Why did you decide to start this business?
The idea for the SwingSmart came to me in 2006, as a way to help me get better at golf. I had watched the pros getting instruction from their teachers at the 2006 PGA Championship and realized that like them, I needed a way to get instant feedback on my swing. Before then, I tried everything to improve my game. I went to a pro for lessons, which really helped, but he couldn’t be there for every swing I took. I hit thousands of balls at the range. I even took my video camera and laptop out to the range, but that was difficult, because of the constant running back and forth, and embarrassing, because of the funny looks from fellow golfers. I tried other training aids, as I know they can be helpful, but I noticed that no one ever takes them to the range because they don’t want to look like “Tin Cup”.
The first rule for my idea was that it had to meet my golfer’s criteria. It needed to be cool, helpful, small, and most importantly, not interfere with the way I play golf. After investigating the technology necessary to make it work, I decided that I would definitely need some help to build my idea. In looking for an engineer, I turned to the person that I know comes into contact with people from all walks of life, my barber. As luck would have it, one of his brother’s best friends, Tom McClaughry, was an engineer who did consulting work. We arranged a meeting. Tom McClaughry, our Chief Technology Officer, and I have been working together ever since. After seeing some early results with our prototypes and seeing the possibilities for making my own swing better, I thought it might be a really good product to build a business around.
What was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome?
The one thing about coming up with an idea, and especially one that uses technology, is that all the hurdles seem like the biggest one at the time. Our biggest hurdle involved putting together the outstanding group that we have assembled to design and build the SwingSmart. We were really fortunate to find all the key people with the necessary engineering skills and the research and development expertise near our location in Illinois. We are proud to say that the SwingSmart was designed and built, from start to finish, right here in the U.S.
It was also difficult to find the right parts at the right price. When we started out, for example, many parts were too expensive to make the product viable from a pricing standpoint. Thanks to the popularity of Smartphones and Tablets and the fact that they use huge quantities of many of these parts, the cost has fallen off to a reasonable level. Additionally, sourcing all the parts that go into an electronic device is quite an undertaking. Once again, luck had a way of finding us. We were fortunate that the executives and sales team at one of the largest electronic distributors in the country just happen to be real golf fans. They loved the idea and have really been instrumental in bringing us the expertise and parts procurement assistance necessary to get our product built.
What was the most rewarding moment in the process?
The inventor’s process is a long road, so you have to celebrate the milestones along the way, such as seeing the production box for the SwingSmart for the very first time. It seems like other moments, such as getting the device to communicate with an Apple product, or making a club swing in 3D swing were more difficult to overcome, but seeing the box just made it so real. Now I could show the production box to people, and somehow it wasn’t an idea on a napkin anymore. It was a real product that would be sold in stores.
The most rewarding moment, however, occurred at Haggin Oaks Golf Expo 2012, when I had the opportunity to demo the SwingSmart and help golfers get feedback on their golf swings. It was so great to be able to share my passion for the golf game and see people’s enthusiasm for our product.
Explain the process of going from idea to having a finished product for sale. How long did it take?
The process to build the SwingSmart took quite a bit of time. It started in the summer of 2006 and will culminate in our release in July of 2012. The first phase, which lasted for a short time, was to build a device to help me with my golf swing. The second phase started once I determined that the idea could be a product. After that, my next step was to seek the advice of a good Intellectual Property Attorney. He was able to provide me with the necessary documentation to show the origin of my idea and gave me a great piece of advice.
He said that he has seen a lot of ideas come into his office but that the successful ones all had a common element. They needed an inventor who truly believed in the product and would commit to the hard work necessary to keep pushing it forward. He couldn’t have been more right. It is really amazing how many hats you have to wear throughout the process. I have learned physics, electrical assembly, plastic assembly, mold-making, marketing, and even television commercial filming techniques. The key to going from idea to product is to work through each part of the process, trust the experts around you, and keep pushing forward.
What unexpected challenges did you face?
I think the biggest unexpected challenge for me has been the time it takes to get things done. For instance, you look at a design for your plastics and decide you want to change a few things. Now you have to go back to the engineers who designed it to make sure the design works from a mechanical standpoint. Then you need to have the designer change the computer file. Next, you need to get the prototype made. Finally, you get to look at it. These steps are taken for granted by big companies, because most of this is done in-house, or with established vendors. In a start-up though, you have to hire a lot of independent contractors, which means you are competing with their other clients for their time and energy.
What advice would you give someone thinking about starting a golf business?
When I first started talking to people in the golf business, they all said “be prepared to play very little golf”, and they were right. I don’t get a chance to play many rounds, but the really great thing about being in the golf business is that you get to hang around with a lot of people who love golf as much as you do. You get to discuss golf, work on golf ideas, and think about ways to become a better golfer. It’s not a bad day at the office. My advice would be to make sure you really like being around the game, because you have to immerse yourself in golf to understand the special addiction that we all share. If you do, what you lack in rounds played will be more than made up for by always being around this wonderful game and the great people who enjoy it.