Chicago firm puts spin on connecting personnel
Robert Blackwell isn't trying to get employees to sit across the table from one another. He wants them to stand.
Blackwell is the man behind Killerspin, a Chicago company that promotes table tennis as a way to get company personnel to put down their phones, let go of their laptops and make personal connections.
He founded the company in 2001 and opened a local facility called Killerspin House in 2014.
“Killerspin is a company that creates table tennis experiences, connecting people to the people that they care about: family, friends, customers and employees," Blackwell said. "It is an experience company.”
Blackwell, who previously worked for IBM and as an options trader, told the Chicago City Wire that he started playing table tennis as a kid with his father, who was a busy career guy.
“That’s how me and my father connected," he said. "That’s the one thing we could do together. Table tennis is the one activity that you can be good at regardless of age or body type or gender or disability.”
After a long career as a trader, Blackwell was inspired to launch Killerspin 16 years ago. He had been working at Electronic Knowledge Interchange, which was a sponsor of the Chicago Ping Pong Festival, and he got to play a big part.
“There was a lady named Lois Whitesburg, who at the time was head of Cultural Affairs, and she asked me to be the chairman of the Ping Pong Festival," he said. "So there were about 300 tables out all across the city, and there were just lines of people wanting to play. It connected us to new customers. A couple of years later I decided to build a table tennis company.”
From the beginning, Blackwell’s vision included creating big table tennis events.
“In 2002, we did our first big event at UIC Pavilion, and there were about 7,000 people there," he said. "We had the best players in the world come and play. We called it the 30-year anniversary of ping pong diplomacy. The head of the Chinese Olympic team brought their best players. Players from around the world came. It got broadcast on Fox, and the next year we started doing things on ESPN.”
Blackwell emphasizes that the company is all about table tennis.
“The offerings of the company are really in three categories: equipment, education, and engagement," he said. "We offer very high-end table tennis equipment. We also do a lot of customization for companies. We customize rackets and tables and things like that.”
Teaching table tennis is another facet of the firm, he said.
“We’ve created some online videos, for education, and those are the number one in the world," Blackwell said. "People can come and learn how to play at Killerspin.”
Killerspin House is a place that encourages people to “unplug and play," he said.
"Now we create experiences," Blackwell said. "That’s really the business. The theme of Killerspin House is 'skill, thrill and chill.' You can come and learn to play the game, have events, unplug and play. A lot of people come and take breaks during the day and play with friends. It’s really a place where people can connect.”
Killerspin partnered with the Italian Table Tennis Federation to stage a tournament at the Vatican last fall, and Blackwell got to meet the pope.
“He’s a nice man," he said. "We spoke about what we called World Unplug and Play Day.”
Blackwell said his main goal is to get people to be together again, away from all of the technology that demands so much of our attention.
“There are two big trends in the world: one, the digitization of everything, and two, the rebellion against the digitization of everything," he said. "Everybody is concerned with how much time their kids are connected to electronic devices. The overstimulation of technology can be bad for your brain. Table tennis is actually a way to make real connections as opposed to digital connections. It’s a way to really connect with people and get exercise, and do it in a way that’s social.”
Corporations are prime customers of Killerspin.
“We’ll get branded rackets to your employees," Blackwell said. "We’ll put tables there. We’ll give you software so that people can find a friend to play with and track their events.”
And he believes Chicago is the perfect place for his business.
“There are some things I would call nuisances: lots of regulations and registrations, taxes and things like that in Chicago, but it’s still a relatively free economy," Blackwell said. "We’ve actually got some businesses in Europe, and it’s infinitely harder, in my opinion, to do business there.”
Blackwell credits table tennis for helping him personally, as well, since he and his 19-year-old daughter play regularly.
“That’s the one activity she will do with me now," he said. "We started playing when she was 8.”
Organizations in this Story
33 West Monroe Street
Chicago, IL 60603