Mark Button couldn’t take it anymore.
After stints at Altria and as a legal recruiter, the 33-year-old lawyer and Richmond native found himself daydreaming about the golf course and a fishing boat.
Although not quite desperate enough to pull a Jerry McGuire, Button had in the back of his mind an idea he and a college buddy came up with about a year ago.
So he quit his job and started a business that was born some place between the links and the open water.
They call it Salty Grips: golf putter grips made from cork and fashioned after the cork grip on fishing rods. Button says they are lighter than traditional putter grips but also attempt to conjure the laid-back feeling of fishing for when you need to find your “happy place” while lining up a tricky putt.
The fledgling business this month received a patent for its product. Button has been peddling the grips at Richmond golf courses and country clubs and now he and his partner, Richmond native and Tampa resident Whitfield Flowers, 34, are figuring out where it goes from here.
BizSense talked with Button last week.
Below is an edited transcript.
Richmond BizSense: Where’d the idea come from?
Mark Button: Whit and I had been talking about the fact that we hated our jobs and sitting at our desks. I thought one day it would be cool to have fishing rod-inspired grips on clubs, specifically putters. One of my problems in golf is that I get anxious on the green. I get negative. When we’re all most relaxed is when we’re on a boat and doing some fishing. It’s a mental approach. We want to help people take their head out of the putting stroke.
RBS: Are you one of those people who comes up with ideas all the time for inventions or businesses but never really takes them any further?
MB: I’m definitely one of those people and have done it a million times.
RBS: So why was this the one?
MB: This one had the perfect combination of feasibility. There’s a reasonably low investment, and I was interested in it.
RBS: How’d you break it to your employer [Special Counsel] that you were leaving to make a go of it?
MB: I left on really good terms. I said that I’m going to give this a shot and that I’m going to go into another field if this doesn’t work out. Law has been kind of a square peg/round hole sort of thing for me. So it was time to stop banging my head against the wall.
RBS: Beside the tops of wine bottles, where does cork come from?
MB: Most of the cork in the world comes from Portugal. It’s grown on cork trees in the Mediterranean. Each tree has to grow for 18 to 20, years and you can harvest the bark every nine years. The bark is what we know as cork.
RBS: Other than reminding you of fishing, does cork really serve as a good alternative for putter grips?
MB: There’s nothing quite like cork. You can squeeze it, and it regains its form. It’s heat and cold resistant. It’s green — it’s sustainable and comes from a renewable resource. It’s a lot lighter than rubber.
MB: It’s salty, like saltwater. It took forever to think of a name. I don’t know that we’re ever happy with a name.
RBS: What has it taken to take to make this a business?
MB: It took a lot of R&D that’s still ongoing. We had to figure things out like coating, cork sealant, shaving them down for the right sizes and textures. Then we got lines of credit with the overseas suppliers. It’s not that expensive to get it up and running.
RBS: Where’d the money come from to get it up and running? Are you looking for more capital or investors?
MB: Right now we’re handling it ourselves. We’ve put in probably collectively about $15,000. We can also probably secure from some family friends. I’m not sure we’ll show up on Shark Tank.
RBS: How competitive is the putter grip industry?
MB: Our competition is other oversize grips, like Super Strokes, that range from $12 to $25. There’s also a website called Corkygolf. We found the website after the fact. It seems we both thought of it independently. We want to limit it to putters.
RBS: Who’s your target customer?
MB: It’s a premium product for sure. This isn’t as cheap as your typical golf grip. Leather grips sell for around $40 to $50. We’ll retail probably for $30.
I want to find out who’s most interested, and based on that we’ll know how best to market it. If it’s a bunch of private school kids that go to country clubs, we’ll do that. But if it’s river folks who love fishing, we’ll do that, too.
RBS: How else will you reach customers starting out, besides through the website?
MB: We’re going to go around to country clubs and get their logos etched into the corks and do distribution through their pro shops. We’ll also do shirts, hats and visors. We can take the logo as far as it’ll go.
RBS: It sounds like the kind of product that you could license to a big a golf company. Is that part of the plan?
MB: If that opportunity presented itself. I don’t want to say I’d jump at it, but I’d be willing to listen. We want to own our own business, so it depends on what’s best for the product and what kind of interest we retain.
RBS: How close are you to fully launching it?
MB: As soon as we finish the website. We have a couple hundred grips on hand already. I sold a couple this week. We’ll make them fully available soon. We may consider switching suppliers.