Like an estimated 36.5 million Americans, Max Ade and his entire family got swept up in pickleball over the last few years.
Ade got a paddle after years of tennis and quickly became a pickleball enthusiast. His parents, also avid tennis players for decades, switched to the sport. Despite being complete newbies, his in-laws spent five days in a row playing over the holidays and were hooked.
“It’s so addictive, so sticky, and it’s very social because anyone can play it and anyone can have fun the first time,” he told Hypepotamus.
By every metric, the sport of pickleball has exploded over the last several years. From Google search queries to holiday gift numbers, pickleball’s influence in the US has grown exponentially.
Ade knew he wanted “in” on the growing pickleball movement and saw the need for a tech solution to help mitigate some of the more frustrating parts of organizing games.
That led to the launch of Pickleheads, an Atlanta-based, venture-backed platform for pickleball enthusiasts.
Why Pickleball is ready for it’s tech debut
First, a quick primer on the sport. (You can go more in-depth on Picklehead’s blog if you want).
Pickleball isn’t just a miniature version of tennis, since there are special courts needed to enjoy the game properly. But there’s a major problem across the country: there just aren’t enough courts for all the pickleball enthusiasts.
“You’ll show up to the court, you’ll join an open play with 30 people, sometimes 50 people, and there’ll be five courts and everyone rotates. The matches are quick and it lends itself to accommodating a lot of people,” said Ade. “But unfortunately, there’s a massive court shortage in the country. And because of that, what you have is chaos. You have people of all different levels showing up to the same courts to play at these open plays. Beginners are frustrated. Advanced people are frustrated. You need a system to separate out the times and the levels.”
Pickleheads is taking a multilevel approach to this problem. First, it launched a court finder that is currently aggregating information on courts in over 4,400 cities. That tool alone is currently garnering over 100,000 visitors every month, according to Ade.
Ultimately, users will come to Pickleheads to schedule games and manage groups that they’ve joined. That’s particularly valuable in Pickleball-centric cities like Atlanta, where according to Ade, there are several GroupMe and WhatsApp chains with hundreds of participants trying to coordinate games.
Investing in Pickleball
Pickleheads isn’t Ade’s first time in the founder’s seat. He bootstrapped Growth Collective, a hiring platform for freelance marketers, before it was acquired in 2021. He said this time around he wanted to try scaling a startup with co-founders and with capital backing the idea.
Ade, alongside co-founders Ian Langworth and Brandon Mackie, launched the first iteration of the court finder last summer and brought in a $750,000 pre-seed round from a strong group of VCs and angels.
Overline VC in Atlanta joined in alongside Ardent, a DC-based VC firm.
Ardent is a particularly interesting name to be on Picklehead’s cap table. The firm specializes in the future of work space and not necessarily consumer-focused software.
“[Ardent] realized that remote work has contributed to a loneliness epidemic in the US…and Pickleball is like one of the few trends that’s moving in the opposite direction, with fifty plus people showing up to a court sometimes,” said Ade.
Another interesting name on Picklehead’s list of investors: basketball legend Kevin Durant with his business partner Rich Kleiman and Durant’s Boardroom Pickleball.
Bringing on investors was about helping the team “move fast and be competitive,” said Ade. “It became apparent to us that this is going to be one of the biggest sports in the country and we were one of the first movers.”
Up next for the team is the launch of a scheduling tool – something that Ade says is desperately needed for those in the sport.
Pickleheads isn’t the first pickleball-specific company in Atlanta to land venture capital. Last summer PCKL, a direct-to-consumer pickleball gear and paddle brand, raised $2 million from BLH Ventures.