Entrepreneur swings his way to success
Story and photos by Blair Euteneuer, News Net Nebraska
Some use it on the green. Others display it in their home or office. Many associate it with the movie “Happy Gilmore.”
No matter its use, Hockey Stick Putters are a must-have for many golf and hockey enthusiasts.
David Graham, Minnesota native and former University of Nebraska Omaha hockey player, invented a hockey stick that functions as a golf putter. The idea began eight years ago as a quest for the perfect Christmas gift. To Graham’s surprise, it quickly turned into a thriving business.
When Graham was looking for a Christmas gift in 2003, he scoured the Internet for days in search of a product that looked like a hockey stick but functioned as a golf putter. Adam Sandler fans may recall a similar piece of equipment from “Gilmore.” Graham wanted to give one each to his father and brother, devout hockey and golf fans. But he found nothing out there.
What he did find was a niche no one else saw.
He took the idea and literally carved it into of a hunk of wood in his brother’s basement. With that, the first hockey stick putter was created.
Three years later, Graham launched the official Hockey Stick Putter, made out of graphite and aluminum, priced at $115 in the U.S. and $139 in Canada.
The product has been a hit. Graham now sells 20,000 putters annually. Before retailer discounts that amounts to a gross of at least $2.3 million, though Graham declines to disclose his annual sales.
The original hockey stick putter Graham carved (right) evolved into a functional putter (left).
Graham’s company, Hockey Stick Putters Inc. of Omaha, sells real precision-weighted putters, with a compression molded graphite shaft and a cast aluminum head. The functional putters feature all 30 of the National Hockey League’s teams’ logos, along with three college teams and four vintage teams. Along with the putters, the business sells NHL-logoed golf balls and “mini” golf bags, to buyers online and in more than 1,000 stores, including golf pro shops, hockey shops, retail chain stores and golf chain stores, across the U.S. and Canada.
Graham, 31, said the business’s success was unexpected.
“I started the business just to learn how to run a business,” Graham said. “I wasn’t even planning on it getting this far.”
His big break came when he had a meeting at the headquarters of Golf Galaxy, a national golf retailer, in St. Paul, Minn. The company’s representatives liked the putters and told Graham they wanted to put putters with the NHL team logos on them in all of their stores.
Graham used this meeting as leverage to obtain licensing through the NHL, which he said costs “a pretty penny” and can be difficult.
Within three minutes of sending an e-mail to NHL executives though, Graham got the go-ahead.
“Once I had that, the business just kind of took off,” he said.
The Detroit putter is one of Graham’s best-selling products.
It’s a product both hockey and golf fans have shown interest in. Professional golfer Mike Weir used a Hockey Stick Putter during the par three tournaments the past two years at the Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta, Ga. Even former president George W. Bush was sighted receiving a Carolina Hurricanes Hockey Stick Putter as a gift in 2008.
“A lot of people who play or enjoy hockey translate it into golf,” he said. “But some people just put it in their [golf] bag… as a conversation piece.”
Graham said he knows exactly where his market is geographically and demographically. Primarily, the buyers are golfers in hockey markets.
“I think a good reason the business has done so well is because it’s niche,” he said. “I’m selling to the people who want to combine the two [sports] or people who are hockey and golf enthusiasts. The putter is an impulse buy… It’s an emotional attachment.”
His business continues to expand and even ventured into the corporate market last summer, custom-making Hockey Stick Putters for big name companies including Bud Light, Bridgestone, Reebok and more. The companies use the putters mostly as promotional items.
Graham, like many entrepreneurs, learned the basics of running a business as he went.
“I wasn’t a veteran business guy,” he said. “It’s always been learning on the fly as it’s grown.”
Graham moved the business from his brother’s basement to an office space, which he decked out as a hockey rink— yellow kickplate and all.
The business side—though crucial to being a successful entrepreneur— is only secondary, according to Dan Hoffman, executive director for Invest Nebraska, a nonprofit venture development organization that assists entrepreneurs.
“Entrepreneurship is not about a business—it’s more an idea,” Hoffman said. “The whole concept of entrepreneurship is bogged down into business ideas, but what you need is creative ideas. The business side will find itself, but you have to have the right person who look at things in a new way, has an idea and starts it.”
Graham tries to devote some time during his 60- to 80-hour workweeks doing what he’s “good” at—inventing new products. It’s a strategy that he hopes will prolong and expand his business.
“My strategy is to always be learning why these [Hockey Stick Putters] sold so well and to look for new products that I can launch down the road or right now,” he said.
Experts agree entrepreneurs who start small businesses are invaluable to the economy, as they generate jobs and growth.
Of the estimated 150,000 small businesses in Nebraska, more than 40,000 employ one or more persons, according to the Nebraska Department of Economic Development.
A year into his business, Graham had enough revenue to hire another full-time staff member, and he now subcontracts work—from painting to decaling— to five or six others who take part in the business on a day-to-day basis.
“Small businesses can start with one or two people and grow into 10 or 15,” said Kathleen Thornton, of the Nebraska Center for Entrepreneurship. “They provide job opportunities.”
On a national level, small businesses have generated more than 65 percent of new jobs over the past two decades, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Along with creating jobs, small businesses generate more than half of the nonfarm private GDP every year.
“The reason we need entrepreneurs is they drive the economy both at a state and national level,” said Gary Hamer, of the Nebraska Department of Economic Development. “If you generate new products and services that can contribute great wealth, then our economy will grow.”
Despite starting Hockey Stick Putters at the beginning of the economic decline, Graham said his business has proven strong.
“It’s always growing, it has always grown and we’re expecting it to grow more,” he said.