While lots of golfers are certainly upping their style game on the course, the same can’t always be said about their tools of the trade. That’s because upgrading a set of clubs can be very expensive, which may make the woods, irons, and putters that golfers are carrying around in their bags right now seem out of date. And then there’s the cost-benefit analysis to consider. Since more than two-thirds of golfers can’t break 90, how many strokes will clubs with the latest technological advancements really knock off their scores? So, what’s the average golfer to do if they want to improve their clubs, but also don’t want to break the bank? Luckily, Stix Golf has come up with a solution for that very problem by making modern, high-quality golf clubs at a fair price.
Gabe Coyne, Co-Founder and CEO of Stix Golf, took time out of his busy schedule to chat with MuscleTech.com about how Stix Golf has been able to challenge the current culture of over-priced equipment, why he, as CEO, makes time to do customer interviews, and how Stix gear can help golfers perform better. He also shares ways that fitness enthusiasts can make the game of golf their own, as well as tips to get a more strenuous workout in while golfing.
Q: Golf is an expensive sport, especially if you’re only starting out or are looking to get back into the game and need a new set of clubs. Why was it so important for Stix Golf to challenge the current culture of over-priced equipment and create a premium quality product at a mid-range price point?
A: “It just seemed like time. Dollar Shave Club did it for razors, and Casper did it to mattresses. This is the age of the B2C (business-to-consumer) disruptor. It’s not like I’m the first person who probably ever thought this, but we tripped into the space and there didn’t seem to be a leader. So, we went for it.
Why is it so important? I guess the answer to that is the demand is there, and that’s just what we keep proving over and over. Whether or not people were asking for this? I don’t know if people were asking for this to the big brands, saying like, ‘Hey guys, give me something cheaper.’ You know, 2nd Swing is a very successful second-hand brand because that kind of has been your option. The industry was basically like, ‘Get your starter set for cheap, buy the expensive stuff, or we don’t care – go buy used.’
The big brands basically focused on the richest five million golfers. They just convinced them to buy new crap every year, convincing them that it’s light-years ahead of last year, which is just not even close to true for the last decade. There have been significant advancements over time, but we’re kind of to the edge of that. USGA limitations don’t allow to push it any further. So really, every new iteration is just about the weight being a little different. And honestly, shaft technology is probably the most important tech involved these days. So, I think it was important for Stix to do this because there’s so many people like you and me.”
Q: Stix Golf’s high-quality clubs are made with precision finishes and premium materials, including titanium, stainless steel, and graphite. Can you take us through the process of creating these clubs? And why were these specific materials chosen?
A: “Early on in the Stix story, we did a lot of demand testing and validation testing. Once we validated, ‘Do people like the design and the price?’ we figured out that people really wanted black. And then we went on to say, ‘OK, we’ve got to vet manufactures and figure out the costs of these things. And then we have to figure out if people care about the quality.’
So, we ran a demand test where we said, ‘Listen, we can give you this price for titanium, stainless steel, and graphite. Or, we can give you half the price for aluminum, zinc, and steel shafts.’ It was actually split fifty-fifty surprisingly enough. Half the people actually didn’t even give a crap that it was good quality. But we said, ‘If we’re going to build a brand, we’re going to go for the fifty percent for quality. If we build garbage products, it’s not going to be good long-term for the brand.’ So, we decided to go with high-quality materials.
Those materials kind of evolved as we tried to find, ‘What’s the best quality we can give people at this price point?’ Honestly, we didn’t really have to cut any corners. You can just go get the best stuff and you still can make decent margins. Titanium is just what you have to do for drivers. We’ve come to learn there’s actually quite the range in titanium. There isn’t just titanium. So, we use Beta titanium, which is actually the highest-end titanium. We use a 17-4 stainless steel for the woods, which is kind of standard for that type of club, and then a 431 stainless steel for irons. From what we’ve learned, it’s a smoother feel and more forgiving.
Designing for this casual golfer, or like mid-handicap golfer, everything is aimed at forgiveness. We’re not aimed at advancing technology. We’re just like, ‘What’s the most forgiving for really 80 percent of golfers?’ There’s still probably a place for a beginner set and the high-end sets, but honestly probably 80 percent of golfers are good with Stix. And we try to make that accessible with heights and flexes to meet as much of that as we can. You can get a little more oomph out of the graphite shaft. We’ve got tons of customer reviews that are like, ‘Wasn’t sure what to think about graphite, but I’m hitting the ball ten yards farther.’ Rick Shiels even has a video about the fact that he uses graphite shafts.”
Q: Stix clubs are also really cool with their minimal design and black-on-black finish. Can you talk a little bit about the finish?
A: “We started with a PVD finish for the black clubs. Industry-wide that’s pretty standard, but to be expected industry-wide, it’s not perfect. It does wear with time. Your clubs won’t be perfectly black forever. But we have gotten mixed feedback on that and want to make it as good as we can for our customers. So, on the V2 we recently upgraded to a DLC finish, which you will only find on the most expensive clubs in golf. You know, you’re going to have to spend twenty-five hundred bucks at least to be talking about DLC. And now that’s standard with the full 14-piece Stix set for $799. You get DLC on all the irons and wedges.”
Q: Is Stix goal to be able to offer the same tech and sleek design as more expensive brands, but at an affordable price?
A: “Our goal has always been to produce the best quality that we can at this mid-price point – a full set under one-thousand bucks. So, that’s how we designed it. Forgiveness and best-quality at this mid-price point. That’s the goal.”
Q: That’s pretty impressive that you, as the CEO, are actually listening to customer feedback and then using that feedback to improve your product. Can you talk a little about your company’s relationship to the golfers who are actually using Stix?
A: “Our customers are a big deal to us, and data is a big deal for us. We learned as much as we could before we started this. We launched in September, and then we launched V2 last month. So, seven months into selling, we actually produced a new set. When most club manufactures launch a new set, they’re like, ‘Hey, let’s launch a new set so we can just sell more crap to the same people. For us, it was, ‘Let’s listen and make this better.’
I mean, Rick Shiels’ review said a bunch of things. We fixed it all. He was like, ‘Hey, it’s a 12-piece set. That’s not a full set. 14 is a full set.’ We made a 14-piece set. He said, ‘This would be really nice if it came with headcovers and a bag.’ We made headcovers and a bag. He hit out of the sand and the finish wore off pretty quickly. We changed the finish. So, that’s Rick, but we also listen to our customers.
I just finished a book called Billion Dollar Brand Club and it talks about Warby Parker, Casper, and a lot of these B2C brands. Their customer service operation was one of the largest branches of the company, and we’re headed on the same trajectory. We answer every message from customers as fast as we can. We take weekends off, but we answer everyone. We go the extra mile.
I also do customer interviews as often as I can. So, I had a Zoom interview yesterday with a customer who was awesome. The guy was 6-feet-6-inches tall and left-handed. He said, ‘Imagine my golf shopping experience? Nobody cares about me.’ And he has all kinds of tattoos. He said when he walks into golf stores, they’ve got him pinned out of the gate and they’re usually not super friendly. He said he shopped for six months for golf clubs and he kept coming back to Stix. And I was like, ‘Man, tell me more. What’s that about? We’re doing what we’re doing, but I love hearing from you.’ And he was saying, ‘Some of the companies I looked at, I read reviews that if you have an issue, they make you jump through a bunch of hoops.’ And we just take care of our people. It comes up all the time. Like someone will say, ‘Hey, we got this thing from a customer. It seems kind of iffy.’ And I’ll say, ‘Just take care of them. It’s going to go a long way for the brand to just treat our people right.’
We actually have a KPI (Key Performance Indicator) for our customer service team for a percentage of reviews mentioning customer service. That’s actually a goal of their employment, and their bonuses. How often do you get mentioned in customer reviews? And you see that all the time. If you read through our reviews, you’ll find people who had some snag, but customer service was so good they left a five-star review. And that’s just how we have to operate. We’re new, and our customers matter.
We started a Facebook group to communicate with our customers and we got like 500 members on the first day. And in the community, we have our customers closing deals. Somebody posted, ‘Hey, I’m an 8-handicap. Anybody else out there? Will Stix work for me or is it only for the casual golfer?’ Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom – five different people were like, ‘I’m an 8. These clubs are great for me.’ And they sold the guy. And we’re actually just hiring a community manager to just talk to people all day long.
So, we love data, we love our customers, we love hearing from them, and we listen. That’s the same thing that the guy said to me on the call yesterday. He was like, ‘It’s crazy that you’re talking to me. And it’s crazy that you guys have done like everything that anybody has ever said over time, and so fast as a young company.’ We’re only eight months old and we just keep doing whatever we can to give people what they need.
Customer feedback led to how fast we got out lefties, it led to the flexes that we offer, and the heights that we offer. If we had an abandoned cart on Shopify and somebody left their phone number, I would text them and say, ‘Hey, what’s holding you back?’ And they’d be like, ‘I’m tall. I’m short. I need a different flex. My wife won’t let me do it.’
I actually have one famous customer interaction where a guy tried to return his clubs. I said, ‘I’d love to learn what’s going on.’ You know, maybe he found another company or something. And he said, ‘I didn’t check with my wife and she’s pissed.’ And I said, ‘Would I be helping you out if I told you, No?’ (Laughing) Because he was like, ‘Can I return them?’ And we had a fun back and forth. It ended in me saying, ‘How about I give you 100 bucks back and you take your wife out and we call it good?’ And he said, ‘Sold!’ (Laughing) So, we love those kinds of interactions with our customers.
We train and encourage all of our customer engagement people to be that way. Don’t give them canned, stale, and lame responses. Interact with these people. We don’t hire golf experts for our customer engagement team, we hire people who want to have fun conversations with people all day long – positive or negative.”
Q: You mentioned that you offer golf bags and headcovers now, and you’re wearing a Stix hat, which you also sell on your site. So, while Stix is a golf company, it also seems like Stix is becoming a lifestyle brand, and you’re building a community. Was that always part of the plan when you were first starting out or is that something that has kind of evolved along the way?
A: “I think it has evolved a bit. This thing has been such a crazy rocket ship. We started on September 1st with 100 sets in inventory. And we said, ‘If we can sell a set a day we’ll be in good shape.’ We sold out in two weeks, and we sold 20 sets on the last day before we had to shut it off. So, whatever plans we ever had, they’re constantly changing. And because we’re listening to our customers, if they’re asking for hats, towels, or balls, we’re going to look into it.
The most recent thing we’re excited about, and I keep asking customers about on interviews, is that we want to make golf more accessible. We’re doing that through clubs, and our price point, and even our design – there’s no women’s design or seniors’ design. The same way there’s no seniors’ or women’s iPhone, right? It’s just golf clubs. But it’s a big challenge to make golf more accessible.
I just went golfing last weekend and was reminded like, ‘Dang, golf’s expensive.’ I have a membership at the club down the street from my house, and I got a crazy deal because I’m in the Midwest. So, I’m like, ‘Sweet, I get to go golfing whenever I want.’ When last weekend, it was 100 bucks for greens fees. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. How do people golf?’ If you go once a week, you’re spending like more than your car payment on golf. It gets a little crazy.
So, we want to start a subscription membership where you pay 20 bucks a month, you get a dozen balls every month, and you get a glove every quarter. And once we establish this membership, it comes kind of like Stix Prime in the sense that we will try to offer as much benefit to those members as we can. The crazy vision is, you get enough volume and you can go talk to municipals, chains, Topgolf, all the simulators, and try to get the Stix deal at these places so that we’re making the experience more accessible for people who are within our membership, as well. We’ve also talked about training content, to make that more accessible. A lot of times you go watch these training videos on YouTube and you’re kind of like, ‘That’s really complicated. Can you give me something a little simpler?’ So, that’s the North Star. It’s making golf more accessible however we can. So, it will continue to evolve in that direction.”
Q: Why is it so important for Stix to transform the golf experience into something that reflects the consumer’s personal style, as well?
A: “I think it’s demand. You’ve got a large population of people who are kind of attracted to golf, but also kind of repelled at the same time. Whether that’s the style of clubs, the price of clubs, the kind of demeanor of people on the golf course – wear a collared shirt, etc. So, I think it’s important because of the demand. Topgolf is also creating, or activating, a whole new generation of golfer that is the casual golfer.
You have around 25 million golfers – like 13 million on-course and 12 million off-course. But you have like 8 to 10 million off-course golfers only. So, you basically have this new generation of golfer that is like, ‘Hey, this is fun, but it’s expensive. This is fun, but it’s stuffy and old.’ I think it’s important for companies like Stix, and there are other kind of sibling brands in apparel and balls like Bad Birdie and Vice, to serve this new generation.
What does the next generation of golfers look like? I don’t think it’s going to look the same. And courses are going to have to adjust however they eventually decide to do that, and maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll keep serving the richest five million and the rest of us are going to have to figure out what golf looks like for us.”
Q: In terms of timing, 2020 was a difficult year for many people and industries due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the total rounds of golf played in the United States in 2020 were up almost 14 percent over 2019, largely due to golfers seeking recreational opportunities. So, there were definitely people learning how to play golf for the first time, as well as others who decided to pick it back up. Would you say that the new golfer and the returning golfer are Stix’s target audience?
A: “We aimed to be the overdo upgrade for 25- to 45-year-old men out of the gate. You know, we want to be as diverse as we can at this point. But the idea was, I golfed with a bunch of guys who were all rocking crusty, old, decade-plus clubs, and none of us were buying clubs. And I was like, ‘Why aren’t we buying clubs?’ We golf more now, but historically any of us had only golfed a handful of times per year. It’s enough of a time and a money commitment just to go do that, right? And it’s like, I’m going to spend 500 bucks a year on five whole days? Like, that’s about as much as I’m going to invest in this.
So, whether you’re picking it back up, or you’re just like, ‘Finally, here’s something that just makes sense’ – that’s where it’s that overdo upgrade. People like me are like, I’m not going to buy Strata, and because I’ve been golfing for 20 years, I’m not going to buy a starter set. I’m going to look like a joke. My game already looks like a joke and I’ve been playing for 20 years, I don’t need my bag to confirm that. But for perception, it’s not worth $2,000. But would I love some better hardware to play with that looks great because I’m style-conscious, which I think the Millennial generation definitely is? That’s the goal.
For beginners, there’s options if you’re like, ‘Do I want to invest a lot in this yet?’ I think we’ll capture some beginners, and we do. A lot of people are suggesting Stix as a good first set to their friends. You know, the site Curated.com is suggesting Stix to a lot of people. The customer interview that I had, he said his fitter said it was the perfect move for him. So, we’ll get some beginners, we’ll get that overdo upgrade, and then we’re also getting a lot of people who are just kind of tired of overpaying. Even if they have been sold the hype, and they bought into it, they’re kind of like, ‘I’m done with this. Stix makes a ton of sense.’ We’re aimed at this middle group, and we’re kind of picking up all the periphery because it just makes a lot of sense in a lot of scenarios.”
Q: You talked about your friends who had the crusty, old clubs. Occasionally, there’s also that one friend in the group who is always buying up all the latest and greatest clubs and newest golf gadgets. Do you think that type of stuff can really improve the average golfer’s game significantly?
A: “Expensive clubs? (Laughing) Not at all. We have an investor who’s my neighbor, and he’d be the first to tell you that you cannot buy yourself into a good golf game. He bought PXG golf clubs, he spent four to five thousand dollars on his clubs, and his game has not improved. (Laughing) And he can play a round with PXG clubs and a round with Stix and get the exact same score.”
Q: Stix also prides itself on producing confidence-building hardware. So, how does Stix gear help golfers perform better?
A: “We do believe that in golf, confidence is a big piece. And if I’m standing over a crusty, old set of clubs, or if I’m standing over Strata and I feel like everybody’s looking at me like I’m a starter or a joker, versus me standing over a murdered out looking club that makes me look like a badass out there, I’m just going to play better. That, plus the design for forgiveness. If you look good, and you’re confident, and when you make a mistake it’s not as brutal, that’s going to produce a better game.”
Q: You have a direct-to-consumer business model right now, but would you be open to selling Stix clubs at retail stores in the future?
A: “We want to grow, and we want to grow fast. So, if a retail relationship can open that up, but we’re not willing to sacrifice the value to a consumer. It comes down to the right partnerships. Some retailers demand a certain level of margins, while others are more flexible. So, direct-to-consumer, depending on how you do it, can be more or less expensive. When you go retail, you have to have some opportunity for trading the margin, right? You trade your digital ad spend and your shipping to the customer for their margin. And if that’s the deal we aim for, it’s like, yeah, if you guys just want to take the digital ad spend and shipping costs, then you have that money and you push the product, cool. Because that’s what you’re doing. You’re basically the ad placement, and now they grab it from you, and we’re not paying shipping. That’s the ideal deal.
Usually, we’re going to make worse margins in retail, which is also OK at volume. If a retailer can help us get to scale, which saves us money on our build cost because we’re hitting certain volumes, that helps the D2C cost go down. So, we’re open to any deal that makes sense.”
Q: What goes into your decision when choosing companies to partner with and how important is it for Stix to make sure that your partners also align with your core values?
A: “It’s important. We’ve always said that we want to take as unconventional of an approach to everything we do as we can. I’d rather Stix show up in a Zumiez than in a Golf Galaxy. I’d rather Stix show up somewhere unexpected that makes it feel like, ‘Oh, golf is kind of cool. There are golf clubs here.’ Versus showing up in their standard place. Now, I’m open to traditional, again, if the numbers are right.
And we’ve debated about Amazon. Like, does that change the brand perception if you’re on Amazon? But you have Callaway Epic, and Strata, and you have Robin all on there. And Amazon actually reached out to us and said, ‘We’re getting a lot of Stix Golf searches. Do you guys want to be here?’ I mean, Curated reached out to us like, ‘Hey, our people are already selling your clubs because they’re just right for a lot of people. Let’s do a deal.’ And we’ve had conversations with Costco. So, we do evaluate that.
It’s like, is this going to be good for the brand? At this stage of the game, exposure is just good as long as it’s not detrimental to the brand. And because we listen to the customer, I think you show up in different places and you say, ‘All right, did that work? What are people thinking and saying about that?’ Because you can guess all day long. I’m a start-up guy. I’m about iterative, data driven approaches, and change fast, react to the results. Right now, everything we’re doing is still in experimental mode. Let’s try it. If it works, scale it. If it doesn’t, kill it. And let’s just keep doing that.”
Q: Even though Stix clubs are more affordable than other expensive brands, Stix still provides an elevated customer experience, even going as far as writing hand-written notes in some boxes when they’re shipped, and sometimes including extras like tees, hats, and balls. So, how has Stix been able to provide such a positive consumer experience? And is your goal always to go above and beyond?
A: “For sure. Like I said, we’re not going to differentiate in the market on technology. We’re going to differentiate in the market by simplifying the process, providing great value, and trying to make the best customer experience that we can through customer support – before and after, and overdelivering. You know, we just sent out a message to all of our people who are in pre-order because we’re backed up more than we expected. We said, ‘Listen guys, we’re sorry. We’re happy to refund you. If you’re willing to stick it out, we’re going to send you some free balls. Just let us know.’ And I don’t know how many we sold, but we sent out hundreds of sets of balls to people as just a, Sorry, I know it sucks to wait. We’re doing everything we can, but we want to be proactive in our communication. So, for sure. We always want to go above and beyond and overdeliver to our customers. We’re still growing with that. I think we need to grow in the underpromise department because we’ve gotten ourselves out over our skis in a few places. (Laughing)
The trouble we’re in right now is just that we’ve hit a vein in the industry. There is demand, and we’re just trying, ever since the beginning of this thing, whether it was a hundred sets aimed at 100 days and they went in two weeks, like every time we think we’re getting caught up, we’re like, ‘We can’t keep up.’ (Laughing) So, yeah, we want to overdeliver.”
Q: In terms of Stix’s partnership with MuscleTech, what do you want the MuscleTech community to know about Stix Golf?
“That golf is fun and it can be cool. I mean, you look at Bryson DeChambeau for the fitness community, right? The guy has just changed the game through his workouts and building his body. And Stix wants to change the game by appealing to all types, and say, ‘Hey, make golf your own.’ What does fitness golf look like? Look at what Bryson did. Come out and see how far you can crush the thing. That’s fine, it doesn’t have to be a slow-paced, stuffy thing.
One of my co-founders and I work out together. We’re trying to figure out right now, OK, if we want to golf more often, we’re going to have to interrupt a workout to get out in the mornings. So, how can we still get kind of a workout in? So, we talked about doing speed golf – just taking a couple of clubs and jogging to the ball. And for every stroke over par that we are, we’re doing that many burpees. You know, golf can be whatever you want it to be. So, go have fun, get outside, and hang out with your friends. You can get clubs at a reasonable price that look badass, ‘cause you’re a badass.”