This is the third post in an ongoing series we’re calling “Entrepreneur Spotlight” where we get the chance to speak with entrepreneurs and listen to their stories. Here we feature Hap Self of Whirly Golf. You can check out their EquityNet profile here.
According to industry analysts, the sport of golf is in decline. In 2013 alone, 400,000 players left the sport, and those numbers have continued to climb. As a lifelong golfer, this concerned Hap Self. That’s why he came up with the idea of Whirly Golf as a way to make the sport more accessible by turning a professional training tool into a fun and vibrant game and training device. Hap designed Whirly Golf™ to capture a child’s interest and to be played by anyone with no prior experience or interest in golf.
With a motto of, “Good for the Growth of Golf,” Hap’s goal is to get more children involved in the sport while contributing to several national charities for veterans, cancer research, and children’s hospitals. The golf industry has taken notice, and now Hap is poised to release Whirly Golf out into mainstream markets. We spoke with Hap last Monday to find out how he came up with this idea and what he would recommend to other entrepreneurs who want to get their products out to market.
Tell us a little about your background.
I have been an entrepreneur since I was 16 and became the youngest licensed contractor in Colorado. I’m just not the type of person who can work for someone else; I like stuff done my way. After I paid my own way through college, I started a property management company in Sun Valley, Idaho. My best friend lived in Boise, and I love to ski. Sun Valley is one of the best ski locations in the world, so it was a great way to be able to ski and make money at the same time.
After a while, though, I realized that I can’t live in a ski resort my whole life, so I moved to Seattle and bought the Lindal cedar home franchise. Five years later, I sold my franchise and started manufacturing my own solariums and built a dealer network throughout the United States. I had 75 people working for me. Then, I just got tired of having that much responsibility and having that many people working for me, so I took a job at the largest conservatory company in the world, UltraFrame. I was the International Sales manager for them and was able to perform my duties wherever my computer was.
When did you start playing golf?
I just started knocking balls around in a park across the street when I was around 12. I just liked it. I didn’t have any formal training or anything; I just kind of trained myself. I liked the fact that every time you go golfing you meet new people and I think what I really liked about it is that golf is known as a gentleman’s sport. It’s the only sport out there that you call penalties on yourself.
How did you get the idea for Whirly Golf?
I had to have major surgery several years ago, and while I was under, it just kind of came to me. I saw Whirly Golf on a cloud. After that, I made the first prototype in my manufacturing plant and kept changing it until I got the nerve to see if I could get a patent.
So, what was your mission at the outset?
In the beginning, I was trying to make a serious golf training device. After a few showings of ever-advancing prototypes at the PGA Show, I came to the realization that there wasn’t enough money in this market and it would cost too much for advertising. Then, the big push from the golf industry was how to attract more kids to the game to help it grow. So, we changed directions and came up with our Castle model and WhirlyBall™. By doing this we were able to attract all of the golf organizations and thus get free advertising and major coverage. Another great advantage is that we have no competition.
How would you describe Whirly Golf?
Well, the initial product looks like a castle and is designed to get kids and adults of all ages engaged. The backyard chipping setup comes with WhirlyBalls™, which are engineered to react exactly like a real golf ball and yet designed to be safe. The balls are a special combination of, nylon, fiberglass and marble powder. WhirlyBalls™ fly like normal golf balls up to a distance of 50 feet, and are designed to blow-up if you take a harder swing so kids don’t hurt anything like they could with a real ball. Whirly Golf™ has different size targets that have various points allocated on a Risk and Reward basis. Whirly Golf™ has also been engineered to be sturdy enough to receive real golf balls. Even for the best golfers, hitting the crown that sits atop each castle is no easy task. When you do hit the crown, it whirls around, thus our name. Some of the proceeds for each sale also go to charity. The pink sets benefit cancer research, the orange sets benefit children’s hospitals, and the red, white and blue sets benefit The Wounded Warriors.
You and your friends have funded the entirety of Whirly Golf yourselves. What made you decide to try crowdfunding?
I’ve never gone any place outside of my friends $240K and myself $600K for funding, but I kind of thought it was a way to be a little anonymous and at the same time reach out to some quality people. I checked all the crowdfunding sites and almost all of them wanted you to raise money $10 or $20 at a time and that’s just not our style. We just need that one final investor because once we have our product and inventory; we’ll never need money again. This is our first and last round. We don’t need any more money because this money gets us purchase orders, and with purchase orders I have no problem getting bank financing for everything else.
I’ve turned down Vulture Capital Firms that want to invest and eventually take your company away. You must be patient and able and not be greedy and premature. Like I said, we’ve only used our own money to fund this, so we are looking to find the right investor who not only wants to make money, but wants to do good for society and be a part of our family and a worldwide company.
Why would an outside investor want to invest in your company?
It’s simple: we’ve solved the major problem in golf, which is how to get more children interested around the world to play. We’re going to become an integral part of the golf industry and not become just a one hit wonder. We’re seeding our product to every major children’s golf training facility in the US. If we can get this product this year, then our financials will start producing incomes in January. Besides the children’s training facilities, we already have two pending orders for 10,000 units each from two different companies. Everyone is waiting to see the final product in the final box or get a unit so they can start using it.
Where are you going to manufacture your product?
This was major important! I was brought to China by the head of sourcing for Mattel. I stayed there for two years until I settled on our factory. We are now manufactured in Wuxi, the factory makes about two thirds of the bumpers for Toyota in the world. So we have an extremely stable manufacturing company and absolutely no limit on amount of production.
What kind of culture exists at Whirly Golf?
We’re like family. I was able to take my time and find the right President, and find the right CFO. I probably talked to ten potential presidents, ten potential CFOs, so our executives are the best. I’m a very good judge of character. One bad apple can ruin the whole bunch, especially since we are in the golf industry and work with kids.
What are some of the biggest mistakes you’ve made?
At first I thought this would be easy, just give a marketing company $120K to make the decisions. I was wrong. I learned that the only way is to invest yourself into the market and do your own marketing and research and development. There is no easy way unless you have unlimited money and just throw money at it and hope you get it right.
How do you go about marketing your business?
All of our marketing and has been at the PGA Show in Orlando in January; it’s the second largest in the world. The biggest is in Germany. Every one of the buyers and owners of every company in the golf industry goes to that show in January, and about 75 percent of all the product bought in the industry for that entire year is purchased at that show. We even did our research and development there. Every year we would ask industry leaders what they liked and disliked about our product, what price they would pay, and what they would do different. Then, we’d make a new prototype and do it all over again. Now, we’ve formed alliances with all of the golf organizations that work with children and several fantastic charities and are 100 percent sure we have the right product and price for the industry.
What would you recommend to someone who wants to bring a product to market?
For just about any single idea that an entrepreneur wants to start, there’s some kind of trade show. There’s a trade show for everything. You go to those trade shows, and even if you don’t have a product, you just go and ask questions. You should make up some kind of little prototype and get a small booth, like a 10×10 booth, and see if it has any sort of traction.
What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
I have had many special moments with being able to see the expression on the kids face when they hit the Whirly unit the first time. However the best was when we did a presentation to the Special Olympics. A couple of the kids actually cried. The instructors told me that they love Whirly Golf for them because you only play it about 15 feet away so it equals the field and gives them something they can do.
How do you define success?
I’d say being able to know that you’ve done something good for the world and weren’t just put on the earth to eat and sleep. Success is being able to know that you’re doing something good and you’re a good person. I know a lot of people that aren’t real wealthy, but their successful because they’re good people, they’ve raised a good family and have surrounded themselves with other good people.
If you had one piece of advice to someone just starting out, what would it be?
Do your research and don’t quit your day job until you’ve done it. Make sure your product or service fills a need in whatever industry you’re in or helps that industry in a unique way. There’s too much competition. Once you put all of your energy and money into it you could very likely find that most of those existing companies will have more money than you and a bigger market share than you think. You will not make it unless you have more money, or much better idea or product than anybody else, failure is almost inevitable.
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