Spend any day at the beach and you’re likely to see several different games going on: volleyball, cornhole, Kan Jam (for you Western New Yorkers), and throwing around a football or frisbee. But something was missing: golf.
What was intended to be a simple beach day ultimately inspired Bernard Cohen to take the entrepreneurial plunge and start Chip-Down with his co-founder, Joseph Ricciardi. They were the $10,000 winners of The Henry A. Panasci Jr. Competition out of the University at Buffalo in 2017, and now they have their sights on expanding distribution to some of the biggest names in retail. Oh yeah, and they’re doing all this while studying for their MBA.
Learn more about Bernard, Joseph, and Chip-Down in today’s Founder Friday!
How did your startup, well, start up?
Bernard: I was on the beach with my father and we were practicing our golf shots out of the sand. I noticed that the beach was lined with lawn games and people of all ages playing them. I immediately drew a target in the sand, started hitting balls, and the light bulb went off. My first (very rough) prototype was built within a week of conceiving the idea, and I filed a provisional patent application. My entrepreneurship professor in the MBA program at UB, Tom Ulbrich, urged me to use my idea for his class project. After his class, I brought two friends on to my team and we entered the Henry A. Panasci Jr. Technology Entrepreneurship Competition, where we won second place and $10,000 in seed funding.
Joseph: Bernard came to me after a few months with the idea asking if I would be able to help him develop the business further. His response to this question is well-said.
What do you do? Your startup?
Bernard: We created Chip-Down, a portable, golf-inspired backyard game that anyone can play. We have simplified the game of golf by eliminating the golf balls and replacing them with birdies – like badminton. The birdies provide for a very manageable and user-friendly experience. The target that you chip into resembles a ski-ball target, and if you land it in the center hole it is called “downing it” (hence the name Chip-Down) and signifies an automatic win. It is truly a game that anyone can pick up and play after a few practice swings.
Joseph: We have simplified the game of golf so people, with or without any golf experience, can enjoy. The game replaces the traditional golf ball with a birdie that is used in Badminton. The birdie cancels out all forces in directions other than forward, making it easy to get the hang of, unlike golf balls.
When was the ‘aha’ moment for your startup when you realized this could actually work?
Bernard: After winning money in multiple pitch competitions at UB, we knew that we had something. Not only did we have a product, but our team really set us apart from everyone else.
Joseph: In Spring 2017, our team entered the Henry A. Panasci Jr. Technology Competition for a chance to win some initial funding. At first, it seemed crazy to me that a backyard game company would compete with some startup technology groups. However, we continued to work as hard as possible to prepare for the competition. At the competition we got 2nd place, giving us our first $10,000 in funding. It was eye-opening to me that the judges saw a lot of potential in our business, and it is a main reason why we continue to work hard to get the product to the production line.
What has been the biggest accomplishment for your startup to-date?
Bernard: It is hard to say what the biggest accomplishment is, but I am most proud of the amount of money that we have been able to raise ($41,000) through pitch competitions and a Kickstarter campaign while still being in school. Balancing school and the business has proven to be difficult, but we have done a great job of managing tasks and knowing when to put the pedal to the metal.
Joseph: The product development cycle over the past year is the main reason we have a viable product for the market. Chip-Down started as a clunky wooden box that was heavy and not feasible to be sold as-is. After receiving feedback from some different people regarding the size and visual appeal aspects, we decided to focus on making the game lighter, more visually appealing, less bulky, and cheaper. It took us about 5 full redesigns to get to the final version of the game that we want to sell. Being able to innovate on the spot and create prototypes in short amounts of time was the main driver of the business today.
Goals for the next year? Three years?
Bernard: In the next year we are hoping to have the product in people’s hand so we can receive some feedback and make iterations to please our customers. We have pre-orders waiting to be fulfilled and we are working with manufacturers to make that happen. In the next three years, we hope to get into a big box retail store with heavy foot traffic and have a solid online presence.
Joseph: This year is going to be a huge year for us. We will start selling Chip-Down through Amazon, our website, and an ambassador program that we have been putting together. Our initial interest in the game is a crucial part to building the company to heights we would like to see. Also, we will be hosting events this summer all over WNY to expose more people to Chip-Down.
In a three-year horizon, my goal for the company is to be selling in retail stores like Target, Walmart, and Dick’s Sporting Goods. This is the point where we can maintain steady business, along with being able to look into innovating other backyard games – allowing us to grow exponentially.
Bernard: The entrepreneurial community in Buffalo is great. Everyone is willing to help and provide advice in some way, which has made our journey easier.
Joseph: The Buffalo community has a unique dynamic where everyone can communicate with each other, simply because we all have a passion for the area. It has made it easy to get the right connections, as everyone seems to want to help each other. Also, it is nice to be able to utilize the University at Buffalo’s resources as students of the school.
How do you do it? What drives you?
Bernard: I am driven by passion for my product. Every night when I go to sleep, Chip-Down is the last thing that I think of, and every morning when I wake up it is the first thing on my mind.
Joseph: I am highly motivated by the idea of learning new concepts that I have no prior experience with. In the business, new challenges arise every single day. Instead of pushing these challenges to the side, I take them by the horns. I perform research and focus on the challenge until I feel comfortable tackling it.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Bernard: Have passion for your product and take advantage of all of the resources right in front of you. If you are a student, especially, there are endless resources on college campuses that can help you take your business to the next level. Put yourself in situations that you wouldn’t normally be in and good things will happen.
Joseph: If you have an idea that you know you want to pursue as a business venture, build your team with the right people immediately. The most valuable aspect of any business is to have different viewpoints from the team. Also in that respect, make sure you listen to any feedback from people about your product. Even if you don’t agree with their comments, it’s another point of reference that can be utilized with designing the product or segmenting the market.
Back in June, Nate Benson from the 43North team decided he wanted to give Chip-Down a try (spoiler: he wasn’t very good). Learn even more about the startup in the first episode of our 43Forward vlog below!