When investors can affix a $1 billion price tag to a company that employs fewer than 100 people and whose only offering is a free, virtual product that many people don't understand, it's clear the entrepreneurial landscape has changed.
In the extreme, that's been made clear by companies like Twitter, the aforementioned company with a 10-figure net worth. In Maine, the new paradigm is reflected in the early success of William Sulinski and the small cadre of developers behind the tech startup AccelGolf.
The company, which until recently was known as mCaddie, builds applications that turn a golf-crazed user's iPhone or BlackBerry into a virtual scorecard and GPS rangefinder on 22,000 golf courses around the world. The app's next generation, due out next spring, will allow users to record which club they use on each stroke and compare their scores with other players. The app crunches the numbers and shows how a player's short game improves over time or how, after buying a new driver from, say, Callaway, their drives off the tee improved. Sulinski, AccelGolf's co-founder and CEO, believes the company has the potential to revolutionize the golf industry.
Don't believe him? AccelGolf's initial app, without marketing, already has 35,000 users who have entered 1.3 million golf strokes in the company's database. Imagine if the data showed that of the world's 60 million golfers, players who used Callaway's new Big Bertha Diablo Driver consistently improve their drive. Callaway could use that data to target its online marketing efforts. Golf courses could use the resulting social network of users to advertise and offer deals to players in their area. "That data is really valuable to golf manufacturers and in the marketing arena," Sulinski says. "That's the thing that can be huge."
Sulinski was raised in an entrepreneurial family in Dedham, a small town southeast of Bangor. His father owned a construction company, a heating company and a trucking company. At 18, he often worked 70 hours a week for his father, whose businesses sometimes struggled. The experience taught Sulinski about the ups and downs of business, as well as the value of a hard day's work. "I loved the feeling of getting up in the morning and starting the trucks up, working throughout the day and going home knowing you've done something productive," he says.
After graduating from the University of Maine, Sulinski found himself working for CitiGroup in Portland. But he was never wholly satisfied with the job. He missed arriving home at night feeling like he'd accomplished something. So when CitiGroup shuttered its local operations early last year and offered to relocate Sulinski to Boston or beyond, he knew it was his chance to start a business. "I knew it's what I wanted to do," he says, sitting recently at a Portland coffee shop. As he speaks, he occasionally steals glances at his iPhone, resting on the table in front of him.
Sulinski, 26, and four software developers, all 20-somethings raised and educated in Maine, just returned from Boston and one of the most competitive business incubator programs in the country. TechStars, which accepted 18 companies from 550 applications, placed Sulinski under the tutelage of a host of successful entrepreneurs, like Rich Miner, a managing partner at Google Ventures. "These mentors have built, sold, funded and IPOed I don't know how many companies," Sulinski says.
Besides sage advice, the program offered Sulinski the opportunity to pitch AccelGolf to investors in Boston and San Francisco. As a result, the company has its first round of funding — it was looking for $250,000 to match a Maine Technology Institute development award — almost fully committed.
Sulinski says he's always looking for strategic investors. He's also on the search for Portland office space, ready to take AccelGolf into "hardcore development mode." And more 70-hour work weeks.