Alex Hejazi the founder of Ballbox joins us, today, to discuss how Ballbox is creating an item share revolution. With kiosks full of sporting equipment, beach chairs, and AR/VR sets – they are swiftly innovating in this space. They are setting up kiosks around the country at the beach, in apartment buildings and even at hotels.
Alex walks us through validating the Ballbox idea, the process of creating these kiosks and how they’ve made business decisions. From how they picked the locations to choosing what items to carry in the kiosks.
Learn a little about Ballbox – 00:55
How Alex validated the Ballbox idea – 03:52
How to make Ballbox scaleable – 06:33
The Ballbox ‘go-to-market’ strategy– 08:36
Understanding how different products appeal to different target audiences – 13:36
How Ballbox is working with retailers and providing value– 15:52
Ballbox’s fundraising journey and growth – 17:32
Innovation Hotseat with Alex – 19:4
Erin Srebinski [00:00]: Hi everyone. Alex Hejazi is here on Ask an Innovator today. Alex is the founder of Ballbox. Ballbox is an innovative company pioneering the item sharing revolution. So, what is the item sharing revolution? Ballbox is building kiosks to rent items like beach chairs, virtual reality systems, electric massagers and everything in between. They are setting up these on-demand kiosks at the beach, in apartment buildings, and at hotels. They even offer package delivery to their kiosks for easy pickup. Such a cool concept and definitely worth checking out. Ballbox was recently named one of the top 50 startups to watch here in Chicago. So, let’s dive in.
Josh Barker [00:46]: I’d love to hear from you about your background and who you are and where I think Ballbox, right? That’s the thing and I want to learn a little more about ball box.
Alex Hejazi [00:55]: Yes, so I’ll just give a kind of this story about myself. I grew up kinda up the road in Ann Arbor, Michigan grew up there ended up going to Michigan State, studied finance and graduated 2016 I made my way down to Chicago and when I got here, you know, I guess this is kind of the story about Ballbox but I got here and found myself at the parks and beaches all the time. You have like three months out of the year where it’s actually enjoyable to be outside. I would be at the beach and realize that didn’t have a football to toss around, beach blankets, speakers, like literally everything I used to be able to find in my garage. It wasn’t there anymore. You know, when you move down you kind of keep it lean. I’d Noticed how you know prevalent Divvy Bike Share was across the entire city like literally any corner you go to you can find it. So you can find a bike anywhere in the city and I thought there needed to be something similar for sport tech and leisure products. So kind of got the thinking of how we can do this, you know, start thinking about maybe an app-based approach or like some peer to peer rental service. But, thought the logistics behind that would just be too much of a headache and also doesn’t really serve the purpose people don’t really think ahead of time that, hey, I need to get a blanket for the beach. No, you go to the beach and realize you don’t have it right? Or you know, you are sitting your apartment on a Friday night that’s rainy or stormy and you’re like, Oh, you know, if there’s a VR/AR system, you’d be more inclined to use it. But you wouldn’t wait for the hassle of you know, getting an app, ordering it waiting for calm, returning it through whatever logistics process. So we went for the kiosk based approach, you know, the technology started to become a little bit more affordable and, you know, definitely scalable. So we kind of looked into that approach and now our goal is to just build this nationwide worldwide infrastructure of kiosks that let people rent what they need, where they want to use it, when they want to use it for how long they want to use it and return it and forget about it. So just kind of building off the back of the sharing economy. You know, the, there’s a lot of big players that have kind of paved the road for a lot of this innovation in the space, you know, Uber, Airbnb, Toro. A lot of big, big names that are you know, just revolutionizing the way that people can access cars, access places to stay, and try to kind of piggyback off of that and bring the item share revolution to life. That’s kind of what we’re coining our mission as, just bringing this, this way to access what you need where you want it, without ever having to purchase it. I think one of the things that sparked everything was, you know, this fact that I heard it’s 80% of the products that we own, we use less than once a week. And, you know, it kind of resonated and thought there. You know, there’s a lot of gaps that we could be filling.
JB [03:37]: Very interesting. Now where have you, I’m just, there are so many questions. So one question I have is, how did you, how did you test this out? Like, where did you start? Like, how did you do that? Were you just like, do you go to the beach one day like, “Hey, you want to rent this from me?”
AH [03:52]: Pretty much. I went to Montrose, went to North Ave beach here in Chicago. If listeners aren’t familiar, those are two pretty popular beaches here in Chicago. I literally just had a wagon with me. I had like footballs in there. I had soccer balls in there. I had Kan Jam, I had Spike Ball. I had just like a few different games. I’d walk around. I had like a little sign. And I would just walk up to people to say, “Hey, would you want to rent this?” And just to try and validate if people you know, were at the beach and needed something or would even use it, you know, even like a Spike Ball set isn’t something you need at the beach. But most people go to the beach and realize they don’t have anything to do and they’re just laying there which is also very nice. But you know, if there’s an activity that people could participate in nine times out of 10 they will and that’s kind of how we validated it. So I mean, I went out one day and then within the first like, couple hours you know, I didn’t have anything left in the wagon so I was like, “Okay, this might work.” I think there definitely is, you know, a need for this in the market. People want products, they don’t want to deal with the hassle of carrying them around. So I, you know, after I’d rent the products out, I’d tell them what I’m trying to do. And we’ve got a lot of really positive feedback and responses from them and then was like, okay, this will be worth it. It’ll be worth looking into a little bit further, and then really started to figure out okay, how are we going to do this? And that was just trying to figure out manufacturing. So I was actually working at a startup here in Chicago called Paro. I’m not sure if you’ve heard of it now. It’s a FinTech company. I joined them when they were like five or six people and ended up leaving for Ballbox when they raised a Series A. They grew to about you know, 20-30 people. Now they’re pretty big are going to raise a Series B and they have about 50 people on the team. But anyway, while I was working here in Chicago, you know, it’d be calling different locker manufacturers here in the US and trying to get an idea of what we would be working with price-wise. See if it was something scalable and cost-effective that we could do. It 1,000% was that. You know, these companies, won’t name any, but they were charging, you know, or they were planning to charge us, you know, over $100,000 to see a prototype on the ground.
JB [06:09]: They’re used to scale I imagine, right?
AH [06:10]: Exactly. Yeah. And the thing is, like, you know, when you have an order quantity of one, you’re definitely not going to play. Yeah, you’re definitely not gonna have any, any good luck. But when you’re also relying on, you know, a company that specializes in the space, you know, they deal with Fortune 500 companies that have a budget. I was not that. So we had to figure out.
JB [06:32]: You’re the guy with the wagon, right?
AH [06:33]: Yeah, the wagon. We just kind of figured out a different way to make this scalable, kept building out the business and kind of our go to market strategy. How are we going to operate? And we ended up getting admitted into an accelerator based out of Abu Dhabi. Yeah, so it’s called start AD, was May of 2018. So I would say, like I said, you know, the idea was conceptualized in October 2017, you know, after it was after the summer where I went with the wagon, so you know, August, and then you know, October 2017 really started, like going to work and trying to figure out how to make this a reality. And so worked on it for about six, seven months, and then got admitted to the accelerator program. It was a hardware specific program that really just propelled our business significantly. It put us in touch with overseas manufacturers in China and design engineers. Because I would come from a finance background. So you know, I wasn’t super well versed on how we could actually make this. It kind of put us put me in the right place to, you know, find out how we can build this a lot more in a lot more cost effective manner. We ended up working with an agent in China. I kind of just studied how kiosks work and figured out what components we need. Trying to figure out a lot of the electrical wiring and design specs that are going to be required for it you know to be make it waterproof. How we’re going to design the metal and that’s x y&z so there’s a lot of planning and thought that went into it. And then we had an awesome agent in China that helped us find the different suppliers. So we have a metal fabricator, we have a powder coating facility, we have, you know, our suppliers for all the wiring electrical components the e-locks, et cetera. And he is the one who helped assemble it in his warehouse so that this is our first model. So this is our prototype that we built and just launched actually a few months ago. So that’s kind of how the the first box came to life. I guess. There’s a lot of, you know, learning and planning.
JB [08:28]: Oh, nice. So what is your guys’s go to market like, what Where are you starting? What’s your beachhead? And maybe there’s Pun intended there?
AH [08:36]: Yes. You know, originally what we wanted to do is operate like bike share. We wanted to work with municipalities and offer this awesome residential and community amenity. But we figured out that working with municipalities always is a little bit more difficult than it seems. And we have we’ve locked down some cool partnerships, one with Chicago Park District, which is awesome. Florida, Fort Lauderdale. We’re working on one. So the approach we we’re starting to take now is more with apartment complexes and hotels, we just inked a deal with Mill Creek Places out at one of their brand new complexes in Denver. And that’s kind of the way that we’re going to go about things you know, it’s a lot faster of a sales cycle. These companies in the hospitality and property management space or property development space, are always looking for a way to differentiate themselves. And what better way to do it then Ballbox, go to your apartment and not only do you have the basic amenities of a workout and gym and a pool and everything but you have this kiosk where you can rent roombas, vacuums, VR/AR systems, camping equipment. It’s really easy sell for apartment complexes to get tenants. It’s really easy sell for us to say why would you not have this. So that’s kind of our main route right now we’re working with hotels, apartments, and then kind of on the other side of things, product retailers and manufacturers. So Dick’s Sporting Goods gave us a variety of equipment for our first couple kiosks. And kind of the benefit that they get is you know, after each user rents an item, they play with it, use it have a great time at the beach, or in their apartment or whatever item they’re using. They will get a text message from us, saying, “Hey, hope you had a great time at the beach using x item. If you’re interested in purchasing it, here’s a link.” And we’re able to sell these items new or used to them. We’re opening up a new revenue channel for these product manufacturers or retailers as well as an untapped experiential marketing avenue. You know what better way to get your brand out there then getting it in the hands of consumers, having them play with it experience it, have a great time where they want to use it and then you know just kind of create that. Or it resonates with people that this product, we use that at the beach really helps them out so that’s kind of three avenues that were using.
JB [10:55] Super innovative. That’s I’ve never heard of anything like that. I mean obviously Bike Share, but not like I guess you call it what do you call it? Item share or that item share? Yeah, item share revolution. Yeah, I’ve never heard of that. That’s really interesting. How did you figure out you know, to start at apartments? I mean, why? Why apartments and why these complexes? Like, how did you figure that out?
AH [11:17]: So I guess it was when a road gets closed down, you figure out what’s the detour. Sometimes that detour ends up being an much more scenic and nicer drive. Yeah. We just had a really long sale cycle and just a bunch of headaches working with municipalities , you know, we needed another avenue. Not only that, though, I think there’s a massive demand. People who live in apartment complexes are moving into a new one, pretty much every single year. So everybody is traveling light, everyone’s traveling lean, either you’re moving within your city or you’re moving from out of your city. Really, you know, the apartment complex idea came when I moved to Denver. Everyone who moves there is pretty much living there for the mountains and your recreation. Now, so you have to go there, you have to get camping equipment, you have to get ski gear, you have to get XY and Z. And, you know, I thought there was a huge need for these items that people use occasionally. And that we could fulfill. And there’s also, in apartment complexes, like, how many of them give you a vacuum and how many people move with their vacuum. There’s just a lot of items that we don’t necessarily need to buy because like you said, like we were talking about earlier, we use we won’t use them more than once a week, once or twice a week, maybe. So, that’s what we’re trying to fill. We’re trying to fill that gap of giving people giving people access to items that they would like to use, that don’t necessarily have a true need to purchase. Maybe they’re expensive like a Roomba. Everyone would love to put a robot, you know, the cleaning while they’re at work. And then they come back home and they put it back in the box, but no one really wants to drop $500- $600 on a Roomba. So that’s kind of what we’re trying to do here.
JB [12:58]: Yeah, that’s a great idea. I mean, I can’t tell you also the number of purchases I’ve made on Amazon that I’ve used once. Right, I mean, that that that would entice me to say, “Well, before I buy it, why don’t I try it?” Right? So I mean, that’s awesome. It’s now how in an apartment complex. Did you guys also do some research on like, okay, not only you figured out this avenue that went around and visited municipalities, but then also when you’re in the apartment complex, I’d have to imagine everywhere you know, Ballbox is there’s different needs, right for different items? How did you figure that out?
AH [13:36]: Yeah. So it’s definitely kind of testing and just asking people what they want what they see they could use and we get, the more people you talk to, the more ideas you get. There’s different products, you know, me being 23 year old male, I don’t have the same needs or desires, as a female of the same age. So, you know, talking to diverse sets of people, and and really understanding Well, what people can use and engage value, because, you know, I have a good understanding of my demographic of people what people would want. But you just really need to talk to every single type of person that you can imagine, to really get that perfect product fit for the kiosk. But one thing that we’re just to kind of circle back on the apartment complexes and why we’re moving to that avenue, you know, one of the things that we’re doing as well as we’re building this user engagement platform, so every item in that kiosk, pretty much represents an interest of some sort, you know, football or basketball, whatever it may be. It represents someone’s interest or passion. When I moved from city to city a lot, I mean, over the last six months I’ve lived in six cities or over the last 12 months, I’ve lived in six cities. So Fort Lauderdale, Chicago, Austin, here, New York. So just bouncing around a lot. And it’s it’s pretty difficult to find people to play pickup with. One of the things that we thought we could do is build this engagement platform where I could create a profile, so it would be Alex, I live in Denver, or I could select my nearest Ballbox location, and create a list of interests. You know, I’m interested in basketball, hiking, skiing, find other people based on those similar interests. I want to find other people in Denver who enjoy hiking, connect with them, maybe go on a hike, maybe go skiing, maybe carpool up to the mountain. So try to create this community around these kiosks as well. So it’s not just you know a metal box that people can run items from, but it’s a way that people can connect with others that have similar passions.
JB [15:30]: Interesting. I have to imagine. I mean, you’re talking about a profile. They create a profile but I have to also imagine on the reverse side of that is the things that people rent. There’s a tremendous amount of data you’re learning about them as well of their interests. So that’s that’s kind of cool. Thinking about that, too is, “Oh, this guy rented a football 20 different times, like he’s probably interested in playing football.”
AH [15:52]: Exactly, some of the some of the cool information that we think we can we can collect, is getting a little bit more information about what certain what type of demographics are using products, and what locations. We can say okay, down in Florida, we see that a lot of people are enjoying soccer of this demographic, but in the Pacific Northwest, people are really only playing with footballs within this demographic. So, we can kind of translate that information back to the retailers that we work with and product manufacturers that we work with. And help them better their marketing targets and strengthen their outreach. What Ballbox is doing, I think, is kind of targeting the casual user. If you’re a die hard football fan, you’re watching football every Saturday and Sunday during the season. I think you’re going to have a football. But you know, like me, I played football in high school, but I’m not super passionate about it anymore. Like I used to be so I don’t even own a football. So I think we’re kind of targeting the casual user. Which is very difficult for a company like Dick’s Sporting Goods for Nike or any other company to to really find out you know, it’s easy to find the people who are you know, diehard fans and love the certain game or certain product, but it’s very difficult to sniff out the people who would enjoy it.
JB [17:08]: Yeah, very interesting. You guys could almost have like a scavenger hunt too, you know. Like, you type in the kiosk and then there’s a prize inside somewhere in the United States. So there you go.
AH [17:20]: That’s a good idea.
JB [17:23]: That’s really cool. So where are you guys right now as a company, I mean, where from a Finance standpoint, from an employee standpoint? Where are you guys in your startup journey?
AH [17:31]: Yeah, we’re pretty lean. So we’ve raised about $365,000 today. Right now, it’s just been me and my CTO who are full time. There are a couple people that we have doing some freelance work for us like with marketing, you know, our social media. We’re just starting to get the ball rolling on that. And we have a couple people who are plugged in here and there for videography, etc. But really, it’s just me and my CTO, driving the car at this point in time. We’re hoping to close ideally, what we’re looking to do is like close our seed round off at $450,000. So right now we’re at $365,000. We’d like to add another $85,000 to our first seed round so that we can add another employee help with operations growth, really start to get our name out there and work with a variety of different hotels and apartment complexes, product manufacturers, retailers, and you know, really put the pedal to the metal. You could say
JB [18:27]: Yeah, Nice. That’s awesome. That hotel that you’re working with and the apartment complex, where is that again? Remind me.
AH [18:33]: So we so right now we’re in three, well not yet in three. Right now we’re in two locations. So we have one down in Fort Lauderdale at Beach Place Gallery. It’s like an outdoor mall. If you’ve been to Fort Lauderdale, you might be familiar. We have another kiosk right here in Chicago at North Avenue Beach. And then we actually another kiosk on a ship right now coming to the US. And we’re going to place that at Madeira River North in Denver, Colorado.
JB [18:58]: Nice all over.
AH [19:00]: So yeah, we kind of have a triangle going on right now. We’d like to definitely consolidate these kiosks, you know, help out a little bit with the operational synergies.
JB [19:11]: Yeah, exactly. So flying everywhere. Just want to see the US that’s why you’re doing it.
AH [19:17]: Yes, exactly. Yeah, definitely trying to consolidate you know, our locations. You know, hopefully within the next month or two, we’ll be able to move this kiosk from Chicago once the season dies down to a hotel down in Fort Lauderdale. Really have you know our foot in all three of our target markets, you know public kiosk, an apartment and a hotel. Test, see which ones do the best and make it happen and grow with whoever’s bringing the most revenue and where we’re seeing the most value.
JB [19:48]: Nice. That’s awesome. Cool. I’m gonna pull up some questions I’ve got for you. Awesome. So we have this section called what’s called the innovator hot seat. So here’s some these are random questions that are just out there. They’re not anything about Ballbox. They’re actually about you as a person. Okay, so what podcasts do you subscribe to?
AH [20:09]: What podcast do I subscribe to? Hm, How it’s Built.
JB [20:48]: Yeah, there’s a lot of people that listen to that.
AH [20:51]: It’s a great one. I think it’s awesome just hearing you know the journeys of writing about their founders. You know, build something from the ground up. Even if you’re not in that kind of same space as a business, there’s a lot of parallels that you can draw, which I find, you know, pretty interesting.
JB [21:09]: Yeah, totally agree. That’s a good one. I like it. So one person you’d invite to dinner?
AH [21:14]: One person I’d invite to dinner? Interesting.
JB [21:21]: Now, do you have a girlfriend? Are you married?
AH [21:27]: No I don’t.
JB [21:30]: So that one’s off the table.
AH [21:30]: That’s a great question. Let’s come back to that.
JB [21:33]: One thing you’d bring with you on a desert island?
AH [21:37]: One thing I’d bring with me? A lot of water.
JB [21:41]: Hey, that’s a good one.
AH [21:42]: A LOT of water.
JB [21:44]: All right, the last book you read?
AH [21:48]: The last book I read? I’m blanking on the title. It’s called M, I believe. It was about it’s kind of a nonfiction novel. Actually not nonfiction. It’s kind of like, it’s written by an economist, who is predicting, you know, what the world will look like from a cultural, business, and just all aspects of how society operates. But from, you know, time point of 1000 years from now.
JB [22:16]: So what is the summary? I’m intrigued.
AH [22:19]: It gets all over the place. I haven’t finished it yet. Like, I do this thing where I read like half of I read a book, and then I’ll go to the next go to the next one. I’ll read about halfway through and then I’ll go to the next one. So I never really finish books.
JB [22:32]: Yeah, I do that. Hey, don’t worry. I do that with like, some leadership books or anything like that because they get sometimes they get repetitive and you’re like, “Okay, I got the concept.”
AH [22:42]: Yeah, hundred percent. But yeah, I guess long story short, lot of genetic, a lot of genetic modification. Leading to you know, it takes on, you know, manufacturing, how cities are built. You know, it’s a lot to summarize, but it’s pretty good read. I’ll have to get the title.
JB [23:02]: Okay. No. All right. That sounds good. Sounds like a good book. All right, favorite place you’ve traveled and why?
AH [23:09]: Interesting. I would say Vietnam.
JB [23:13]: Vietnam?
AH [23:14]: Yeah.
JB [23:14]: Oh, nice. Why?
AH [23:15]: I think I think Vietnam is, is a really interesting place, you know, just given its history, you know, the way that they operate culturally. Very friendly people. I’m a big fan of nature as well. So you get a good vibe, or a good mixture of, you know, the city life, which is, you know, extremely lively. Yeah. But then also, you know, the remote nature and villages that come with it as well. So, I think it was, I think that’s probably one of the coolest places I’ve ever been to.
JB [23:43]: Oh, nice. That is a cool place. I’ve never been there. That sounds like somewhere that I should check out.
AH [23:48]: If you’re heading to Southeast Asia, I would definitely put it on your list.
JB [23:51]: Vietnam, okay. Alright. First thing you do in the morning?
AH [23:55]: First thing I do in the morning? Brush my teeth and listen to a five minute news update of what’s going on in the world.
JB [24:00]: There you go. There you go. You know, it’s funny, as a lot of people, I’ll ask that question and they’ll say, they literally their alarm goes off and they start reading email, like immediately. A lot of people do that.
AH [24:11]: No I’ve got to get mentally prepared for my day. I’ve got to ease into it.
JB [24:14]: Same here. Same here. Alright, so what do you do to unwind?
AH [24:19]: Good question workout. Take a jog. That’s kind of usually my mid-afternoon break and then I’ll get back to it in the evening.
JB [24:27]: Go to the beach with your wagon.
AH [24:29]: Not anymore, we’ve upgraded from the wagon.
JB [24:36]: That’s good.
AH [24:38] Yeah, I would say I would say just some sort of physical activity kind of gets you away from the computer. Get your eyes like open again.
JB [24:49]: Oh totally. Alright, so outside of work, what is an area of innovation that is most interesting to you?
AH [24:58]: So my ultimate goal that I tell people is you know, work on Ballbox a few years. Have a nice healthy acquisition and sell the company and then really focus on figuring out some sort of extremely scalable renewable energy technology or something in the ocean. So, so focusing on on something that we can create to have a more sustainable energy resource for the majority of the population. So that it’s scalable for these developing countries that have this really hard decision of you know, are we going to let our country kind of fall behind and not catch up to where the developed nations are? Or are we going to continue to use these fossil fuels? You know, not really have stringent regulations on pollution? Try to figure out a way to create something very scalable, efficient, and a way to bring energy to people. And also, you know, an interest of mine is sustainable like agriculture. And the new the new thing is, well, I guess it’s not new, but just the massive plots of land in the Amazon that are being destroyed due to farming and this beef. So a lot of the companies who are in the space of the artificial meats, I think is a really interesting space as well. Really anything to kind of address a lot of the issues that we’re going to be facing and 20-30 -40-50 years from now. It’s kind of what I’m looking to work on after the Ballbox project.
JB [26:33]: Important work, important work. All right. We’re going back to what? The dinner question?
AH [26:42]: Oh the dinner question, that’s a good one. Okay. So I think I’d like to talk to Muhammad Ali or have dinner with Mohammed Ali. I’m not really big boxing fan. I just think that, you know, the way that he, just from the interviews that I’ve heard and the way that he spoke and his perspective, I think is just a very unique and I think that he just would be a pleasure to talk to you know, just a funny, awesome, you know, enlightening guests to have dinner with.
JB [27:09]: Well, there you go. Mohammad Ali, that’s great. Awesome. Anything else that you’d want to say or talk about?
AH [27:15]: Um, they we really covered everything.
JB [27:18]: We did everything, we covered a lot of ground.
AH [27:20]: We did. We moved across all you know all aspects of the business. I like the hotspot questions, those were good. You definitely caught me off guard.
JB [27:32]: We try to do that on purpose so that people aren’t like, scripted and prepared to like, “Oh my gosh, I have to answer these on the spot. Exactly. It’s good. Well, I appreciate your time. It’s been a lot of fun talking.
AH [27:44]: No, it’s been awesome. this is a great thing that you guys have going on. And you know, I’m gonna have to come in sort of listen to a lot more of these. I think it’s awesome what you’re doing and i think i think it’s awesome that you know, what we’re talking about earlier, the diversity between you know, startups and yeah, the corporations that you guys are working with. So I think what you guys are doing, it’s pretty awesome.
JB [28:03]: Cool. Well, it’s been a pleasure.
AH [28:05]: Thanks again. Appreciate it.