Athletes to Entrepreneurs: Chris Gronkowski
Written by Allison Koehler, Freelance Writer for Brick Media
Chris Gronkowski didn’t know it at the time, but from the moment he was born into the Gronkowski family, he was being primed for a career as an entrepreneur.
Chris, 32, is the middle of five brothers – Gordie, Dan, Glenn, and former New England Patriots superstar tight end, Rob.
They were exposed to business from an early age after their father, Gordie Sr., founded G&G Fitness Equipment in the 1990s. “All of us, we grew up working,” Gronkowski said. “We had a paper route as kids, and when I was old enough, I delivered [fitness] equipment and drove trucks. We were also umpires at the local baseball diamond.”
“It was all always about teamwork and responsibility,” he said. “I grew up learning that was about hard work and earning everything that you got. It made us strive to work hard and challenge ourselves in everything that we did.”
A fullback, Gronkowski was signed by the Dallas Cowboys in 2010 as an undrafted free agent. He would bounce around the NFL with the Colts, Broncos, and Chargers.
“How I see it,” said Gronkowski, “being an athlete and being an entrepreneur, it's almost the same thing. All the success comes down to you, how much work you put in. It's going to be long, long hours, a lot of ups and downs. Exactly how entrepreneurship is, that’s how football was.”
“I was waking up early and putting the hard work in the grind, figuring things out, studying, seeing what other people are doing,” he said. “If we were successful, we had a good day, it was because I put that work in and I figured it out. But if I didn't do that work, it was going to fail. And so being an entrepreneur and being an athlete are very similar.”
When being a pro athlete ended for Gronkowski in 2013, his next career, business ownership, was already in the making.
Gronkowski’s then-girlfriend (now wife), Brittany, had grown tired of constantly moving. They relocated to five different cities in five years. “I think we were in our third year and she was on her third job, and I got traded to Denver,” said Gronkowski. “And when we got to Denver she said, ‘I am not getting another job. I'm sick of going out and applying for jobs; I'm going to find a way to work from home’”.
“I came home one day, and she was hand-painting wine glasses. I kind of thought it was pretty stupid, but she started selling them, and they were selling so fast that she couldn't keep them in stock. And I was like, ‘Wow, this is kind of crazy, but...’’’
Gronkowski spent the 2013 offseason with the San Diego Chargers, but after suffering an injury in training camp, he decided to hang up the cleats and get down to business. “I had this huge opportunity in front of me to continue to grow this business, and so we did.”
“I took time to really dig deep into the company and see what we could do to take us to the next level,” he said.
They started investing in commercial-grade equipment to meet demand and figuring out ways to stand out from the competition. “We brought in our own products, branding our products, getting unique products that nobody else had, and sourcing them ourselves,” said Gronkowski.
The humble beginnings of hand-painted wine glasses evolved into Everything Decorated, a wildly successful e-commerce shop that specializes in personalized gifts.
Always Have A Game Plan
“I didn't ever think I would play a down in the NFL, so for me, it was always, ‘What's next?’” Armed with a degree in accounting, his initial game plan was to be a tax accountant for his NFL peers, but that was before Everything Decorated took off.
Having a lucrative business to immerse himself in, Gronkowski’s transition from the NFL was a relatively smooth one. But that’s not always the case for players after they retire from the game.
“A lot of these guys live in the moment, and I completely understand it,” said Gronkowski. “I mean, when you're playing, you feel invincible. You feel like you're going to play forever.”
“No matter how great you are, even if you played for 15 years, there's still life after football that you have to be prepared for and you have to be ready for what's next.”
The Genesis of Ice Shaker
On a scorching Dallas day in 2016, Gronkowski pulled into the parking lot at the gym. When he went to grab his water bottle, condensation build-up left a puddle of water in the cup holder and all over his shirt. In the brief time it took to drive to the gym, the ice melted, and the water was warm.
“I was making designs out of little sweat rings on the ground at the gym and it just kind of clicked at that point,” explained Gronkowski.
The man was on a mission to find the perfect multi-purpose bottle not only for himself but one he could deliver to the masses. Gronkowski knew there were insulated cups out there, but they didn’t do the trick. Not only did they not keep water cold, but they also weren’t convenient for making protein drinks. “They weren't designed to mix stuff in, and they weren't easy to open, easy to close or easy to fill,” he said.
“It was a light bulb moment. It was, ‘Hey, I'm going to make the best bottle I can for myself. And then hopefully other people like it as well’”.
The product Gronkowski created is Ice Shaker. And like it they do.
Available in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors, the Ice Shaker has over 4,000 5-star reviews. Each premium item is made with kitchen-grade stainless steel that doesn’t absorb odors. Depending on the size, Ice Shaker’s vacuum insulation will keep your beverage cold for 24-40 hours. The steel’s double wall also means its sweat-free – no designs out of little sweat rings for you.
There is even a line of limited edition items, including bottles and tumblers that were rolled out to commemorate Rob’s New England Patriots winning Super Bowl 53.
A Deal With The Sharks
In 2017, Gronkowski pitched the business with all four of his brothers on an episode of Shark Tank. He made a deal with Mark Cuban for $150,000 in exchange for 15% equity.
“[Shark Tank] was huge exposure for the brand; it wasn't necessarily the money. Pre-Shark Tank, Ice Shaker was really just a side hustle. After Shark Tank, it was a full-time business. It went from a couple of orders a day to thousands of orders coming in from the show,” Gronkowski said. “And then we just rode that wave; for us, it was investing that money back into the company.”
“I had to leave my wife's business and 100% focus on Ice Shaker. I'm trying to grow it as fast as we can by putting the processes and right people in place.”
All In The Family
It takes a village to run a business successfully. With the Gronkowski clan, the village comes pre-built.
Together, Gronkowski and his brothers are involved in some capacity in several ventures. Gronk Fitness, Ice Shaker, The Protein Cookie Company, and their latest Stadium Blitz are focused around living a healthy and active lifestyle.
Already the face of the Ice Shaker brand, Rob bought into the company in October and is now part owner. “He's super into health and living a healthy and active lifestyle, and that's what Ice Shaker's all about.”
“We're on the phone, we're game planning, we're throwing together different ideas on how we can really grow this to the next level,” said Gronkowski.
The Gronk Empire doesn’t end with health and fitness. The brothers also have Gronk Bus, a party bus leasing in the Boston area; and Gronk Nation, an online promotional vehicle for the family; and InSite Media Services, which negotiates Rob’s sponsorship deals and managed his brand.
Significance of Branding
“Branding is huge,” said Gronkowski. “It's about trust, it's about customer recognition, it’s about showing people why this is better. And then you have to back that up with an amazing product and amazing customer service.”
For Ice Shaker, its customer base plays a critical role in the brand’s growth. New ideas are continually developed based on consumer feedback. “We stay trendy and on top of the game by looking for suggestions from [the product users] to help us grow and get into areas that they're looking for,” Gronkowski said. “It's a premium bottle that [buyers] are going to use for months, maybe years. So, you're going to spend the time to really research it, to make sure that it's as great as everyone says it is.”
Gronkowski wants to make Ice Shaker a household brand and knows that it starts with studying the buyer and their behavior.
“People today, they're not going to just buy something that they've never seen before,” he said. “So, we had to figure out how to get it in front of them and then how to also brand it so that they would trust it.”
Social media also plays a critical role in the brand’s growth. “It’s about building an engaged audience. You can have millions of followers, but if you're not engaging with them, if they don't trust you, it's pointless.”
“So social media is huge, but you have to do it right, and you have to put the time and effort into it,” he said.
Gronkowski learned early on that a brand must offer value in other ways than simply in the product itself. “I spent the time on the brand and finding ways to really give people value, and motivation through something that they can actually use, not just throw product in their face,” said Gronkowski.
“We noticed that if we post a recipe or an awesome workout, fitness video; they see that and appreciate it. At that point, they are more likely to buy your product,” he said. “You can't just go on [social media] and ask, ask, ask. You have to give people something back in return. And that's really when you become successful on social media.”
Follow Ice Shaker on Facebook & Instagram @iceshakerbottle
From the perspective of the former players, Athletes to Entrepreneurs is a recurring series that delves into life after professional sports. Brought to you by Brick Media.