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Business Spotlight: At the Speed of Startup
How triathlon racing spawned a unique product and international business from Ozark
SOLUTION MINDED: Created out of necessity, Brian Mansker now sell 15,000-20,000 T1 Pro belts a year.
3/20/2017 1:13 PM
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T1 Pro Race Belt
: Brian Mansker
: 544 Trout Road, Ozark, MO 65721
: (417) 860-5898
: Race belts for triathletes
Brian Mansker is in the race of his life.
He’s hustling on an entrepreneurial adventure with a niche product for triathletes globally while also working full time selling office equipment for Copy Products Inc.
The double-duty demands and risks in startup life are worth the rewards, he says.
“I pulled 100 percent of my retirement out to start manufacturing. That’s a scary deal,” Mansker says of developing his T1 Pro Race Belt. “But this is my new retirement.”
Unforeseen over four years ago, Mansker has spent those years producing and distributing the triathlete belt with a magnetic clip unique to the market at the time. His idea became a reality watching his competitive triathlete son fumble with his belts transitioning from the swimming stages during races where seconds are precious. Triathletes wear belts around their waists to hang their racing numbers and hold any necessities, such as energy gels, during the typical 30-mile races, based on international Olympic standards.
In seeking a solution, Mansker says he only found the same male-female, backpack-style clips.
“It was at that point we said, ‘We can do something a little better,’” Mansker recalls.
That drive led to the T1 Pro Race Belt and a magnetic buckle that holds 8-10 pounds of pressure while only weighing 28 grams.
“Athletes find it super fast in transition and super light when they’re racing,” he says.
Organized as Advantage Pro Sports, Mansker sells 15,000-20,000 T1 Pro belts through 100 U.S. stores, e-commerce and distributors in 12 countries.
The path to production
Entrepreneurs know it’s one thing to have an innovative idea and it’s altogether different to move that idea into a functioning business plan.
Mansker says key for his concept was connecting with other manufacturers that already had laid the foundation for cost-effective production.
“We started building relationships with local companies that were doing manufacturing. Kuat bike racks really helped us get that ball rolling early on,” he says.
As too often has been the story, Mansker says American manufacturers priced his product beyond the bounds of his business plan.
“Unfortunately, what we found was a company makes the injection molds, and a company does the injecting. Everybody here is trying to make all their money at once,” Mansker says.
The cost differential was $30,000-$40,000 for a mold made stateside compared with $2,500-$3,000 internationally.
“It’s substantial,” he says, noting he believes it’s because the international mold companies also handle the injections, so they make money over time as molds are refilled. “We tried to source locally and within a several state region.”
The manufacturing work landed in Ningbo, China.
“They’re able to source everything in a very small area. And it comes to me completely packaged ready for retail,” he says.
T1 Pro is based in Ozark, where Mansker owns 6 acres and warehouses his product.
His one-man business is streamlined through manufacturing channels and a distribution network that brings the belts through the Port of Los Angeles to Kansas City and then trucked to his property.
The art of magnetism
In the early years, very few racers knew of the new T1 product. Mansker’s next step was to get on store shelves.
“We started working through different expos and races and started connecting with retailers supporting those races,” he recalls. “It definitely snowballs. The more product you have out there, the more people are calling and saying we want to carry those also.”
One of those connections was Fred Phillips of DLT Events in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. Phillips’ company manages about 25-30 sporting events a year throughout Arkansas and Texas. A key for him is providing the participating athletes with high-quality gear.
“We’re kind of choosy with who we work with,” says Phillips, whose been in the business 20 years. “People are always looking for things that are gong to make them faster and make their race easier. That product, you don’t have to think about it. You slap it on and you go.”
Think Air Jordans for triathletes. At least, that’s Mansker’s target.
Along the way, he discovered a marketing trick. T1 provides professional triathletes with belts under one condition: “We customize it with their names or logos and tell them, ‘You can’t keep this. You have to give this away at every race,’” he says. “So when they’re in Dubai and Australia and Costa Rica, all over the world racing, they’re handing out this product no one’s ever seen. And it’s the top pros in the world doing it.”
He rattles off the names Javier Gomez, Meredith Kessler and Sarah Haskins. When those pros give their belts away, the recipients call Mansker and ask where to get one or how they can become a distributor.
In Springfield, T1 Pro belts are sold at Bicycle Outlet and Fleet Feet Sports. He says about three out of four belts are sold online versus in stores. They retail for $25 apiece, though a traditional plastic clasp is priced at $15.
Declining to disclose revenues and financial projections, Mansker’s goal this year is to sell 25,000-50,000 belts.
The international businessman is not stopping with the two belt lines. A third, designed with a larger pocket for more personal storage, is in development. So is a key distribution deal in the works for Australia and New Zealand.
“That’s a big step for our company,” he says.
If it’s signed, Mansker says the company would hit its annual goal in the first quarter. “The distributors we’re working with now are talking about that many units in single orders,” he says.
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