In this episode, we meet Ali Terai, Founder & CEO of Future Golf on turning lemons into lemonade, business gestation and value exchange.
Ali founded Future Golf, a passion-driven business launched with less than $200 and a Facebook post, which is now one of Australia’s fastest-growing startups
If that’s not enough, Ali has founded and launched a wallet, travel blog, pop-up burger restaurant, pub-crawl company, professional preparation program and number of smaller golf ventures.
He was a winner at the 2019 Telstra Business Awards and has been nominated for various other awards.
In this episode we talk about:
- How an eager young Ali found a loophole in the system of selling The AFL’s matchday program, The Record, and how he “turned lemons into lemonade”;
- How he has built passion-based businesses and loves speaking to young people about transformation;
- Why he spent a long time on the sidelines waiting for the businesses to gestate before jumping in full-time; and
- The value-exchange business models he has devised and how they have evolved.
Connecting with Ali Terai
Books and resources mentioned in the episode
- A Little Penguin’s Guide to Life – by Ali Terai
- The Lean Startup – by Eric Ries
- The E-Myth Contractor – by Michael Gerber
- The 4-Hour Workweek – by Tim Ferriss
“So, the first shift I would have made $3.00. I was losing money going to work as a 12-year old. And then I had this idea. I’d stop the players as they’re entering and got them to autograph the programs. And then I would sneak into the elevator and take the signed Records and go into the corporate boxes and I’d start selling them for about $20, $30.”
On the evolution of his business
- When you’re playing the employee role, there’s quite a bit of risk there, even though a lot of people think that it’s the safer option. But usually one person dictates your economic security.
- The progression level, it gets tighter at the top. And I could see that happening. And being someone that was kind of creative and a little bit out there, working in a structured environment like that, I probably wasn’t going to be able to learn and explore everything that I wanted to do.
- So at that point, I was weighing up to do an MBA or do I go and try something a little bit different that’s more aligned to my passion? And that’s exactly what GenYgolf was. And I think at that point, over a three to four month period, I’d written out 40 or 50 different Post-It-Notes. And the actual week that I started GenYgolf at the time, I also started a pub crawl company. So, I’m like starting one business should be fine, why don’t we start two and then just see what happens?
On starting a passion-based business
- And golf was the one that made the most sense, because it was passion aligned. I knew that even if it didn’t do anything that resembled success, it would have been a success internally, just because it’s golf.
- There weren’t expectations that it was ever going to be a business or be anything big. It was purely a passion project. That was going to be the education. And then even for the first three years it was like, “Well, GenYgolf, Future Golf, is the thing that we do to learn how to do business and then we’re going to start a real business.”
- If you could align purpose and passion and your interest with what you’re doing, it doesn’t feel like work.
On the business gestation period
- We only went full-time a year ago. So, for the first three, four years, for the most part of our journey, it’s been run by volunteers. I think probably fear stopped me from doing it earlier. You know, the risk. And I know a lot of people do that and credit to them, where they just say, “I’m quitting my job and I’m going to go into it.”
- But I think just from what I’ve seen with business is that there is a gestation period. There’s no such thing as an overnight success. And especially that first 12 to 24 months. That’s the learning process. Like you literally don’t know what you’re doing. You’re learning the basics. You’re learning about marketing. And you don’t have the brand equity. You don’t have the relationships built up and your ecosystem. We were coming in cold into the golf industry. I didn’t have any relationships with general managers or with golf clubs. So, it was all very, very new. And it needed that time for it to validate itself.
- The way we went about it was actually quite conservative. Where we measured the steps and the moves, trying to limit our risk. Like I never wanted to be in a position where I’d hire three or four people and we couldn’t afford it.
- There’s a lot of research now in the number of touchpoints people need to make before they’ll even buy from you. And I think it’s somewhere like 35 and it’s getting higher and higher every year. It used to be like four or five 20 years ago.
- I’ve started probably eight or nine things now over the last four or five years. And the reality is most will fail. So it’s kind of that paradox. It sits somewhere between being a failure or not giving it enough time and effort. And that’s that beautiful grey area in everything, in life, where you don’t know how close you are for something to succeed.
- I would love to sit here and say that as CEO and founder, it was all just a brilliant idea and it was perfect, but that’s just rubbish. You know, it’s so off the mark. Because it’s taken hundreds of people for us to get to this point that we’re at now.
On redefining the golf industry
- So, the big challenge was how do you turn golf, which is still an amazingly solid product globally all over the world, into something where people are still loving it once they try it. How do you turn that into something that is relevant, enjoyable, flexible and accessible for the younger generation?
- And then what that will do is it will provide an influx of newer people into the golf ecosystem. And there’s things like Top Golf at the moment, there’s things like Holey Moley, there’s golf simulators coming in. So, more and more people are actually picking up a golf club.
- All we need to do now is just put them through that pathway. So that we can start getting them into this golfing space. And then eventually they’ll get to the point where they want to play nine holes or 18 holes.
- The whole core of Future Golf’s business model was written on a Post-It-Note. I’d had a shower and I’d hopped out of the shower and I wrote it on a little Post-It-Note. And at the top of it, it said, “Can we get a golf handicap? See if we can get a few free rounds, play some golf with mates and younger golf community.”
- There’s such a great legacy in golf, like hundreds of years of tradition.It’s amazing that people have designed these courses, created these clubs and these communities. And we don’t want to get rid of the traditional aspects of golf. So a big part of what we’re doing is about future sustainability. I think it will be such a missed opportunity if we started seeing all these amazing golf courses turn into housing estates or being sold off. Because the product is phenomenal. The only thing that’s missing there is just getting more people through the doors.
On being told the idea won’t work
- There’s a moment where famously we went out to one of the really respected industry leaders and we told him about the concept and he was just like, “Ali, this is by far the stupidest idea that I’ve ever heard. If you guys are around in three months’ time, I’ll eat my hat. No, I’m not going to partner with you. It’s never going to work. People have tried stuff like this before. And it just fails.”
- Everything logical is telling you that this isn’t working at that moment. And I think building that muscle to keep persisting in the light of all logic was a really big challenge. Especially when you’re trying to get other people that are volunteering their time to jump onto this vision.
- Then you’re weighing it up and you’re balancing family and you’re doing all those bits and pieces. It’s at that moment where you start thinking, “Okay, is this the right decision?”
On escaping the rat race
- In a corporate environment or in a more traditional job, that becomes a huge thing. If you can’t share your ideas and your innovations, the growth is limited because someone’s trying to protect an established way of thinking. I think that’s where you have to start questioning whether that’s the right position for you. Like, are you in the right seat with the right organisation?
- I love when you hear stories of Google and Apple and all these tech startups around how, generally speaking, innovation and entrepreneurship are promoted. And I think more and more companies are doing that.
- If you’re in an environment where you just can’t foresee any growth and everything that you put out there is being hampered, it just might mean that your time and your value within that organisation is maybe coming close to the end. And then you either need to move sideways or you need to look externally or upwards.
- I think we get sucked in sometimes by the security. You know, the golden handcuffs that, “I’m in this great corporate job,” or, “I’ve got this thing, I’ve got my mortgage.” And it gets more difficult to take that risk. And people then sit there 5 or 10 years later.
On communication and perception
- My mentor always talks about people that are really good technically; they could be the best in the world technically, they could be a 10. But they can only communicate that to a 7. They’ll always be perceived as a 7.
- That’s such a powerful concept. That in this world, now, when you’re speaking to executives, you have to be able to communicate that effectively. It’s communicating your value.
On the value exchange business model
- I bootstrapped the business and I didn’t have millions of dollars sitting there to kick this thing off, so that way the financial downside was always limited. And that’s where I started exploring subscription models and online digital products. I started a basic website. And my background was always through creating value through negotiation in partnerships. So, it was how do we combine all of this?
- All we’re doing is just facilitating that value exchange. And when you’ve got a model like that, where you essentially don’t have to touch it, and the product and the community look after each other, I think there’s something special in that.
- We’re seeing that globally right now. Like there’s so many partnership-driven movements. And you can just create more value through partnership when you don’t have a large number of resources. One plus one equals five.
- It’s quite difficult for golf clubs to differentiate themselves. So the way for them to separate themselves, and I think for our industry to really thrive going forward, is through partnerships. It’s through working together.
Final message of wisdom and hope for future leaders
- Keep learning, and just keep taking action, even if it’s imperfect.
- I think that’s what life is. It’s about growth. There’s an old cliché, “If you’re not growing, you’re dying” I’m just a big believer in that.
- You’ve got podcasts, books. There are so many opportunities for really rich learning experiences. And I just really hope that society in the future of the workforce continues to do that. Just because you’ve finished university, it’s no excuse to stop learning.