How to build a strong community and a successful product - during a pandemic


Juda Honickman

Chief Marketing Officer @ Slinger

How the product came about

In 2017, Joe Kalfa, Founder of Slinger®, came up with the concept of a personal tennis ball launcher, which would ultimately become known as the Slinger Bag. An avid tennis player who plays for at least a few hours a day, Joe thought of the idea during a break in a tennis match. He realized that he was always struggling to find a partner to play with, and he imagined that his personal pain point was probably quite common for fellow tennis players.

A dog in a slinger bag.

At this point, Joe met and shared his vision with Juda, bringing him on board as a consultant to lead product design and overall strategy for the company’s pre-sale crowdfunding initiative. Over the next year, the team worked on the product’s design, and in May 2018, they unveiled a prototype of a portable, cordless tennis ball launcher that could be operated using a remote control. They launched a Kickstarter campaign and saw that their product was an instant hit.

Slinger® hit their goal of $25,000 in 45 minutes, $100K in 7 days, and $1M in 90 days.

The success of the campaign helped them realize that the problem was far more common throughout the tennis community than they had even realized. More than that, people were very excited about the solution they were offering. Throughout the crowdfunding process, they listened carefully to their customers, trying to understand their needs and desires so that they could create the ultimate personal tennis ball launcher with all the additional elements that tennis players dreamed of. To create a sense of community and belonging, they referred to their target market as Slingers, and they turned to them with all sorts of questions:

What type of remote do you want?
What features would you want from your own personal tennis ball launcher?
What size would be ideal?

Their research became part of the community-wide conversation, leading to the final product which is now on the market. The C level team then arranged a meeting with Mike Ballardie, former CEO of Prince, one of the world leading tennis brands. To their delight, Ballardie agreed to come out of tennis retirement and has been leading the company as CEO ever since.

A tweet by Greg Isenberg that says "Community-led companies are the new 'lean startup' Lean startup: build software, then find community Community-led: build community, then build software The next wave of big consumer companies will be community-led"

Launching a product in Covid

With the crowdfunding campaign behind them, the next stage was to create, test, and manufacture the Slinger Bags for shipping, which proved to take longer than initially expected. The first units went out to the Kickstarter backers in March 2020, with a plan to make Slinger available to the wider tennis community shortly after. But then Covid-19 hit the world.

As China slowed production, supplies of the product dried up, leading to a significant delay in the production schedule. Slinger was forced to make the product available to the USA market with a 60 day delivery lead time, a major a challenge for a new brand.

There was some backlash and complaints over the delayed delivery from some customers, but the Slinger community was solid and supportive.

Original Kickstarter backers got involved in the conversation, responding to the complaints with comments such as “We have waited 18 months, you can wait 60 days! Buy the product!” and “The product is worth the wait, trust me!”

No Court, No Problem Campaign

Despite the obvious challenges, Covid-19 turned out to be the ideal time for the Slinger® personal launcher, as people suddenly found themselves alone - with no tennis courts open and no partners to be found. They launched a “No courts, no problem “ Instagram campaign, featuring members of their community from around the world playing indoor and outdoor tennis using their Slinger Bags. The tennis community is well established on social platforms, and Slinger® found that many of the community loved the product before they even saw it. Orders began pouring in faster than Slinger® could manage.

An image of a man standing in front of a Slinger bag with a lot of tennis balls in the air.

From the beginning, Slinger® was always about making tennis more accessible for the tennis players. As Juda says:

“From day one, our focus was building a community. From the first email we sent, calling our customers “Slingers,” until the most recent email offering them to beta test our new app (to which 2k+ people responded), we knew that it was all about them".

According to Juda, everything that the company has done so far has been mission-driven. "We had a goal to make tennis more accessible and fun, and we are doing just that. While there have been many bumps along the road, we stuck to the plan, listened to the community, and kept moving forward with dedication and drive. The global tennis community sees and feels our passion and dedication, and their response has been nothing short of amazing.”

On using Influencers

Having seen the success of the newly-launched product, Juda set out to expand by onboarding a select number of influencers who were given the product for free in exchange for social media promotion. Rather than going straight for the bigger names in tennis, Juda chose to launch the campaign with Micro-Influencers with between 7K – 25K followers who were more likely to use the product, would be more relatable to their followers, and therefore, more likely to convert followers into buyers.

This strategy proved to work perfectly, resulting in an expanded product interest and more customers. It also set the stage for customer submitted content, which has become the community's go-to resource for understanding how to get the most out of their Slinger Bags. 

Juda’s top takeaways for others looking to put community at the heart of their product:

“You can’t build a community without listening to your community.”

There is nobody who better knows the pain point that your product is aiming to solve than the community who it is aimed at. 

“Authenticity shows.”

From day one until today, Juda still manages the brand's Instagram account and does not believe in handing it over to an intern.  

“Every customer can be your influencer, and each one deserves equal respect.”

If people love your product, they will share it with their friends, making every customer a potential sales rep.

“Never underestimate your ability to figure it out.”

When he was first approached by Joe Kalfa, Juda had never played or even watched a game of tennis. He dove right in, learning the sport, the industry, and the needs that drive the demand for the product.