Joe Commendatore, the CEO of Hula Networks is not your typical executive, and Hula Networks is not your typical technology company. Since founding the Mountain View, CA networking solutions company in 2001, Joe has pursued a different kind of business model — one that infuses his personal passions to the workplace environment. To do this, Joe has invited some of action sports most exciting athletes, such as the legendary Mike Wilson (who is featured in The Ski Channel’s upcoming film, Winter) to partner with his company. Cross-promotion is nothing new in the world of marketing, with nearly every major brand sponsoring athletes and events in an effort to further their brand. However, the manner in which Hula Networks has undergone this pursuit goes far beyond the typical business relationship — to create something real and inspired. The action sports relationships Joe Commendatore and Hula Networks seek to cultivate operate on an unparalleled level of integrity and sincerity — and in turn — these endeavors have brought about an unparalleled level of success.
Joe took a moment to speak with us about the inspiration for his company’s marketing philosophy, the effect it’s had on business, and what we can look forward to in the future.
The Ski Channel: How did you first become interested in Action Sports?
Joe Commendatore: My whole life I wanted to be a stunt man. That was my dream as a little kid, I pushed the envelope every way possible jumping off everything on skis, bikes, our high school gym roof you name it. My folks were dedicated to my passion and love adventure. I think I got that from my mom, she has always been considered a “super mom” in my book. Growing up in the Bay Area she used to drive me 200 miles to Lake Tahoe every Thursday night during the winter just so I could ski. This was way back when I used to race on the Squaw Valley Ski Team and my father made sure I received PE credits for it from my high school.
TSC: What led to your transition into networking technologies and the origin of Hula Networks?
JC: In 1992, I was coming home from a downhill race at Mammoth Mountain and ended up getting in a life altering car accident. My father and I were cut off when driving home on highway 395. We ended up hitting a tree at 80 MPH head on. Basically my father broke his neck and suffered several compound fractures and I broke a dozen bones including my hip, pelvic bone, and my femur. Suffering from paralyses in my legs and spending over a year in a wheelchair, using walkers etc. Obviously, that reconditioned my life plan.
Instead of going to off to college in Colorado and following my dreams in skiing I went to Chico State, CA to be closer to home while still recovering from the accident. I still skied on the Chico State Ski Team and even coached a year, but we were more of a group of kids that loved to have fun skiing than a highly competitive ski team on the collegiate circuit like I had planned to attend. From there I went on to compete in several free ski competitions at Squaw Valley, Kirkwood, and Chamonix where I did fairly well but, after my second ACL reconstruction and all the other injuries throughout my life including the car accident in 1992 — I was tired of being hurt and recovering. So one day I found myself sitting on my couch in the Bay Area where I lived with three of my buddies who were all making a good living selling semi-conductors. I was done being bummed about yet another injury and said, “I think I need to get a job and make some money”. The next day I started looking for a job selling semi conductors. When that got old I moved on to selling networking equipment, Cisco equipment primarily. From there I decided to start my own company with two friends who are still my business partners and best friends today. The rest is history.
TSC: What drives your company’s unique marketing philosophy?
JC: While Telecommunications is my career and I do love technology, it doesn’t match my personality a 100%. The reality is, no matter what you do in life you have the opportunity to make it fun. Being an owner has given me a lot of liberty and flexibility with how we market ourselves. I have taken many of my personal passions, interests and desires and painted Hula’s culture with that. Everyone thinks your job is not really a part of your life, but in the end you wind up spending a majority of your life at your work, so it’s a great thing if you can mix your life passions with your career. We wanted to make Hula Networks a fun place to work and something people want to be a part of. It’s our effort of blending of lifestyle with our careers, and making it work.
TSC: How did you a Mike Wilson come to partner up?
JC: I saw Mike’s first rope swing video that he did on the Truckee River. I had only known Mike from the ski world previously. So I reached out to him and was like “Hey I really like what you are doing, we should get together and help each other’s worlds”. Mike was like, “Let’s meet up in Tahoe and talk about it” — and I was there.
Next thing I knew, I was in a harness, climbing 80 ft. rocks and we’re setting up rope swings! I did it without even consciously thinking about it. We were on this one pillar rock that was 150 feet tall; it had a 10-foot platform on top that was covered in sand, and we weren’t roped in. All of a sudden it hit me — that I am on an interview, and Mike is seeing if I’m down to go out and get rowdy. Needless to say, we both decided we had a lot in common and we really liked each other — so it was on!
TSC: Would you say that Mike has that effect on people that draws you into those situations?
JC: The answer is yes. Every time I ski with Mike I end up pointing it off something intense, and only realizing mid-way what I am doing.
TSC: What was the response to your first video collaboration, the 99-foot rope swing?
JC: We worked with Conor Toumarkine and the Shreddy Times crew to create the 99 ft. rope swing video that everyone has seen. We have well over two million hits on via YouTube, Vimeo, and Break.com. It landed on ESPN, CNN, Sports Illustrated, USA today, the Carson Daly Show, and even Ashton Kutcher tweeted about it. Basically, it’s mind-boggling that Mike is able to get on a swing that is 99 feet off the water and do a quad backflip with no hesitation. He has done a fantastic job and everyone has taken notice.
TSC: How has the success affected Hula Networks?
JC: It’s been great. Our web traffic quadrupled. However, the biggest success we saw from it was within our own customer base. It became a great talking point. We put the link in all of our e-mail signatures and people would call us asking if it was for real and wanted to find out what’s going on. Our customers loved it and ski resorts have taken notice as well. Since Mike is in the ski world it has blended Hula Networks with the ski industry. Squaw Valley and other local ski resorts in Lake Tahoe have reached out from the seeing the video.
The positive feedback has inspired us to pursue more “Going Big” video projects such as our recent “Die Another Day” Demolition Derby Video. We worked with the highly accredited cinematic team at Hover Effect to take things to the next level. Devin Hedrick and Michael Jacobson utilized high-resolution aerial photography and their state-of-the-art post-production facility to make this installment of the series bigger and badder than the last! It hasn’t gone viral yet but I am confident it will get its fair share of nods — it’s just too much fun not too.
TSC: With activities such as rope swings, mountain races, and demolition derbies, you guys seem to be focusing on more niche-oriented feats. Why do you guys choose this route as opposed to mainstream activities?
JC: Why be normal? Any company can sponsor killer ski videos with great athletes but we are not just a sponsor. We are actually living it and having fun doing it. We are a bunch of guys with a common bond who share the love for the mountains and like to push our limits. For instance we recently found the Tough Mudders event series where teams compete in a all-mountain footrace with over twenty obstacles at locations like Squaw Valley. We specifically formed a team called the Hula Tribe just for the event. The majority of our team members are technology guys like us that love doing these adventures and pushing their limits. We enjoy the synergy and comradely that it instills. It’s not a mind boggling stunt like Mike throwing a quad back flip, but rather just something that is a part of our culture at Hula Networks. We’re documenting it and having fun with what we are doing. There will no doubt be a fun edit released from that one in the near future.
TSC: The relationships built on the side of a mountain are said to form profoundly deep bonds. What do you think is the underlying cause of this phenomenon?
JC: It goes back to my original philosophy. If you haven’t loved then you haven’t lived. If you haven’t put your life on the line then you haven’t lived. So if you keep going out into to mountains where you put your life on the line and the guy next to you is doing the same. You’re looking out for each other’s lives. There’s no stronger bond than that! There will be difficult times when you have to back each other up, times when you’re laughing together and times when you’re crying together. When something pushes you to that level there’s a huge bond that comes out of it, and you come back as a family.
TSC: What can we look forward to in the future from Hula, and their action sports partnerships?
JC: Lots and Lots of fun. We have big plans that include top athletes, helicopters, snowmobiles, speedwings, base jumping, wingsuites and more. It will be Nitro Circus meets The Ski Channel. Everything will be beyond awesome and mountain oriented. The kind of stuff you can’t take your eyes off. We have professional athletes from Idaho, Utah, Squaw Valley and Alaska who are top skiers, BASE jumpers, skydivers, paraglider’s, speedwing pilots, wingsuiters. These guys rip at skiing and all are super human in their own craft.
One of the things that I love about the Ski Channel is your demographics. We both want people who are “go getters”, Type A personalities and decision makers. One of the biggest successes we have seen in this marketing campaign from a Hula perspective is that all the guys who are enjoying watching what we are doing, are directly affiliated in our world in one way or another. They are either decision makers, industry leaders, or cultural influencers. People are taking notice and we are inspiring them to go out and have fun. We are working hard in the technology world as well. Our plan is to continue to work hard deploying world class networks for our customers while having fun at the same time and combining the two successfully.
- End of Interview
Joe Commendatore and the gang at Hula Networks continue to make moves on and off the mountain. They are finishing up the next video project with the aerial cinematic wonders at Hover Effect to bring us full coverage from this year’s Norcal Tough Mudders event at Squaw Valley.
So get psyched for that! And in the meantime check out the Hula Tribe’s Facebook Page:
For more information on Hula Networks hit up: