You’ve probably seen the courses at local parks featuring the iconic poles with the baskets and chains positioned strategically.
We’re talking about disc golf, a game played much like traditional golf, but instead of a ball and clubs, players use a flying disc or Frisbee®.
Disc golf is one of the fastest growing sports in the United States with more than 6,400 courses. From 2007-2017 more than 400 courses were added annually worldwide.
The Charlotte area is currently home to 44 disc golf courses.
The sport’s origins date back to the early 1900s when a couple of kids in Canada played a game of throwing tin lids into four-foot wide circles drawn into sandy patches on their school grounds. But it wasn’t legitimized until 1976 when Ed Headrick formalized the rules of the sport, founded the Disc Golf Association (DGA), the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA), the Recreational Disc Golf Association (RDGA) and invented the first formal disc golf target with chains and a basket, which is what you see now.
As any sport grows in popularity, it’s natural for enhancements to follow.
So what’s the biggest problem for disc golfers? That’s pretty easy, actually. It’s the time it takes to find and retrieve lost discs on courses.
“I’m just your average disc golfer, going out there, playing and losing discs like everyone else,” said Chris Martin, founder of Tobu Discs. “I called up the PDGA and asked them what their biggest pain point was and they said it was the delay of tournaments due to loss of discs.”
And with the PDGA’s guidance and approval, Martin launched a Kickstarter campaign which funded research and development and the building of a prototype of a Bluetooth-enabled tracker which attaches to a disc and allows you to find your disc using your mobile phone.
“I had people that were interested and had a fully working product,” Martin said.
And with that Tobu Discs was born. Tobu, which means “to fly” in Japanese, pays homage to the year and a half Martin spent in Japan. And yes, he speaks the language.
Martin’s first order of business was securing a patent for the product.
“The patent was approved two years ago which covers the technology and a texture on the rim of the disc to prevent slipping,” Martin said.
Currently, a Tobu Disc also measures the distance of a throw in addition to its device tracking function. The next version will include more statistical data like speed rotation and height of the disc from the ground.
“This next version will detect everything about your throw to help you improve your game,” Martin said.
Tobu Discs is not Martin’s first startup. A self-proclaimed “serial entrepreneur,” Martin has founded five different businesses and has done small-business consulting on the side
“Most of my background has been in technology of one kind or another,” Martin said. “Whether it’s technology sales or as a data consultant.”
Martin admits that putting a device on a disc wasn’t exactly an original idea.
“It’s just no one took the time or effort to do it,” he said. “I took the time and had the patience to try and figure it out. I didn’t have a background in application development or rotational aerodynamics, but I had the drive and the background to seek out the people I needed.”
Although Martin is Charlotte-based, Tobu Discs employs resources from around the globe. His engineers are in Singapore, manufacturing is in Malaysia, electronics come from China, social media is done in Serbia, application development is done in India and the backend database work is done in Pakistan.
“Every Monday night we have a call from Charlotte via Google Hangout.”
What’s the Next Stop?
Tobu Discs are sold online and through three retailers (brick and mortar): Play it Again Sports, Infinite Discs (Utah), Another Round Disc Golf (Charlotte). The discs retail for $34.99.
But Martin realized quickly that the product needed to be versatile.
“Players want to put the technology on their discs so we created a standalone module called the Seeker that you can attach to any disc,” he said.
The Seeker utilizes the same tracking technology that the full disc product uses and retails for $19.99.
“Right now I’ve determined that there’s a ton of competition for disc makers,” Martin said. “The real value in what I’m doing is not in the disc itself. Disc golfers are loyal to the brands they throw. The disc golf industry didn’t need another disc. What they needed was my technology.”
Martin is quick to admit that he doesn’t always have all the answers and has advice for those embarking on a new venture.
“Surround yourself with good people, people that are smarter than you, that know things that you don’t,” he said. “Every entrepreneur can tell you about some person they met that said something that was a trigger for them for success. Let one of those people be a mentor and be on your Board of Directors. Let them hold you accountable and give you good advice.”