How does a tiny startup in Buffalo, New York break into the multibillion-dollar golf equipment industry? For Bret Blakely and Steve Coulton, co-founders of OnCore Golf Technologies, it was simply a matter of persuading the United States Golf Association, the sport's nearly 120-year-old governing body, to rewrite its rules.
"We kept getting asked the same old question," Blakely, a former ad executive, says of the company's experience at the PGA Merchandise show last January, where OnCore debuted the Evo1, its patented hollow-metal core golf ball. "Is that legal?" At the time, the best answer the pair could give was, "Not yet, but it should be."
Since founding the company in 2009, Blakely and Coulton were committed to getting their product on the USGA's list of conforming equipment. But while the Evo1 met the governing body's five rigorous standards for balls--the size, weight, initial velocity, total distance, and symmetry--its hollow-core design violated a clause in the USGA's official rule book that states golf balls must be of "traditional and customary form and make." The vast majority of existing balls contain a solid rubber core.
Reversal of Fortune
The duo refused to back down though, filing multiple appeals arguing that metals such as titanium had long been used in golf ball construction. A hollow metal core ball had even been deemed conforming back in 2007, a year before the addition of the "traditional and customary" clause.
In October, the OnCore partners' months of persistence finally paid off when the USGA's executive committee informed them that their ball had been approved. The ruling gave Blakely and Coulton a rare foot in the door to one of the most competitive and lucrative sports equipment markets in the world.
"It was definitely a David vs. Goliath-type moment," says Coulton, who has a background in finance. "We had plans to proceed with or without approval, but we never could have raised the same kind of capital if the ball was non-conforming." OnCore, which started with a $20,000 Kickstarter campaign, says it is currently about halfway to its goal of raising $1 million in angel and VC funding.
Standing out in a crowded field
Now the partners must focus on the remaining obstacles--most significantly, the number of rivals jockeying for space in golfers' bags. The USGA says more than 1,300 different balls from about 80 companies were submitted for approval in 2013. To compete with huge companies like Acushnet (the maker of PGA tour favorite Titleist balls and other well-known equipment brands), Blakely says OnCore has followed "something of a Blue Ocean strategy." That's a reference to the popular book that encourages new businesses to create demand through innovation rather than battle in a bloody "Red Ocean" for existing customers in an established market.
OnCore's founders say they have data showing that their ball's core allows the energy of impact from a club to more quickly transfer to the perimeter of the ball, producing less sidespin and thus a straighter flight. Still, a worthy product alone isn't enough. Lacking the means to get their message out through traditional channels, OnCore needs to adopt an unconventional marketing approach with a focus on social media, says Steve Cody, an Inc. contributor and co-founder of PepperComm, a New York-based strategic communications firm.
"Awareness is a big challenge," he says. "So is credibility. Finding a third-party endorser, a name player, or a writer or influencer who can help spread the word about the product's value is really important." Blakely and Coulton say they have discussed endorsement deals with several PGA and LPGA pros, but are still weighing the costs. They also have been making an effort to engage customers through social media, running contests and offering golf tips and product information.
At the same time, they must be careful not to overpromise on the ball's effectiveness, as many an upstart golf company has raised the ire of the USGA by claiming that its product is the key to lower scores. "We work to ensure that skill and not technology is the dominating factor when it comes to competitive golf," says John Spitzer, managing director of equipment standards at the USGA. In other words, changing golf balls isn't instantly going to make you a better golfer, but using a ball that consistently flies straighter may give you the mental edge that leads to better play. What Blakely and Coulton are really trying to sell is confidence.
Their effort will begin in earnest at the 2014 PGA Show, set to open this week in Orlando, where they will debut their latest version of the ball. It's a daunting task, but they're emboldened by the improbable strides they've made so far, and are looking forward to telling their story. This time they can't wait to be asked the inevitable question of whether their ball is legal, so they can finally answer with a definitive, "It is now."