The Hip Check – It Pays to Network…

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It pays to be in the right place at the right time. For Larry Sharon, a plant manager at The Melanson Company, a metal fabrication plant in Rutland, and Bram Kleppner of Danforth Pewter, being at one of the Vermont Manufacturing Extension Center’s (VMEC) innovation & growth workshops in May 2009, led to a new company, The HipCheck, and the launch of an innovative product for golf enthusiasts. In addition, Kleppner credits learning from one of the VMEC-sponsored Innovation Engineering Leadership Institutes in helping him assess the viability of the product and how best to market it.

The HipCheck, a small plastic device that attaches to a golfer’s hip to aid in alignment and train in correct hip rotation, is one of those ingenious inventions that makes one wonder why it hadn’t been invented already. “It’s so obvious, it makes you say ‘why didn’t I think of that,?’” says Kleppner.

Sharon is the man who did, crediting the product with taking 10 strokes off his game in one summer. In golf, a very small change in one’s stance can result in a very large change in where a ball lands, which is why proper alignment with the flag is crucial. Typically, a golfer addresses this by laying his driver on the ground, sighting it with the flag to line it up correctly. The golfer then places his toes against the driver, picks it up and makes his shot – a process Kleppner calls “cumbersome” at best.

The HipCheck provides an alternative. The plastic pointer, which sells for $19.95, clips to a golfer’s belt right above his hipbone, allowing him to stand up straight and glance down. If the pointer is not pointed at the ball, the golfer adjusts his stance until it is. “We figured even if we could reliably take three strokes off someone’s game they’d be happy to pay for this,” says Kleppner.

Kleppner learned of Sharon’s idea when the two paired up in a larger group at VMEC’s workshop for the assignment of coming up with a “Fail Fast Fail Cheap” action plan to bring a case study product to market. Sharon asked the group to instead use an actual product he had invented to improve his golf game. After the exercise, Kleppner approached Sharon about his idea. Sharon admitted he thought the product had commercial potential, but didn’t know where to start. Kleppner turned to his friend, Chris Patton, an entrepreneur and golfer. Patton tested the product himself, had some pros try it, and deemed it a success. He and Kleppner then contacted Progressive Plastics, an injection molding company in Williamstown, Vt, to beginning manufacturing the product.

The men launched TheHipCheck, LLC., licensing the product from Sharon, and began their first production run in mid-December, taking the product to a PGA Merchandise Show in January. There, they received additional interest in it as a tool for encouraging proper hip rotation. They now sell it through their web site as well as at some pro shops and shows.

Kleppner drew on tools he learned at Doug Hall’s Innovation Engineering Leadership Institute in assessing and marketing the product. Hall says it is necessary for the success of any innovation to make apparent to consumers its “overt benefit, dramatic difference and real reason to believe.”

“We took it straight from his book,” says Kleppner. “The overt benefit? Our packaging says in big letters, “Better Golf in 30 Seconds.” The dramatic difference? I described using this versus laying the club on the ground and that whole rigmarole. And, the real reason to believe? We guaranteed it a 110% or your money back. Doug also talks about kitchen table logic – does the thing just make sense when you describe it, and we felt it had that as well.”

Kleppner also praises VMEC in providing the opportunity for making this connection happen. “The value of the networking that VMEC provides among Vermont companies allows for the fertilization of ideas and a new company to develop out of it,” he concludes.

Story credit: Kim J. Gifford

The Hip Check – It Pays to Network…