Jun 8, 2024

How Did I...

Image from Adams Golf
Image from Adams Golf

By Barney Adams

I read Tangle daily, and remembered that the word “entrepreneur” was mentioned along with the announcement that the publication welcomed essays from its readers.

Without thinking (a natural reaction), I thought. “I am an entrepreneur, I like to write… why not grace them with a story?”

When their response was positive (with no guarantee it would be published), I panicked. Does my story fit Tangle? Yes, I qualify; in fact, I was awarded Entrepreneur of the Year in 1999 by Ernst and Young and authored a book called “The WOW Factor” on my experience. I was then struck by a severe dose of reality: The book was published in 1998 — that’s 26 years ago! I realize old people live mostly in the past, and at 85 I am a prime example. 

Tangle is a first-class operation and attracts input from industry and political leaders. So I asked myself, “Mr. Adams…who do you think you are kidding?”

Then the old thinking kicked in. Entrepreneurs do not dwell on long odds. We see what cannot be done as a challenge. If this piece gets published, it means some of the old me is still kicking, and if it doesn’t then I had the pleasure of writing it and awakening a brain cell or two along the way. 

So, I’d like to share with the Tangle audience my experience in entrepreneurship, with the hopes that something of value can seep out of it.

I remember Oscar Levant’s quote, “There is a fine line between Entrepreneurship and Insanity.” Disregarding the humor, I look back at that quote with interest. I was certainly on the “insanity” side, but — honest assessment — I wasn’t nuts. Let’s say “enthusiastic,” or maybe “determined,” but in all honesty not insane. I was just in a state of mind that prevents normal perception. Not insane. Honestly.

Today we read about Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park, California — home to venture capital groups who are besieged by brilliant young engineers with ideas to start their own companies, most notably in the world of tech, and today overwhelmingly in the field of AI. They ask for, and get funded with, millions of dollars. Educated presenters walk into these rooms with detailed plans on staffing, the technology personnel needed, the size of the market and where they will enter, all carefully presented in a 3–5-year plan showing potential investors how and when the company they’re investing in will turn into an elusive unicorn. 

Believe me, I know; I used to work there. Literally — I worked for an investment firm on Sand Hill Road, where I would get assigned to keep start-ups on the right track. However, there was one, shall we say, glitch. I did not like the environment — and if I was considered competent, I’m guessing it was a polite assessment. 

Back in the mid-50s, I went to school in Potsdam, NY, at Clarkson College of Technology, as it was known in those pre-computer days (now Clarkson University) of slide-rule calculations. I did not choose Clarkson because I aspired to become an engineer, but because I came from an upstate New York town of 1,800 people with zero family money. Clarkson offered me a basketball scholarship, which combined with a couple of other awards to cover the financial cost of my education. That was my goal: to find the school where I could get the most financial aid. The dominant lesson I learned from Clarkson was that engineering and I were not cut out for each other, and I managed to slide out through the business school. I did work some technical jobs over the years, but never as part of an intentional career path.

There was a guy in golf I knew by the name of Dave Pelz, brilliant thinker. Somehow, his idea for a golf manufacturing business had caught the eye of a team in the oil business located in Abilene, TX. They had guaranteed him financing if he would relocate his business there. Dave was from Maryland, and we had been introduced to each other as two golf nuts. His operation started well, but had run into a variety of problems and was floundering badly. The oil guys wanted help, and Dave told them I was the answer. My first visit to the area was interesting; Abilene had three major colleges, none of which allowed dancing! I attempted a quick analysis of his business and can only say floundering was an understatement. I asked for time to assess, then headed back to California. A few weeks later I got another call; oil prices had plummeted, and the investor group was struggling to stay alive… would I please take the golf debacle off their hands.

I dreamt about actually being in the golf business as opposed to the opposite environment of working at 3000 Sand Hill; so I said yes, packed my few belongings, and headed for Abilene, where my golf career started in earnest.   

Oh yes, I had also remarried along the way, and I told my new wife I was sorry but until things improved I had to go all-in on the golf business. Exactly nothing had improved at Pelz Golf, and now the oil guys had forfeited their loans, which prompted the bank to instruct me to sell anything that would bring money and shut the place down. That was before day one. 

A few days later I was sitting in my (Deluxe) room at The Days Inn Motel, half-watching a TV show that sold a variety of products at low prices. I said to myself, “why not,” and I booked a late-night cheap-o flight to their headquarters in Minneapolis. They liked the idea that we could meet their price parameters, which we did at cost (plus a small margin), giving us a way to sell some of our product. However, the bank would not allow purchasing more inventory, so we were soon officially bankrupt. It was at that juncture I purchased the remains of the company for $2,500, and Adams Golf was born (I say “Adams Golf” because Dave Pelz had accepted an offer to start his short game schools and left Abilene).

I had a plan: Purchase inventory, continue the TV sales, and put what little money we made in the bank as capital to start full time. I returned to my position in Silicon Valley, biding my time, saving every penny. Months passed, and then I caught what looked like my big break: Adams Golf was invited to the PGA Show in Orlando Florida. This was the golf equipment’s main show, with exhibitors from around the world and thousands of attendees. 

Naturally I accepted, and over the weekend traveled from Silicon Valley to Abilene, where I rented a truck, loaded it, and drove what passed as a booth to set up at the show. Our location was not ideal — most of our foot traffic was en route to the nearby restroom. It made no difference to me. I stood in that booth for four days, sold absolutely nothing, and loved every minute.

When the show ended, I dismantled my “booth” and drove my goods back to Abilene on a timer to get back to my high-tech job. 

Two-to-three months later, the Semicon show was scheduled for the San Bernardino fairgrounds. The semiconductor testing company I was associated with attended, and I helped with the coordination of setting up the booth. I clearly remember standing in the front thinking it must be close to noon because I was starving and, frankly, bored. I looked at my watch and saw it was just about 9 am. Lighting struck: “What the hell am I doing here.” 

That’s when I knew I had to really go all-in at Adams Golf.

Shortly thereafter, a couple of our venture guys stopped by and after polite hellos I offered my resignation. They thought I was kidding, but I was not, and I meant immediately. They asked me to walk the show before I left my position to see if I could locate a company that also did semiconductor testing and might consider the possibility of a merger. Luckily, I did find that company, and everyone was happy. They had a goodbye dinner for me, where I requested any bonus be paid out monthly, thinking that would supplement my no-income golf business.

With that, I exited my rental, packed my car, and headed back to Abilene. My new wife had returned to Dallas to try to find a job to pay for rent and food while I started the 1,600-mile drive, which went by in a flash.

Upon arrival, I negotiated for another deluxe room at The Days Inn (meaning it included a TV and nice chair) and prepared to start my life’s dream. With the knowledge that the company had  some money in the bank from our TV sales, I arose at 5 a.m. the next morning, excited to start. 

Our fledgling company shared a small building carefully located in an empty field. Local critters (spiders, snakes) liked the facility, so you always opened drawers with caution. It wasn’t 6 a.m. when I got in, and I selected for myself an old wooden desk that we couldn’t sell during the bankruptcy and carefully opened the drawers. One contained a stack of papers, which made no sense. Before filing them in the trash, I started reading. 

That was over 25 years ago, and it still makes me emotional. The top page was a demand notice, and the date was current. I not only had no money in the bank but I also owed tens of thousands of dollars. And that folks is the story of my first half hour as a full-time entrepreneur. The complete story is in a book I wrote called The WOW Factor

I repeat: I was not insane. But as I look back, I wonder, how did I…

I am now temporarily retired from golf manufacturing, but I must add this call to action for what I think is a worthy cause: One day after the company had managed to get off the ground, a police officer came to our door. His story was, and to this day is, heart wrenching. During a regular physical examination, his healthy 4-year-old son was diagnosed with MPS (Mucopolysaccharidoses). The dad (officer) was told it was an orphan disease, meaning it didn’t affect enough people to justify research into a treatment, let alone a cure. His son would die a very painful death by age 10, and all he could do was go home and love him. I remember getting angry at the story and telling his dad we needed to get golf involved; it is the greatest charity helper in the world. 

Today, that young man is 40 and married to his schoolteacher wife. There are others suffering with this disease, and we continue to fight for these kids. Stay tuned — we have an announcement forthcoming.  

Barney Adams is a golf-loving, Tangle-reading, semi-retired, 85-year-old entrepreneur. When asked about retirement, Barney said he’s only 85, and to check out the site BTG (Breakthrough Golf Technology), his new venture.

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