really spending a lot on marketing. So it’s been pretty successful so far.

Your career is fascinating to me because you went from being in The League to entrepreneurship. And a lot of athletes struggle with that in their post-professional careers. What do you think has helped enable you to be successful in this realm?

Well, first off, I never dreamed I’d even make it to the NFL. That was kind of — I didn’t even start till my junior year, and at that point, I had a couple scouts come in say, yo, we’re looking at your film. I’m like, yeah, all right, kind of deal. But for me, once I saw my three other brothers get drafted, I was like, oh, hell, yeah. I’m not going to be the only one that doesn’t play, you know?

Yeah.

Not going to be that one guy in the family that just didn’t make it. So that was kind of my motivation, and I just went ham after that, man, just whole new mentality, a whole new mindset, and I’m like, I’m making this team no matter what.

Yep.

And I had my shot. I took it, man, and ended up playing for three years, so I consider it successful. I mean, most people look at it and say, they would never know who I was if it wasn’t for my brother, really, but if you get pension, you get four years, most guys, they purposely set it at three years, because most guys don’t make it three years. So to me, going for getting four credit seasons, I consider it a success for someone that was pretty much a long shot.

That’s awesome.

But that, for me, so at the same time, I was sitting there thinking, this isn’t going to last forever. I’m not a superstar. So I already had game plans going in the back of my head of what I wanted to do after. I was actually looking to into more into accounting. I got an accounting degree, and I got in the NFL and I said, man, these guys have never filed taxes before. They never made money before. And then you go to a CPA and you have to file in every single state that you play in. So you end up filing it in eight, nine different states.

So these guys, they don’t know what to do. Some guys don’t even file. And it’s crazy because they take enough away where we always get a return in the NFL, because they hold from our checks a lot more than we need to pay. So some guys don’t even file thinking they’re doing something to stay away from the IRS like keeping some extra money, but really, they should be get thousands back.

So I was looking to go into that and use my experience in the NFL and pretty much pick up guys and say, hey, man, I know all the write offs. I did all my taxes while I was playing in the NFL. Kind of do a seasonal pick up, where just do a whole bunch of guys’ taxes and make some good money and then kind of do something else in the off time.

That was kind of my game plan going in, and then out of nowhere, my wife’s business pops up. Growing up, my dad was an entrepreneur. He started his own business 26 years ago. He’s the fourth leading supplier of fitness equipment now in the US. So we grew up with that background. We worked for him. He worked two jobs while he was setting up his business. So we had that whole experience. And our parents just taught us the value of a dollar when we were really young. So I had a paper route. We were umpires, worked for my dad, we did everything.

Yep.

Just knew how to save and it was just something that your parents kind of taught you.

That’s awesome. So you really felt– so it was not really a struggle at all, that when you walked out, when you left the league, to be like, you know what? I’m going to start my own business right now.

Yeah, at the time, I mean, it wasn’t for my wife’s business, it would have been pretty tough. And I have a lot of friends that went through it. They still do. I mean, guys, even after 10 years they played in a league, you’re so used to that mentality, waking up, working out, getting after it, and they just don’t know what to do after. I mean, you were trained to do that since you were in high school, some kids, in Little League. So to walk away from the game’s hard.

And kind of at the same time, you’re like, what am I going to go work for $60,000 for when I was just making that in one game? Or it’s triple that in one game or 10 times in one game. So some guys, it’s just hard to get up in the morning to go work for pennies on what they were making before.

Yeah. And then I guess there’s also the always underlying issue of people just spending it while they’re in the league.

 

Yeah! when I got to Dallas, I call it the Dallas car show, man, because every day, there was a new car in that parking lot, man.

And in Dallas, what were you rolling up to Arlington with?

Oh, man. I bought my first car used. I think it was like $20,000. So I was rolling up and hiding. They were like, here comes the kicker.

 

I only had one car, man, and that was it. Everyone else had three.

But, hey, man, it was very economical and reliable and it got you there.

Hey, absolutely, man. I felt good. It was my first car.

I love it.

Felt like I did something right. I took a– I had a– well, I signed. I got $10,000 as my signing bonus, so I used that to get a car, and then I had money, I actually had money from my jobs as a kid, but I also played online poker when online poker was really big in college.

Throughout college, I got all my spending money from playing online poker. So it was crazy, man. I was just scrambling for money, man, looking everywhere.

And as a special deal for the Bros of the world, Chris Gronkowski is offering BroBible readers 10% off their order via IceShaker.comJUST USE THE CODE “BROS” UPON CHECKOUT.

BUY IT NOW: $25

Total bro-cup game-changer. Go grab an Ice Shaker now! Don’t forget to use the code “BROS” for 10% off!

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