There’s a certain audacity in deciding to start your own business.
Odds are there’s at least one person who does what you want to do that’s done it for longer, is better and has way more resources at their disposal to make sure you never become even a sliver of what you dream. It’s a slog. The struggle is one of constant, internal conflict: believing with absolute certainty that your way is better while totally not convinced that the world will figure that out before you have to surrender. And that battle unfolds whether you’re making widgets, serving ice cream, launching rockets or driving race cars.
But I’d frankly rather try succeeding in all of those businesses first before I became a golf equipment maker. The entrenchment in the sport is daunting. From Titleist to TaylorMade to Callaway to Cobra to Cleveland to Nike to Bridgestone, there are plenty of big boys. They have market share. They have marketing budgets. Their individual R&D line items are astounding.
It’d seem that just up and deciding to create a golf club and to seriously try to start a business around it is like intentionally picking the wrong options in a Choose Your Own Adventure book. You’re just flipping around pages trying to find the Amazon filled with bloodthirsty piranhas.
And yet Tyler Sullivan — he goes by Sully — is thriving.
Almost four years ago in 2011, Sullivan decided to get into the clubmaking business. A long-driver, Sullivan grew frustrated that he so easily broke the equipment another craftsman was making for his niche. He decided he could do it himself.
As it turns out, Sullivan needed a partner, and he found one in an unlikely place: the University of Vermont’s engineering department. The department agreed to help Sullivan design his driver, sold today as the Grenade (MSRP: $299), as part of a senior design project. The team used readily accessible computer-aided design (CAD) software and a slew of prototypes, virtual and physical, to come up with the final product.
The Grenade is a dual-cavity driver, created by plasma-welding two pieces of titanium together — an approach Sullivan says chews into his profit margin but assures a higher-quality product. So far, the Grenade comes in one loft, 10.5 degrees, and its shaft is bonded to the clubhead. While a lack of adjustability might seem odd given its proliferation in 2015, Sullivan says the club is more consistent, which is a bigger deal for the vast majority of golfers than being able to dial in small changes on their driver head.
That product, which launched in April 2013, hasn’t materially changed since its release. Well, except one change. Sullivan turned to his burgeoning social media following, as he typically does, for input on the club. Their most potent feedback? Paint the cavities green — in part, an homage to the Catamount student engineers who helped him.
“The most valuable thing I’ve done is to just ask questions and listen,” Sullivan said.
The green paint job outsold black by a 30-to-1 margin.
Sullivan kept on listening, hearing from customers that they’d love for him to come out with more clubs — namely, a line of fairway woods with the same technology. He worked up a design and then took it took Kickstarter, where Sullivan has turned to take pre-orders for new clubs. Diehards donate to get the next club at a significant discount; Sullivan gets validation and an influx of revenue to launch a new product. The return rate is a half-percent on the fairway woods. A hybrid and a putter have followed.
“The putter was a little out of our comfort zone,” Sullivan admits, but quickly notes the club did sell out of its first run.
BombTech isn’t a name on the trip of many golfers’ tongues, so the biggest part of the battle for Sullivan: building not just brand recognition but brand comfort. Sullivan offers a 60-day, money-back guarantee on everything he sells. He has also developed a relationship with his customers and potential converts through social media, soliciting feedback on all kinds of aspects of club design and even the business’ recently developed manifesto — a shot across the bow at bigger manufacturers whose releases, Sullivan feels, overwhelm golfers and have made a mess of the industry.
If Sullivan can pique the interest of a potential customer, his next hurdle is to convince them that they should buy a club they’ve never held. Almost all of his sales come through online channels, but there are few places — namely, no big brick-and-mortar golf shops — that carry the clubs. That means a potential customer can’t showroom in person, then slip out to their device of choice and buy BombTech clubs. Sullivan offers an online fitting form that gets it right for most customers, as well the guarantee, but BombTech is still a little ahead of the comfort of a sport whose players are a little old school.
However, Sullivan has clearly made a connection to enough players to make BombTech a personal dream come true. So, like any entrepreneur, Sullivan wonders — and changes his mind — on a daily basis about the future for his company.
BombTech can’t compete amid the bigger OEMs in the current retail climate. If their clubs are discounted six weeks after launch, how quickly would BombTech’s price drop to $99 or less? Value is a relative thing, and it’s hard, no matter the evidence or conviction Sullivan has, to convince the average golf consumer his club is worth as much, if not more, than anything that comes out from a big equipment maker this year.
That said, part of Sullivan would love to be living on Easy Street instead of Etsy Street.
“I like working and building clubs specific to each person,” Sullivan said, “but I would be lying if I told you I didn’t want a 10,000-driver order.”
However, Sullivan doesn’t plan on creating new equipment for the sake of releasing something new. The Vermont native is steadfast that he won’t try to sell new equipment unless its design is superior to what he offers today. So, for now, don’t count on a set of BombTech irons or a Grenade 2.
In the meanwhile, Sullivan constantly keeps his ear to the ground, trying to keep his finger on the pulse of what golfers want. That means dropping by a Dick’s Sporting Goods for some recon. It also means actually picking up the phone and calling some of his best customers.
“As long as I listen to the consumer and really understand what they want, we’ll be successful,” Sullivan said.
“I’m honestly just trying to help guys play better.”