By Steve Hill – Rattling Chains staff
After spending most of his life working in marketing and advertising, which included producing commercials and an ill-fated anti-hangover beverage, Aaron Martin said he realized he needed to branch out on his own.
“I got tired of making other businesses money,” he said. “So that’s why I started going into business for myself.”
As a longtime member of the Omaha, Nebraska disc golf scene and a former player for Team Discraft, Martin has watched the sport grow to its current level, bringing both new players and business opportunities to the table. But he has also witnessed firsthand the wear and tear associated with the sport’s boom.
“After playing a lot of courses all over the country, I saw a lot of erosion and trash, and a lot of things that needed to be updated,” Martin said. “That was part of the problem, so I sought out to find a solution.”
That solution has manifested in the form of TeeBoxx, the automated disc golf retail center and accompanying business Martin and his partners have pioneered.
More than a machine
The story of TeeBoxx is nearly five years in the making. Recognizing that most of the money coming through disc golf was associated with retail, Martin – who now serves as the company’s chief marketing officer – and his partners decided that an automated machine was the best way to offer something new.
“Disc golf has been something that I’ve really wanted to be a part of and somehow figure out a sustainable business through it,” he said.
At its most basic level, TeeBoxx is a vending machine much like those that dispense candy and other snacks. With the familiar spinning coils holding discs in place and a keypad used to make a selection, the mechanism is one most people should be familiar with.
On the superficial level, though, is where TeeBoxx’s similarity to other vending machines ends.
From software and security to the company’s cultivation of community partnerships and course revitalization efforts, the product strives to be more than just a disc dispenser.
Right place, right time
But before the first TeeBoxx could get in the ground, disc golf and technology had to evolve to the point of making an automated retail venture possible.
“If this was ten years ago, we wouldn’t have been able to pull this off,” Martin said. “It has to do with the timing of the technology of the machinery and the manufacturers in the United States at least, then also the timing of where the sport is. All of that kind of came together and we started moving forward.”
But creating a vending machine for discs, Martin said, was not as simple as it would appear. In fact, the task of marrying disc dispensing, durability, and weather-resistance required an engineering team to be hired, as snack-style units were not up to the task.
“We did a bunch of testing with existing machines,” Martin said. “We tried existing stuff out there first to see if it would work out, and surprisingly it didn’t at all. You would think that machines are set up to be able to vend different sizes of things, but we basically had to customize the whole interior and then we had to develop solutions for security.”
Those solutions include a quarter-inch polycarbonate surface over the disc viewing area, as well as an armor shell that encloses the machine. Pillars are also cemented into the ground surrounding the TeeBoxx so a would-be thief can’t simply attach a chain to the machine and drive away.
“I’ve literally tried to smash it open here in Omaha with hammers and crowbars and all that stuff,” Martin said. “So that’s pretty secure in itself.”
But in addition to the physical strength of the unit, TeeBoxx was also created with numerous technological safeguards, such as an alarm and an automated network that will send an alert if someone is shaking the machine.
Martin said all of this was done in an effort to put TeeBoxx’s security on par with that of a safe.
“How they rate safes is, ‘How much time does it take a safe cracker to get into it?’” Martin said. “We based it on the same guidelines. …We figure it’ll take a person with the appropriate tools hours to even get to the point where they can get into the machine.”
And even if that were to happen, the thief would only be walking away with stacks of discs, as TeeBoxx uses a credit-card only format to make sure cash doesn’t serve as a temptation.
There is a lot more that has gone into TeeBoxx than just making it secure, though. Vast amounts of market analysis and research have been used to yield Martin and his partners a “Top 100” list of parks and courses they will target as TeeBoxx locations. From there, the company will pitch its profit-sharing model to government decision makers and local disc golf club officers in the hopes that they can put a unit behind Hole No. 1 of the desired course.
“If you’re in that Top 100, we call the park and we say, ‘Hey, we’re going to pay for this machine to go into your park and we’re going to give you a percentage of the profits,’” Martin said.
Deeming the amount of sharing an “appropriate split” to sustain the business while also making it appealing to communities, Martin said the intention is for city officials to use their portion of the profits as a “revitalization fund” to funnel resources back into the park where the machine is located.
“The whole idea is that, when the TeeBoxx goes in there and the sales are there, hopefully it’ll revitalize the course,” Martin said.
With the target list in mind, it is up to people like Ross Brandt, TeeBoxx’s community development director, to do the heavy lifting by pitching the concept to decision makers at the local government level.
And while nobody at TeeBoxx can tell a city what it can or cannot do with the money a partnership would generate, Brandt strikes a balance by pointing out that putting the profits back into the disc golf courses will keep the revenue flowing.
“That’s the idea behind it,” Brandt said. “You want to invest back into the park that made you money so that in the short term or long term that brings in more players, more people purchasing our product, and in return a greater revenue for the city. It’s cyclical in nature, and that’s how we try to structure it or portray that for cities.”
Brandt, who boasts a master’s degree in urban and regional planning, also calls on his experience in the field to speak a common language with officials that makes them more comfortable and willing to listen.
“Once you start speaking their language, then they know that you’re of the same breed,” Brandt said. “Then they trust you because you’ve gone through the same experience or educational experiences they have.”
The same concept applied to Martin’s approach to the local disc golf club in Miami, home of the first TeeBoxx.
“It was just like going to a tournament,” Martin said. “We went there, played leagues, met everybody … and they got to put a face to the business and we got to tell them what our goals are and what our visions are.”
Awareness and competition
The first — and currently only — TeeBoxx resides at Kendall Indian Hammocks Park in Miami. Installed earlier this year, the ‘Boxx thus far has been a success, according to TeeBoxx sales director and Miami Disc Golf Association president George Alvarez.
Located at the main office of the park in between four softball fields, Alvarez said he has witnessed both novice and veteran players testing out the machine.
“We’re getting a lot of newer players playing and buying from the TeeBoxx,” Alvarez said. “Some of the older, more experienced players, they’re also buying from the TeeBoxx, which were weren’t sure was going to happen but which is great.”
The proximity to other sports has also been an advantage for sales and has created awareness of disc golf.
“A lot of softball players see these guys walking around with discs in their bags and they don’t know what it is,” Alvarez said. “So when they see the TeeBoxx and guys buying from the TeeBoxx there, it all makes sense to them. … I met a few softball players who have jumped on board with disc golf just because of TeeBoxx.”
In fact, aside from one club turning the company down, Martin said the reception to TeeBoxx so far has been overwhelmingly positive.
And even when there is concern from local businesses about competition, Martin said the company’s target market is not going to take away from others.
“We’re targeting a spontaneous buyer or recreational player that currently goes into gas stations and buys blindly,” Martin said. “We’re going to provide a resource where it actually gives them some information in an easy and simple way.”
That information is displayed on the side of the TeeBoxx under categories that correlate to experience level, as Martin said he doesn’t want the product to be complicated for new players. All of the discs are top sellers, range in price from $9.99 to $18.99, and weigh between 170-180 grams.
“I remember when I stepped up to buy my first disc,” he said. “It was at a gas station, and there were no flow charts or any of that stuff. I just bought whatever I thought looked good.”
Then, Alvarez said, once new players have been hooked on the sport by their TeeBoxx purchase, they can go to other existing retailers to refine their selections.
“The guys that are selling out of the trunk of their car, they’re still doing that. It’s fine,” he said. “Everybody can still stay in the market. We’re not really running anybody out. … TeeBoxx is giving players a lot of selections, but it may not give them all the selections they’re looking for, so they have to go to a bigger store to get what they truly want.”
While TeeBoxx has only produced one machine so far, the company plans to roll out at least 30 this year, with the next units to start appearing within six weeks in mostly southern states.
With its presence set to expand, Martin said he is hoping that TeeBoxx can help to bring more money to disc golf courses and keep parks in shape for the future.
“If all the money coming through disc golf is at the gas station across the street and the park is becoming eroded and there is trash all over the ground, the signs need to be updated — that just doesn’t make sense to me,” he said.
And while TeeBoxx is a business venture, Martin said that, if it is successful, even more will come back to the local disc golf scene.
“We also want to be a community kiosk,” he said. “If the sales are good and we can afford it, we’re going to add wi-fi to the machines. We’re going to add a community message board and give the keys to the club. We’re going to add a water fountain if we can. We’ve got an engineered addition to the machine right now for a lost and found drop box. We really want to engage the community as much as we can and help the park.”
All of this is an effort to make TeeBoxx another vehicle through which disc golf can prosper.
“We hold to our core values, which is that we’re trying to build the sport and it’s not necessarily about competing with sales,” Martin said. “It’s about building the sport.”
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Steve Hill is the associate editor for Rattling Chains. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @OneMileMore.