An acquisition by a private-equity behemoth in Boston created an opportunity for a very small company based in Mt. Pleasant.
In 2018, Berkshire Partners, which has raised nine private equity funds with more than $16 billion in assets, bought Pro Performance Sports LLC of Durham, N.C. Pro Performance sells a wide variety of athletic equipment, doing business as SKLZ. One of the pieces of equipment SKLZ sells was called the Dribble Stick, a device used to improve the ball handling skills of basketball players.
Luke Lloyd created the first Dribble Stick in 2010 and soon had a license with SKLZ to make them, sell them and pay him a royalty.
But when SKLZ was sold to Implus, a portfolio company of Berkshire Partners that sells athletic, fitness and outdoor accessories, Lloyd saw his opportunity. He would create the Dribble Stick 2.0, a smaller, cheaper version of the first incarnation, find someone to make them, sell them himself and keep a much bigger piece of the pie. The original Dribble Stick is still being sold by SKLZ.
But that's getting ahead of Lloyd's story.
Lloyd was a standout basketball player at Flint Southwestern Academy, graduating in 1995. He got a scholarship to play at Morehead State University in Morehead, Ky., finished his college career at Campbellsville University in Campbellsville, Ky., then played pro ball from 1999-2008, including stints in Mexico, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, England and five years in Finland.
"It was an amazing experience. When you go somewhere as a tourist, you don't really learn about the culture, but when you live in different countries, you get to experience their cultures," said Lloyd. "It was just a great time."
After retiring from pro ball, Lloyd returned to Flint and began working as a coach at basketball camps, again touring the world while doing so. In 2010, he created his first Dribble Stick, buying some PVC pipe from Home Depot, getting advice from some engineers he knew and making devices. They consisted of a thin tube about four feet high attached to a base. About midway up, a small baton stuck out vertically and served as a target for a ball to be dribbled under or over.
Lloyd sold them out of the trunk of his car at basketball camps for two years. In 2012, the Dribble Stick caught the attention of buyers at SKLZ, and they negotiated a license with him to take over manufacturing and marketing. Over the years, some 30,000 Dribble Sticks were sold at about $100 each, with Amazon.com a prime online sales outlet.
From 2015-2019, Lloyd was the assistant coach of the varsity women's basketball team at Saginaw Valley State University, which incorporated the Dribble Stick into some of its practice drills.
In 2018, after SKLZ was sold, Lloyd decided to redesign the Dribble Stick, call it Dribble Stick 2.0, and launch a company, Dribble Stick Training LLC.
Soon after the launch, Lloyd heard about a pitch event in Bay City called Bay Area Pitch a Dream, held at the Bay City Theater and open to companies with less than $1 million in private-sector investments and less than $2.5 million in revenue in the previous 12 months.
There were 40 entrants, and Lloyd made the cut as one of the 10 finalists. After another round of presentations to a panel of judges, he was named the winner, which came with a cash prize of $25,000.
"It was a huge jump start," said Lloyd.
One of the judges was Erin Strang, president and CEO of the Central Michigan University Research Corp., a nonprofit that runs the Mt. Pleasant SmartZone, as well as a large incubator and co-worker space on campus. (See related story, Page 10.)
"You could tell he had the passion and drive behind him, and we invited him to CMURC to help move his business forward," she said. The invitation was to join CMURC's accelerator program, which accepts four very-early stage entrepreneurs a month at no charge to help them with their business plan, marketing, supply chain and other issues facing startups.
"Luke was already doing great things, so we put him in our accelerator program to continue to get him moving in the right direction. Through this process we reworked his business model, and were able to access some business accelerator funds to help with the next version of his prototype and marketing," said Elissa Gagne, the operations manager at CMURC.
The accelerator funding of $15,000 came from the Michigan Economic Development Corp.
Gagne and Strang helped Lloyd find a manufacturer in Bay City, Saginaw Bay Plastics; a warehouse and fulfillment center in Howell, Datapak Services Corp.; a video-production company, Bay City-based Cooke Productions LLC; and a website design and branding company, Grand Rapids-based Spider Marketing Group.
In January, the Dribble Stick 2.0 hit the market. It is smaller and lighter than the original, fits in a backpack and sells for $49.99, about half the price of the original Dribble Stick. He also had an app created, a free download for now that he eventually plans to charge for that allows users to set their smartphone into a holder attached to the vertical tube of the Dribble Stick and follow a series of drills. Drills follow a pattern of dribbling for 45 seconds, then resting for 15. There are right-hand drills, cross-over drills, left-hand drills.
The phone holder costs $9.99 and a workbook to assist in drills, keep track of workouts and offer coaching tips costs $14.99.
"The CMURC has been an integral part. They've been phenomenal," said Lloyd. "Elissa and I work hand in hand. She helped me with Datapak and with my website. She helped me with my pitch deck for investors."
"Luke is what this is all about. The coachability is there. His customers are there. I haven't seen so much perseverance in an entrepreneur in a long time," said Gagne. "He has a lot of skin in the game, and he's going to stick with it."
Lloyd graduated from the three-phase accelerator program and is now a paying co-working tenant of CMURC's Mt. Pleasant incubator.
Just before the coronavirus shut down much of Michigan's economy in March, CMURC had refurbished two shipping containers to serve as meet-and-greets and sales opportunities for its entrepreneurs and their potential customers.
"It was set up trade-booth style," said Gagne. "Customers could come in, touch and feel and purchase. Dribble Stick was the first company we were beta-testing that sort of distribution and sales support. In a better time, we'll get back to it."