Game On

TRAVERSE CITY – Lining up his shot from the tee, Brandon Theophilus glances out over the fairway, assesses his target, then pulls back his club. The iron slices through the air, driving the ball through the air and over the undulating fairway in one swift arc. When the ball lands, it's on the green, inches from the flag.

"That was pretty good for my first shot," he says as the large screen before him instantly displays the shot's stats: club head speed, 76 mph; face angle: 5 degrees; swing path, straight; distance, 148 yards.

In reality, Theophilus is standing in the lobby of Dancin' Dogg Golf's Traverse City offices, just above North Peak. In the virtual world, however, he's hundreds of miles away, swinging on a Par 3 at one of this year's PGA Championship courses, the Highlands at the Atlanta Athletic Club. What transported him there? The product that has revolutionized golf gaming: Dancin' Dogg's OptiShot Infrared Golf Simulator.

The system – available for sale in a package not much bigger than a bread box, gives golfers the ability to play stunningly accurate on-screen representations of world-renowned courses without ever leaving home – or in the case of Theophilus, Dancin' Dogg Golf president and CEO, just outside his office door.

Theophilus stands before a 9-foot by 9-foot impact screen, which enables him to fire a real golf ball at the screen. But a huge part of OptiShot Simulator's success is that no giant impact screen is necessary to play; golfers can just as easily use their flat screen TVs and nets to catch the balls.

"That's the cool thing about this product – you can do with it as your space allows," he says.

A plug-and-play interface connects with Windows computers and requires only 8 1/2-feet of swing space. You use your own clubs, and up to four players per round can compete with one another by hitting real balls, foam balls or no ball at all.

While similar technology traditionally runs upward of $30,000, Dancin' Dogg Golf's OptiShot starts at $400.

"Essentially it's everything a golfer needs to get started, to play golf," Theophilus says.

Growing 'crazy fast'

And getting started, they are. Golfers the world over are snapping up Dancin' Dogg Golf's OptiShot Simulator, and the product is being hailed in leading industry media such as GOLF Magazine,Golfweek,Sports Illustratedand The Golf Channel.

Not bad for a company that began out of co-founder Russell Edens' Seattle garage in 2005 and now quietly operates out of offices in TC.

"We have been kind of a best-kept secret in northern Michigan," Edens says.

Best-kept is an understatement, considering the company's staggering growth in the past couple of years. Dancin' Dogg Golf has grown nearly 1000 percent in the past three years, and 2011 sales are expected to "far surpass" the $2.2 million mark of 2010, Theophilus says.

The company recently was named as one of Inc. magazine's 500 fastest growing private companies in the country, a listing announced just days ago. The recognition is exciting news, to be sure, for Dancin' Dogg Golf and for the state of Michigan.

"It's fun to be a growing company in a state that most assume is in really tough shape," Theophilus says.

Most gratifying, however, is the validation customers provide.

"The recognition I like is from the golfer who tells me he's taken his handicap from 16 to 11 – he's improved his game," Edens says. "Those are really the accolades that make me feel really good."

Heavy-hitters in world of golf, like the company's spokesperson Roger Maltbie, are avid users of the OptiShot and its infrared technology.

"I just thought it was a great product, a lot of fun, and I could see some really good uses for it," says Maltbie, on-course reporter and analyst for NBC.

The OptiShot's low cost also impressed Maltbie, who has used the golf simulators that cost tens of thousands of dollars.

"It's a great value, and its greatest allure is to people who live in the Midwest and northeast who experience winter and there's no golf to play. This gives them a chance to play golf and have fun in the winter."

Seattle software gurus & golfers

So how did it all start? Edens remembers realizing he'd found a great friend – and eventual business partner – soon after meeting Kurt Grafius in the mid-1990s at a Seattle start-up company.

"We started at this company at the same time, and when I went into the office, he was the only other person in at eight o'clock," Edens says. "We found out we both like to ski and both like to golf."

The friends, both software writers, found they complemented each other well in their business ideas and execution.

"Really, we have been doing this together since 1996," Edens says of coming up with the product that would eventually become OptiShot. "Every major thing we've built, we've built together. It's certainly a lot easier to have two of us to bounce ideas off each other … I would see something and I could explain it to Kurt, I could get it going and he could basically keep it going. I like the details at the beginning when it's abstract, then he picks it up and cleans it up and makes it look good."

"There's a tandem about it. He's more practical than I am," Edens says.

The idea of a simulation golf game stemmed in part from Seattle's notorious rain – a weather condition that drives even the most ardent golfer indoors. Edens, who would take several breaks throughout his workday to hit 10 to 15 balls in his garage, began thinking of ways to play the game year-round, from the comforts of home and without a gigantic price tag.

"I created the product because of my love of the game and to be able to play it well," he says. "It takes practice to play it well."

His first prototypes: made from cutting boards. Edens says his dad helped him route out spots for the hardware inside the boards. "It looked Frankenstein-ish," he says, laughing at the memory.

It also apparently looked a little too much like a bomb, as he discovered during a trip from Traverse City back to Seattle in late 2005.

"I got stopped at the airport, and I didn't even have business cards at the time," he says. "I missed my flight and was held in a little room at the airport."

After explaining his product, Edens was able to board the flight – only to be delayed on his second leg of the trip because the plane from Detroit to Seattle was held as security paperwork on his product went through.

"I was sitting there (on the plane) and everyone around me was getting mad," he says. "I kept thinking, 'Please don't say it's me that's holding everything up.'"

Edens and Grafius kept tinkering with the prototypes, and by March of 2006 had the product ready for introduction at the Seattle Golf Show on St. Patrick's Day.

"We sold almost everything we brought with us," Edens says. "There was just a crowd around the booth. That was the moment we thought, 'This is going to work.'"

As for the company's name? It comes from a legend out of St. Andrew's, Scotland – home of the game of golf. The story goes that there was a pub where a three-legged dog resided. As the locals sang and drank around a piano, the dog would begin to dance.

The next big thing

Several years into making and selling the OptiShot Simulator, Dancin' Dogg Golf found itself at a bit of a crossroads. Its product solid, the company lacked a marketing strategy.

"We had been at it for a long time, we were close to using up all the resources we had – we were fortunate to have the resources to self fund it," says Grafius, 51. "At times, you think, how long can we keep doing this? But we always said there are a lot of companies that get to that point and fold it in. But if they'd just keep going the next three months, six months, and get over that hump … it gives you new life, sales increases. We just kept at it."

A turning point for the pair came when they hired Theophilus, a former collegiate golf player whose background isn't in software development, but rather, running successful businesses.

"Really through a stroke of luck we found Brandon," Grafius says. "We brought him on board and it's kind of liked we recharged the company."

Theophilus has his own favorite turning point for the company: meeting with top executives of a leading sporting company in Texas, and having them love the product and ask how Dancin' Dogg Golf planned to get the word out about it.

"Their question was, 'How are you going to tell the world about this and get on the Golf Channel?'" he says.

At the time, they'd been contemplating traditional 30- and 60-second media spots. But soon they were exploring doing a daytime infomercial on the Golf Channel, which is seen in some 80 million homes. This is when Dancin' Dogg Golf secured Maltbie as product spokesperson.

"For those in the golf industry, he's a very well-known person. I'd always admired his work," Theophilus says.

Having a seasoned golf pro and analyst – and someone who is not too young – also was important to Dancin' Dogg Golf given the technology behind OptiShot.

"My fear was if we had someone who is young, we would likely turn away or scare away a whole class of folks who can very easily use our product," he says.

The infomercial aired in October 2010, helping launch Dancin' Dogg Golf's phenomenal growth and media attention.

Since then, one especially memorable moment in the company's history: showing the product to a former United States president.

"The most surreal moment was standing down in Dallas, in front of George W. Bush, playing golf together in his office," Edens says. "Here I am, really hanging out with the former president, talking with him about what it was like to be president. It doesn't matter what your politics are, standing in front of a former president … it was an experience I was really glad to have."

And yes, Bush bought the OptiShot Simulator. "He was literally like a kid on the product, having a blast on it," Edens says.

From a former leader of the free world to golf pros and anyone else who simply loves the game, Dancin' Dogg Golf is looking forward to continually improving upon its product – and creating new ones.

"We're always listening to our customers," Grafius says. "How can we improve our product so it's still a great value? And we've got other product ideas in the works, so we're not just a one-product company."

A new series of commercial spots are in the works, Theophilus adds, as are new upgrades and releases specific to the OptiShot Simulator.

"We never sit still, we're always developing and improving the software," he says, "to make the experience for golfers better." BN

The OptiShot Simulator is sold at Amazon.com, Dick's Sporting Goods, Golfsmith and several other retailers. Learn more about the product and company at OptiShotGolf.com or DancinDogg.com.

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