Local Startup Shakes Up Golf Apparel Industry

Left to right: Matt Stang, Adam Iverson and Sam Swanson.

“Less Judge Smails, more Happy Gilmore.” That's the marketing slogan/mission statement of Swannies Inc., a new lifestyle brand for young and casual golfers that was launched two years ago by White Bear Lake natives Matt Stang and Sam Swanson, along with Mike and Joe Hau, as well as a former University of Minnesota classmate Adam Iversen. It references two popular golf movies—Caddyshack and Happy Gilmore—familiar to golfers across the U.S., especially those in the Generation X and millennial age groups.

Judge Smails, the stuffy, country club scion played by Ted Knight in Caddyshack, represents the traditional status-conscious side of private-club golf. Happy Gilmore, comedian Adam Sandler's fictional loose and funky golfer, represents a more informal, egalitarian approach to the game.

Stang falls into the latter category, a former member of the White Bear Area High School varsity golf team who swapped spiked golf shoes for comfortable flip-flops on the local links. “When I got done with competitive golf, I started taking the game more casually.” In late 2014, the five were playing a friendly game when Swanson brought up the idea of putting golf spikes on flip-flops.

Stang liked the idea, and went to work experimenting with spiked sandals in his parents’ garage. The following summer, they held a successful Kickstarter campaign, raising $22,000 in start-up capital to market their “world’s first soft-spike golf sandal,” chosen Best New Product at the 2015 Minnesota Golf Show. They chose the name “Swannies” based on a coin flip.

Swannies is targeting the estimated 15.5 million “casual” American golfers, defined as those who play golf one to seven times per year; there are also 7 million golfers in the U.S. ages 18-34. As a group, they tend to avoid buying expensive gear and apparel. The partners realized that “a big part of the golf apparel market was being under-served—young, casual golfers looking for quality lifestyle stuff to wear on and off the golf course, but at reasonable prices,” Stang says. Their polo shirts, for example, retail for about $54, compared to $75 to $80 for most established brands, according to Stang.

Before Swannies became a full-time venture, Stang had worked as a PriceWaterhouse management consultant in Boston. The job gave Stang the opportunity to closely observe a variety of industries and learn to solve problems. One key lesson: “The answer is not always right in front of you; sometimes you have to figure it out.” Toward that end, the partners test-marketed the brand at 15 golf courses in Minnesota and Wisconsin in 2016. “We learned what worked and where we could improve from a branding, quality and overall business standpoint,” Stang says.

Matt’s father, Paul, is an avid golfer who started Matt off playing at age 4 at a par-three course. Paul, who retired last year as a physical education teacher in Delano, now works for the company as fulfillment manager (his wife, Sue, also works in fulfillment), putting orders together from inventory stored in the basement of their White Bear Lake home. “It's pretty packed down there,” says Paul, who recently took delivery of a shipment of 1,400 polo and “quarter-zip” golf shirts from a contract manufacturer in Taiwan.

The young entrepreneurs have big plans for Swannies. They have filed a patent application for their sandals. They've gotten the Swannies brand into more than 100 golf course pro shops around the country. Paul says Matt’s casual approach doesn’t extend to business. “He's a real go-getter; he works hard and he’s smart,” says Paul. “It's impressive how hard they work, 16-hour days dealing with the headaches of starting a new business. And they are really good social media brand ambassadors. The company is growing pretty fast.”