In part-one of our interview with Future Golf’s Ali Terai we discussed the genesis of the platform and the desire to tackle the problem of ushering people into golf. We carry on our discussion by discussing Future Golf’s platform, company philosophy and vision and the challenges of growing a startup.
You’re a digital-first company. The one thing you can do and you can control is the digital services for people to research and participate.
AT: “It’s funny as only maybe until a few years ago when a friend of mine made me realise that we’re actually a tech company. We didn’t realise that for the first bit because we had a basic Wix website that I put together for a hundred bucks. We started figuring out that we’re a platform and nearly a tech company even though tech is not our strength. I think our big strengths has been customer service, community management and our partnership model. We’re coming into a space where golf, even when we got into it, didn’t have a lot of technology.
“If you look at fintech or transportation it’s quite a sophisticated tech ecosystem where you can’t really operate with a basic WordPress or Wix website and compete with the big players. Whereas with golf, six years ago the fact that we had a website and that you could buy a membership with a PayPal button was ground breaking because if you wanted to join any other golf club, the alternative was download a PDF, get character references, have a face-to-face meeting, see if you get approved and an interview. That was the process. The fact that you could do this from your home and sign up in a matter of minutes was something relatively innovative, whereas we’ve progressed it with a custom built web platform, but we’re still not even at the app stage where we need to probably get to, the shorter term horizon to improve the user experience.”
But what makes you a tech company is you capture data as well. What have you learned about the users demographics of your platform?
AT: “The core demographics in our database is still males between the age of 25 to 40. But that’s shifting because we’ve done things like the Future Women Initiative, where last year we sponsored 250 memberships because we want to move the needle and get more women involved in golf. That was off the back of doing some research on the Golf Australia reports were when we looked at it nationally, there was roughly 5,000 female golfers between the ages of 18 and 40 that were registered nationally. So we figured if we give away 250 memberships that will move the needle five per cent and the idea is we can keep doing that year on year.
“Moving forward, the plan is to actually further develop that program out even more with the support of governing bodies and maybe a few commercial sponsors, because what we learned from that experiment is that when you bring in people, no matter age, socioeconomic background, gender, that are really new to golf there is a pretty significant management cost in terms of guiding people through the first six to 12 months.
“The next thing to tackle, based on our recent feedback and user surveys is demand for an app. The demand was never that strong but we’re now hearing it louder from our members.”
How do you maintain and even evolve your vision?
AT: “There’s a couple but a big one for us is fulfilling and amplifying that vision of getting the non-traditional golfer to the game is still the overwhelming one. If we looked at our vision in the long term horizon, it hasn’t really changed since day one. It’s to build the most engaged and largest community of golfers in the world.
“It may change and who knows how this will go in a post COVID-19 world but I still fundamentally believe creating value generating partnerships and connecting them with an engaged community on a solid platform that provides event and connection opportunities is a really good mixture.
“It is quite a complex thing to do to manage all of those different assets. To try to really nail it down over a sustained period of time we’ve found is that there’s a level of complexity that isn’t easy to duplicate. Whereas there’s other things in golf that are relatively easy to duplicate, like a tee time booking system, once someone does that everyone can do that. A GPS app, once someone does that everyone can kind of do it. But to actually connect all of the facilities up and to have a variety of value that’s inherently there through collaborations, partnerships and then managing the balance of that longer term. So that exchange of value is still really solid and significant.
“Now, in a post COVID world, what does that look like? Who knows?
“In hindsight, we’re lucky that we weren’t launching internationally yet, and we did have that as an original plan, but right now we’re planning to solidify our national footprint and have a strong presence across every Australian state.”
Pursuing your passion. The idea of pursuing something that you’re passionate about, you want people to participate and be passionate about as well. That’s quite an overarching philosophy for Future Golf.
AT: “For sure. It’s funny that the word passion gets thrown around a lot. But in our business, it’s actually probably one of the biggest assets that we’ve got – the game of golf. I just keep imagining that if we did something similar like this outside of golf, and we didn’t have the people operating and contributing, volunteering and helping us throughout because of their connection to golf there’s not a single chance in the world we would be where we are right now.
“I look at nearly the majority of our team and I don’t think we’ve had a team member yet that hasn’t been a member, or come through the membership model. So they are users of the product or become members and then they’ve reached out because they’ve got a talent or a skill set asking if they could get involved. Nearly everyone’s done a two-year apprenticeship just from understanding, playing events, getting a feel for member’s needs. It gets to the point where they deliver so much value that we need to get them on board. They understand the vision, alignment of values, culture and purpose.”
When you look back from when you began to now, the lessons learned building a community based tech business? It could be personal or a key insight along the way.
AT: “There’s so many but I’ll think of three quick ones!
“The first one that I’ve learned as the business matured, over the last two or three year as we’ve kind of experienced so called ‘perceived success,’ you get past that early startup stage, what I learned from that from an entrepreneurial perspective is that it becomes very important to be able to be attached to what you’re doing, but also equally detached to what you’re doing and to the outcomes of it. So it’s very much like the Bruce Lee quote ‘be like water.’
“A funny story, last year we went through the Telstra Business Awards, and we ended up winning one of the awards. Around two months prior to that point we knew we had grown a fair bit but we were also battling a little bit. So financially being a bootstrapped business we’re in the middle of winter, golf memberships are going down a little bit, and there’s this amazing paradox on one hand, getting the email for the invitation to buy tickets to the Telstra Business Awards. Then on the other hand, looking at the bank account and being like, ‘look I don’t even know if we can afford to go to these awards.’ Fast forward two months, you win the award, you beat out 25,000 businesses and things start recovering on the other side. But it in a weird way it’s funny with business, you can’t over celebrate the wins and you can’t get too down on the losses.
“The other one just at the start for me was when you’re trying something new and something that’s a little bit different for me personally, how can you do it in a way that mitigates your own risks? Say for example, we always talk about our bootstrapped model because I’m personally not a fan of trying to get heaps of capital and then trying to turn that capital into something. I’d rather back the idea, see if we can create something that’s super innovative, validate it with low risk, low cost and then see if it’s got traction, a core value proposition and then amplify it. Which means you may sacrifice a bit of speed but I think you get to sleep a little better through that process as well because you’re not worrying about satisfying investors.
“Then the third one is just people and knowledge. To me a big hack, if you can get a book for $20 what that gives you as an ROI that you can then go and actively implement in your business or an hour chat with an entrepreneur that’s walked the path before you that just leapfrogs you to the next level. We’ve been super fortunate to have amazing people guiding us.”