When your business is born online and thrives in that space for 25 years (and counting), innovation isn’t exactly an agenda item you sit around mulling over on a whiteboard in a conference room.
Why would you if it’s already part of the furniture?
Tom Cox appreciates this as well as anyone. He took Golfballs.com from one of Louisiana’s first E-commerce websites to a world leader in golf product customization with innovation embedded into virtually every aspect of the company DNA.
Tour the Lafayette-headquartered business and you see it everywhere.
Better still go to the website. It’s the cornerstone of Golfballs.com’s online visualization tools and what allows the award-winning company to turnaround a customer order for two dozen customized Titleist Pro V1s on a Monday morning and have them printed, packed, shipped, and delivered to a customer on Tuesday.
That level of speed and process doesn’t happen without innovation.
“It’s one of our five company core values,” said Cox, who started Golfballs.com in 1995 selling used golf balls on the internet. “We live and breathe innovation every day, but I doubt our customers think much about what goes on behind the scenes. They only care about the end product and the quality we produce for them. Whether that’s our Align XL or a picture of their dog on a Bridgestone Tour B XS, it doesn’t matter. If they think it’s cool or if they say, man, this is really innovative that’s for them to decide. We’re happy to produce it and happy they like it. Around here, we don’t use the word innovation very much because we don’t have to. It’s what our customers expect and what we expect from ourselves.”
Golfballs.com has about $25 million reasons a year to maintain its level of customer-driven innovation. Printing roughly 100,000 golf balls a week accounts for approximately 85 percent of its impressive annual bottom line. The remaining 15 percent of sales come in via customized towels, golf tees, ball markers, divot tools, shirts, and headwear through its corporate portfolio.
Overall, 80 percent of all Golfballs.com orders go out the door with some level of personalization.
“Our customer base is the core golfer that likes to have something a little different. They’re not the people dinking around the bottom of the barrel looking for the cheapest golf ball they can possibly buy,” says Cox. “Most of what we sell is brand-name 2-piece or 3-piece performance products, and they want it customized in a way that sets them apart from other people. That’s our advantage. We’re positioned to meet and exceed customer expectations.”
AHEAD OF THE CURVE
The majority of golf’s original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) operate two to three years out in front of its product cycle and up to five years if its researching and developing a new technology platform or utilizing a never-before-used material.
Being that far ahead on product is critical to organizational flow.
Golfballs.com has a similar philosophy. Cox and his team remain in perpetual R&D mode as he and his team explore new ideas and concepts far in advance to provide its customer-base with something fresh and innovative.
“It keeps us relevant in the industry but also relevant to our customers, and that helps us maintain competitive advantage,” Cox explained. “When we started the company, it was just about selling used golf balls. Then we tweaked the business model to new balls and said, okay, let’s start to customize them. That isn’t ubiquitous at this point, but let’s face it: Most major online retailers sell personalized golf balls or can put text on one. Our ability to print and extend our reach to customers through innovation simultaneously is really the advantage we have over the competition. We always want to stay ahead of the game.”
To add context to Cox’s point, Golfballs.com has ramped up to where today it offers roughly 1,000 potential designs in 50 plus categories as customization options on its website.
It was a similar consumer-driven mindset that helped the company transition from the company’s ID Align customized golf balls to the next generation Align XL then on to last year’s rollout of Personalized Align XL.
Cox will tell you that’s been quite a process. Touring professionals influenced those alignment focused products, but Golfballs.com had to figure out how to do it too. Right out of the gate, equipment needed to be built from scratch with two important functional goals: Make the printing go halfway around a golf ball to the proper scale and have it look perfect.
Easy to say, not so easy to do. Cox took delivery on the first piece of equipment six months after it was designed.
“Took us a while,” he said. “Align XL was very popular and it emulated what the tour guys use, but our customers really like personalization with something more than just a line on a ball, so our goal was to combine the two. We got there, but it was a challenge.”
Once Personalized Align XL made it to the finish line and was uploaded to the website, return on investment was immediate. Golfballs.com customers responded to make it the company’s single most successful product launch ever.
“Anyone can print something inside a line, but the hard part is the added aspects of the print process. Halfway around a ball to scale is hard,” Cox noted. “But that’s one of the things we do at Golfballs.com. We try to invent or create products that combine an element of performance with an element of personalization. People love something unique that they can call their own. To do that year-over-year, we have to be ahead of the curve.”
Something else people love to the point of obsession is their favorite sports teams.
Just in time for the holiday season, Golfballs.com has put the finishing touches on an agreement with Team Golf, who owns and manages the licenses for National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB), National Hockey League (NHL) and National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Through this partnership with Team Golf, Golfballs.com now offers a wide range of officially licensed products through its major manufacturers.
A similar licensing agreement has also been reached with Team Golf allowing the same product decoration with all major branches of the United States Military.
“Being able to order a dozen Titleist Pro V1s with an NFL team or a Srixon ball with an MLB team or a military logo like the Navy, Air Force or Coast Guard is a big step for us,” said Cox, “but when we can extend that to include poker chips, ball markers, divot tools or a hat clip, it’s an even bigger deal for our customers.”
Seeing is Believing
Of the numerous ways Golfballs.com embraces innovation in its day-to-day operations, never do the company’s eyes stray too far from the online customer at home with their laptop.
For the website browsing experience to remain a positive one, the company continues to go to great lengths to produce and perfect software specific for the purpose.
Preview tools effectively are piece-of-mind. Customers wary of online ordering and purchasing have the benefit of seeing what they’re buying before they buy it. Testimonials on Golfballs.com indicate its visualization platform remains vital for turning a first time customer into a repeat purchaser.
“We can try and explain Align XL and where the line is on the ball and how it looks, but it’s hard to commit to that purchase until you can actually see it,” says Golfballs.com director of marketing, Brad Pecot. “Year over year, we’re trying to perfect that technology to make sure our products meet those customer expectations.”
That dates back a long way. Golfballs.com was golf’s first E-Commerce website to do live product visuals for personalization.
“I don’t know how relevant it is today, but this is like 2001 when we started doing that and showing people what their product would look like,” said Cox. “We see customers becoming more and more comfortable with ordering customized product online every year. Ten years ago, it was a challenge. People would say, I don’t know; I can’t trust it; if I can’t see it or feel it, I’m not going to buy it. As every year progresses, people are getting more comfortable with that, so we have to make sure that as they’re coming to the website for the first time to order a customized ball or product, our technology and our innovation on the customer-facing side is everything they expect. Any barriers they might have had prior to ordering something customized and online we throw right out the window.”
It helps that the company president and members of his staff at Golfballs.com consider themselves software developers. That’s been fundamental to the brand’s success for 25 years. Not only does it give the company a competitive advantage but it continues to drive the innovation bus by streamlining operational processes and reducing bottle-necks.
“From customization on the website all the way through our production department and shipping, we developed the software with customized product in mind,” Cox explained. “You can’t just go somewhere and buy it. This software is highly visual. It’s highly user-friendly, and it allows us to take three different products that come in at the same time and turn them around and ship them out on the same day….all accurately and cross-checked 2-3 times.”
Patents and intellectual property aside, does the company founder ever concern himself with another company or deep-pocketed investor who might try to copy the Golfballs.com playbook?
“With enough money, anyone can do anything,” he shrugs, “but our processes are so particular for our purpose, it would be very difficult for someone to do what we do.”
Feedback Feeds the Machine
Being innovative in all aspects of an operation includes the various ways Golfballs.com gathers input from its customer base.
Nowhere is that more readily available than through social media channels. Being able to get real-time feedback on new products or keep followers up-to-date on company goings-on through Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram have proven highly effective as part of the decision-making process.
“A few years ago, we were in a meeting with the guys from TABASCO® sauce,” said Cox. “We had a licensing deal with them at one point, and we were trying to decide which logo would look best on a golf ball. Instead of doing that ourselves, we pitched them on the idea of letting our followers decide. We posted the images on our Facebook page and watched the results come in. In the first half-hour, we had 350-400 responses.”
Short of mirroring the Team Titleist concept of utilizing a specific consumer base for opinion and feedback on new products, Golfballs.com entrusts customers at its brick and mortar retail location and repeat customers online to be the ideal conduit.
“Nothing innovative about giving out samples. We do it quite often at our store if we have a new product we want to go to market with,” Cox said. “We do the same for a select number of online customers with a purchase history of a specific product like Align XL. It’s still an effective tool. Where we think it’s innovative is how we correlate the data and employ it for our next generation of products.”
On the Horizon?
Tom Cox spoke recently at an entrepreneurial expo where he told attendees that over 25 years, Golfballs.com has screwed up an awful lot but that each mistake becomes part of a learning experience. They make you better, stronger, and more reliable as a brand consumers can trust.
“If you build that in to be a part of the DNA of your company, what happens over time is you come up with a pretty bulletproof system for what you do in your own lane,” Cox explained.
What Golfballs.com has done well is innovate. It puts no ceiling or constraints on its ability to do that every day with new products, operational efficiencies, and website upgrades.
As time go by, does it become more challenging to be innovative?
“No, it doesn’t,” said Cox. “You have to remember it wasn’t until about seven years ago that Facebook trained everybody that it’s really easy to take a picture and put it on something. There are other things going on unrelated to what we do that will create trends and make it easier for people to adopt more and more customization on their products. We follow those trends. We’re on the cutting edge of new technology. What I can say too is we have a playbook of next steps that we plan to roll out in the future here with different types of customization we want to bring to the market. We’re excited about that. Customized golf products, printed on-demand, with fast turnaround and a high degree of accuracy that you can have tomorrow, we’re really tough to beat.”