with Victory Tailgate’s
[By Eric Wright]
The ability to mass produce popular products, while having the capacity to customize them according to consumer’s sports or hobby enthusiasts is a combination that took Scott Sims from his garage, to an operation that employees hundreds of workers in a sprawling manufacturing facility. Sims’ Victory Tailgate capitalized on the popularity of turning a two to three-hour sporting event, into an activity that unites friends and families for a full day of grilling, socializing and playing the enormously popular game, cornhole. But like most entrepreneurs, Sims has found creative ways to leverage his expertise and capacity to expand beyond his custom cornhole sets, into themed apparel, wall art and who knows what next? In the process his company has garnered recognition locally and across the state.
EW: Tell me about your background and what facilitated your attraction to entrepreneurialism.
SS: I’m a Florida native, went to high school here in Orlando, and then went to the University of Florida. Originally I planned on going into journalism, but my mind has always been geared to business and numbers. I was running some type of businesses as far back as I can remember; selling comic books, baseball cards, newspaper routes, you name it.
While at UF I began to have second thoughts about a journalism career. A family friend who was a sports writer for the Tampa Tribune, whom I thought had the dream job, was just scraping by financially. I became a finance major and was always thinking about business plans and ventures I might start. Right out of college I got a job running another guy’s company, who had no business acumen, and I pretty much decided working for someone else wasn’t for me.
EW: And the genesis of Victory Tailgate?
SS: I was running a sports memorabilia business. In 2008 and with the economy waffling, I had to pivot and was looking for new products. I saw that the tailgate games and products were becoming a viable industry. When I was at UF in the 90’s no one tailgated; now it is an institution. In fact, I never thought it would be as big as it has become. But I saw it as a trend and wanted to take advantage of it.
My previous companies were web based, so I was very familiar with the SEO secret sauce. When I launched, I was working out of my garage and my venture capital was my credit cards. I had no experience with woodworking, I was a numbers guy, but there is something to be said for creating anything with your own hands; we made all the product we could and when it sold, we purchased more materials to make more product. It just sort of snowballed. I was in my garage for around three months, until I could get a small commercial space, and we grew from there.
EW: Did you see the potential of what your company could become?
SS: From the start I said, “We don’t want a company building cornhole games, we want to build a great company.” My thought was, others can make the games, but could we use this as a branding opportunity with marketable licensed products? We weren’t targeting the cornhole fans, which is a niche of a niche; we wanted a bigger play, the tailgating, outdoors and camping community, which is huge. We wanted the sports fans who wanted a quality product to take to games or picnics. Even the ones who didn’t know they wanted it. Our challenge was how do we touch them. That is how we approach everything: What might people want and how do we connect with them? Cornhole was a means to the end. Then we focused on customer service, quality products and unique designs; it isn’t that hard, but some businesspeople don’t get it.
EW: As you scaled, how did you capitalize your company?
SS: It was a boot strap operation. I suppose I could be described as an extreme risk taker; it is sort of the gambler in me. I don’t think we could have done this had I been different. As we sold items we would fabricate them and reinvest back into the company. Early on, we would take our Christmas season surplus and start building out our infrastructure for the summer rush starting in May, and in October we’d start prepping for Christmas.
EW: I’m sure there was a lot of word of mouth promotion, people would see your products while with friends or at a game, but what was the real marketing strategy?
SS: Our use of ad-words and Internet advertising was a sort of leap of faith at the beginning. We would test on eBay and Amazon; we’re talking about maxing my credit cards on Internet ads and hoping for the best. Every day we would look at our results: we spent X and if our sales were greater than X, we would go another round. Many would have gotten scared and stopped and never seen the benefit of staying the course.
EW: How early were you able to get into the licensed products market?
SS: We knew we had to keep pushing the envelope because we never knew when the allure of the product would lift. So we had to provide better and quicker; you’re dealing with a product people can make in their garage, so how do we make something superior and unique? We were looking to differentiate. Licensing was the key; the market is full of illegal, unlicensed sports themed products. We even tried selling licensed peel and stick logos with our products, but that was questionable, so we abandoned it.
EW: So how did you proceed?
SS: We started with the smaller colleges, which were pretty easy to obtain licensing for. It took almost five years for us to start getting some of the bigger colleges. There are a lot of politics in the major universities and we were getting blocked by a large company that was making all their products overseas. They wanted exclusive licensing. I showed we weren’t competing with the people selling in Walmart or Dick’s; we were making a dent in the unlicensed, illegal sales online.
Finally, instead of going through the licensing agency, we went directly to the universities. We sold the benefits. Actually the delays gave us time to build our capacity and reputation. Because we are direct to consumer, we didn’t have to convince retailers to buy, then go to manufacturers overseas to make. Our processes were so streamlined we had a competitive advantage. If we get a license, say with the University of Alabama today, we can be generating revenue tomorrow. Our first license report got their attention; we were the fastest growing licensee for some time out of all collegiate sports licensees.
EW: What were the keys to getting those licensing rights?
SS: Telling a compelling story, delivering on all your promises and frankly, making strategic relational connections. Likeminded people connect with your vision and they tend to help you along your way. I raised questions that turned some off and turned some on; particularly about how the online market was trending. I discovered I could read people and understand, not what I wanted, but what they wanted.
EW: Explain your diversification into other products.
SS: We had all this expertise and equipment and have always been thinking, how can we expand our line; how do we take mass customization into a full line of products? We have designers and printers that not only make graphics for custom cornhole boards, but it can print on fabric, plus we have a large team of seamstresses who were making our bean bags. This allows us to make canvas art and even sports apparel, which is all under our new line, ‘Made Loyal.’
EW: What has been the most important step you have taken to grow your company?
SS: Early on I was so obsessed working inside the company that I didn’t always work on the company. I needed to go out and tell our story, make strategic alliances. For the first couple of years I was answering phones and managing the warehouse. I realized we weren’t going to grow unless I let more and more go. I knew everything was based on our reputation, so for a long time I had to check every board we sold. It wasn’t about me doing, it was finding the people who could do.
Like a sports team, though I hate to always use that analogy, we are trying to build a culture which reflects across the organization. That is one of our biggest challenges, especially when you are hiring as many people as we are, as fast as we have, but it is something we are insistent about.