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A Tuck Startup, Started on the Beach

Charlotte Johnson T’19 and Pace Ralli T’09 are the creators of ShakaBall, a new beach game business that brings fun to people of all ages.

Charlotte Johnson T’19 remembers the first time her cousin-in-law, Pace Ralli T’09, showed her family how to play ShakaBall, a one-of-a-kind paddle game named after the Hawaiian hand gesture associated with surfing culture and good vibes. The game originated from surf beaches on the East Coast over 15 years ago, while Ralli and his surfer friends were hanging out on the sand and waiting for good waves.

“It was addictive,” Johnson recalls. “We played it for hours on end when we were together as a family.”

Initially, the game was nothing more than that—a fun game to pass the time with friends and family. Then two years ago while celebrating the Fourth of July with a day of lawn games, their family members started talking seriously about how fun it would be to bring ShakaBall to the masses, on all coasts. Along with Ralli’s co-inventors (who now live on the beach on the West Coast), they hypothesized that all age groups could play the game, from millennials and young children to older generations—like Johnson’s dad, who is 66 and plays ShakaBall whenever he has the chance. 

The entire game fits in a small backpack, and is easy to set up, whether you’re on the beach or on the Dartmouth quad.

“It’s just a great way to get people off their phones and in the outdoors, where they can engage in a fun way,” Johnson says. “But we needed to figure out—how could we take this from a concept to an actual product?”

In 2017, the ShakaBall team began experimenting with prototyping and manufacturing the product. They wanted to make the game user-friendly, visually appealing, and practical for bringing to the beach. It took eight rounds of prototyping to land on a final product, but it was well worth it. The entire game fits in a small backpack, and is easy to set up, whether you’re on the beach or on the Dartmouth quad.

One of the big lessons I learned about product development is that you can’t figure out how to do it until you actually do it—you just have to start somewhere and keep iterating.

“We wanted something that was easy to carry around,” says Ralli. “So we kept testing it out with different friends, took their feedback, and worked it into the next prototype. One of the big lessons I learned about product development is that you can’t figure out how to do it until you actually do it—you just have to start somewhere and keep iterating.”  With a finalized product design the question then became, how can we grow and operationalize this business? They knew Johnson could use her remaining time at Tuck to help formalize some of the business processes. 

Enter the Startup Incubator: a creation of the Center for Entrepreneurship. Under the leadership of Center for Entrepreneurship faculty director Steve Kahl D’91 and executive director Daniella Reichstetter T’07, the Incubator is an outlet for Tuck students to collaborate on their business ideas and bring them to reality.

The paddle game is named after the Hawaiian hand gesture associated with surfing culture.

“Being in the Incubator has been helpful because it gives us structure when we’re starting from scratch,” Johnson says. “It’s great because it’s such a small community and feels like a safe space to take risks and experiment. It takes guts to put yourself out there, and this community embraces that. I think the Incubator is small but mighty, and I think it has a lot of room to grow.”

Johnson says she was also helped by what she learned in elective courses, such as Entrepreneurship and Innovation Strategy, a class taught by Ron Adner, the David T. McLaughlin D’54, T’55 Professor. She touted the course for helping her discover market opportunities that the ShakaBall team hadn’t thought about previously.

One of the game’s most marketable features lies in its uniqueness. Four players stand in a small circle, taking turns serving a small ball to each other, using wooden paddles bearing the Shaka symbol. It wasn’t uncommon for passersby to stop and ask what the players were up to when playing a game they hadn’t seen before—and ask if they could hop in the circle.

It’s great because it’s such a small community and feels like a safe space to take risks and experiment. It takes guts to put yourself out there, and this community embraces that. I think the Incubator is small but mighty.

Ralli, an entrepreneur twice over as the founder of Clean Marine Energy (which develops clean energy for large ships), says that developing ShakaBall has been a completely different experience for him. This time around he’s been knee-deep in research and development and working alongside manufacturers and suppliers on the prototyping process. “It’s using a totally different skillset, but I am really enjoying it,” he says.

So far, the ShakaBall team has raised more than $10,000 on Kickstarter, and is just starting to develop its sales channels. This summer is crucial for its go-to-market strategy, and the Shaka team will be out spreading the fun on what they’re calling the “Shaka Tour 2019.” They plan to hold events throughout the summer season, starting with the first official tour stop on Cape Cod during Memorial Day weekend. Other stops include Newport, Montauk, and Manhattan Beach. They have already sold about a quarter of the product from their first manufacturing run, which currently retails for forty-nine dollars on their website ShakaBall.com. Going forward, the team is exploring how to best sell ShakaBall: Direct to consumer? Through retail stores?

For Johnson, a former teacher who also worked at IBM, the experience was a highlight of her Tuck education. While she enrolled with a desire to invest in herself and in her career, she still never imagined that she would have helped to launch ShakaBall while in school studying for her MBA.

“I had no idea that this would be how my Tuck experience would end and that we’d be able to create ShakaBall as a family,” Johnson says. “I thought maybe I’d be an entrepreneur in the future, but never did I think it would happen while I was in school at Tuck. I feel incredibly lucky to be here.”

Follow ShakaBall on Instagram at @shakaball.