The Golf Ball Company 1991 (from left to right: Chris, me, Melanie and Ben, Paul missing from picture likely building business strategy)

By the Captain - Jonathan Williams

Notes from the Unsuccessful “Money Man” Chapter 2

IMAGE: The Golf Ball Company 1991 (from left to right: Chris, me, Melanie and Ben, Paul missing from picture likely building business strategy)

Yep I think I may had peaked too soon, but looking back on it, my first business was pure gold, though it did have a slightly dodgy end.

Friends of the family “The Littles”, had emigrated to Seattle city, Washington State (USA) in the early 1990s and we had flown over to spend the summer holidays back in 1991. I did not even know what emigration meant, but I knew they were living far away after a 13-hour flight and a lap around a volcano called Mt St Helens.

They lived on Bainbridge Island which is a quick ferry journey over Puget Sound to Seattle and right opposite a golf course. After a week or 2, we started exploring the golf course and finding a lot of lost golf balls hiding in the bushes and surrounding woods. Colourful, elaborate collections of multi coloured golf balls grew, and we eagerly traded and swapped them between our small band of friends.

However, as we had been abandoned by our parents stateside while they hit the folk festivals back in the UK, we were faced with what seemed like endless summer days on the West coast of America. Over time I think we must have breathed in a little good old American capitalism and so decided to make some money.

Our golf ball stall was quickly set up outside the entrance to the golf course and we started selling lost golf balls back to the golfers. We spent some time designing our stall with a borrowed table and picnic blanket/tablecloth from our hosts and an advertising billboard. All of which required no monetary investment (yep that’s me holding the billboard with pride and wearing 2 watches because time is important when running a business).

It was a beautiful business; we went out searching for lost golf balls which the golfers thought they had lost forever, and we would sell them back to them. Some of these golf balls held great sentiment to the golfers so we were bringing back happiness to the golfers which brought us happiness too, as well as money.

Lesson 1: Selling stuff that makes people happy feels good.

On day 3, like any good strong business we expanded our offer with homemade lemonade and learnt the basic principle that if a customer is going to make the effort of buying back their lost golf ball then they will very likely buy some homemade lemonade too. All ingredients for the lemonade were supplied free of charge from our hosts. So very early on we learnt the basic principles of a Win Win situation.

Lesson 2: Always beg, borrow, and sometimes steal to start a business to ensure minimal personal investment. Keep your overheads to a minimum and maximise the bottom line to ensure success.

On day 4 we sold out of golf balls, selling out brought us initial short-lived happiness but then long-lived frustration of missed sales.

Lesson 3: Never sell out.

Day 5 and our situation was dire, there were simply no more lost golf balls. But, like any successful business, we adapted and sneaked into the shrubs during the day to watch the golfers play and as soon as a golf ball came within meters of the bushes, we would send out the youngest (Chris) to steal the golf ball.

Lesson 4: Strong teams go far. Minimise personal risk and get other people to do the dirty work, usually the youngest in the organisation.

Day 6 we were back in business, but again sold out. This meant drastic action. Yep, we had to send the youngest member of our little band of friends onto the golfers green and steal the golf balls as the balls were still in play. It was a high-risk strategy, but it meant the survival of the business.

Lesson 7: Improvise, adapt, and overcome

Day 7 we were told not to do our stall anymore by the golf club and our hosts, the cute kids had lost their charm.

Lesson 8: Never outstay your welcome and do not steal.

But the final lesson we learnt was re-investment: All proceeds went into a new lower risk business of buying baseball cards, 100’s of them.

And yep, maybe we did not know much about baseball, we are after all Welsh and love only rugby. But I have a box full of baseball cards in my loft funded by our golf ball business from 1991. And one fine day I will fly back across the great Atlantic and sell my little steak in American sporting memorabilia and see a healthy return on my investment.

This is pretty much the perfect manual for starting, running, and ending a business, well maybe not ending it.

Good luck. 

P.s What was your first business and what did you learn?