By P.J. Harmer — Rattling Chains staff
This story has the makings of the Little Engine That Could.
Despite being different than traditional disc golf manufacturers, Vibram Disc Golf continually seems to be working with a bit of that “I think I can” mentality. And, because it’s different, the company also seems to have a strong, cult-like following.
Vibram, well-known for its shoe soles and its FiveFingers barefoot shoes, has only been a part of the disc golf world for a few years. Despite its short existence in the sport, the Concord, Mass., company has made some extremely big strides in becoming a major player.
The biggest difference between Vibram and other disc manufacturers? It produces rubber-based discs instead of plastic.
“Since 2009, when Steve Dodge agreed to join the Vibram team to help guide the development of a line of discs and expanded materials, we have been committed to being a part of the exciting evolution of disc golf,” Vibram USA President Mike Gionfriddo said. “We strive to support and grow Vibram Disc Golf and the sport as a whole. We believe that Vibram Disc Golf has a bright future.”
Moving to the family farm in 2003 started the path for Dodge to become a key figure in the disc golf world.
His initial idea? Build a course, a pro shop and a major tournament. He teamed with his cousin, Tom Southwick, to design the Maple Hill Disc Golf Course and start the Marshall Street Disc Golf Championship.
In 2008, Dodge left Marshall Street and the tournament stopped.
“I knew I still wanted to continue to run a premier disc golf event and began plans for the Maple Hill Open,” he said.
Enter Quabaug, a rubber manufacturer.
In February 2008, Dodge spoke with Aaron Ala, a chemist at Quabaug. Ala encouraged Dodge to talk to the company about becoming a sponsor for the Maple Hill Open. At the same time, Kevin Donahue, Quabaug’s owner, had also been searching for new business opportunities for Vibram.
A match made in rubber?
“I walked in the door at the right time,” Dodge said.
The history of Vibram goes beyond discs, of course. The company made the first rubber soles for hiking boots after a tragic climbing accident. According to Vibram’s company history on its website, in 1935, Vitale Bramani was part of a climbing group in which six lost their lives on Resica Mountain. Also according to the website, one factor of the accident was the lack of suitable footwear for dealing with mixed surfaces.
In 1936, Bramani developed a sole capable of excellent traction on mixed surfaces. That sole is still one of the most-used by mountain climbers today. In 1937, Bramani patented his invention and launched the first Vibram sole.
Being a long-standing company that was based in footwear, golf discs seemed to be a bit far-fetched.
Gionfriddo — then Quabaug’s COO and currently Vibram USA’s president — told Donahue Quabaug could craft a disc golf disc, made out of rubber, in time for the Maple Hill Open that August. With the backing of Gionfriddo, Donahue signed on to sponsor the event and committed to making a golf disc for the event.
Vibram Disc Golf was born.
During the winter of 2008, Dodge called Kevin Donahue Jr. to discuss Vibram sponsoring the event in 2009. Though interested, Vibram needed something more — it needed Dodge to come on board as a consultant for Vibram Disc Golf.
“I was ecstatic and agreed to a one-year consulting gig with Quabaug, who would manage the new Vibram Disc Golf business,” Dodge said.
Nearly a year later, as Dodge’s contract neared its end, he again asked if Vibram wanted to sponsor the 2010 Vibram Open. Again, Quabaug said it would like to continue the relationship, but Dodge would have to sign up to head Vibram Disc Golf as an employee of Quabaug.
“Again, I was ecstatic,” Dodge said. “I felt like I had cleared the last hurdle and Vibram was on board as a disc golf manufacturer.”
For the next 18 months, Dodge said Vibram evaluated disc golf and watched its growth. In October 2011, Vibram USA opted to take over the management of Vibram Disc Golf and Dodge moved to his current position with Vibram USA.
“The support here at Vibram USA has been nothing short of phenomenal,” Dodge said. “A talented group of product designers, the marketing team that launched Vibram FiveFingers, and a very energetic and talented customer service department were ready to support me.
“Since the move to Vibram USA, Vibram disc sales have more than doubled and we look forward to an exciting future as we grow the sport and our footprint in it.”
Breaking into the market
Life isn’t easy trying to break into a market dominated by two big guns — Innova and Discraft. Especially when the company is making rubber discs, instead of the traditional plastic discs.
“I suspect when Mike Gionfriddo stated Quabaug could make a golf disc, he had no idea how persnickety us discers can be,” Dodge said.
The first hurdle was to create a compound that would work well for a disc. Dodge said in order to test the numerous compounds being created, Ala put together a prototype putter mold. The disc was extremely overstable.
Ala ended up trying 66 compounds. Ala and Dodge would feel them, throw them, throw them against walls and determine what was wrong.
The process went on for about four months.
“I quickly learned the Vibram mantra of ‘tested where it matters’ was not just lip service,” Dodge said. “These folks test. And test. And then test some more. The testing is not just in the lab, either. There were days when we would have to go out to the course and throw the discs. At times, it was like being handed a cookie and asking if it was any good. You always answer ‘I can’t tell’ and ask for another one!”
That testing isn’t lost on players who use Vibram discs, either.
“I think Vibram does a better job of putting their discs through a rigorous testing regiment before releasing them to the public,” said Illinois resident Nate Horsley, who carries a variety of Vibram discs. “For example, they released two different configurations of the Lace to testers and gave them a couple of months to test them out and hear what they did and didn’t like about the disc before deciding on a model to send to production.
“I have also been really impressed with the consistency of Vibram’s molds,” he continued. “It’s nice to be able to grab a new disc and know exactly how it’s going to fly before I ever get it out on the course.”
Dodge knew this consistency when he finally felt it.
The day finally came when Ala called Dodge to the lab and handed him a disc. Dodge said it felt great and he didn’t want to put it down. And, he said, he definitely didn’t want to send it into the concrete wall.
“When I did, it had not a mark,” Dodge said. “No warp. No scrape. Nothing. I hucked it into the wall again. And again. And again.
“I was overjoyed,” he continued. “Smack, smack, smack. Nothing. Eventually, after 22 drives into a concrete wall, I was able to make the disc warp — but not scuff — and I took it back to Aaron for analysis.”
The X-Link, Vibram’s flagship disc compound, was born.
“In 2008, I did not know much about the sport of disc golf, except what Aaron Ala, a co-worker and Vibram Chemist, promoted,” Gionfriddo said. “As a ball golfer, I was intrigued by the sport and especially Aaron’s passion for it. We saw an opportunity to expand Vibram’s business to a young, outdoors, eco-friendly demographic, some of whom were already aware of the quality of our (shoe) soles.
“This active, growing, passionate group of people we believed would be receptive to the material and design advantages we could bring to the sport would be a great base for Vibram,” he continued. “In 2008, we dipped our toe in, developing one mold — the Vibram Putter or V.P. — and our X-Link rubber-based material.”
Move ahead a few months to when Dodge heard back from Bob Graham, a professional based in New Jersey. Dodge had given Graham — who would later become the first member of Team Vibram — some sample discs.
“I had stopped off at his house traveling back home from Maine,” Graham said. “We always try to stop in and see Steve when we are in the area. Steve was excited to show us protos. I was just slamming them home on his backyard practice basket. They felt odd, but I had to admit they were going where I wanted them to go.”
Dodge said Graham called him a bit after taking the proto discs, and Graham reported the disc healed itself. Apparently, Graham managed to warp his VP, the first Vibram putter. As the story goes, Graham put the disc on his bedside table, and the next morning he awoke to see the disc showed no signs of damage.
Of course, Dodge had to test this theory out. So he took a warped disc and put it into a microwave for a minute.
“Sure enough, after it cooled down, the damage was gone,” Dodge said. “At that moment, I knew we had something special. We’ve made some missteps, but thanks to the amazing testing philosophy of Vibram, precious few of them have seen the light of day.”
Graham became the first member of Team Vibram, which now includes 14 players. Four of those players — Dana Vicich, Mitch Sonderfan, Vinnie Miller and Ross Brandt — are on the Pinnacle team. The remaining 10 make up the Basecamp team.
“I was happy my friend wanted me on the team, but I thought he should want really good players on the team,” said Graham, a 980-rated player who is also the New Jersey coordinator for the PDGA. “You know, competitive ones. He made it clear he was asking me because of who I am and what I represent as a player and a sportsman. That was awful nice to hear. So I asked him who would be on the team. He said, ‘So far, you.’ I asked him to assure me he would keep a high level of sportsmanship in his selections to the team, and he felt the same way I did on that.”
Growing the brand
With a disc in hand, Vibram now needed to grow.
“It was very slow to start,” Dodge said. “Having only one to three putter models made distribution and buy-in from players and stores very challenging. As our line has expanded, the growth has been phenomenal, with sales more than doubling in both 2011 and 2012.”
Though slow early, it did well enough from 2009-10 so Vibram USA took on disc golf as a division.
The tough part for Vibram was jumping into a market dominated by plastic discs, specifically the two big names in the sport.
It’s an interesting challenge, Dodge said. He noted when the company came out with the FiveFingers shoes, Vibram created a new market now called minimalist running. As that segment has grown, there are many new companies.
“The one thing Vibram has done on the footwear side is to maintain the commitment to quality and performance,” Dodge said. “Those are the things that have always kept the ship straight and I believe customers recognize this and will remain loyal to Vibram shoes in the minimalist running segment.”
Vibram Disc Golf is in the opposite position, as it’s comes into a market that has existed for decades and has been dominated by Innova and Discraft.
“We have a three-pronged strategy — performance, quality and growth, which seems quite simple,” Dodge said. “But if you are not dedicated and looking long-term, it could be easy to stray from.”
That strategy isn’t lost on fans and retailers of the discs.
Justin Anderson, who owns Community Discs, a store based out of Somerville, Mass., said Vibram shares more information with its retailers than other manufacturers.
“No other company sends retail samples to its retailers or free stickers and flight chart and (point-of-purchase) display items with every order,” Anderson said.
Some of the bigger companies don’t let retailers know about new disc offerings until a few days before they are released. Anderson said he was getting information about the Vibram Ibex about nine months before it hit stores.
“Sometimes it’s the same day, but either way, there is almost never advanced notice as to what product is coming,” Anderson said. “This is horrible when your per-disc pricing is based on the number of discs in your current order. Vibram did away with this.”
Anderson said Vibram has it set up so once a store is a Pinnacle retailer (order at lease 100 discs one time and supply the same data when requested), you get the same pricing regardless of order size. That means retailers don’t have to play a waiting game until the new disc is announced.
“Vibram also tries to release each model in X-Link Medium and X-Link Firm very close together, unlike other companies who treat disc launches like hard cover, followed by soft-cover books,” Anderson said.
Many players have seemed to embrace Vibram, too.
Brody Mikel of Bloomington, Illinois, is extremely dedicated and loyal to the brand. In fact, he carries the whole line of discs.
A few months ago, he went so far as to switch entirely to Vibram.
“I had finally spent enough time with all the molds to be comfortable with each one, and I felt I could build a complete bag using just Vibram molds,” he said. “I found molds that cover all the shots I personally need on the course, and thanks to the durability of Vibram discs, I can count on those molds to do what I want for a long time to come. That alone was enough for me to go all Vibram.”
It goes without saying that rubber is a major reason many players use Vibram. It’s unique, and the feel and durability is something they won’t get with other brands.
“It is just flat-out invincible,” said Sgt. Andrew Belet of Fort Carson, Colo. “Especially the softs. There is really no beat-in necessary because it’s almost impossible to do, anyway. On a whim, I threw my Ascent on a hard, skipping line across the parking lot of my local course and there was no visible damage.”
Vibram’s line, to date, includes nine discs. There are four putters (VP, Ridge, Summit and Sole), two mid-ranges (Ibex and Obex), two fairway drivers (Trak and Ascent) and one long-distance driver, the Lace, which is being released to the public today (Nov. 23).
Dodge’s process of coming up with new discs is a grid, he said. There are four distance levels and four stability levels.
“After the development of the putters, we have attacked the center of this grid in the mid-range, fairway and, now, long-range driver (categories),” he said. “After the development of the long-distance driver, you will have to wait to see what comes next. I will tell you the development folks are working on some very exciting projects.”
And there’s nothing more than discs from Vibram.
“From the very start, I was told, ‘Just make discs. Get the discs right and the rest will come,'” Dodge said. “So far, we’re getting the discs right.”
Vibram has also become involved with other aspects of the sport, including being the sponsor of the PDGA’s National Tour and hosting the flagship Vibram Open at Maple Hill each summer. That event is the last stop on the National Tour.
“Disc golf has so much potential for growth that it is critical that everyone involved work together to grow the sport,” Dodge said. “Working with the PDGA to make the National Tour and continue its prestige as the top-tier of the pro tour is critical.”
The Vibram Open has a purse of more than $50,000, and with a high-level course, it attracts most of the top professionals in the sport.
“A flagship event helps drive the brand and the sport forward together, and doing this efficiently is critical to the growth of our sport,” Dodge said. “It is also critical for Vibram Disc Golf because if we were not committed to growing the sport, I would not have agreed to be part of this venture.”
The future is bright, too, with the way Vibram goes about its business. It’s a company that has proven to stand behind its products, which can only help as it continues to grow in the industry.
“I heard about an instance where a guy got a disc that was warped and would not lose its warp no matter what he tried,” Horsley said. “He posted about it on DGCourseReview.com and Steve Dodge sent him a private message to get his shipping info so he could send him a new disc to replace the one that had a manufacturing defect.”
And though Vibram may not be able to satisfy every disc golfer to the same level, the company is certainly committed to trying, as evidenced by where Dodge sees the brand in the future.
“Leading the sport forward through innovation, growing the sport and continuing to build on our commitment to quality and performance,” he said. “It’s actually pretty simple.”
P.J. Harmer is the founder and executive editor for Rattling Chains. E-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.