Innovative TLink GPS device is just the beginning for a Calgary duo
By: Ted McIntyre
You get the feeling that had Derek Rucki been born 10 years earlier, Mark Zuckerberg would have completed his computer science degree at Harvard…because Rucki would have invented Facebook.
Rucki’s brain has a hard time gearing down into the idle position as we chat around the dinner table at Turtle Jack’s, just around the corner from Mississauga, Ontario golf equipment distributor Golf Trends. Freshly arrived from his Calgary home, the 22-year-old reminds me of The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper in both his lanky frame and the quick-problem-solving grey matter between his ears. Rucki is in town for a promotional tour of the GTA with his TLink invention, which he developed with techie wizard and former Mount Royal University classmate Stefan Radeta.
TLink (golftlink.com) marks an evolutionary step forward in the world of GPS golf watches. Since it operates as a Bluetooth device that connects to GPS tracking through your smartphone instead of housing the GPS unit within the watch itself, the sleek, soft, incredibly lightweight TLink feels more like a wristband than a wristwatch. And while it performs the usual calculations of front/middle/back yardages to the green, the TLink also operates as a pedometer, tracking your steps, calories burned and distance walked on the course. And yes, it even tells time.
Operating off an intuitive free app, the model is a response to the estimated 30% of golfers already employing wearable technology, says Rucki. As a former top-10 Canadian junior player who earned a scholarship to Texas A&M before transferring to MRU after two years, Rucki is certainly qualified to speak to the market.
“I’ve been a highly competitive golfer since a very young age and have travelled all over the world playing events, which has enabled me to recognize trends in the market much easier than your average golfer,” he told the Calgary Herald last year. “I was excited when the GPS watches hit the market. However, when I actually took a swing with one of the watches, it would cut into my wrist slightly at the top of my swing.”
Clumsy and bulky, this wasn’t exactly a game-improvement device, figured Rucki. Surely there was a better way to mount the technology. Inspired by The Entrepreneurial Experience class that he “sort of stumbled into” after arriving at Mount Royal—a class overseen by Ray DePaul, director of Mount Royal’s Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship —Rucki authored a university paper that conceptualized the melding of golf watch technology and golf smartphone apps. He won a $3,000 grant for his efforts—as did Stefan Radeta, a fourth-year Bachelor of Computer Information Systems student who was developing his own mobile app at the time. Rucki had spent months searching for a tech-savvy partner who shared his passion, and Radeta represented the perfect techie match for Rucki’s golf savvy and business IQ.
Rucki subsequently sourced 16 pedometer models from China, while polling golfers as to which ones they most preferred and why. Teaming up to present a non-functioning prototype of TLink in March 2014 at Mount Royal University’s LaunchPad competition, a Dragons’ Den-style business proposal event, Rucki and Radeta put together a winning entry. They earned $50,000 in grant money and services to pursue their product’s development, to go along with the $40,000 they’d invested of their own funds.
Another key catalyst in the company’s early momentum has been serial entrepreneur Rod Brown. “I met Rod at an MRU event and he was our first-ever investor and introduced us to several other ‘angels’ that ended up investing,” says Rucki. “He has had over eight startups of his own, and loved our vision and passion so much that he not only invested but immediately joined our team full time as COO. We 100% would not be where we are without Rod’s breadth of experience and knowledge.”
Capital investments approaching $1 million have since followed for the TLink group, who spent many a long night coordinating with a team in China in developing the final product, which has sold more than 10,000 units online since its June launch.
CONNECTING THE DOTS
“A great idea is just two dots that come together—two different ideas that already exist in the market that combine for something new,” says Rucki. “In our case, it was the idea of combining a GPS golf watch and GPS golf apps, using the cell phone as the backbone and intelligence of the product.”
Like the accomplished golfer he was for most of life, calculating the best possible way to get from point A to point B, Rucki has been more adept than most at connecting those dots. This is a young man, after all, who wrote and then sold a stock market algorithm, tripling a $15,000 loan from his parents, while still in his first semester at Texas A&M. He also started an eBay business through his dorm room, although it eventually failed—all the while competing in Division I collegiate golf.
Gary McMullen of Caddy Pro Golf in Calgary helped add another connection when, after reading about Rucki and company in the Calgary Herald, he hooked them up with distributor Golf Trends in Ontario. Rucki has since added partnerships in Scottsdale and San Diego, and will be showcasing TLink at the mother of all golf shows, the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, at the end of January.
The product’s features should command attention. TLink’s access includes more than 30,000 courses worldwide—and counting. Players also have the option of entering scores and stats such as putts, fairways hit/missed and greens in regulation. The information for each round is saved, and it will even begin to record your handicap after 20 rounds. And if you don’t have your smartphone with you, TLink will sync your statistics once it reconnects with your phone later in the day. The product will additionally link to a particular golf course for tournament purposes and record the leaderboard in real time, so long as players enter their scores. It can even allow a particular event to welcome participants as soon as they log into the system that day.
Another unique feature is that, if you choose, the face pod can be slid out of its silicone skin and attached to an accompanying hip clip—particularly handing if you want it to record distance and calories-burned information while out jogging. The strap is also easily branded for corporate or golf-course marketing purposes and is accompanied by matching water bottle packaging.
An additional welcome touch is that it works synchronously in the background with your smartphone, meaning it won’t drain your phone’s battery life like other typical GPS golf apps, lasting an estimated five rounds on a single charge. (Retailing for a suggested $159—approximately $170-$190 for custom branding—those seeking further information on the TLink can contact firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Like a new father, Rucki is coming to grips with trading off a former obsession for a new one. “I went from 300 rounds a year to four,” says Rucki, who, now bitten by the entrepreneurial bug, has put his degree on hold with six classes to go in order to devote all of his waking hours to his TLink baby.
Lest he allow that active mind to consume him, Rucki employs a sensory deprivation tank to gain a little focus. “I go every Friday night to FloatLife in Calgary,” he says. “It’s a 90-minute session and the tank is filled with a thousand pounds of Epson salts. It’s pitch black and soundproof—no sight, sound or feel, and you’re buoyant because of the salts. And since the temperature is the same as your skin, you can’t tell where the waterline ends. It’s like zero gravity. For the first time since birth, your brain is not calculating sensory input. If you go in with one thought, you almost always come out with a plan of action.”
Investors would be well advised to camp outside the place. Rucki’s next plan might well be worth even more than TLink.