Hello world! First off let me introduce myself. My name is Derek Rucki and I am the Co-Founder/CEO of TLink Golf. Many of you have been following TLink for a very long time. Some of you before we even had a single prototype to show and when this was still just an idea on a napkin. With any startup there are groups of people that are the foundation of success for a new product; early adopters. The people that take a look at your vision, team, and overall idea and say “this product was made for me and I am willing to wait for it to become a reality”. Although this blog post is for everyone who ever has or ever will ever buy a TLink, I feel obligated and privileged to tell this story to the thousands of our early adopters who supported the creation of this product from day 1 when we were nothing. I am a fan of story telling so figured now that we have released our baby to the world some of you might want to know how we made it happen!
Lets throw this way back to when I was 12 years old and played my best ever round of golf for 9 holes with my parents (I think I shot somewhere around 50). Doesn’t matter what the score was all that matters was that is the day I fell in love with the game. I fell in love with that feeling of hitting a drive right on the screws, watching my divot fly through the air, the sound of the ball hitting the bottom of the cup, the background music of birds chirping, cupping my hands around my eyes trying to get Tiger Vision, sliding that tee into the earth, and of course the look on my dad’s face when I beat him! I could not think of a better way to spend my time than to spend every possible second on the golf course. Fast forward to the age of 18 and I had become one of Canada’s top junior golfers. I played all over the world and competed in 4 national championships and 1 Canadian Amateur Championship. The lessons learned, battles fought, and character gained from these years of hard work are immeasurable. After this, I received a scholarship to go play golf for a University in Texas while getting my business degree. This is where I began to recognize that the habits and skills I have adopted by nature of becoming a highly competitive golfer separated me not just on the course but also in life. Having a strong work ethic, ability to deal with adversity, and fierce determination turn out not just to be good for golf but also for business, who knew?! I began dabbling in the stock market, started an eBay business, and just overall became interested in how I could apply these skills learned from golf into business. Slowly my passion for playing golf at this highly competitive level dwindled. I felt I had milked golf for all it had to offer me and was more excited to utilize the lessons that I learned on the course than actually try to make a living as a pro. After a couple years in Texas I returned back to Calgary to “finish” my degree at Mount Royal University (MRU) in their Innovation and Entrepreneurship program.
In my first class for entrepreneurship at MRU all you were told to do was come up with an idea for a product or service that was in an area of passion for you and validate that idea. For me, my area of passion was obviously golf. After talking with my professor (now mentor), I came up with an idea after having seen the popularity of GPS watches begin to take over the golf market. I understood that amateur golfers loved the convenience of having their essential golf yardages just a glance of the wrist away. However, when I tried one on myself I could not get over how distracting it was to wear such a ridged, heavy, and large device on my wrist while swinging. I was always use to playing with a small balance bracelet on my wrist and thought it would be great if someone could condense the idea of these GPS watches down to a wristband size that wasn’t so distracting. BOOM we have an idea! Synapses fired, creativity was sparked, and next thing I know I have a drawn a the below picture of what was soon to become TLink.
The fundamentals of the original idea were fairly simple. I wanted to create a GPS wearable that was much lighter, smaller, and less expensive than anything else on the market. I knew that the best way to do this was to have TLink utilize the most powerful piece of technology that most of us own; smartphones. By having TLink use Bluetooth to run off the GPS on your smartphone it would allow us to save costs on memory, screen size, a GPS chip, and give us the flexibility to use the powerful backbone of a smartphone as the engine for TLink.
Now the problem is, I am not a programmer and know about as much about coding as I do about interpretive dance. I spent a solid two months running around to as many tech meetups in Calgary that I could trying to find someone to help me develop the product. Surprisingly, I met about a dozen people who said they could handle this development no problem. However, something critical was missing when I talked with each one of these techies; passion. The dead eyed, fear driven, and unmotivational nature of their responses towards working with me on this project felt like a poison that could kill this idea before it was even explored. It never matters how good your idea is, execution is absolutely everything and I needed the right partner with a shared vision and passion. I ended up winning a $2,500 grant from MRU for writing a paper detailing the idea for TLink while I was on this quest for a business partner. Another student named Stefan Radeta had also won the grant for an app he developed called Lotto Scan. Essentially what it did was allow you to take a picture of your lottery ticket which then converted the image into text and scanned the lottery database to tell if you had won. This solved the problem of having to manually check online or in store. We set up a meeting and within minutes I could tell he was the co-founder I needed. We clicked on all fronts and by the end of the conversation he was pitching the vision to me as if he had been thinking about the idea for months. Off to the races we go!
In class we were taught about what is called a minimum viable product, otherwise called an MVP. It is the product with the highest return on investment versus risk. It is something that will allow you to validate any key assumptions you have made without breaking the bank on development. Our key assumption that needed to be validated was that golfers valued a small and lightweight design over having more features crammed into a larger device. I had some experience of sourcing products from China after running a small eBay business while in Texas and began searching for bluetooth wristband products which had the look and feel we desired. We bought about 10 samples of various bluetooth wristbands and began showing them to my network of golfers who were in the exact target market for a product like this. We also surveyed about 200 people in our target market pin pointing our main assumptions and to get non-biased confirmation around the validity of our ideas. We quickly validated our key assumptions and also gained totally new insight into what else golfers wanted to get out of a device like this. Everyone we showed the samples to were drawn towards one that was built as an individual pod which slides into a silicone wristband skin or belt clip. Not only did they love the small lightweight aspect of this design but also the fact that you were not confined to one color and only being able to wear it on your wrist. Bingo, we have our minimum viable product!
Next step after this is to find a little startup capital. One of my biggest role models in life is Richard Branson. In one of his first books I read he talked about luck being where preparation meets opportunity. I feel this statement is completely reinforced in the way that we found early funding for TLink. The opportunity to sculpt the idea for TLink within a classroom environment allowed me to develop a necessary skill for a startup founder; pitching. Being able to convey your idea and passion simply through speaking is an art form. I want someone who has never touched a golf club in their entire life to be infected by the passion and vision for the idea of TLink after hearing me pitch. Being able to develop this skill and prepare in a safe setting tee’d us up to capitalize on some pitch competitions that took place at MRU and around the city during the winter. When these opportunities presented themselves I pitched whenever possible and as a result we ended up winning roughly $50,000 in cash, grants, and legal services with just our MVP and business plan to show. Here is a video of one of my pitches last winter:
The momentum and nature of these pitch competitions also allowed me to further build my network with angel investors around Calgary. We used the money won from these competitions to begin building momentum behind the idea with manufacturing, prototyping, patents, partnerships, and really just finding ways to take this from still being an idea to something that had real defined value to an investor. In May 2014 we were able to capitalize on the network I had built up through these events and successfully raised our first round of angel capital. That process was a massive learning curve but one which I enjoyed (for the most part). It really came down to selling more who we were as people as opposed to the idea of TLink as an investment. It was during this first big capital raise that the third member of our team joined us; Rod Brown. He is an angel investor and startup veteran that brought a wealth of knowledge and experience that we were lacking as young founders. The investment was going to allow us to actually develop the product from scratch over the summer of 2014 and launch a pre-order campaign for it at the end of summer.
We developed the product along side a contract manufacturer in China and it took about two months. Luckily my co-founder Stefan runs on vampire developer time and is usually awake from 1pm-5am where as I am awake from 6am-10pm. This worked out really well for us seeing as China is in a different timezone so one of us is awake at all times to keep pushing things forward. In July we got our first prototypes in mail. Opening that package was like being in the delivery room and getting to hold your baby for the first time. It wasn’t perfect and definitely cried a little bit but oh man did we fall in love. We launched our pre-order campaign online in August once we had determined some changes that needed to be made to ensure it was ready for the market. Thousands of people (thanks early adopters!!) found their way to our campaign and ordered TLink. That feeling of releasing your baby for the world to see was a cocktail of different emotions; excitement, fear, relief ect..
We decided to ride out this momentum and take TLink to the PGA Fashion and Demo Experience trade show in Las Vegas at the end of August. I got a call from the PGA a week before the show and they asked if we wanted the last booth available so we spontaneously took it and frantically tried to get some banners and information printed. Time to throw this baby in front of some retailers and hope they like what we have created!
The show went incredibly well. The retailers and distributors that learned about TLink recognized it filled a gap in the market with its low price and fitness tracker design. However, we also began to realize at this show that there was a runway of time to our product in the retail market. The big points that differentiated ourselves and made us attractive to retailers was our $99 price (along with high margins) and TLink being small/lightweight. We were approached by one of our competitors who were interested in licensing our technology. It was then that we realized we have a set period of time before one of the big guys comes out with a product that is $99 with the same form factor. What a strange mix of emotions! On one hand we have excitement that the market loves our product, but on the other hand we can see there is an end to this runway of opportunity.
You can either push these concerns to the side or face them head on and realize there are options. Our options were 1) Try to get acquired by one of the big guys within 18 months. 2) Innovate again in a years time to keep current with the market. 3) Pivot our core business model into a different market. Well… we weren’t ready to put our baby up for adoption so pivot we did! We ended up partnering with a group that made us realize there is a market not only untouched by any of our competitors but that is also considerably larger. Not only could we enter into this market but we could do so in a way that was defensible and could create longevity for TLink. The name of the game then began to customize our entire product for corporate events. We partnered with a company that allowed us to make our silicon wristbands with over 100 custom colors, full corporate logo printing on both sides of the wristband, and fully customize the packaging with only 48 piece minimums. Long story short, we are now positioned as the only fully customizable GPS wearable in the world.
Although we are still taking TLink into the retail market this corporate shift of our core business model has been absolutely essential to ensure a bright future for our first product. The two big reasons we are able to enter this market first is 1) being able to keep our custom price comparable to that of a golf shirt, 2) with our individual wristband skin design we can fully customize the entire product in every way to put as much value as possible into the hands of the corporate buyer.
We took this new face of the company to the big PGA trade show in Orlando this past January where the pivot was validated. Our banner showed off the custom capabilities we have and immediately grabbed the eyes of anyone passing by. Then its just a matter of locking them in with a quick 60 second pitch which almost always resulted in either a business card or order. Like selling candy to a baby. You can see a brief video of our time at this show here:
Now keep in mind that throughout this entire process we still haven’t even done a mass manufacturing run! All we had to show were prototypes. You see… the name of the game for bootstrapping a startup is sell first and build second. You want to get momentum behind the product so that when you pull the trigger on your first order you can get enough volume to knock down your cost of goods. After this show and our pre-order campaign we finally had all the momentum needed and took our orders/interest to investors for our final capital raise. We raised enough money and financed enough PO’s to kick off mass production in early spring. We started with 5000 pieces and when that went well another 5000 would quickly follow.
Stefan and myself wanted to make sure we were heavily involved in the entire manufacturing process to ensure it went smoothly and the quality was impeccable. So… we shipped ourselves off to Beijing for the entire month of May to oversee the production of our first 5000 TLink’s. What an insane experience that was! Being able to meet the entire team of engineers we had been working with for over a year was a incredible. All they ever were before was a bunch of emails and phone calls so being able to put faces to names always is nice. Our factory was over in Tianjin where the TLink pod/electronics were made. We did a trial run of 500 pieces to set all the quality control standards and work out any inefficiencies in the assembly line before doing the full 5000. Although there were constantly little situations and issues that needed to be handled, the overall process went very smooth with our supervision. The factory area itself was highly automated, massive in size, and brand new. We needed to find a way to test all the functionality of TLink’s coming off the assembly line nearby the factory so Stefan mapped a fake 9 hole golf course on the roads surrounding the complex. Factories are built far away from the city center and are total ghost towns. I decided to buy a skateboard to rip around these empty streets to make testing for hours at a time a little bit more enjoyable. Skateboarding around the outside of our factory looking at a TLink that was fresh off the assembly line allowed for some much needed moments of reflection. Who would have thought that a little drawing in a classroom would result in me skateboarding around a factory in China with that drawing manifested into reality on my wrist?!
A the time of writing this Stefan is currently back in China on his own overseeing our second mass production run and working with our engineers on some exciting updates we have in the pipeline. We have exciting updates coming soon that will bring new functionality to our current device while having our second product under development already.
This has been the experience of a lifetime for us so far and it fills me with joy to be able to share it with anyone who took the time to read. The lessons learned, battles lost, milestones past, and experiences gained are not just valuable to TLink but also to making myself a better person. Our entire team is so excited about what the future holds for TLink and I am going to make sure to keep all of you updated as the story unfolds!
Thank you for taking the time to hear our story and for sticking around to be a part of our next chapter
All the best,
© 2016 TLink Golf Inc. All rights reserved.