A good idea can never be ‘good’ if it sits in a desk drawer on a napkin.
It can’t even be an idea if it lacks a vision, plan, or a concept.
If you have the cajones to invest where a market void is obvious, and you invent a ‘can’t miss’ product or create an air-tight business model, you might just make it to the finish line.
Maybe it doesn’t work out in the end. That happens. But at least you’re not haunted by the ten years later moment, that one where you look in a mirror some morning, lamenting your job or career, and mumble:
“Why the fu#% didn’t I do that?”
Tom Cox could have been that guy. When the switch went off on his light bulb, no one would likely have wagered more than a dime that it would even get out of the starting gate.
Used golf balls? Really? Does rudimentary provide proper context here?
A professional dive team re-claiming water-logged Titleist’s make this a way more sophisticated concept than some drenched-in-bug-spray retired guy scavenging tree-lined corridors of his golf course with an old Wilson R-90 wedge hoping to fill repurposed egg cartons.
I get that.
But c’mon. It isn’t like Cox had reinvented the wheel. Used golf balls are ads in a newspaper, flea markets, side-of-the-road stuff, aren’t they?
Not this time. Not in 1995 when Amazon and eBay are mere shells of what they would become. Online, like that pair of tech-savvy future E-Commerce behemoths, is where Cox laid out the foundation for GolfBalls.com, a thriving, award-winning enterprise that cut its teeth on the used ball market before transitioning to brand name, new golf balls and other products using customization as a cornerstone for competitive advantage.
Want a picture of your dog, your grandchild, a favorite saying on your Bridgestone Tour B XS or TaylorMade TP5x? Need a gift bag for your next tournament? Cox and his team in Lafayette, Louisiana will make it happen, not only with precision but with super quick turnaround time.
Impressive is how this forward-thinking enterprise was built from scratch. Twenty-four years ago, there was no blueprint; no instructions, no franchise model to follow for creating an online business. Cox, an admitted computer-geek, figured it out. Unproven as a retail sales channel but at that point, a burgeoning platform changing at a rapid pace. Today E-commerce has no ceiling.
“It wasn’t another lawn mowing service startup,” explained Cox, president and Chief Executive Officer on Golfballs.com humble beginnings. “We had to develop everything – visualization online; all the software to drive the business – and do it a time when the golf industry isn’t exactly flush with E-commerce sites. We’ve evolved based on customer demands or what we see in the marketplace and we try and do it as quickly as we can.”
How fast is Golfballs.com? Place an order on a Wednesday morning, pay to have it rush printed, and by Thursday afternoon it will be customized, packed, shipped and delivered to your front door.
Volume is where this company lives. Last month it broke two previous records printing over 50,000 customized golf balls and shipping over 2,500 packages in a single day. On average it prints roughly 100,000 balls a week.
“In this Amazon, everything gets there in two days world we live in, we’re built for speed,” Cox says proudly. “Golfballs.com is well-positioned to meet and exceed the expectations of the most demanding customer.”
Right. So Golfballs.com is fast. Is it a business built for long term growth and expansion? Annual sales hover in the $35 million range. Two-thirds of that is consumer-based, one-third corporate (tournaments, trade shows, and promotional gifting items), and 80 percent of what the company sells goes out the door personalized to some degree.
Sustainability is not keeping Cox awake at night.
“We can customize products in ways that make it more fun to play golf and in a way our competitors can’t,” he said. “That’s why we have such loyal customers. In any given month over half the people that buy from us have bought from us before.”
Anointing your brand, ‘World Leader in Golf Customization’ sounds like an arrogance play. In this case, it isn’t. That marketplace position has been earned.
“I’ll put it this way,” Cox volunteered. “Golfballs.com has grown to become so much more than used balls from muddy waters in Louisiana.”
Overseeing the operation of a private club in Broussard doesn’t allow much time to take your hands off the wheel. Busy place that Le Triomphe Golf & Country Club – big membership, lots of weddings, thriving food and beverage operation, host course for the Korn Ferry Tour’s (formerly Web.com Tour) Chitimacha Louisiana Open.
Cue up random coincidence. The same October 1995 week Cox was hiring web developers for a new club website, in his guise as club manager, he was renegotiating a deal with a New Orleans-based diving company that specialized in reclaimed golf balls. That’s when the light bulb went off.
“It happened shortly after my meeting with the diving guys,” he recalled. “I thought why don’t we partner with the diving company, partner with the web developer, and build a website selling used golf balls online.”
The fledgling distribution method for second-chance dimpled spheres got off to a decent enough start. Pocket change but $17,000 in year one sales is pretty respectable for a little side-line hobby venture.
Sales more than tripled to $70,000 in 1997. That’s still a bit short of a eureka moment, but it was enough year-over-year improvement for Cox to believe he was on to something.
Year three was the tipping point. The website did over $200,000 in sales. Promising had morphed into, “holy sh&$” and the company’s founder was suddenly faced with a dilemma.
“I had a full-time job, a career in the golf industry, but it was starting to consume every minute of my non-work time,” he said. “By the end of 1998, I said, okay, I need to stop doing these other things and start focusing on growing the business full-time.”
Prudent choice. Fourth-year Golfballs.com sales exceeded $1 million. Continuing to prosper the company exited the used ball market in 2000 to concentrate exclusively on new and customized balls online. Eventually, it developed its own printing processes, bringing all outsourced work back in-house while ramping up to add its full line of equipment, headwear, and apparel.
Graduating from hobby business to million-dollar brand in 48 months sounds daunting. For some entrepreneurs, the learning curve would simply be too steep to negotiate. Not for Cox. He has thrived punching above his business weight class.
“Fortunately I had several years of experience managing people, reading financial statements, and understanding how business kind of works before starting Golfballs.com,” he said. “I was also already in the golf industry. To me, it felt like I had a leg up going in.”
ALIGN YOUR LINE
United States Golf Association Rule’s 6-5 and 12-2 state a player needs to have an identification mark on their ball.
No disrespect to your crappy artwork ability but Golfballs.com takes the Sharpie right out your hand. In its arsenal of customization options, it has roughly a thousand potential designs in 50 different categories.
“Let’s say you play a Bridgestone B Series golf ball. If you order it from us and you want to have the line that the tour pros use we’ll do that at no charge. That’s our Align XL. If you want we’ll take that same line and put a name or message in there. That’s our new Personalized Align XL we brought out this year. We always try to innovate in ways that our customers think is great,” Cox said.
Only want initials? That can be done in multiple places, probably right in your home town. The more intricate the design though the less likely it can be reproduced. Since many of the print methods used by Golfballs.com can’t be found anywhere else customers who buy become repeat customers pretty much by default.
“That’s our point of difference. It’s not like someone can go and get something printed on a golf ball as well as we’re able to print it,” Cox added. “When we introduced Align XL, we knew it would appeal to avid player types, to the MyGolfSpy reader. Those are the golfers playing 30 + rounds a year, who always put a line on their golf ball because they’re looking for an edge. They want to score better and have a bit of fun at the same time.”
As popular as some of the alignment options have been with core golfers a photo of a grandchild for your dad on Fathers Day or your Mother on Mother’s Day appeals to a much different demographic of customer – not necessarily golfers either.
Special occasion gift-giving is a GolfBalls.com pillar. Same with its corporate custom business-to-business offerings.
“That’s how we’ve built the personal relationship we have between our brand and our customers,” said Golfballs.com director of marketing Brad Pecot. “It’s a big reason why we have that loyal customer base Tom mentioned. We have many different personalization options for all types of golfers.”
As the name implies, the ball category is responsible for roughly 85 percent of Golfballs.com’s annual business.
The other 15 percent – customized towels, golf tees, ball markers, divot tools, shirts, hats, and gear – should not be considered an add-on or buffer especially if you’re doing $35 million annually.
Corporate and tournament business for the company continues to be a thriving portfolio ideally positioned for future growth prospects.
“If you have good visualization tools as we have; if you know exactly what you’re going to get before you get it, and want it in a day or two, the internet is better suited to provide customization across any category than stores can be,” Cox said. “Online is a way better experience.”
Fast turnaround on 144 tournament gift bags or logo shirts or customized hats remains a valuable asset for Golfballs.com especially if someone knows what they want but can’t find anyone to deliver it in a reasonable time frame. According to the man-in-charge that’s more prevalent than most consumers might even realize.
“I was in a store the other day wanting to buy a knapsack for my son. They told me it would be two weeks to have it monogrammed. That’s the state of customization in store,” he said. “The service level just isn’t there. If you’re in the club management business like I was and service isn’t in your DNA, you’re not going to last long. Neither is your club. If you need it fast, we’ll deliver it on-time exactly how you designed it.”
Most major corporations have a logo, either on file or easily accessed by the Golfballs.com team. Since the artwork is locked and loaded, it’s a pretty routine assignment for the company to add a date or tournament name. If additional artwork is required, Cox retains a staff of onsite artists ready to assist with no limits on imagination or available processes.
“We see it on the consumer side all of the time, but it’s just as ingrained across our corporate business,” Pecot said. “People love to have something that’s their own. There’s some pride there.”
If there is a single statistic that jumps out at you above everything else it’s this one: Golfballs.com has grown at a double-digit rate every year with the exception of 2009, the first full year following the implosion of the global economy.
Think about that.
Companies uncork champagne bottles if they show a 5-7 percent year-over-year improvement. To be at 10 – 20 percent early on and then maintain a 10- 15 percent clip more recently is a major reason Golfballs.com has been named Inc Magazine’s ‘Inc 5000 List’ of America’s fastest-growing companies eight times.
What Cox started with a few folks packaging and shipping used balls has been a lottery win idea. The company has 120 full-time employees, an infrastructure of a 20,000 square foot main building on Arnould Boulevard in Lafayette and an additional 40,000 feet comprised of three warehouses and off-site office space adjacent to the main facility.
“The senior management team is proud of our track record. We’ve won a few awards as a company, and that’s great for everyone because it validates a lot of what we do. That said we don’t take anything for granted and we don’t sit still and rest on our accomplishments.”
With Cox having the final say expect the company to remain committed to its industry-best turnaround time on customized products; its 100 percent customer service promise and the introduction of something cool and innovative for core golfers that’s different than anything else on the market every single year.
“That’s always the same,” he said. “It’s been our DNA since Golfballs.com launched in 1995 and we’re committed to staying the course. Our mission statement won’t change. Neither will our strategy.”
Twenty-four years later, that too is a damn good idea.