Derek Rucki, CEO and Co-founder of TLink Golf
1. What does TLink Golf do?
TLink Golf is a smart phone operated watch for golfers. It leverages the smart phone’s GPS, data and user interface to outsource the intelligence and heavy lifting of the product. It displays information and yardages coming from the golfer’s phone, and is three times less the cost of a standard GPS watch.
Our watch is comprised of a removable hardware pod and a silicone wristband skin, making it highly customizable. Golf tournaments quickly became our primary market because our watch can be custom branded for any company or charity host, inspiring our pivot from retail to B2B.
In addition to the standard features like yardage tracking, our technology tracks player scores, syncing with real-time leader boards on the app. We are in the process of launching a tournament automation platform that will extend our product’s life cycle and reduce inefficiencies in the golf tournament world.
2. What inspired you to start? What problem are you solving?
I was a top junior golfer in Canada for 8 years averaging 250 rounds a year. I decided not to go pro and started at Mount Royal University (MRU) in the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program. We had to come up with an idea in an area of passion that solves a pain point. At the time, GPS watches and free golf apps were taking off – but no one had tried to combine the two.
By leveraging the smart phone user interface, we are able to produce our watch at a price comparable to a custom golf shirt. Every year, tournament hosts spend $1.8 billion on custom golf products and TLink Golf is the only wearable product offered. We have worked with every beer, bank and charity to sell a total of 25,000 units of our watch.
3. How long did it take you to go from prototype to launch?
As first time founders, with no experience building hardware, it took a while to develop the prototype. We came up with the idea in October, 2013 and received funding through JMH LaunchPad in March, 2014. By July, 2014, we had built our prototype and launched 10 months later in May, 2015.
4. How did you determine who your audience might be for this product?
After golfing for 8 years, I had built an extensive network to test our idea and get feedback. Your network is powerful, but it is also important to reach outside of that to remain unbiased. I used to work in sales at Golf Town, so I asked if I could talk to customers to get input and validate my assumptions. Our pivot to B2B came when we were at golf tournament trade shows.
5. Do you have a team? If yes, who is on it and how did you go about building your team?
Our core founding team is myself, my Co-Founder Stefan Radeta and our COO Rob Brown. Locally, we have a team of five with three full-time developers overseas. We are also supported by a commission sales team of thirty.
This summer, we are expanding our local sales team in-house focusing on business development, rather than commission based sales. We need someone with experience selling platform software who can take a company from a few million to $20 million plus.
6. What advice do you have for building a strong founding team?
I am really proud of our team and the dynamic we have built. We know how to grind it out and still have a blast. Not every day is fun but I cherish the partnership we have built with the guys in our office.
When looking for a co-founder, always value passion over resume. Don’t pick the first person who says, “Yeah, I can build that”. You want someone that believes equally in what you are building and is willing to put in the sweat equity that is fundamental to your success.
7. What are your future goals for your company?
The biggest tours for amateur golfers are hosting 150 events per year. These events are riddled with inefficiencies and our software can address those and effectively automate these events. Players can compete for digital currency that can be spent in an online marketplace, with no human involvement or logistical bottleneck. With this technology, we could become the largest provider for amateur golf events in the world by a factor of 100. That’s the big picture in terms of the technological disruption that is possible with platform technology.
8. How has Startup Calgary helped you?
As a first-time entrepreneur, I didn’t know how to go from idea to minimum viable product. I started by going to every single hack night to share my idea and get feedback from the community, while also looking for a co-founder.
Attending Launch Party really helped us refine our pitch and get the attention we needed to start raising capital. The community helped us hone in on our idea and act as a sounding board to make sure we were going in the right direction.
Even if the event isn’t completely strategic, the people that are at the events almost always are. The people who want to attend Startup Calgary events are the people you want to talk to.
9. What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs who want to take their idea from the back of a napkin to the marketplace?
A lot of aspiring entrepreneurs are hesitant to do this, but it is so valuable to talk to people about your idea. The instinct to keep your idea to yourself is a bad one. When you put your idea out there, you will be asked questions that make you think differently and get outside of your affirmational thought process. I guarantee 100 people around the world are working on your idea - it’s all about execution, and talking to people will help you with that.
10. Who do you look up to in the Calgary startup community?
Ray de Paul at Mount Royal University is the epitome of what a mentor should be. He creates such an amazing community by attracting the right kind of people that are thinking differently about the world. He genuinely cares and wants to see you be successful inside and outside of the program.
11. If you could do one thing differently while building your startup, what would you have done?
I am very analytical and I made a few mistakes because I didn’t listen to my gut instinct. Not going with my gut has come back to bite me every time. It’s not something you can measure, but it does need to be taken into account. I didn’t think that my gut instinct would be so correct, especially as a young founder when you are told you might be a bit naïve. I’ve learned to listen to my subconscious, get to the bottom of why I feel that way and make it a massive part of my decision making process.
12. If you could tell the rest of the world something about Calgary, what would it be?
Calgary is unique and people just want to help. I don’t know if it’s like that in other cities. If you reach out to someone authentically, you are very likely to get a response. I reached out to a few people that I wanted to get to know expecting 90% of people to say no, but 90% actually said yes. A lot of people picture Calgary as a hardened oil and gas city, but it is actually filled with tons of entrepreneurs that want to give back.
13. What was the biggest surprise you encountered building your startup?
I think a lot of companies fail because they don’t understand sales. We didn’t realize how powerful it was to talk to potential customers before we made the product. The entire trajectory of our company has been shaped based on those kinds of conversations. Don’t stay quiet until that elusive launch day. The insights we have gained from talking to people have led us to pivot 3 times just from having our ears open to customers.
Learn more at: https://events.golftlink.com/
Published April 3, 2018