We are excited to announce that earlier this year PingPod acquired the assets of Sharks, an operator of autonomous pool clubs in New York City. Sharks has been transitioned to our tech stack, the customer service team has been integrated, and, as of August, we have opened a Sharks in Philadelphia that is co-located with the PingPod location on Chestnut Street!
The Sharks Backstory
We met Jessica Resler, the founder of Sharks, after opening the first PingPod in 2020. Jessica is smart and driven and exudes an entrepreneurial “just get-stuff-done” vibe. She was immediately taken with the autonomous operating model and, inspired by PingPod, set out to apply the model to a similar medium: pool.
Pool suffers from many of the same urban supply constraints in cities as ping pong. It is prohibitively expensive to have a pool table in a New York City apartment. There are a small number of larger format pool clubs such as Amsterdam Billiards, with high-end equipment that cater to serious players. Most of the other options to play pool are relegated to bars, which lack any semblance of privacy, tend to be loud, and offer “well-worn” equipment at best. In bars, pool is something to do while drinking, rather than the other way around.
For players who wanted to replicate the feeling of playing pool at home with friends, without the noise and distractions of a bar, there weren’t many good options….until Jessica launched Sharks.
Beginning in 2021, Sharks opened clubs in New York on the Lower East Side, at Rockefeller Center, in Williamsburg, and in Astoria. The Sharks locations have strong branding and a distinct sense of style and character that reflects Jessica’s design sensibilities (she’s also a very successful immersive designer). Jessica and team successfully built core clientele in all of the locations, moving Sharks well past the initial “activation” phase.
Bootstrapping versus Building for Scale
Jessica and her partners built Sharks without raising any outside capital, while maintaining their day jobs. They kept costs extremely low, substituting creativity for capital at every turn. We were greatly impressed by the business they built on little to no budget: a true entrepreneurial feat! But there is a limit to how far the bootstrap model can be taken. So, when Jessica approached us about combining forces so that Sharks could scale alongside PingPod, we saw an opportunity for a win-win acquisition.
PingPod has taken a different approach to building our Pod network. We raised outside capital – most recently, a $10 million Series A led by Sequoia Heritage – to build the team and infrastructure to allow us to scale our network to hundreds of Pods. Everything we do – from our tech stack, to our team, to our processes – is designed to delight our customers in a way that is repeatable across a large number of locations.
The Sharks team did the hard work of activating a pool brand and winning a loyal clientele across multiple locations. Our job now is to scale that brand alongside PingPod. We welcome Jessica and her partners to our cap table, and will seek to act as a great steward for the Sharks brand. We are excited to have them as part of the extended PingPod family!
Adding an Experience Vertical
The autonomous operating model has broad applications beyond ping pong. While our baseline is to become the top brand in ping pong, our bigger long-term vision is to become the platform for autonomous experiences. Acquiring Sharks is allowing us to prove the model in a second experience vertical, in a very low-risk fashion. The Sharks locations were already built out, produce solid revenue, and have a customer base complementary to PingPod’s.
As an activity, pool has similar characteristics to ping pong (spatial dimensions, number of players, equipment, and technology needs), so the systems and processes we have built for PingPod map seamlessly onto Sharks. For example, the way we use cameras for remote security and replays require only minor adjustments for camera angles. Core functionality like reservations, door access, coach connect and event management are the same for both activities.
The Sharks neighborhood footprint in New York City also overlaps with PingPod. Both brands have locations within blocks of each other in the Lower East Side, Midtown West, Williamsburg, and Astoria. Growing from idea to activation in similar neighborhoods suggests that the concepts are complementary rather than competitive, so geographical proximity will yield scale benefits. In the near term, we have gotten operational efficiencies by grouping shared functions (such as cleaning) geographically. Longer term, as we prove out the PingPod + Sharks neighborhood co-location model, we can also exert greater leverage negotiating with landlords.
From day one, we built the PingPod tech stack – a menu that includes reservations, replays, autonomous mode, event management, remote security, coach connect, and player matching – with an eye towards offering it to other operators as a service. This vision has become a reality with the formal launch of PodPlay, our vertical SaaS solution for recreational venues, in 2023. We have onboarded PodPlay clients in ping pong, pickleball, padel, and now pool.
By moving the Sharks business onto the PodPlay tech stack we have added new functionality to Sharks, streamlined the booking engine, improved the efficiency of customer service, and added a data and analytics layer that is helping us improve and optimize the business. Sharks will provide an excellent case study for the PodPlay platform, allowing us to show how the technology can be used to increase revenue and reduce costs.
You can find the white-labeled Sharks App at sharks.podplay.app or in the iOS App store here. The Sharks app is a great sales tool as we go to market with the PodPlay offering, allowing us to showcase how the tech stack works across a second experience vertical. Longer term, PingPod and Sharks are two brands of many that will use PodPlay as their venue operating system.
See you at Sharks!