Freezing tubs. Tangled ACE bandages. Leaky Baggies filled with slushy ice.
Sure, we all know the recovery period is a huge factor in everything from building muscle to fighting off inflammation, and today’s top sports scientists will lecture you that your post-workout downtime is just as important as the workout itself. But as any athlete—whether he’s a world-class Olympian or just a dude who rolled his ankle jogging—knows, whatever scientists say, the tools we’ve actually used for resting better, healing faster, and coming back stronger are not only old-fashioned, they also totally suck. (Seriously: Who’s ever enjoyed a full-body ice bath?)
Yet while most guys looked at those ACE bandages and saw pain, Anthony Katz, a former high school history teacher and basketball coach, saw dollar signs. In 2012 he founded Hyperice and debuted the first-ever line of high-end ice-compression equipment.
Today you’ll find his sleek, black neoprene wraps—designed to fit specific body parts as snugly as Batman armor—healing limbs across the whole of pro sports. And Katz didn’t stop with compression gear. His company’s latest recovery product, released last spring, is a vibrating foam roller called the Vyper, which is already a fixture in every training room in the NBA, NFL, and MLB. Unlike other rollers, the Vyper vibrates and distracts your pain receptors when you slide your body over it. (That is, it massages out those knots without hurting you.)
We visited Katz (for the record: no relation to the author) at the Hyperice HQ in Irvine, CA, to learn about the company’s unlikely origin and find out why you should never ask LeBron for a selfie. We also got his five main rules for total business dominance. You’re welcome.
Rule No. 1: You don’t always need to reinvent the wheel. Sometimes you just need a better wheel.
Katz came up with the idea for Hyperice compression wraps while living out of his comfort zone, in Australia, where his wife was playing pro basketball for a year. At the time, he was exiting another comfort zone: his 20s. And though he still played basketball religiously, he noticed he was feeling a lot more beat up after games than before.
Curious as to how pro athletes dealt with similar problems, he was shocked to find that the go-to technique was still an ice-filled Baggie wrapped with a bandage. To remove air bubbles, trainers would first suck the air out with their mouths, then poke holes in the bags, creating a dripping mess. “I couldn’t believe it. I mean, they had all this money and all this tech at their disposal, but it was still so rudimentary.”
When he got back to the U.S., Katz quit his teaching job and started tinkering, stitching ice bags into cut-up neoprene from wet suits until, after many iterations, he landed on the sleek sleeve with an air-release valve that earned the company its rep. The genius is that he wasn’t telling trainers how they should be doing their job, just “changing the delivery system, giving them a way to do it better.”
It’s better-looking, too—what pro wants to be photographed wearing a leaky Baggie?
Rule No. 2: THERE ARE no two words in the English language more harmful than “good job.”
Sure, it’s a quote from Whiplash, the movie that put Miles Teller, a guy we feature this month, on the map. But it also encapsulates one of Katz’s first product-development lessons.
He was still in the very early prototype phase of Hyperice when he got some exciting news: L.A. Lakers star Kobe Bryant, who was being trained by one of Katz’s old high school teammates, had agreed to check out some product. Katz quickly added Kobe’s logo to a prototype and awaited his glowing feedback. The verdict: meh.
“Kobe told my friend, ‘I like the idea, but he’s got a long way to go,’ ” and offered a handful of pointed improvements, Katz says, like making the ice bags thinner for maximum cold.
“If Kobe had said, ‘Tell Anthony thanks, good job,’ that wouldn’t have done anything for me. My goal became to make something that a player at his level would describe by saying, ‘This is perfect.’ ”
Rule No. 3: Unpredictability is a viable business strategy.
Even as he was peddling the Hyperice wraps, Katz kept his eyes and ears open for his next product. “I was talking to athletes and trainers, and they kept saying ‘vibration.’ I was like, ‘OK—but what do you put it in?’ ”
Then on a trip to the University of Oregon, he saw an athlete take a foam roller and put it on a vibrating platform.
“I thought, obviously someone has already thought of this.”
Not true—until Hyperice designed the Vyper. This year the company is on track to sell about 30,000 of them—and that figure would be even higher if it could keep up with the demand. More important, says Katz, “it changed the perception of what Hyperice is capable of. It’s like, ‘What will these guys think of next?’ ”
Rule No. 4: Your biggest sales start with freebies.
“Most people think of ‘grassroots’ as getting in the back of your truck and handing stuff out,” says Katz. But that was never part of his game plan. “I wasn’t going to high schools to sell, like, 20.”
In fact, for the first year he didn’t sell them at all. The only way to get one was if Katz gave it to you, which created an instant mystique, even when the whole operation was just him and his car. He’d been around athletes enough to know they took their cues from the top, emulating what their superstar heroes were wearing and using. For Katz, trickle-down wasn’t happenstance, it was strategy. “I wanted the first place you ever saw one to be on a pro,” he explains.
So he set out to get his products into the hands of superstars. Of course, everyone wants a piece of franchise players, so Katz reached out to trainers. One became an early investor and helped get former Steelers safety Troy Polamalu on board as an investor; he, in turn, got some units to LeBron James.
King James may not have invested in Hyperice, but he did something way more valuable: He used it. “LeBron is like, the most popular kid in the high school of the NBA—he’s friends with everyone,” says Katz.
During the 2011 lockout, James hosted a charity game and wanted to give Hyperice to all of the players as a thank you. He invited Katz to Miami to outfit the players after the game.
“I remember looking up and seeing 20 NBA All-Stars wearing Hyperice—Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony. Chris Paul came up and said, ‘I wanted to meet you; your wraps really help my knees.’ That’s when it truly registered that when you make a product that helps these guys with their performance, that’s a really deep bond.”
Rule No. 5: Fake it till you make it. (And even after you make it, keep faking it.)
Even that day in the locker room, with all that talent wearing a product he’d invented, Katz didn’t pull out his smartphone. “You gotta act like you’ve been there,” he says. Sure, the company now has a robust social media presence and Katz knows his way around all the platforms, but he takes a more low-key approach to marketing.
“For some people in business, networking is this thing they plan—they go to networking events,” says Katz. “I don’t do any of that. I just have a big network of friends who are always just one step away.”
At the end of the day, Katz believes in the soft sell. “Most people go to athletes because they’re really liquid; I went to them because I felt I had something they’d really understand. We always gave the product with no strings attached, and if people loved it, we’d say we’re a start-up; we’re looking for investors. It was never, ‘Hey, we’re raising money, here’s our product.’
“I always felt the product was so good, investors would find us.”