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Nov 19, 2013

Shops: Hookit.com

Hookit.com founders Scott Tilton, left, and R.J. Kraus are not only former motocrossers as well as businessmen and fans of motorcycle road racing.
**Note: This edition of Shops originally appeared in the September 2013 print edition of Roadracing World Magazine. Don't miss out on other exclusive content like this found only in Roadracing World Magazine - Subscribe today!**

It's a dot com business, but its roots are in the mud and dirt of East Coast motocross circuits and the paved road courses where thundering sports cars compete.

So while Hookit.com founders Scott Tilton and R.J. Kraus currently spend their days running a social media network, they understand the racing business - and racers - on a very personal level.

That passion for the sport has led them through a series of companies designed to help athletes reach the support that they need to thrive, especially in the challenging, often expensive field of motorsports.

"(My) father raced cars with the SCCA for years, and both of my brothers raced karts and cars, so racing was definitely in the blood," says Kraus.

Today, Hookit.com describes itself as the largest online social network for action sports, claiming more than 550,000 members. The company says that it has more than 400 brand and media partners, including names that even the most casual action sport fan recognizes - Monster Energy drinks, ESPN, Fuel TV, Transworld Media.

In addition, Hookit.com powers the interactive web community of Roadracingworld.com, where readers, racers and fans can create profiles, connect with other racers and riders, search out local events and generally share their passion for the sport.

In their early years, Tilton and Kraus were avid motocross racers. Each spent nearly 10 years in the dirt. Each is still active in action sports including cycling and surfing. To help promote the business, they even raced a season of downhill mountain biking - a sport that makes motorcycle road racing look rational and sane.

Interestingly, each went a different way in terms of their formal education and initial business experiences, only to wind up melding their individual experiences into the company that would become Hookit.

"From an education standpoint, I originally went to school for sports medicine and later focused on sports marketing and management," Tilton says. "It was during this time I was able to find an opportunity to expand my interest in sports beyond competition and into the business realm."

Kraus' education, on the other hand, went the way of the engineer.

"I have always been interested in figuring out ways to solve complicated problems, which lead me to get a degree in Mechanical Engineering," Kraus says. "I worked for General Electric for two years as a project manager and Consultant in their Power Systems division, solving problems on turbines worth millions of dollars.

"What I learned was really how to teach myself the skills I needed to get a job done and was something that really stuck with me as we started the company and now as we expand it. These days, I'm designing and tuning our platform, rather than a turbine."

The company that now is Hookit started life a dozen years ago, when anyone using the phrase "social media" would be met with a cold stare of confusion. But social media was exactly the idea behind SponsorHouse.com., which launched in 2001.

The idea was as simple at its core as any online dating site - why not let the amateur athlete cast as wide a net as possible for the ideal partner?

SponsorHouse.com allowed amateur athletes a place to build an online presence that someone might actually see. (An old-but-funny saying: Building a website is like crouching in the bushes near someone's home and hoping that they see you. The best website in the world isn't worth much if no traffic comes your way.) By establishing the SponsorHouse.com network, amateur athletes had a chance of crossing paths with sponsors, fans and supporters that they might never get to meet in RL (real life - it's that crazy stuff that starts happening when you step away from the computer).

It was a natural extension of Tilton's sports marketing background, and the assistance he was giving to athletes on the resumes they were sending to sponsors. With Kraus as a partner, they took that process online. The start was humble; the pair traveled to events to promote the business, living and working from a recreational vehicle that served as the company's mobile office and home away from home.

As SponsorHouse grew, Tilton and Kraus noticed that the way that athletes were using the site and the network was changing as well. It's not a coincidence that social media was really entering the mainstream of the way people lived and communicated during this period, and the athletes that formed the core of SponsorHouse were adopting those changes.

"A few years ago we knew we were becoming much more of a promotional and interactive platform for athletes and were no longer just about helping them find sponsors so we decided to re-brand the site and company," Tilton says.

"We decided to re-brand to better position what our business was all about and we tapped into our members to help. With athletes at the core of our business, we went to them with one task – to tell us what they think it is we do for them. Hookit was born from the repetitive statement from athletes that our site was all about hooking them up – not just with brands, but with their sport, with other athletes, friends, events, spots and content.??"

If that sounds like social media networking, that's because that is exactly what it is.

Visit the Hookit.com site and build a profile, and the network provides the opportunity to create a "crew" of other people. With that crew you share information about your upcoming events and activities. The network also allows you to find "spots" - literally, places where services and activities of interest can be found. It's Social Media 101, built on a platform that focuses on action sports like bicycling, surfing and yes, motorcycle road racing.

It was the background in motorsports and the knowledge about social media network development that led to the partnership between Hookit.com and Roadracing World & Motorcycle Technology earlier this year.

"Our original goal was to help foster a deeper connection between Roadracing World and its readers and advertisers by providing additional benefits," Tilton says. "The media landscape has changed so fast and drastically over the past few years that both consumers and advertisers are very savvy with digital media now. Most of the content is consumed via mobile devices and they expect a very interactive experience."

Connecting athletes to supporters remains at the heart of what Hookit.com provides. And for those athletes in the cash-consuming sport of motorcycle road racing, support in terms of product and money can be critical. Tilton and Kraus have been cranking away at promotion, marketing and networking for years now, and they know that the game of sponsorship is a two-way street.

"The most common flaw I see (in athletes seeking sponsorship) is a lack of preparation or simply unrealistic expectations," Tilton says. "With the economy in a challenging time, athletes need to understand how and why brands offer sponsorship and where they fit into that equation.

"Often, athletes and/or their families feel they are entitled to free products, money or otherwise simply because of the financial commitment they make to their sport. But it ultimately all comes back to results and/or the exposure you can generate for a sponsor and that’s what determines the level of support you receive. The best advice I have is for riders to start early, build relationships with their sponsors no matter what deal they have and stay loyal. That’s how partnerships are fostered and grow."

"Exactly," Kraus says. "We talk on this subject internally quite a bit in order to serve our mission to support the athletes. One of our goals is to educate athletes and set expectations on what is available out there and what it takes to get there. Most people don’t realize that when you get into the higher levels of sponsorship, it truly is a job and requires effort to hold up your end of the bargain. We’ve also started to do free live training seminars at motorsports events called the Hookit Progression Session. During these interactive sessions, we walk athletes and their families through the process of getting and maintaining strong relationships with brands. It’s been really fun and we’ve gotten great feedback."

Tilton and Kraus say the past decade of building the athlete-based social network and tweaking the technology has put the company in a position where it is able to seek new partnerships to continue its growth.

"We're now helping a growing list of athletes, brands and media properties power their digital properties like (motocrosser) Justin Barcia's new site www.justinbarcia.com. This helps Justin aggregate all his social posts and activity in one spot while being a hub to interact with fans and promote his sponsors," Tilton says.

"Monster has been an amazing partner who we also teamed up with to create the Recon Tour to bring an amateur contest series to athletes in BMX, snowboard and ski. It's now a nationwide series – again focused on being a platform to support the amateur athletes out there who need opportunities to promote themselves. We've got some really interesting projects and partnerships in the works so this year will be a big year for us."

Today, the company is headquartered in Solana Beach, California, north of San Diego. The offices are located between the famous Del Mar horse racing track and the beach.

"The physical space has a really open feel, including the executive offices, so that we can all flow ideas and information to each other," Tilton says. "It’s casual and fun, with great energy. Not a bad place to come to work every day. I ... truly feel like I’ve created the most interesting job I could have ever asked for."