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The journey from idea to execution, a conversation with Graham Curry (Founder & CEO of Handicaddie)

Updated: Nov 12, 2021

Last week I spoke with Graham Curry, the CEO & founder of a new business that seeks to digitalize the caddying industry; Handicaddie. Graham and I both graduated in July with a Bsc in Business Management at Queens University Belfast (QUB). It was great to finally meet (virtually) and learn more about his journey in entrepreneurship. I asked a variety of questions that would explore areas such as idea generation, execution, challenges, and setbacks and launching a startup from scratch. The questions are found below alongside a summary of Grahams response. You will also find some input from myself on responses I felt appropriate.


What does the background of Handicaddie look like and tell me about you came to set up the business?


When I was 15 or 16 as a summer job, I began caddying at Castlerock and for the entire summer pretty much caddied every day. It was a great earner for pocket money and therefore looking back this as the learning stage for the eventual launch of the app. When I first started caddying, I didn’t know that it would lead to me creating a business but around the age of 19 and whilst studying business at QUB I started to realize that I wanted to get more involved in entrepreneurship but at this stage I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what my business idea would be.


Originally, I applied for a Co-Founders program through a not for profit called Catalyst. I eventually became part of the program but for my first application I didn’t have an idea so I couldn’t qualify for the program. However, the advice they gave me was key as they advised me to start thinking about a problem that occurs on a regular basis and link it with something you enjoy.

I then thought, I enjoy golf OK and then the idea came to me. Caddying is a very flexible job, and you get a lot of short notice job calls so it could be half an hour before a tee time and your needed for a job. There isn’t really any job security in caddying for example, a caddy could be working twice a week or could be working 12 times a week. There was no structure to the work so that lead me to travel to a lot of clubs in Ireland and asked about their caddy program. It was very clear to me that there is an opportunity here for some sort of digital product that makes the schedule and caddies life simpler for the Golf Club. It would help give caddies more of an insight into when they're working so that that was sort of like the start point for exploring the idea further.


It was interesting to hear how the idea to launch the business had stemmed from Graham’s part time summer job. This story reminds me of one of the modules I took in my final year at university: Innovation management. We explored the concept of Innovators DNA in which discussed skills that many successful innovators have. In the instance with Handicaddie Graham has displayed the discovery skill 1; association. He has connected the problem of poor job security for golf caddies, with a solution to this problem in the form of an application that schedules caddies’ jobs and allows them to have a clearer and more consistent idea of their work schedule. I always find it interesting when talking with startup founders about how the idea came to life and often it is through this connection of a problem they experience regularly and a solution they feel is appropriate. I also feel discovery skill 2; questioning is also evident in the early stages of Grahams journey. Driving round to clubs across Ireland and asking questions about their caddying program. Identifying consistent problems that could be solved through an innovation application. A great way to encourage entrepreneurship within yourself would be to align your behavior with some of the key skills talked about in Innovators DNA.


I also feel that part time jobs throughout school and university play a key role in the development of an entrepreneur. In the case of Handicaddie, if Graham didn’t caddy and experience the lack of job security that existed within the industry then the concept of Handicaddie would never been created. From a personal perspective, my first job was at my local golf club pro shop. I absolutely loved the job and fell in love with the freedom aspect. For example, I had always been interested in marketing particularly social media, so when I noticed that the shop had no presence online and was struggling to sell stock from the previous season, I immediately spotted an opportunity. After speaking with the head professional, I was granted permission to launch and run a social media page. This provided a new opportunity to reach potential customers and became a platform for which we could sell discounted stock to make room for new products. I also launched a Gumtree account to boost shop sales. This experience taught me a huge deal. I began to understand how key an online presence was but also the value in having multiple revenue streams for a business. I remember interacting with members and visitors of the club through the Facebook business page and began to understand how important it was to have a presence on all platforms that both current and potential customers were regular users.


Growing up, did you always have an entrepreneurial instinct or goal of owning your own business.


I live in Derry and there's not much of a startup world going on down there but when I moved up to study at QUB I began to get involved in startups. I found it exciting, so I started going to events in Belfast and I feel that that this curiosity for creating something by myself was what gave birth to that entrepreneurial spirit.


I think this really reflects the important role that clubs, and societies have at university but also highs school level. The opportunity to socialize and interact with groups of people with similar goals helps people realize their entrepreneurial potential and discover potentially something that they never knew they had. Many people believe entrepreneurship is inborn and I agree to a certain extent, but I feel that many people don’t fully understand what entrepreneurship is until they get proper exposure through for e.g., clubs and societies.


Were there any setbacks and challenges in those early days that potentially threatened the launch of the business?


Yeah, I mean you're obviously going to have challenges and doubts whilst working on anything that is innovative. Something that the business continues to face is that golf is an inherently traditional industry and people have their set way of doing things. Often, it's a resistance to change as they communicate that the system in place currently works for them right now and they question the need to change. In order to overcome this, we built a very good business case for the actual value we provide the clubs and quantifying the amount of time that they would save and showing that the product is extremely user friendly.


This is something I’ve always found frustrating about the golf industry, the resistance to change. I understand that many people want to keep the traditions and values of the sport but its very much possible to modernize and change elements of the sport without moving entirely away from the values that have been part of the sport for many years. An area of the game that seems to finally be getting some relaxation of rules is dress code; but the hype and controversy that still surrounds these at clubs across the world is holding the sport back. It’s important for clubs to have a willingness to review small changes as the accumulation of small changes in the sport will help create a large cultural shift that can help make the game more modern and thereby inclusive. I don’t understand why clubs aren’t willing to try new things, businesses across many industries try new things every day, many of which fail but even these failures have positive consequences as they provide learning opportunities and help encourage other businesses to experiment with new approaches.


How does the business overcome this resistance and get companies that may initially say no more on board?


I’ve been fortunate enough these last few months to receive mentoring from the Founder of BRS (Rory Smith) and through meetings getting his advice has been great it's literally like if you look at any innovative product the people that adopt early will be 1 to 2% of the market so will be very few. So, what you need to do is qualify your potential customers and in the case of Handicaddie these are clubs that are progressive and would be willing to take us on when we are established. These are ones that we as a business will target down the line as I would spend a lot of time contacting clubs in general see if any of them are interested but then I would spend most of my time talking to the progressive clubs and the ones that see this opportunity.

Once you make a mark in these progressive clubs then your value proposition is going to be a lot stronger as you're going to have a lot more data behind what you're doing. This will then allow you to approach the middle tier clubs that are not so sure yet with a strong value proposition. An example of a progressive golf club for us has been Ardglass who have a strong understanding of my vision.


Also to answer your question directly we use a sales funnel tool to see which stage that each Golf Club is at and then we track that and I'll follow up periodically like every month or two with a progress update rather than a message asking them to buy our product. This is about building a relationship with a potential client. We communicate to club managers what we've achieved for clients in the past, month. Put simply it’s about connecting or reconnecting with them at the right time.


Anytime I go on a phone call or an email exchange the goal is to get them to demo with us and then we can talk with them seriously about using our product. We have found that clubs can be quite bespoke in what they want out of the app, but this is our first version and it's not going to be bespoke to all your needs but, down the line there's potential to create tools and features where they can make it a lot more.


I think at this point it's important to recognize that when in the process of trying to get customers/businesses on board managing their expectations is important, as although they may want more of a bespoke service and customized features it’s the role of the business to communicate that there are huge opportunities down the line for these advanced features and customization. However, demonstrating that through integrating the app early it gives the club a huge advantage in the long term as core systems will already be in place allowing for added features and customization to be slotted in later causing minimal disruption.


I also appreciate Graham's point about handling rejections from clubs and if a club is initially not interested then it isn’t a case of just completely giving up on the prospect of them using Handicaddie. Graham maintains a connection with the clubs through monthly updates of how Handicaddie has helped other clubs increase efficiency in their caddy programs and overall building relationship that extends purely beyond selling them a product. This all aligns with the long-term strategy the business has. Having the physical app also makes this experience slightly easier. The ability to give clubs a demonstration and trial period has already seen positive outcomes for the business.


Is this your first build as an MVP or have you been through various builds?


If I’m honest in the first year I hadn’t a clue what I was doing, I went around golf clubs asking for feedback and because I didn't have any technical ability, I assumed I was going to enter a massive funding round to build my product. The app is at MVP stage right now and is a scheduling tool essentially, but our vision long term is to bring players and golf tours/operators into the equation.

At the start of the journey, I was fortunate enough to gain a grant to start building my grand vision but then I realized halfway through that this was the wrong way to do it because I was trying to cater to four or five different user groups. Our first build had features such as selecting your own caddie, but it wasn't launchable as there was so many problems. At this stage I took a step back and around this time I got a fellow caddy on board who had experience in coding. He displayed an interest in the product for years and we stripped the products back to solve the main problem which we had pinpointed as the caddy programs took up too much time organize. We worked on the product for three or four months and became our main MVP.


Interesting to see how although Graham lacked the software and coding skills needed to build an app, he brought someone who had a passion for the concept but also had the desired skills. Recognizing the need to bring some external talent on board is important to ensure you can build a high-quality product. I also feel external input is valuable as it can help gain some unbiased opinion on areas that the business may have neglected. I have a post coming soon from a founder of another app within the golf industry called PerfectMotion, this app is instruction based but one of the great takeaways was the importance of taking a step back and knowing when to pivot. Graham experienced a similar situation when he had built a product with defects, this forced him to take a step back and recognize the need to change strategy. Rather than focus on numerous areas of caddy program management he had to refocus and shift attention towards one key area: scheduling.


I see you have a small team behind you, are these individuals salaried or have they been given some equity like many other startups?


Up until recently it was salaried, but these guys have been with me for a while, Jamie was in the fringes for like 2 years and Ryan my designer has been with the company for two years so we decided to shift towards split equity in the company. I love this because I knew they bought into the long-term vision. I can see in five years’ time them still being a part of the business as we've all experienced the caddying industry and understand the problem. Our goal is to get all of us full time by the end of next year, this would help accelerate growth as for example a full-time software developer would help us implement changes quicker and ensure smooth running of the app.


I’m a big fan of split equity, I think it’s a great motivator for all within the business especially at an early stage but also sends a clear message to the industry that everyone involved is in this venture is in it for the long run. When splitting equity however it is key that everyone is fully committed to the long-term plans and understand the company mission. Interesting to hear Graham’s decision to shift from salaried to equity in recent months and I wonder if there has been any increase in efficiency within the company.


How did covid impact the business over the past 12-18 months, I’m sure business development strategy was forced to change to cope with restrictions.


As I mentioned earlier, we built an all-encompassed product that I was thinking about launching and if I had followed through and launched our first build it would not have gone well as it wasn't solving any problems. In a strange way Covid 19 had a positive impact on the business as we had planned to launch right when Covid hit. Covid forced me to step back and rethink our app and this is where the new changes stemmed from. Also, during Covid I was still a full-time student who had some part time work as well that meant I wasn’t reliant on income from the app. I could focus on building the business up without taking money out at the time.


I’m a huge fan of entrepreneurs working part time whilst building their business as similar to Graham’s case the founder then has the ability to reinvest all money the business has created back into the business. Rather than relying on income from the business the entrepreneur can focus on building the best product possible whilst sustaining themselves with earnings from a part time job. Knowing when to make the leap to full time is when decision making becomes harder.


How did you finance the building of your app and various other business activities?


It worked out well for us as we gained a 10K grant from Catalyst Belfast, 10k from Techstart and received some capital from QUB dragon’s den. This and a few smaller grants really helped us get off the ground and build the app. However, I think there is a problem in Belfast as there’s a shortage in the supply of these grants and many startups feel trapped into having to go down this path. Gain grants quickly or do a big funding round. If I could go back to the start what I would do is try and find cofounders quickly and start building with them. I think it would help us get to a first product a lot quicker. I could have saved a lot of capital if I had three cofounders from the start as we could have just got to work building whilst I made the mistake of paying a lot of money for a landing page. Also, if I had cofounders from the start, I may not have wasted 10,000 on building the first product which had too many defects. In the early days there was a lot of unnecessary expenses. Although we didn’t go down the route of a round of funding, I find that when you're looking to raise investment, one of the criteria that most investors will look for a team of cofounders behind the business.


I always love when founders speak openly about mistakes made in the early days. Many would say that these mistakes can be positive as they help the business learn however I’ve learnt recently that these mistakes are just a plain waste of valuable resources. I am reading “The Lean startup” by Eric Ries and he spoke openly about the huge waste of resources he had in the early days of his business. Like Graham he was fortunate enough to spot the need to change before all his capital had been used therefore had enough to pivot towards something new. It is so important for a business to recognize their mistakes before its too late, simply keeping the head down and focusing on delivering what you had set out to do is a recipe for disaster, its valuable to take a step back and make sure you’re on the right tracks. This is where testing and experimenting comes in, this should be done throughout the process of building the product and not just before in the market research stage. Testing consumer behavior throughout will ensure that demand is true and will also allow the business to monitor the impact of changes on business performance.


What surprised you the most when you spoke to golf clubs?


I underestimated the decision-making cycle of a Golf Club and how long it would take for things to be passed through to the general manager to get the app running. For example, we could be ready to go in August but then the Golf Club delay due to contracts and onboarding systems. This was a huge learning point for us as one of our streamlined goals for next year is quicken up the onboarding process and make it as easy as possible for to a club to implement Handicaddie within a day or two.


You spoke about receiving some mentoring from Rory Smith, did you receive any other guidance on decisions from other people?


Cofounders was a big one for guiding the business in the early days especially for getting the first product right and simplifying that down into what an MVP looks like. That was important for me. Another program that is great is the propel program which although I haven't got on the program yet, a lot of the guys down there have been great for mentorship, and I would often run some questions by them to check I’m on the right path. I also have a core group of friends that would be in the startup space as well so I would constantly be in contact with them and its mutually beneficial.


What’s next for the business? Any countries you’re exploring for growth?


My goal for the next twelve months is to generate enough revenue each month that I can sustain myself off and be able to do this as a 9-5. That’s a personal goal but for the business I would like to bring on at least one other person full time. In the future I would love to have a presence in UK, Europe, and USA. The American market is the biggest so that would be a long-term ambition to get some traction out there. In terms of short term, it would be focusing very heavily on Irish Golf clubs and build a reputation for ourselves over here which will in turn help us gain credibility that will further assist in global expansion in the future.


How have you utilized social media tools such as LinkedIn?


We built a community behind our product on LinkedIn which was awesome, and it got to over 100 members through LinkedIn alone. I also have received some business through LinkedIn as a guy reached out from the Ladies European tour stating that they have a problem with their caddy management as players would come on tour not knowing where to look for experienced caddies. It’s very different on the ladies’ European tour as the players often change caddies each week and therefore it would be interesting if down the line, we could build the app to where golfers could go on see what caddies are available for events and select them through the app. This is an example of how LinkedIn has massively helped the business create a potentially long-term business relationship with the European tour. However, some people think that people just magically pop up with messages and they'll find you but like it doesn’t just work like that until you’re established. On LinkedIn for last year and a half I have focused on providing valuable content whether it be through videos, articles posting stuff that might help other people my age start businesses etc. I think building your own personal brand is a huge asset for your professional career no matter what profession you go into.


I completely agree with Graham here about the importance of building up your own brand through LinkedIn. I wouldn’t be in the position I am today if I hadn’t of started using LinkedIn properly. In March last year I reached out to one of the best Professional Golf coaches in the US and offered my skills to help build the brand of the business up and diversify the company’s revenue streams. In my opinion LinkedIn is the most important social media full stop. I've told numerous friends, some of which have followed my advice but many of which haven't, to focus heavily on LinkedIn and build up their own personal brand as it benefits them hugely in the long term in helping them secure their dream job.


Over the last 12 to 18 months, I went on a massive networking campaign through LinkedIn, I reached out to people in countries such as USA, Canada, Scotland & England. I connected and spoke via zoom with people that were in positions that I seek to secure in the future or people in positions that I knew would offer experience and insight that would be valuable to me. This was a very time-consuming task as I messaged hundreds of people with the majority not replying. However, in my experience the individuals that do respond, the benefits that you receive from this interaction far outweigh the time that it consumed to type all the other messages. Handicaddie have gained a potentially huge business partner for the future through interacting on LinkedIn, this cost the business absolutely nothing other than time and hard work! Good to see Graham is also a big fan of Gary Vee!


Although I feel LinkedIn is starting to get the recognition that it deserves it is still being neglected by so many people just purely having an account and not actively engaging on the platform. To this day it still blows my mind that you can reach out to a company CEO and successful industry professionals and have a direct one on one conversation with them. This type of learning extends beyond the walls of universities and helps understand more about business in the real world. Through qualifying your search, you can find reach out to the hiring team that have posted your dream job and find out ways to increase your likelihood of securing the job. There are no excuses!


I would like to thank Graham for his time last week in helping me understand more about his journey in entrepreneurship and the business that he's built with Handicaddie. It was fascinating to learn more about how an entrepreneur took an idea, generated adequate funds, and then executed through launching a business. A lot can be learnt from Graham’s journey and a key learning I found was recognizing the value in having multiple cofounders at an early stage with variable skills. A good mix of business development/marketing and technical software/coding skills would help navigate those early mistakes that founders such as Graham experienced.


Graham, I look forward to following more of your journey as you attempt to revolutionize the caddy industry.


Feel free to leave any questions and feedback in the comments below!


I hope you enjoyed.

Thanks,

Michael





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