It came to him in a dream.
After more than five years as the sole proprietor at Upper Park Disc Golf, Jon Richardson had helped build the Northern California-based company into a respected brand known for high quality, comfortable backpack bags. With a reputation for listening to customer feedback and implementing new features with each iteration, Upper Park routinely sold out of each run of their products – to the point where Richardson was also routinely fielding questions about when they'd be back in stock.
But as a bootstrapped company, Richardson was working with minimal financial reserves. In order to have enough stock on hand, he would need the capital to purchase it up-front. It was a challenge that persisted as the bags became more popular.
"My biggest problem, from day one, was cash flow," Richardson said. "Product is expensive."
While Upper Park could have easily been his full-time job, Richardson actually had another one: Instead of hitting the road alongside the Disc Golf Pro Tour in his newly retrofitted RV at the beginning of 2017 like he planned, he only made it as far as one stop. Discraft had a need for a marketing director, and after hitting it off with top brass at the Memorial Championship Richardson sold his rig and moved to Michigan.
He quickly became one of the architects responsible for Discraft's resurgence, helping reignite the brand after it inked a high-profile deal with five-time Open world champion Paul McBeth and a key licensing agreement with the Star Wars franchise.
"Discraft had an advantage of a one-two punch at the end of that first year to tell people 'We're back on the map,'" Richardson said. "It was really exciting; everyone was really happy. It felt like a cohesive team."
Add in a website overhaul, an enhanced social media presence, and subsequent sponsorships of five-time Open Women world champ Paige Pierce and crossover Ultimate/YouTube star Brodie Smith, and Richardson was helping bring the company to new heights.
'I Felt Like I Was Screwing It All Up'
Suffice to say, Richardson was busy. But he was still dedicated to keeping Upper Park customers happy and providing a consistent entrant into an increasingly competitive bag market. But given his focus on Discraft, combined with Upper Park's need for capital, he admitted that it was difficult to sustain both endeavors.
He considered crowdfunding each run of bags and also had brief talks with Discraft and other disc golf companies about purchasing Upper Park. But nothing came to fruition, and Richardson was most concerned about being able to satisfy a loyal following.
"I had some odd clarity that if I went the crowdfunding route I would be able to put one bag back in stock and I had customers daily that were asking me for six different bags," Richardson said. "The company was operating for the benefit of my small little paycheck and not for the customer."
And so, after a rare night last July when he actually remembered what he dreamed, he knew what he needed to do.
"I literally woke up in the morning and said, 'I'm gonna sell the company,'" Richardson said. "I had put so much focus all those years into listening to customer feedback and building a customer base in the right way that I felt like I was screwing it all up. It wasn't fair [to them]."
That led Richardson to Flippa, a website where people can sell their "passion projects, side hustles and online businesses." With a strong sales track record in tow, Richardson earned an editor's choice spot on the site and quickly gained attention. But most of his early contacts were from parties who were interested in a Shark Tank-style investment, where they would toss money at Richardson for a certain percentage stake in Upper Park while he would still run the company.
"At that point, I was still fully committed to Discraft. Between owning a house, being married, I was so burnt out on the day-to-day that I knew that wasn't what I wanted," Richardson said.
"Then I got a message from this guy Martin who wanted to learn more."
Baskets Before Beds
Martin Bispels first discovered disc golf in 1995 during an outing to French Creek State Park in Elverson, Pennsylvania. He fondly recalled seeing a basket and thinking What the hell is that? before finding out that it was a catching device for discs. He and a friend returned to the park a few days later for a round.
"I just loved how it was so different from other sports I had played," said Bispels, who grew up with football, wrestling, and various track and field pursuits. "Here you are throwing this Frisbee – Frisbees by their nature have this fun attitude...and so I thought it's such an interesting sport because the object itself was such a fun symbol."
Like many who happen upon disc golf, though, it took Bispels some time before he revisited it. That'll happen when you have a family, an executive-level career at television retail giant QVC, and, later, a consulting firm focused on helping startups best position and market themselves. But when a friend purchased five acres of land a few years back, the itch returned.
"He has a barn and some land," Bispels said. "And I said to him, 'Hey, why don't we build a course on your property?'"
That endeavor led to weekly rounds and a renewed enthusiasm for disc golf, and when Bispels moved to a new home in 2019, he and his son installed their own private track on the surrounding acreage.
"We had baskets set up and ready to play before we had beds in the house," Bispels said.
Shortly thereafter his business partner Jim Harvey proposed that they take their professional experience and team up for a new entrepreneurial journey. Bispels was game, and Small Cap Ventures was born.
"One day I told him Jim, 'There's lots of great companies out there that need some help,'" Bispels said. "'What if we went out and found one of these companies, acquired one, and I would run it and grow it?'"
After embarking on his search and vetting "a bunch" of companies, Bispels ran across an opportunity that would merge both profession and passion: Upper Park was for sale.
Bispels said he was so enamored with the intersection of the sport and his career that he had to be cautious not to dive in too quickly.
"I really took a step back and said, 'Be objective, really study it and make sure this is a good fit,'" he said. "Then very quickly, as I started seeing metrics about the growth of disc golf in general, the demographics of disc golf, the popularity – not just around the U.S., but around the world – the fact that there were professional organizations and sponsors. It wasn't just a bunch of guys running around in a clubhouse; it had professionalized from what I remembered of it in 1995."
Core Values Front and Center
Confident that he was thinking with both his heart and his head, Bispels made contact. He and Richardson hit it off, connecting over their shared ideals and what are now the company’s public-facing core values:
- Play different
- Create legendary relationships
- Enjoy the ride
- Be a good human
"My tagline everywhere is above all else, do good, and that is what I try to live by, whether it is working with a vendor or a customer," Richardson said. "That was very much confirmed time and time again as I got to know Martin and Jim, the other owner. All they were looking for was a company with passion and where they could continue those values of being good people and working with good people."
Upper Park's reputation for selling out product didn't hurt, either, and a deal came together quickly.
"I thought, 'OK, here's a company that has a strong track record of brand quality, but like most companies needs resources and leadership to grow,'" Bispels said. "In the very first conversation with Jon I said, 'I really like what you built. I'd like to make you an offer for the company, but I'd like to keep you on board in a capacity in doing what you like most.'"
And that's exactly what has happened. While Bispels and Harvey are now Upper Park's owners and will oversee the day-to-day business operations, Richardson (who has since moved on from Discraft to an industry outside disc golf) will remain as the head of product development. It allows him to stay connected with a brand he built and keep his finger on the pulse of the customer base he helped build over so many years – one he has confidence entrusting to Bispels and Harvey.
"The biggest thing I've told people is, right off the bat, I would not leave my company or trust my company with just anyone," Richardson said. "At the end of the day, I would have rather had it die than leave it with someone who wasn't living the core values I'd built from the beginning."
Bispels is already putting those core values to work, with an early donation to educational disc golf charity UPlay (plus plans for more charity activations) and an expanded team of sponsored players who he knows will represent the company's vision.
One of those players, Andrew Fish, recently visited Bispels at his private course and came away with a positive impression. Fish had always appreciated Upper Park for the quality of the bags, but he can also see that the company is trying to do more than just make money.
"A company that follows through on those values can be an impact to the disc golf culture beyond what their bags are," Fish said.
As for the stock problems Richardson used to experience? Bispels and Richardson both said those are a thing of the past, as Small Cap's purchase ensures the company will have a consistent line of capital. Upper Park just opened preorders on a new run last week, but that was simply to generate excitement and let players know the company is "back," Bispels said.
"I wanted to offer preorders so people could secure their bag, know they have a bag coming [for the 2021 season], but also we ordered enough to make sure we're not going to run out of stock again," he said. "That will not happen with us."
So while much remains the same with Upper Park – the values and the quality – it's also a fresh start. Nothing says that more clearly than the pup donning the header on Upper Park’s website, as a glamour shot of Bispels' corgi Brutus now welcomes visitors to the brand. It's a departure from the past, to be sure, but also a lighthearted reintroduction.
"I think that's the tone we want to set," Bispels said. "This is an amazing sport – let's have fun with it."