Tyler Sullivan / BombTech Golf
Start Here Podcast | Episode #70 | 08/26/2022
Today we sit down with Tyler “Sully” Sullivan, an athlete turned entrepreneur that is single handedly changing the golf industry…one club at a time.
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#StartHere PODCAST: Episode 70 with Tyler Sullivan of BombTech Golf
Tyler Sullivan: I was just documenting the whole journey without an expectation of it being something. I get the final product. I go to the driving range, I hit a ball – and I wasn’t playing that much, so I wasn’t that good – so I hit it straight, though. I’m like, oh my God, that’s really good. So I hit it again, and then this guy next to me – just a regular golfer – is like, “Hey, what is that?” I was like, oh, it’s the BombTech Grenade. I design these. He’s like, “What do you mean?” And I was like, I don’t know. I was like, it’s this club. He’s like, “Can I hit it?” So he hit it twice and he didn’t say anything. I go, oh God. He goes, “How’s this possible?”
Sam Roach-Gerber: From the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies, it’s Start Here, a podcast sharing the stories of active, aspiring, and accidental entrepreneurs. Today we sit down with Tyler “Sully” Sullivan, an athlete turned entrepreneur that has single-handedly changed the golf industry, one club at a time. Welcome. This is Sam Roach-Gerber.
Dave Bradbury: And Dave Bradbury.
Sam Roach-Gerber: Recording from the Consolidated Communications Technology Hub in downtown Burlington, Vermont. Tyler Sullivan, hello.
Tyler Sullivan: You killed that, that’s the best intro ever.
SRG: Shut up, really?
TS: Swear to God.
SRG: Oh my God.
DB: And you’ve done over a hundred. You’ve been on a hundred podcasts.
TS: Something like that. That was the first take, too. I’m impressed.
SRG: Is that really over a hundred podcasts?
TS: Something like that. We did the podcast circuit for a while, and then, I don’t know, I kind of got burnt out on it. So I’m glad to be back.
DB: Is there a support group you can go to, to like, break that habit?
TS: I don’t know, but I’m glad to be here. Thank you for having me.
SRG: So psyched to have you. We were just talking about it, but I mean, I think we had originally emailed, like, maybe five years ago to get you on this podcast. And you know, finally the stars aligned. I’m really sad our email chain is ending, but –
DB: Seriously, let’s check this one off the to do.
TS: Best follow up ever.
SRG: Thank you so much.
TS: Thank you.
SRG: So let’s jump in here. What is BombTech Golf?
TS: I’m an accidental entrepreneur. I started in 2012. I was in sales, just bored out of my mind, and was trying to compete in the home run derby of golf, which is like hitting the ball as hard as you can. And I was actually pretty bad, but it made me obsessed with golf and golf equipment again.
So I was going to the drive range, just hitting balls, and just could not find equipment that I really wanted to use. And then I started building these really strange long drive clubs, like Four Degree Loft and XXX Flex. And bunch of clubs broke. And as I was traveling to these competitions they would break, and I was just getting frustrated. I had this idea of starting to sell my own. I called a buddy up from UVM and I’m like, hey, I want to design my own product. He goes, “You’re not that smart.” I go, you’re not wrong, dude.
SRG: That’s a good friend to have.
TS: Well, he was being honest. It took me five years to graduate. So I was like, yeah, okay, you’re not wrong. So anyways, he’s like, “Call UVM.” I was like, okay. So I called UVM up and they’re like – I was like, do you remember me as one of the worst students? They’re like, “No.” But apparently they have a capstone project every year in the engineering department. “Yeah, you can apply and see what happens.”
And I for some reason just applied. I thought it’d be cool. We went through a year of designing a driver, and I just kept going where the traction was. So during that time I just started documenting it on Facebook – this is 2012 – and really it was just organic. I was just doing it because it was fun. I had zero expectations of making a dollar. I didn’t go into it saying, hey, I’m going to make $10 million dollars.
DB: You were just trying to win the competition.
TS: I was just trying to win the competitions and have fun, and just it was fun. I don’t know, I just had this weird pull to do it. And when we had a design done I was like, I don’t have that much money, so I cashed in my 401(k). Because I didn’t have kids at the time. I was like, this is fine, whatever, just because I wanted to see what the club would be like. And we only had to make, like, 50 units, and the tooling – which was still like a decent chunk of change.
So anyways, I was just documenting the whole journey without an expectation of it being something. I was just documenting the whole journey without an expectation of it being something. I get the final product. I go to the driving range, I hit a ball – and I wasn’t playing that much, so I wasn’t that good – I was trying to, whatever – so I hit it straight, though. I’m like, oh my God, that’s really good. So I hit it again, and then this guy next to me – just a regular golfer – is like, “Hey, what is that?” I was like, oh, it’s the BombTech Grenade. I design these. He’s like, “What do you mean?” And I was like, I don’t know. I was like, it’s this club. He’s like, “Can I hit it?” So he hit it twice and he didn’t say anything. I go, oh God. He goes, “How’s this possible? This club is better than mine.” And he bought it right there.
So I just had like these moments of traction. And that was like, I was like, “Oh my God.” So from there I just kind of kept scaling up what was working, just on Facebook, and we sold a couple of units here and a couple minutes. The first year, I don’t know, we sold maybe couple hundred clubs. And then it was really the second year when I was fired from my day job, the week before Thanksgiving and my wife was pregnant, where I was like, okay. And she really supported me. And when I came home from work early, she’s like, “What are you doing home early?” I was like, well, I got fired. And she’s like, “You’re going to take BombTech full time or what?”
TS: Yes, sick. So I was like, I guess – because it was like –
DB: Right in time for the holiday, Christmas gifts and stuff. Did you have any product?
TS: You know, I don’t think – that that first year was the hardest year of my life, for the family, for me. It was the kick in the butt that I needed to actually make it turn into a business. Because we were doing like $10 or $15K a month, which sounds like something, but not when you’re a physical product brand. You’re reinvesting all your capital and cash flow into the product, and I still needed money to survive.
SRG: I was going to say, and you have a baby on the way.
TS: I had a baby on the way, a first-time dad.
SRG: And we know the 401(k) is gone.
TS: The 401(k) is smoked, no health insurance. It was tough. So that year with a newborn, I worked 20 hours a day. Literally every moment that I was awake, I was assembling clubs myself in the basement, shipping them myself, posting on social, doing the emails, making the YouTubes. It was like, pure chaos. But then Facebook ads kind of became a thing, and we posted a video. It’s me in my backyard hitting a ball into a net, and I say, does your driver sound like this? And it sounds like a bomb literally goes off, I hit it so hard. And that I boosted for like, $10, and that got 300,000 views and 10,000 comments.
And literally I commented on every comment till my thumbs were bleeding. Not that I knew it was going to change our sales, but I just saw traction. So I kept seeing these, like, little moments of traction, so I just kept doing that. And then we were able to scale, and that first year we 5x our sales, and then we 4x and 3x. So then we got to, like, low eight figures eventually. Facebook was good to us. It was good timing. But I think it worked because I had no expectations.
DB: That’s so cool. What was your longest drive prior to inventing your own club, and then after? Are we talking 30 yards or –
TS: So it’s funny. I actually –
DB: Ludicrous yardage?
TS: I started with long drives, and we make clubs for regular guys. So actually I didn’t even make our club specific just for a long drives; [00:07:35 I now] make it for the mass market. And now when I play golf, I just try to hit it straight. Now I don’t hit it far. Now I just try to hit in the fairway, real golf.
DB: Avoided the answer. Okay, moving on. Can’t say, it’s a trade secret. Got it, a trade secret. So you’re an accidental entrepreneur. Any other entrepreneurial stuff growing up that sort of gave you confidence? A lemonade stand or paper route? Because we’ve seen that before.
TS: Yeah, not me personally, but both my parents were entrepreneurs. They owned a diner and jewelry store. They’ve never worked for anyone else. So they definitely laid the foundation, and I’ve always seen them doing that. I worked with my dad and his cleaning business at night steam cleaning carpets. We always were doing things that were not traditional.
He and my mom were really supportive, and he loaned me ten grand when we started. I was like, dude, I need some money. And I didn’t really ask him. I was like, hey, how’s it going? He’s like, “Well, do you need some cash?” So they were supportive of me, and I think that’s how we are, just nontraditional. And I’m not built for a corporate job, apparently, because I’ve been fired.
DB: No, you give that air of being unemployable.
TS: Yes, exactly.
DB: I mean that as a compliment. Don’t you think, Sam?
SRG: Totally. And I do think there is something to say, too, of being that part of your DNA, right? Of like seeing the hustle and what it looks like to have your own business.
SRG: And it takes a real rare breed of person to give up the comfort and stability of health insurance and a 401(k). This is why we tell the unfiltered stories, because I would never recommend that someone cash in their 401(k) to start their business, yet here we are.
TS: Yeah, a lot of things I did may not make sense looking back on it, but in hindsight I just felt like that was the right move to take at that time. It just kind of worked out. I don’t know, I think a lot of luck, timing, and I just probably was not the smartest person, but probably worked harder than other people are willing to work.
SRG: I’m here for it, I’m here for it. So one thing I did want to touch on, before we get into the weeds here, is what makes this club different? You know, that first one that you worked with UVM on. How is it different than a regular club?
TS: Totally. So there’s two things. Our brand position is for regular golfers. So we don’t care about pros, we don’t care about retail. It’s really, our brand positions is so strong. We just are for those guys, and they know where they stand. They’re the weekend warriors. But the design was – and we still have this design, just modified now, we’re on version four – is a dual cavity design, which breaks up airflow and makes it more aerodynamic. And that’s what makes it so unique, is the dual cavities.
But then from there, the unique thing is that we’ve been able to really be scrappy with R&D and development, and we use customer feedback. That’s like what I like most of direct-to-consumer, is you don’t have to get crazy. hire a bunch of engineers, and over design something, because the only person that matters is your customer, right? So we’ll make a product, I think it’s great, and I’ll have regular golfers try it. But then we’ll launch it, we’ll do like a micro launch. We’ll sell 500 units. We just launched a seven wood. I knew it was going to do well, but I never assume anything.
So we launch it, we’ll sell 500 units, and then we’ll get real reviews. If it has over 86% 5 stars, we’ll launch it. Then we’ll do 20,000 units or whatever, depending on forecast. And then what we do is, like, for our last 3.0 version of our driver irons, we sold them for 3.5 or 4 years without launching a new version. And we’ve got, like, I don’t know, 18,000 reviews now. So we take that, and we’ll just look for a theme. Like, the 3.0 driver, they said [00:11:26 the chef] some people said it was whippy, and some would, if they hit it on the toe, would fade it.
So I take that feedback, if there’s anything common, and we’ll just tweak our new design based on that. So it’s like direct consumer feedback, which gives us the real advantage.
DB: You’re making sales, and your customers are helping improve the product.
TS: That’s at the core is what BombTech is. Like, I don’t ever push or do anything. It’s like, customers tell us. In our emails or launches we ask them, hey, do you want a 64-degree wedge or a chipper? And I’m always wrong. I’m like, everyone’s going to vote, let’s launch the 64 first. And then we’ll get replies and emails and it’ll be like, 5000 people voted for the chipper or whatever, and I wanted to 64, and only 100 voted. So they give us the actual guidance on what to launch.
So at this point, like, they are the boss of the company, and we ask for real authentic feedback. It’s like a two-way conversation, so they feel like they’re the brand. Because without customers, you’re nothing.
DB: How badly does this piss off the big golf –
TS: I think we’re irrelevant. I think we’re just so small in the space, that we can have a niche – we’ve sold over a million clubs at this point, but still, golf is like a $4.5 billion dollar industry. So if we do $10 million a year or whatever, that’s great. I only have two employees. Life’s good, but we don’t have to become – and that was never a goal – so it’s just like, I was doing this for fun, and want to make great products at a great price at the end of the day. So it’s like, it doesn’t even matter. I don’t even register that is the reason we exist. You know, we’re there for this specific hard-core audience that just, we stand for them.
SRG: I have so many questions.
DB: Oh yeah, I know. We’re going talk over each other. Have you had a product flop, and why? What was the root cause of that?
TS: This was when I was cocky, 2016. I thought I was the product launch king; I could launch anything to our audience, and we would kill it. And I was the beer pong champion at UVM at the frat in the fifth year of college, 18 games in a row. I have a trophy. It’s kind of a big deal. So anyways, I was like, let’s invent beer putt. It’s beer pong for golfers. It’s a similar concept but you putt, it’s got 5 holes you put in.
And I didn’t ask my audience. I did post on social but I was like, hey – I didn’t really get feedback. This is the one time I was like, this product is just so cool, I know my customer.
DB: You had divine inspiration.
TS: I just was like, this is sick. I’m the audience. At the end of the day, I was like, I’m the guy. And then we launched it and I made 2,000 units. I didn’t do my 500-unit micro-launch. I was like, let’s do 2,000. And I think we launched and sold, like, a hundred units. I was like, okay. So that was like, I think we ended up selling them at like half – I think it was break-even, or we lost $10 a unit at the end of it. That was like our first product where – because it wasn’t a golf club. I just thought it was such in the same, I don’t know, planet as golf. I was like, this is going to do well. And a lot of the guys like, “I don’t drink.” They’re 45, 50 years old. They’re like, “Dude, I’ve never played beer pong.” So it was just a massive miss, and that was on me, because I think that was year four in the company and I thought I was cool. I thought I could be cocky, and it really humbled me. I said, okay, the audience really is everything. And we were lucky to have such a big audience. Let them tell us.
DB: I totally want one for here, just so we can use it as an example.
TS: We have none, and I’m glad. We’re never [00:15:02 getting in back].
DB: You don’t have any lying around? Because we have a wall of almost products.
TS: Oh, really?
DB: Yeah, I mean –
TS: Oh, that would be cool.
DB: I mean, it’s really important to acknowledge failure moments, how you learned, how you responded, and just recognize that there are more brick walls and there are paved roads, right?
SRG: All right, Dave, it’s my turn. I absolutely love your approach of listening to your customers and letting them lead the way. I think at the early stage, though, for some companies that can be a huge mistake. Because every bad review they get, they go down a rabbit hole and listen to the loudest voice. I think you were throwing out some numbers of, like, when it reaches this much, this is when we pay attention. How did you formulate that and get to that point where you were like, okay, this is the vast majority and this is the way we need to go?
TS: That’s a good question. I mean, because if you looked on our Facebook channel or Facebook page and comments, it’s like, every comment is, “Where’s the lefties?” We don’t make left-handed. So it is really easy to go down the rabbit hole of comments and messages that are not buyers. Whereas email is like a more qualified person. If they’re on the list, they really care. If they’re a customer, that’s even a higher level of legitimacy.
Whereas if I listen to our comments on Facebook, we only make 6XL shirts and lefties, because that’s what everyone wants because you don’t have it, right? So it’s like, even when we launched our left-handed wedges, they were like, “We’re going to buy them, we’re going to buy them.” And we launched them, and then the lefties said, “Where’s our lefty driver?”
So it’s one of those things where it’s like, I think if you do it via email and you still launch a product, just don’t go as big. I think that’s the only way is, like when dollars are exchanged, to really know. I just typically now, with our system and how long we’ve been doing this with our email list, we know based on replies, do you know what I mean? Like, this last launch we did, we did $238,000 in the day, 24 hours, which was sick. And we knew, because that email got 10,000 replies. Our typical email that says, hey –
SRG: Not opens, replies.
TS: Replies. It says, reply for early access. So we’ll do this, and we have this whole strategy with email, but it’s really simple. It’s like a plain text, it says, “We’ve got something new coming on this day. Just reply early, or boom, or something for early access.” And normally we’d get like 1,000 to 2,000. When we got 10,000 I said, “All right, this can be legit.” So we now know – so it does take time to train your audience and build that relationship with them. But I think if you’re early, you do have to take some risk, make something, see if someone’s going to pay for it, and then modify or iterate from there. So it’s like, I hate to ask friends – I don’t ask my friends, I don’t ask my family –
DB: All the signal bias you get there.
TS: You know, it’s like, someone I don’t know, are they going to give me their Visa card and swipe it or not? That’s the only way to truly know just how big do you want to go.
SRG: So again, another million follow-up questions. But I mean, it sounds like email marketing is a huge piece of what you do, and there are dedicated professionals that went to school for it that do all the training. Like, are you self-taught with email marketing? How did you kind of hone that skill?
TS: Well, I think email is really cool because it’s personal, but you can reach so many. So when BombTech first was getting traction and stuff, I don’t know, I just didn’t – a lot of people use email and really over-design it, HTML, 50 calls to action. I was just sending plain text emails like you and I have been sending for six years. Like, hey, what do you think of this? Or what’s up? More native to the platform.
And I didn’t really know we were good at it until 2016 – and again, we were just going with traction and stuff – and Klaviyo, who’s an email service provider, did a case study on BombTech. And they’re like, this company is doing 49% of revenue from email. I was like, oh, is that good? Okay, cool.
You know, so like for us it was just – we were just doing it, and a lot of it came from just, I wanted to know what my customers wanted. There was no, like, I never took an email marketing class. And there’s technical things you can do with segmenting to send to your most engaged first, and there’s stuff to make it complicated. But at the end of the day, are you having two-way real conversations with your list and customers? And do they want to hear from you?
And a lot of people mess it up because they look at it as a revenue stream and dollar signs, so they just blast coupons, deals, a Labor Day sale, this shit. And it’s like, you just burnt your list.
DB: Such a turnoff.
TS: You can burn it real quick. But at the end of the day, that’s my biggest asset at the company that you own.
SRG: But it sounds like you put a lot of time into it. Like, there’s a real person on the other end responding.
TS: Oh yeah, the only two employees that BombTech are customer service guys. Everything else is outsourced. I set it up that way. After working 20 hours a day for four years, seven days a week, I was like, once I had my second kid, I’m like, this is not fair to my wife and kids. So now [00:20:18 I was] working like, two hours, a month. It got crazy. I literally was like, I’m not that smart at ads. I’m not that smart at email. I mean, I know high level strategy, but I’m not good at doing. So I just started segmenting it out.
But I kept the guys in house because they’re golfers, they love the brand, and when they reply it’s like, you should see the comments on our Facebook group. We have an “owners only” Facebook group just for owners, and we have two guys, and they’ll say their names in the group. Like, best customer service ever. And that’s a more long-term approach to doing that, but a lot of companies are like, I don’t want to reply to emails. Too bad. If you want to run a business, you got to do the work. Invite them to reply, but you got to reply back. And they do a great job.
DB: That’s great, where chat bots are everywhere that are talking back to us. I think particularly the product, it’s personal, it’s an investment, it’s a high dollar buy.
TS: It’s a high [00:21:15 ROV], that’s true.
DB: It’s a game of millimeters and things. I feel like high touch.
TS: Definitely, and the golfers want to talk about it. They talk to the guys. They’re like, “Hey, I had a good round last weekend.” And it’s a tight relationship.
DB: So aside from your dad’s $10,000, any outside money? Or do you just do it yourself through sales?
TS: Yeah, I tried to bootstrap, and I did for the most part. I did do three PayPal working capital loans, which PayPal was my only – again, this is like 10 years ago, so it’s hard to remember all that stuff – but essentially they would take a daily amount of sales from your PayPal account, and I took $300,000 over two or three years. But it was really tight for probably four years. Because I started this with no expectations of making money, I was like, wow, we did $3 million. Where’s the money? Because I didn’t realize as you scale a physical product brand, you’ve got to reinvest in inventory. So it just kept getting – and for me, one of the reasons why I ended up selling the company was because of the capital needed, and I just was at the point where I was like, okay, we’re doing – I think we did, I don’t know, $9.9 or something million in 2021 – I was just like, to get to the next level I would just have to keep reinvesting.
And it’s a great brand, great business, but I thought the timing was good, and I decided to sell it and just have cash so I could be more free mentally. Because that was the one hook in that business model, that if you want to grow, you just got to keep reinvesting. And the lead times are long, so you need a lot of capital. I did not know that going into it, that it was such a capital-intensive type of business. So it was just good timing for that.
DB: That was so you sold the company after really ten years in business.
TS: Yeah, about 10 years.
DB: How’s that going, how’s that feel?
TS: It was really a weird moment. So it’s like, I had been prepping for this and setting up for three years, to at least be sellable. I wanted to be like – I wanted to have the best sale ever, where the buyer thought it was the best purchase they ever made, and it was easily transferable. I worked so hard to make it transferable and make it a good deal.
And then when the deal was done and the money hit the bank, I felt nothing. And that’s what they always say. They say it feels like – there’s no champagne moment. It’s just like, okay, nothing really changed except for money in the bank, which is a really weird thing. So I’m still operating and running the company, which is nice, I just don’t have the pressure or stress to keep reinvesting capital. So it’s like a best-case scenario for me, cause I’m still managing the team, sales are good, but I don’t have that pressure.
DB: How’d you find the buyers? Someone along the way?
TS: I hired an investment banking firm out of New York. I don’t know why I chose them. Well, I did a bake off, which is essentially you take different bankers or firms and you say, hey, how would you pitch my brand? They did the pitches, and I thought these guys would do a good job.
And they brought it to market. It was a process. I mean, it took six months to start getting offers, get the deck, get all the P&Ls dialed in. But then I think we got six offers, and I’m glad who we sold two. They’re a great company. They aggregate other ecommerce brands. And they made a lot of promises, like, we’re not going to change your daily life. You have one call a month. It’s been, everything they promised is true.
SRG: Oh, that’s awesome.
TS: And the brand still doing great, so I think everyone won in that scenario.
DB: And you’d recommend using a banker or some sort of ally?
TS: I think you need someone. I think it depends on how big of a company you. We were really on the small end for a banker. Like, there were some bankers that were like, oh, cool dude, good hobby business. We only sell companies that are $300 million a year. I was like, okay, sorry, I didn’t know that. And then you have like marketplaces where if you’re doing a couple hundred thousand or something, you could sell there. So for me I think they were high touch, they were experts, they did advise me. I think they did a good job.
DB: And ecommerce roll-ups were going on, too.
TS: Yeah, COVID was good to golf. Ecom, because of COVID, blew up. So when COVID 2020 first happened, I was like, oh my God, I got to cancel my purchase orders, no one’s going to golf. And then we just start selling out of product. We just kept selling out, because the demand was so high. All these guys or golfers that would not normally buy online were like, hey, BombTech’s sick, I’ll buy it. And I just kept selling. I was like, oh my God. So that year, 2020, I was like, all right, if we’re going to get to the next level, I got to just go for it.
So that year I kind of reinvested everything to hit the exact number I wanted, and we sold all of our – so we hit that number. I said if I hit that number, we’re going to sell it.
DB: Time to sell.
SRG: What surprised you about the process of selling your company?
TS: There’s were many surprises. I mean, I think I had an unrealistic value, because I’m so romantic about the brand, our customer service, and our whole how much effort, love, sweat, and actual tears went into it. I wanted some number that would be like so insane, a multiple that was unreasonable. And so as we started getting offers in I was like, oh. Still awesome-
SRG: A little sobering.
TS: Yeah, it was very like, okay, they don’t see it as valuable as I do, or I need to be that much bigger. Like the EBITDA numbers, I don’t know how much I can disclose, but you’d have to be like $5 million or $10 million EBITDA to really get a really significant multiple. I was just like, I don’t think I can get it to that number. This is the number they’re offering. Will this change my life and family life? Yes. So why get greedy? So that was – I had this number in my head – I was like Lamborghinis and all this stuff –
DB: Lambos are tough on our roads up here.
TS: What’s that?
DB: Lamborghinis are tough up here. They’re all $5,000 potholes.
TS: I’m too cheap to buy one of those anyways. But anyway, so that was the most sobering part of it. I think overall I was so dialed in from the booking and P&L that I was ready. So they were really shocked how prepared I was. We closed in 39 days from LOI to close. The lawyer was like, what do you mean? We usually take six months. We were dialed in. But that was it, really.
SRG: That that’s awesome. That’s such good insight. You just mentioned something that kind of sparked something for me, which is frugality as a business owner. Like, can you talk a little bit about that in the 10 years you owned the business? Was that a big piece of what made you successful?
TS: I’m so cheap? Don’t ask my wife. It’s just, it’s a disease. But I think I get it from my dad, because they ran a diner, which you have to be tight. You have to know your margins, now your costs. And I was the same way. I feel like at one point – I think it was the same year I launched beer putt and it didn’t do well – we had a big office, we had a lot of people in house, and it had no impact, for at least my brand. on the revenue. And that was kind of an eye-opener for me. I thought, well, if we just have more people and more overhead, magically revenue would fly, just go up.
And then I realized, okay, we only have certain levers in the business, which was paid traffic, email, and then the product. So for me I’ve always kept it lean, and also I like less problems and stuff to deal with. I’ve always been tight and lean, and never like to spend it unless there’s a return, which is hard to grow a company in that in that way. But for us it’s like, inventory is where you have to throw down. I had to get out of the being cheap or frugal mindset, and just invest in enough inventory. That was probably the scariest part of the model, is like, all right, you had a great year. And every summer I’m like, I’m rich, let’s buy some PBR when we go out, it’s a big day. I’m kidding. But then in December I was broke. I’m not saying broke, but like, relative to summer, because I had to go order for the whole next year.
So you know, I was just like, all right, if we’re going to go bigger, you just got to go big on inventory. And I’ve been debt-free for four or five years, so I didn’t want to go into that debt hole just to do it. So I think that’s how frugal I was. Most ecom brands can’t exist without lines of credit, capital, VC backing, or whatever it is. I just was so conservative, I just want to use profits.
SRG: Well, that’s a decision for the founder to make right. Some folks are cool with debt and want to scale, scale, scale, and some folks aren’t. We try to have that conversation with folks all the time. It’s okay if that’s not what you want to do, if you want to kind of keep it in-house, sustainably grow a smaller company, and not take on debt, hell yeah. Do it. It’s such a personal decision.
DB: Can I ask you about fulfillment? I recall you and Amazon had a parting at one point. Did that ever heal up? Are you using FPA today?
TS: So you know Amazon. We’re 100% direct consumer from our website. It’s shipped all out of a fulfillment center in Wisconsin. I don’t see the product, I don’t touch it. That was a whole another story for another podcast, of getting clubs barcode-ready, they’re shipped by container loads, and you know – but I’ve had to go to Wisconsin to find the exact right location to optimize for the nation.
But yeah, Amazon, again, we started going down the path of like, there’s so many distractions in ecommerce, right, and we were doing so well with direct. And we own our customers. The reason we do that is, when someone buys from our website, guess what? When we launch a new product, we can email them. In Amazon, always you don’t get that. So that, and with email being such a big part of what we do in launching products, I thought that would just – it would hurt future sales, even though it is a big channel.
So I think we were doing Amazon FBM, where we were fulfilling it, and I think we missed one tracking update. Like we actually – I don’t know if we put it in – something happened, and they’re like, shut down. And luckily we weren’t doing a lot on Amazon, but imagine if you’re 100% amazon. They have all control. So I’m a control guy. I don’t need to micromanage our team, but I want to control how we’re selling. If you’re all Amazon, that’s a scary place to be because they can shut you down for any reason they want. So I said, do you know what? Forget it. We’ll just go 100%.
SRG: That’s crazy. How did you find the right manufacturing partner? Can you talk about, from Tyler in the basement assembling stuff to –
TS: Yeah, that was hard. I ended up finding someone that was making golf clubs here in the US, a small micro brand. I just tested his product. I was like, wow, this is really good. I said, can you introduce me to your manufacturer? He said, “Absolutely not.” I said, oh, okay, great. Then I built the relationship and sold some product for him, and he says, “All right, cool, I’ll intro you.” He gave me an intro, got some prototypes, and I was like, okay, they’re legit.
But that is probably one of the biggest barriers to entry, or places to start, because there’s so many manufacturers and it’s so confusing. So if I didn’t get that intro, I don’t know if I would have ever started. But I did put a lot of trust in them for some reason, because I knew his product was great. I ended up having to pay him later on once we had success. He said, “Hey, I know you’re killing it, you got to hook me up.” So anyway, the intro was worth it, but that’s how I found our manufacturer. I don’t know, I think that’s a hard – like, if I were to start another brand, I was going to start a ski brand and then I was like, you know what? I’m just not doing it. It’s just that’s half the battle, do you know what I mean?
SRG: And so it sounds to me like it’s relationship building, really, at the end of the day. A little bit of luck and a lot of relationship building.
TS: A lot of what I did early on was just luck, timing, and asking people, like, with no expectations. I was like, hey – and he said no, so I just kept working him and it all worked out.
DB: One of the recipe elements you look for is founder market fit, right? You built the product; do you want it for yourself? And worked at it. So you sold the company. You’re still there running it. Congratulations, that’s really cool. I didn’t know that. I was unaware.
TS: It’s been under the radar. I don’t think I’ve announced it.
SRG: I know, I did some research and I didn’t see that.
TS: I felt really weird about boasting about it. I feel like it’s a weird –
SRG: Do you want us to do it? Because we’ll absolutely do it. I mean, now the word is out.
TS: It all worked out, and I think I have a lot of my identity attached to the brand, so it’s also my baby still. So it feels weird. And it took me a couple of months post-sale to separate a little bit mentally, because I couldn’t do it. It took me probably three months. I was like, wait a sec, I’m an employee. I’m going to do my best for them, but I don’t own it. Which is weird after ten years.
SRG: And that’s not always commonplace, right, that you stay on kind of in the same role in some ways, just without that burden of ownership.
SRG: So I can see also, because you have such a tight relationship with your customers, not wanting to freak them out, too. “Nothing’s changing, don’t worry.”
DB: That’s really true. So tell us the genesis of Ecom Growers, what that is, and why you started a couple years ago.
TS: Yeah, so that’s a pretty cool story. I mean, we started getting these case studies on BombTech from Shopify, Klaviyo, and Entrepreneur, like these big publications were interviewing me, and I was like, wow, this is crazy. I didn’t ask for it, didn’t reach out. And then people started pinging me like, “Hey, can you help me with my ecom brand?” I’m like, no. I’m like, I’m too busy. The kids were really young, at BombTech I was working a ton.
And then my first employee at BombTech, Chris – who was just the most amazing employee in the world – he would message me at 2:00 a.m. leaving the bar, like, “Have you seen the sales right now?” I’m like, dude, what are you doing? He was so young, but he was just so amped. And so people started messaging me, and he’s like, hey – he was starting to run my email – he’s like, “Do you mind if I help them on the side?” I was like, dude, whatever I can do to support you in your dreams and in life, I will do it. So tell me what you want to do.
So essentially him and I work together. People were messaging me. I said, hey, Chris runs my email, he does this one thing, talk to him. And then he closed three deals in 2000, I don’t know, 16 or 17. I can’t remember the years. I was like talk to me in 30 days and tell me how it’s going.
So from there, he like doubled their email revenue. Clients were super pumped. I was like, all right. We sat down and we kind of had this moment of like, what do you want to do? Do you want to stay at BombTech? And he was very nervous to do something on his own because, he was like 24 or something. Now he has a kid coming in November.
So him and I became partners, 50-50, and we’ve scaled it up. What we do is essentially what we do for BombTech with email marketing for other D-to-C ecom brands. So that’s been truly his company, but we kind of use my story and my techniques. Because he grew up at BombTech inside an ecom brand, so he’s got a unique perspective that a lot of agencies don’t have because he’s been in it. A lot of agencies just do XYZ, and they don’t really know what it takes. So he’s really excellent at what he does.
And we’ve scaled that up to like – we’ve been to between 30 and 45 clients at whatever time – so it’s been great. And that business is different and you need more people, but it’s all cash flow. So it’s pretty cool thing. It’s just another like saw an opportunity. People were messaging me and I just kind of, like, just keep going where the traction is. So I was like, okay, let’s try that.
DB: Don’t overthink it.
TS: Right, this seems cool. Let’s do more of it. Not trying to come up with something out of left field. People are already messaging me to help, let’s help them.
DB: Do you think Ecom Growers could have built beer putt?
TS: Could have helped it?
DB: Yeah, do you think you could have –
TS: I don’t think anything could have helped that. That was just a bad product market fit on my part.
DB: Oh my God, I’m so going on eBay or wherever you find these things.
TS: I’m sure there’s one kicking around.
DB: Still in the box.
TS: I’ll find one for you.
DB: Please do. Like, literally we have a wall this stuff.
SRG: So beyond beer putt, any big – and it doesn’t have to be product-specific – but any big sort of like swing-and-a-miss, excuse the pun, mistakes early on that if you could change –
TS: Many. I mean, the biggest mistake I made at one point is not knowing enough about paid traffic. How I look at e commerce is, at first you got to get to your first million on your own. That’s why what I believe, is you need to know each silo. And there are not that many silos, there’s product – and there is, but there isn’t – but there product design, fulfillment, ads, pay traffic, email. There’s a couple of SEO and CRO. But really become an expert, enough to hire and fire people.
My mistake was in 2016 – again, that was a special year in a lot of ways – I fired our ad agency who brought us all the way up to, I think that year we did $6.3 million. And it was January, which is off season for golf. We should not sell a lot of clubs. But because I was no longer in Facebook ads, really, nothing was going on, I felt like he wasn’t doing a good job. Although if I knew how to look at my ad account, our return from ads was like, 7x. It just was January, so you’re not going to sell a lot of product. So I faulted him for that and fired him.
That year, I ended up having to learn Facebook adds myself for eight months, hired and fired 12 agencies myself, until I’ve made a process to vet agencies where I would do a one-hour screen share with an expert, because I learned ads enough to get sales back up. And then I was like, all right, let’s do a one-hour screen chair. I’ll pay you for your time. If you beat me on ads, you’re hired.
So I was like, I got to find a better way than hiring and firing agencies. So I found this guy who is was the 12th guy –
SRG: I was going to say, 12 is a lot.
TS: This was like, 12 screen chairs. I was paying $300 or whatever their hourly rate was. Everyone sucked, though. They’re like, “Oh, we’ll kill it for you.” We’d do an add, we’d built it, and they couldn’t explain it to me, there was no strategy, and then they’d flop. I said, well, I’m beating you, you’re fired.
And the last guy said, “Hey dude, you got this, this, and this wrong, let me build this.” And he smoked it and he’s been my ads guy since for five years or four years or whatever it is. So knowing enough of each silo to hire fire, and don’t fire the good ones. Know enough to be able to keep them on.
SRG: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, sort of comes to mind.
TS: I think that was my big thing. 2016, my big year, I tried everything. We tried every marketing tactic, every strategy in the world, and sales didn’t move. And it’s like, since 2020-ish, it’s the same big levers. It’s ads, it’s emails, it’s product. It’s really easy to get distracted with all the shiny balls and trials and stuff. Today people pitch me all these different ideas, and I’m like, no I’m good, it works. Let it work.
DB: What’s next?
TS: Well, I’ve been golfing a lot and skiing a lot.
DB: It’s the summer to golf. It’s been beautiful weather.
TS: Living life. I just launched my personal blog, tysully.com, just because, I don’t know, I thought it’d be fun. I’ve never built a pure content site that was monetized with ads, and I thought it’d be a good challenge to learn SEO. So right now I just started blogging just really my expertise and what I’ve done at BombTech. I did a case study in how I launched $238,000 in 24 hours, how we think about email, just all the stuff we’re talking about today. And then I also intro people, because this was another thing that came about. People were like, dude, you’re killing it, can you introduce me to your Facebook ad guy. Can you intro me to your CRO guy. So now I’ve got a “hire my expert” program, where it’s like, someone’s like, hey I just literally will intro them to my ad guy and I get paid a referral to do that, because it’s my network. So just having fun. I’m trying to one blog post a day.
DB: That’s a pretty decent commitment to come up with something creative. Writing is not easy.
TS: No, I’m like 32 blog posts in. Some are awful, but I figured this would be cool. Because there are content people that, it has no inventory, no people. I was like this, is something that I’ve never done. Let’s give it some time and see if it works. Worst case scenario I’ll just waste some time blogging and learn SEO. But I don’t know, it’s just a new thing that I’ve seen. It seems interesting.
SRG: Are you deleting the shitty blog posts?
SRG: Amazing. Respect.
TS: I’m going back and just cleaning them up. It’s something new, and I like learning new stuff. SEO is a thing, but a pure content site – and there are some out there doing $300,000 a month. I mean, it’s all profit almost. It seems like it’s a long-term move, and if it’s a personal brand, I’m not going to quit it. That’s my thought.
SRG: Your name is attached to it.
TS: I’m all in. So it’s just something fun. We’ll see if I can enjoy it.
DB: That is super cool. I’m going to look at it, and I’m going to see if I can find the shitty ones.
TS: Don’t look too hard, it’ll be easy.
SRG: Well, I mean, now that I know you have a little time on your hands, I’m going to totally pull you into some mentorship stuff.
TS: That would be awesome.
DB: Totally. Yeah, because again, we work with almost 300 people like you a year all around Vermont – most of them a bit more qualified than what you described yourself as early on. We were laughing earlier, like, I think we’ve narrowed it down. It was 2012 when you walked into Farrell Hall at UVM where our first VCET office was, with a three-piece golf club of some sort. “I’m going to put this together and sell it.” We’re like, yeah, right.
TS: A lot of people hate – even Entrepreneur’s first article was like, “Cool design, cool brand, not going to make it.”
SRG: Oh my god.
TS: That’s what they said, and we made it.
DB: What was the price point?
TS: Originally, I think it was like $300, custom assembled in my basement.
DB: Yeah, that’s so cool. An organic golf club.
SRG: All right, Tyler, before we let you get back on the green here, a final magic wand question. If you could change one thing in Vermont today, what would you change?
TS: Only one?
SRG: One thing, but you can use a magic wand, so it can be unreasonable.
TS: I think I just would want winter to be shorter. Although I’m a ski bum –
SRG: Yes, but like concentrated, right? Three months of fresh powder.
TS: And not it to linger, that’s all. The older I get, I’m leaning towards golf and the winners being shorter.
DB: So March 15th, March 30th, what do you think, right around then?
TS: Yeah, I like spring skiing. Spring skiing is good. You know, maybe have it spring in February.
SRG: Sounds like you’re headed to snowbird status.
TS: Yeah, I think so, probably.
DB: I love it. Well, Sam, it was worth the wait.
SRG: It was worth the weight, 100%.
DB: Six years, ten years in the making.
TS: A lot of hype.
SRG: So much hype.
TS: So much pressure. A lot of editing will be needed, I’m sure.
DB: We will need your email marketing to publicize the podcast, for sure. Thank you so much.
This has been Start Here with Sam and Dave, a podcast sharing the stories of active, aspiring, and accidental entrepreneurs. This series is made possible by the Vermont Technology Council and Consolidated Communications. Follow us on Twitter at @vcet. Thanks for listening. Let’s go hit the greens.
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