Over the past 25 years, Tom Cox has grown Golfballs.com from a startup that sold used golf balls found in lakes to a world leader in the online sale of customized golf products – most notably, new golf balls.
Golfballs.com now exceeds $33 million in annual sales, with 80% of its business customized in some way. The Louisiana-based company was recognized in 2020 as one of the NGF’s Top 100 businesses in golf for the success it’s had in establishing a niche and giving customers the ability to easily, quickly and affordably personalize golf balls, gifts and gear.
Cox, who worked as a manager at a private country club before starting Golfballs.com in a 100-square-foot room, spent a few minutes talking with NGF about customization in golf, the best business advice he’s received, and the state of the golf retail market.
In today’s society, regardless of the product, consumers more and more often want things their way; things that are curated to them and their tastes – whether it’s your TV channels, your food tastes, your apparel, and so on. What made you make the switch from selling used balls to the personalization approach with new golf balls?
We saw mass customization coming from a mile away. It just seemed like — and this is in the late 90’s, before we even had printing capabilities — customers were asking for us to print things on golf balls for them. First it was your company logo, but then it kind of transitioned to the consumer. So, we knew that it was trend, we also knew that it was a differentiator. When I started the company, selling used golf balls online was actually a differentiated business. You could buy the brand you liked, you could buy the ball type you liked, you could buy whatever grade you wanted and we’d give it to you just exactly as you want it. You know, B-grade, D-grade, Titleist, Molitor, we’d sell those to you just how you want it. And no one else was doing it at the time; there were buckets of balls sitting in places, but there wasn’t a real big industry built around it.
We have taken that same ‘blue ocean strategy’ approach as we have evolved the business to try to produce things that are more interesting to customers, that they can’t find in other places. So, you couldn’t find these golf balls everywhere, now they’re ubiquitous. You can go anywhere and buy golf balls. You can go to Amazon to buy golf balls, but you can’t buy them customized. There’s a limited number of places where you can buy them customized and we launched a lot of different new product lines that you literally can’t get anywhere else. So, part of our strategy is to produce and sell things that customers love, but they can’t buy anywhere else.
While the company continues to show growth, what are the biggest challenges you face as an online retailer?
You have to have uncompromising service as an online retailer. It hasn’t always been that way, but now, in the age of social media, product reviews, business reviews; if you don’t do a great job for your customers every time, you will fail as a business. So, it was definitely my roots in country club management. We have had a 100% satisfaction guarantee since the beginning of the company. It’s never been a question and it makes it really easy for line level employees to make decisions; we just make it right for the customer.
When you look at the health and the state of the golf retail market right now, big picture, what do you see?
I gather as much information as I can. I say that we are weather-adjusted flat for the foreseeable future and my crystal ball goes about six or seven years. The decisions we make now to help grow the game will affect what happens outside of that six- or seven-year window. Within the golf retail market, or just kind of the golf industry as a whole, Amazon is eating away at everything. And you’ve got two pieces; you’ve got Amazon, and I kind of view Amazon as an extension of manufacturers, what manufacturers are selling direct and manufacturers are selling to Amazon. And, then, Amazon is selling, in some cases, at prices that the retailers can’t compete with. They do things that make it impossible. So, although I think the industry is weather-adjusted flat for the foreseeable future, that which can be sold for Amazon will transition to that channel.
Are you expecting to expand Golfballs.com further in terms of other products? I know you already carry some things beyond golf balls like equipment, apparel, and so on. Is there going to be further expansion? And, what might that look like?
Absolutely. I’d say, within golf, there are a lot of other products that we can customize in different ways. Last year we announced a deal with Team Golf where we’re basically able to print and sell just about every brand of golf ball, every popular type of golf ball with MLB, NCAA. NFL is a little bit stricter; the NFL is with just Titleist and blank balls, but pretty much we have that entire library of licenses that we can now print on demand on a huge selection of golf balls that aren’t even in the marketplace. So, if you think about it, it is a great example of mass customization, but it’s a little different slant on mass customization because, most of the time, these things are printed ahead of time, shipped to a book store or shipped somewhere and it’s sold that way. For us, it’s mass customization because it’s on demand, but it allows people to get logos for schools or teams that they love on products that they love that wouldn’t have been available before or may not have been available before.
So, if you look at what are the things that we’re trying to do to expand, we have a production department that, during the Christmas holidays at one point, we printed over 5,000 dozen balls in a day. We just want to continue to leverage our printing embroidery and other customization capacities to extend both inside of golf and outside of golf with customized products.
It sounds like there’s certainly a lot of opportunity. When it comes to advice, what’s the best business advice you’ve received over the years? And, perhaps by extension, is there advice that you would offer to entrepreneurs looking to break into the golf business?
Number one is that people are always the most important part of your business. As a young entrepreneur, you think that you can just move around the building fast enough and fix everything and be everything to everybody. You really can’t do that, so you always need to get fantastic people on your team. Two, don’t try to be all things as a business. You can’t win at everything and you can’t be great at everything, so you need to find a scalable market opportunity and combine that with skills that you have or something that you could produce where there’s not already incredible competition.
You got do a lot of research on the market before you try to start a business. I think a lot of people think it’s ‘ready, fire, aim.’ They’re like, ‘I love golf, I want to be in the golf business, I’m going to open a golf store and then I’m going to learn more about the golf market.’ It’s the wrong order. The order is to learn about the industry, write a plan, cross-check the plan, share the plan and then, if you are the right person to execute the plan, finally go forward with the plan and start the business.
One of the unique things about golf being such a big participation sport relative to some of the others is that it elicits an incredible passion. Sometimes, for entrepreneurs, I suppose that can be a bad thing, but from the other side, when you’re established and you have those passionate consumers, it’s a good thing, right?
It really is. It’s an affinity group; People love the game of golf, they love watching golf, they love watching golf commercials, they love reading golf stories, they love reading about golf pros, they love getting golf equipment, they love the experience of being out on the golf course and, fortunately, more and more of them love their golf balls customized. Because, really, nobody has to play golf, right? So, you play golf to have fun and some elements of personalization on your golf balls just makes it a little bit more fun. Whether it’s golf balls, towels or whatever it is. It makes your affinity group, it makes your pleasure with your game, just a little bit more fun.
The National Golf Foundation is driven by its mission to foster the growth and vitality of the game and business of golf. The NGF holds a unique position as the most trusted and preeminent provider of market research, marketing databases, business insights and programs that support every segment of the industry.