Founder – VICE Golf
f you like golf and you have a good idea for a company, you’re already two steps ahead of where we were when we started VICE Golf.
If you had told me that I’d be the founder of a golf ball company, I would have laughed and asked if you were drunk. And yet, here I am.
I met Rainer, my business partner, at a manmade river called the Eisbach in the middle of Munich. The spot has a surprisingly epic surf, and draws a crowd of tourists who watch the small crew of surfers in the frigid water. Rainer and I were two of the surfers in the water that day. We got talking and realized we had more in common than just surfing. We had both studied law, worked corporate jobs, and knew the corporate life wasn’t for us. We shared an intense desire to be our own bosses—to start something of our own.
The question was: start what?
At the time, the direct-to-consumer market had begun to explode. Companies like Warby Parker and Dollar Shave Club were changing the way traditional goods were bought and sold by cutting out the middlemen. By controlling upstream operations, these brands were not only able to offer a high-quality product at a substantially lower cost; they could also directly control their brand’s story.
Like many entrepreneurs before us, we started brainstorming with a pen and paper. We eventually narrowed our list to two options: golf balls and toilet paper.
That’s right. Golf balls and toilet paper.
It may sound bizarre, but from a business perspective these were logical choices. Both industries were known for insane markups that benefit from middlemen and both are in constant demand as must-have items (for very different reasons). Additionally, Rainer had done a consulting project with one of the largest golf ball producers in Europe. It was there, working to optimize the company’s processes, that he saw first-hand how inefficient the golf industry is and how much the middlemen gouge the consumer. This insight was confirmed by countless friends who were avid golfers. We heard constant complaining about the excessive cost of buying balls, and listened. Sometimes the best idea is staring you in the face, and you just have to open your eyes.
As you could have guessed, we decided on golf balls. There’s something sexier and more appealing about creating a golf lifestyle brand. But really, anything’s sexier than toilet paper.
Our plan went beyond making golf balls. We wanted to challenge the stale, old face of the golf industry, and deliver a product with a totally new and stylish attitude at a reasonable price. So, we approached some of the brightest physicists, aerospace experts, and chemists in Europe. We utilized their expertise to help us design the cutting-edge golf ball we had in mind.
Initially, our company was called “Flake Golf,” a nod toward the uniqueness of our ball designs and the way our company stands out—like a one-of-a-kind snowflake. We were proud of our clever name. But when we set our sights on the international market, it became clear that “flake” may not be the best brand name. It turns out the word has some negative connotations, especially in the U.K. Roadblocks like this one, although frustrating, are an essential part of any entrepreneur’s journey. We’re better prepared for what’s ahead thanks to all of those early issues that seemed catastrophic at the time.
“We wanted to challenge the stale, old face of the golf industry, and deliver a product with a totally new and stylish attitude at a reasonable price.”
Eventually, we came up with “VICE Golf.” Which, to be honest, was a blessing in disguise. For a while, it felt good to have those early obstacles behind us. We were riding a cloud at the time, having just been awarded the Gold Badge from Golf Digest for our VICE Pro and VICE Pro Plus balls. Receiving those honors from the sport’s most popular magazine drove so many orders from the U.S that we had to completely renegotiate our shipping contracts to keep up with demand.
Unfortunately, consumers were not the only ones taking notice of our newfound success. The most powerful and recognizable brand in the game came at us with a lawsuit over the dimple pattern on the VICE Pro model. So much for thinking we were a unique snowflake.
They were suing 11 other companies along with us—all small startups like ours, all of them doing the direct-to-consumer model. For seven of the 11 golf ball manufacturers, business ended right there. They only had one ball model in production and simply couldn’t afford the legal fees. We were lucky because we had a few different models.
I can’t even begin to describe the sinking feeling that came over me when I got the news. Everything we worked towards was being challenged; every sleepless night, every prototype, and every hour spent refining our products was suddenly on the line. We never imagined flying from Germany to Boston to attend a court session, but that’s life as an entrepreneur. One second you’re riding a massive high, and the next it’s the lowest you’ve ever felt. You have to learn to enjoy the moments when your vision is working out, while preparing for what might be just around the corner. Roadblocks can stop you in your tracks or reveal what you’re truly made of. They can teach you things you never knew about yourself.
Getting sued was a huge obstacle, but it showed us that we were on the right track. Looking back, the lawsuit was the first sign that we had really disrupted the industry. Now, it seems like a backhanded compliment that other companies have tried to shut us down. It’s a reminder that we have something worthwhile. Something they don’t. We have a lifestyle brand that can’t be replicated.
We’re lucky to be able to listen to our customers and create unique campaigns like limited edition hats, custom golf balls, and coming next year…custom golf packaging and golf ball sleeves.
Rainer and I run a small, agile operation. Because of our scale, we can set our own standards and try things that are a little more edgy and provocative. We’re not tied down to fixed ideas about what a golf brand should be. Crazy to think that not too long ago, we weren’t sure if we wanted to make golf balls or toilet paper.
We aren’t just selling golf balls anymore; we’re selling a lifestyle. If you’re fed up with overpaying for quality golf balls, enjoy sleek and unique packaging, or are looking to try a new brand—take Golf Digest’s word for it and give us a try. You won’t be disappointed.