How Two Young Golfing Buddies Grew To Dominate The At-Home Golf Industry

Rain or Shine Golf, a retailer and manufacturer of equipment and accessories for at-home golf, has become dominant in its space since it was founded in 2016, growing 150% year over year since its inception. [Data is self-reported.]

The two founders and co-owners, Zach Vandervelt and Shawn Foley (both age 29), are old high school golfing teammates who reconnected after college and realized they were both hungry for an entrepreneurial adventure. Foley in particular was unfulfilled, working in insurance as an underwriter on cyber security and “not feeling challenged or stimulated, to put it mildly.”  

Vandervelt was having a bit more fun with some fledgling eCommerce projects, though he didn’t really have the hang of it, he freely confesses now. “My most wildly off-the-mark effort was a bean bag chair business. Nothing against bean bags, except: What is a central part of eCommerce? Shipping. That’s right.  And is there anything heavier and more awkward to ship than a bean bag chair?”

They brainstormed “at least fifty” ideas for a business, but kept returning to their first impulse, indoor putting greens, which evolved into a more general focus on at-home golfing. “We ultimately discarded the other 49 ideas,” Vandervelt tells me, and “focused on the one that truly interested us, because it was within the world of golf.” (It has since surprised them, Foley tells me, “how little golf is involved in what we do day to day. The big work for us has been learning to grow a business, which was a whole new world to us, from the financial scorekeeping and forecasting to the product strategy and marketing aspects to logistics and HR. But it does make the nitty gritty work more fun when we’re able to take a moment to gain perspective on how big golf is in the world and how we are having greater impact than just being two of the tens of millions that play this crazy sport.”)

The two co-founders have a naturally easy relationship, but have chosen to divide their responsibilities somewhat formally. “From the beginning,” says Vandervelt, the way we’ve split our roles is: I take on more of the strategy, in e-commerce, marketing, and growth. And Shawn’s more focused on operations, sales, customer service, and product development. I think we’re both rather analytical people, but Shawn is more so, and I may be slightly more the ‘strategic dreamer’.”

One thing they agreed on early was that they wanted a “connected” business in the sense of having all their operations under one roof, which they’ve achieved in spades, housing their customer service and sales teams, warehouse, shipping, and product development at a single location in Charlotte, with much of their custom manufacturing being done within the state as well. This proximity has fed one of Rain or Shine’s advantages: unlike some competitors, Rain or Shine ships many of its products direct-to-consumer from its own dock rather than having them drop-shipped from elsewhere. This allows Rain or Shine’s team to perform QC inspections as well as reduce the number of boxes a customer receives compared to what they’d find on their doorstep if the units were individually shipped directly from the manufacturing plant. 

Foley and Vandervelt have also tried to keep a close ear on customer feedback, collecting it and using it in product design and refinement.  “Our custom turf product is an example of this. It’s a direct response to the dissatisfaction we recognized in the market. The two [existing] market leaders in turf were far from ideal, either too soft or too thick; neither of them giving a good feeling when you hit down into the turf. So we set out on a project to design our own specs for what we felt the best simulation of real grass would be.” In the end, they devoted nearly six months to experimentation and refinement, ultimately creating a product they call SwingTurf, “which we—and our customers—are very happy with. [Disclosure: I have given them assistance in improving their customer service.]

The pandemic amplified everything

As the pandemic changed consumer behavior, beginning early in 2020, the effect on Rain or Shine was immediate. “From a demand standpoint, we’ve had our minds completely blown by how that’s increased during the pandemic,” says Foley. “With everybody on lockdown, golf emerged as one of the few activities you could still do [at home] while everything outside your door was shut down. Pair this with the eCommerce boom, and we were in a very sweet spot on the demand side.” The tricky aspect of this has been twofold: trying to not disappoint that influx of customers due to supply chain delays and interruptions; although almost all of Rain or Shine’s manufacturing is done in the U.S., it’s still experienced quite a few supply, manufacturing, and transportation-spawned delays. The other challenge was to rapidly grow their business on the employee side. “We’re two young guys learning the business ropes as quickly as we can,” says Foley, “and we found ourselves suddenly responsible for more than a dozen humans, learning to manage human emotions during uncertainty…it’s not easy, but it’s essential.”

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I was curious whether, when these challenges weigh him down, Foley ever gets the hankering to return to the world of insurance underwriting. “Oh, no. Not even slightly,” he says with a laugh. “I feel so engaged here every day—engaged with design challenges, with employees, with customers.” And, Vandervelt chimed in, “I don’t ever want to see another bean bag, not even a single bean, if I can avoid it. And, on that front, So far, so good.”

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