Rachel Zietz ’22 said she fondly remembers being inspired by her father, entrepreneur and Touchsuite CEO Sam Zietz, from a young age.
“I saw the passion in his eyes,” she explained. “And I knew that’s what I wanted for myself in the future.”
At the age of 13, Zietz followed in her father’s footsteps and started her own business. Six years later, on Tuesday, Dec. 3, the 19-year-old entrepreneur was named as part of the 2020 class of the Forbes 30 Under 30 List in the Retail and eCommerce category. She was the youngest honoree in that category. The annual list honors “revolutionaries in 20 industries changing the course — and the face — of business and society.”
Zietz is joined on the list by multiple other University alumni, including Croom Beatty ’12, recognized for his early-stage fintech investing for the firm Menlo Ventures, Luke Armour ’13, the founder of Chaac Ventures, Tommy Gibbons ’13 , co-founder of hemp-based building material company Hempitecture, and Ash Egan ’14, who was recognized in the Venture Capital category as well for his work in cryptocurrency and blockchain.
Zietz was interviewed a few months ago by Forbes Magazine, after being nominated for their 30 Under 30 List. “I actually forgot about it after a while,” she admitted.
When the list was finally published this past Tuesday, Zietz said she was fast asleep. “My roommate texted, ‘I’m so happy for you. By the way, you’re asleep next to me now, and don’t know yet, but when you wake up the next morning, you’re going to be excited,’” she explained.
When she finally found out, Zietz was absolutely thrilled. “It’s a huge honor. It’s something you tell people years down the line, and it’s still a very, very great accomplishment.”
“I’m just happy to see my company where it is today and that people noticed that and be excited about it just want to be a part of the journey. That’s the biggest thing.”
Zietz is the founder and CEO of Gladiator Lacrosse, LLC, a lacrosse training equipment line, set to generate $7 million in revenue in 2020. She was previously recognized by Time Magazine in “Most Influential Teens of 2016,” Fortune Magazine’s “List of Entrepreneurs Under 18,” and Forbes Magazine’s “Shark Tank 7 of the Brightest and Youngest List.”
Her journey began in 2012 as a seventh grader when she completed the Young Entrepreneur’s Academy, a 33-week-long program designed to help middle and high school students generate business ideas, propose craft business plans, conduct market research, and launch their own companies. “Throughout the program, we had access to many business mentors, and students in local universities to design logos and craft a business plan,” she said.
Her first sale, however, did not occur until a year later, in January 2014. Gladiator Lacrosse started off with only a lacrosse goal and rebounder, which Zietz described to be the two products “essential for any lacrosse player to improve their game.”
Her inspiration, Zietz said, came from a frustrating experience in the yard of her own home. A lacrosse player herself, Zietz recounted playing wall-ball to improve her game. “But when you are in middle school ... and you’re not so good, you can miss and hit a window.” Instead, lacrosse players use a rebounder, a trampoline-like surface, to practice.
One day, after lacrosse practice, she went into her backyard to continue shooting. That session left yet another gaping hole in the net of her rebounder — a holiday gift from her parents — much to her dismay. To Zietz, it felt as though she was constantly punished for executing yet another really good shot.
“The harder I get my shot out, the worse my net is going to be treated. It just didn’t make any sense,” she said. “That’s where I got that ‘a-ha’ moment that a lot of entrepreneurs will often talk about.”
Zietz said she knew she couldn’t just ask her parents for a new one, as units cost upwards of $300. Instead, she sought to create a more durable version, products that can withstand the constant punishment that these players were delivering. And with that, Gladiator Lacrosse was born.
There was a niche that no one was filling, Zietz explained. Specifically, it didn’t seem as though companies offered high-quality goals and rebounders at an affordable price point. With her extensive experience in the sport, Zietz said she knew exactly what lacrosse players needed and wanted in their gear, unlike many other brands.
She attributed the high cost of equipment due to the sheer number of middlemen involved — from wholesalers, to distributors, to manufacturers, to the factories themselves. She sought to strengthen her own goals and rebounders by increasing the thickness of both the net and the steel bars. Then she went directly to a factory to manufacture it herself in order to cut down on costs and pass the savings on to consumers.
Zietz explained that they initially invested no money in advertising, which was highly unusual for a company growing as fast as hers. She said, “the growth was purely organic,” relying instead on word-of-mouth and social media.
One of the different opportunities she took advantage of was setting up a booth around local lacrosse games.
“Imagine you’re a kid; your team gets completely demolished,” she said. “What do you want to do? You want to practice, you want to get better. You never want that to happen again.”
“You’re walking out of the field and you see the two pieces of equipment you need to take your game to the next level. And so that was a no-brainer for us.”
Gladiator Lacrosse made $10,000 in sales over the weekend at their first lacrosse tournament. The majority of it, she explained, was just regular people “taking a chance on a brand and a story that they really liked.”
As consumer trust and loyalty in her brand grew, Gladiator Lacrosse received their first PR story from the South Florida Business Journal. From that article came Entrepreneurial Magazine. Then Time Magazine, followed by The New York Times and USA Today.
“[This gave] us PR that other companies would kill for,” Zietz said.
Eventually, all these stories led the executive producers of Shark Tank to reach out to her, and Zietz appeared on Season 7, Episode 28 of ABC’s “Shark Tank.” From that appearance, Zietz estimated that she received $9 million in free advertising, allowing her to “[reach] consumers we couldn’t even have dreamed of initially.”
Following that appearance, Zietz was flown to Pittsburgh to pitch her products to the manager of Dick’s Sporting Goods and struck a contract with the company to carry their entire lineup in time for the 2016 holiday season.
The company then made a deal with Casey Powell — a professional lacrosse player who was inducted into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame — who became their brand ambassador. Gladiator Lacrosse was the official goal sponsor of the 2018 World Lacrosse Cup, which was televised on ESPN.
Zietz credits her father, who is also an entrepreneur, as having a profound guiding role in her life, and whom she often turns to for advice. “I see him a lot as a mentor. We have a father-daughter relationship, but we also have that mentor-mentee relationship as well.”
“We’re definitely unconventional that way,” she said, adding, “our primary form of communication is via email. But I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
In college, Zietz said managing a business is a lot easier than it was in high school. Despite scheduling midnight calls with their overseas factory and doing catch-up calls on her walks to class, she said the freedom in her schedule allows her to manage her time how she wants to.
“I learned to make lists of things for myself,” Zietz said. “It’s definitely made more of this stuff more palpable, and allow me to continue all of these passions I have while being a full-time student.”
However, she noted, missing class here is “kind of stressful” and “kind of a big deal” when compared to skipping days of high school for business. Prior to arriving at Princeton, Zietz hired a chief operations officer. Despite this, the Boca Raton, Fla., native said the distance away from home where her company is headquartered did not influence her decision to come here at all.
She hopes to expand her business into lacrosse sticks, increasing distribution channels globally, especially Canada, Europe. Additionally, following Gladiator Lacrosse’s acquisition of All Ball Pro™, which sells commercial rebounders and also supplies to the University, Zietz hopes to expand into other sports. Despite her expertise being concentrated in lacrosse, rebounders made by All Ball Pro are used in countless sports including baseball, softball, soccer, football, tennis, and volleyball.
Zietz hopes to inspire a new generation of young entrepreneurs, encouraging them to pursue things they are passionate about.
“At least for our generation … a lot of people are very active in the things that they care about. In that case, it’s the passion that drives you through the challenges and the hardships,” she said. “For me, I was just really trying to improve the options available to me at the time and the lacrosse community.”
“If I can instill a drive and passion in other entrepreneurs in the endeavors they do choose to pursue, it just leads to more success,” Zietz explained. “And you do better in that particular field because you’re enjoying it. It seems like common sense, but lots of people don’t truly recognize that.