On August 21 Scott Tilton, the CEO of Hookit.com, and his team will celebrate their tenth year in business while just having relaunched their brand. Those ten years have been both revelatory and circuitous ones as they fine tuned their location based, action sports social network that connects riders, brands, shops, and spots with as many lessons for the brand as their are stories amongst its 700,000+ followers.
The tale begins with the launch of SponsorHouse, which was originally designed to help aspiring riders connect with sponsors, but devolved into a clearing house for companies to unload excess product, an unintended outcome of a model that built a stigma against the founders amongst core retailers. In 2006 the company decided to refocus its efforts on creating more of a social network for riders, and relaunched as Looped Network, which further devolved into a two-year trademark dispute with Loopt, another social networking site, that eventually saw the company reformulate its business plan and launch under the name of Hookit.com.
The new site, which rolls out officially this week, is a dream come true for aspiring riders and travelers, as well as shops and brands looking to connect with their audience, with as many features and nuances to capture eyes and build communities as there were twists in this company’s ten-year history. For the launch, the Hookit team has hit the road, partnering with Monster Energy on its Spots & Sessions Tour to visit and promote 150 skate, motocross, surf, BMX, mountain bike, and wake spots and retailers across the country.
As the tour hits its final legs on the East Coast, we caught up with Tilton to learn more about the company’s history and its business model, which still includes direct sales deals from brands for members, but is increasingly focused on driving those sales to independent retail members, and promoting local scenes and spots from the ground up.
The new model sounds really cool. Give us some background on your company’s history and how you arrived here.
We didn’t get a lot of momentum until ’03 when we relocated from the Northeast to San Diego. We’ve raised a couple rounds of capital over the years and brought in some pretty prominent tech people and entrepreneurs. It wasn’t until about 2006 that we decided we wanted to evolve and grow outside of the sponsorship model. What started as a novel idea, got abused pretty quickly by the brands. We wanted it to be a legitimate sponsorship service and it turned into brands blowing out product at discounts. We knew that wouldn’t be sustainable and it was turning off retailers so we changed the name in 07, and had the beginnings of a social platform for action sports.
Then we got into a trademark dispute, which threw us into a tail spin for about two years.
That’s fun. Did you win that?
We settled. It was a silicon valley- based, VC backed company, Loopt. It was a huge time suck and mind meld. We both had our trademarks approved in the same week so we got into a battle over the name. We went from SponsorHouse to Looped Network. Once we settled, they gave us a year to change the name, paid us to change it, and we put it out to the member base to pick a new name and came up with Hookit around getting hooked up.
The day we went live we found that about 30% of our members couldn’t access because it used to be a porn site about six years ago.
I was wondering where all that content went! That sucked.
Haha. You used to be a member? It was wild, it took us about a month to get things cleaned up. All the big companies like News Corp, ESPN, and TransWorld have site blockers that automatically filter adult content. It turned out that there were about 60 different providers that we had to contact to get reclassified as a sport site.
Take a quick tour of Hookit.com here:
So you went from one headache right to the next.
Yeah, we got things settled last year and then immediately started re-working the product, getting the location based stuff out. About two months ago we released our local business services and new mobile apps. Even though we officially released them, we haven’t announced it all yet because we’ve been piloting with some of the local shops. We have about 20,000 spots in the system now with moto tracks, wake facilities, skate parks, mountains.
So I’m looking at your local business profile page, how does the spot piece work? Who sets that up? Is it free?
The spot profiles are free for the spot owners to claim. We pre-populated it with every moto track, mountain, skatepark. Members can add their own spots if they don’t exist. What we’ve been doing around the tour, is make it a co partnership, give them access, and then they can post updates. All the local tracks around here have claimed them. We’re starting here in Southern California and expanding it out and the tour is helping us do that. We’ve visited about 70 spots since June 1 from San Diego, LA, San Fran, Portland, Seattle, Salt Lake, Denver, Chicago, New York, and Long Island.
What are you guys doing at each stop?
The stops aren’t demos, it’s varied-sometimes we’re visiting events, sometimes we’re hosting contests for the locals.
And you’re publicizing that through the site?
Yeah, we have a whole site called hookit.com/tour.
How is it going as far as attendance?
It’s good – sometimes it’s a few hundred, sometimes you have 20. It all depends on the region. We’ve hit some great places. Just in the past week we’ve done The Kitchen in South Bend, next week we’re doing Incline Club then heading down to Greenville next week. There’s just a ton of stuff going on and we’re tying it in with the sponsors as best as possible with the pace of the tour.
What sports are you strongest in these days?
Moto, [users select each sport they're into]. We have 170,000 members and then skate just exceeded it at 190. Then BMX is a distant third with 75,000 and then it trickles down from there.
How are you going about getting new members? Is it a viral thing at this point?
It’s always been viral but now we’re being a lot more aggressive. We’ve been able to stretch things quite a bit because most of our relationships are constructed as partnerships. Currently we have the tour going, a lot of different things with endemic media, some FUEL TV spots running. This year a lot of our efforts with the spot owners include partnerships where active people posting photos and content are automatically entered to win prizes.
How has the acceptance been on the shop side?
We’ve signed up about 30 shops in the first three weeks. It’s starting to go. For the first 100 shops, theypay an annual listing fee, it’s like $299 or $549 depending on if it’s basic or premium, then what we do is give them an ad credit for Hook Ups, which are local deals [on product for members]. We match their annual listing fee and it’s a pay per click model. If they pay $299, they have $299 in ad credit to post local hook ups. These are all location based and you can access them with our app.
Can riders connect with other riders based around a spot or a shop?
Yeah, if you pull up a local shop, you can see other members that have added that location.
Did you have much push back from retailers from the days of the brand gone direct approach considering some of the disaffection for how SponsorHouse shook out?
Especially on the moto side, there are still a couple wounds out there, but so far. the people that are following it and know what’s going on have seen that we’ve downplayed that. So far, so good. I would say the biggest challenge has been on the surf and skate side, they’re just not really aware of this type of model and concept.
If you had 30 seconds with a retailer to get them to sign up, what would your pitch be?
We have a lot of members using this app and this site to find local spots and post sessions. While we’re doing that we can recommend all the local shops in their area and it’s a really easy way to get in front of them.
You have 700,000 plus members already?
Yep. It’s been building over the years and the majority of them have come on in the last two years. We were at around 400,000 when we changed from Looped.
How much traffic are you guys doing?
We get about a half-million uniques a month right now, which is on the rise. We’ve redeveloped the entire site over the past 10 months. All the sections are new and it’s really fast and has Facebook Connect integrated.
On the brand side, how are you targeting that piece?
We’re educating brands on how they can do it. It’s all so new at this point that the brands are still using it as a way to market their products, but now it’s getting inter-connected so that the local shops can add all the brands they carry. We’re trying to connect all those dots. It’s much more of a social thing than a marketplace at this point.
I think people got confused with the name changes, but I think it’s coming into its own at this point.