Phillip Luebke – Founder of Brilliant Swim

[quote style=”boxed”]Get out and talk to people, even when you don’t feel like it. I’m the only employee of Brilliant Swim, and I work from home. That isolation can have all kinds of negative effects, not only on my physical and mental well-being, but also on my ability to make good business decisions. I need to get other thoughts and opinions.[/quote]

Phillip Luebke founded Brilliant Swim in 2012 with the goal of addressing previously unmet needs of swimmers, triathletes and their coaches. His company’s first product, the PaceWatch, is a slim, wearable pace clock that is simple to use and easy to see, allowing swimmers to focus on their swimming.

Prior to founding Brilliant Swim, Luebke worked in a variety of industries, including nonprofit, wireless telecommunications, craft brewing and marketing communications. He also has experience coaching high school, club and masters swimming.

The oldest of four swimming siblings, and one of three who were NCAA Division I student-athletes, Luebke began swimming at age seven and, after taking a break for most of his 20s and 30s, is still swimming today. Luebke trains with the Bozeman Masters and holds the Montana state record for men aged 40-44 in the 200-meter butterfly and the 5,000-meter freestyle. He also holds the school record in the 200-yard butterfly at the University of Northern Iowa, where he was a four-year varsity letter-winner and team captain.

Luebke has a B.A. in marketing from the University of Northern Iowa and an M.B.A. from the Tippie School of Management at the University of Iowa. He lives near Bozeman, Montana with his wife, Karen, his two sons, and two good-sized dogs. In-between swimming, coaching, starting a company and spending time with his family, Phillip enjoys mountain biking and listening to his favorite podcasts on his iPhone.

Where did the idea for Brilliant Swim come from?

I’ve been involved in the sport of swimming as an athlete and a coach for much of my life. I’ve been dreaming up business ideas since I was in college, and maybe even before that. I did a lot of research on my ideas, and even wrote extensive business plans for a couple of them, but I never pulled the trigger. I let a lot of excuses stop me, and I proceeded down the career path of working for someone else.

Fast-forward to 2012. Feeling inspired by seemingly successful entrepreneurs all around me, and feeling unfulfilled in my career, I decided to look back through a bunch of notes I had filed away many years ago in folders labeled “inventions” and “entrepreneurial ideas.” There were quite a few notes and sketches in there for swimming products, most of which I had come up with when I was coaching high school swimming in Iowa City, Iowa in the late 1990s. Since I had just returned to the sport as both a swimmer and a coach in 2011, it seemed like developing a swimming-centric business around some of these ideas just made sense.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I don’t really have a typical day. Lately I’ve been picking up various temporary and/or part-time jobs, so my days are even more unpredictable, and Brilliant Swim has had to take a back-seat. When I do have a “free” day, it’s interrupted by trips to take kids to and from school and activities, so I have to make the most of the windows of time that I have.

If I have a lot of things that need to get done right away, I try not to look at email first thing in the morning, as that tends to suck me in and define my day. I have master “to do” lists, but most days I prioritize 3-5 things that I want to get done on that particular day and strive to make it through those things. I try to have any PaceWatch orders fulfilled early in the afternoon, so that I can drop them off on my way into town to pick up my kids after school.

How do you bring ideas to life?

That has been one of the most challenging things about this venture. My formal education is in marketing and business administration, so I guess I would be what you call a “non-technical founder.” Sure, I built things with wooden blocks, LEGOs, Tinker Toys and an Erector Set when I was a kid, learned computer programming in a summer enrichment program when I was about 12 or 13, and taught myself HTML when I was older, but I am not an engineer or a developer. I need outside help to bring my product ideas to life.

To start with, I try to keep all of my ideas in one place. I have invention notebooks that I record my ideas in, then I make additional notes and drawings as I think of improvements, test prototypes, or find competitors doing similar things. I also use Evernote and Simplenote to keep some notes digitally, although that means that everything isn’t all in one place. I’d love to be able to create prototypes for all of my product ideas myself, but generally, if something can’t be made out of arts and crafts supplies, I have to get outside help. Since I am bootstrapping this venture, I can’t afford to hire all of the talent I need to develop my pipeline of product ideas.

With my first product, the PaceWatch, I used the in-house design services of my manufacturer, and relied heavily on their expertise in making design decisions. For my next product, I have enlisted the services of local product development firm, Zigco, LLC. They hooked me up with a recent graduate of the College of Engineering at Montana State University to help me achieve my design goals while keeping my costs low.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

I love technology, so it’s hard for me not to be excited about all of the latest trends. Even when you narrow it down to just swimming, I see a number of trends impacting the sport. One that has the potential to really disrupt the market for swim training aids is the use of nanotechnology to make electronics waterproof. With solutions like Liquipel, HzO WaterBlock or Rustoleum NeverWet, you can more easily and reliably waterproof cell phones, tablets, and probably any of a growing number of fitness trackers. We’ve already seen all the creative and useful ways that developers have tapped into the sensors in smartphones to provide performance monitoring and biofeedback to people out of the water. Imagine what will happen when the you can use all of the devices and apps in the water that you use out of the water.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

If I think of, or come across, something that I think will help me achieve my business goals, I make note of it. Even if I don’t have time at that particular moment to act on it, at least I have it on file somewhere so when I do have time, I can go back to it.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

Probably selling cars. I knew going into the job that I wasn’t the prototypical car salesman, but I had just gotten married, bought a house, and become a father (I was already a stepfather), so I felt the pressure to make more money, and selling cars seemed like a means to an end. I quit a job I enjoyed to take a job I didn’t think was a good fit for me. That was proven seven months later, when I was fired.

The job was not without value, however. I learned a ton about sales that I was able to use in my next job. I also learned not to be so trusting of my coworkers.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

I would not have quit my full-time job. Instead, I would have tried to cut back on my hours . Assuming that my employer would have been agreeable to this proposal, it would have given me time to work on my business, and I still would have had some income coming in at a decent rate of pay.

The upside of quitting my job is that I was able to put all of my time and energy into my business, and I got to the launch of my first product (and revenue generation) pretty quickly.

The downside is the strain it put on our family finances and the pressure it put on my wife as the sole breadwinner. I was coaching swimming ten hours a week, but that wasn’t a huge moneymaker, and by the fifth month, I was looking for a second part-time job to help pay the bills. Of course, no one wants to hire an entrepreneur with a startup company for a permanent position, because they think (rightly so) that I’ll quit as soon as my business takes off. So, I ended up doing various temporary and part-time entry-level jobs at entry-level pay. It’s been a lose-lose situation. I have to work over 40 hours a week at these jobs to make what I would have made in 20 hours at the job I quit. The net result is that I have about the same amount of time to work on my business as I would have had before I quit my full-time job, but the rest of my time is spent at lower-paying jobs I don’t really care about.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Get out and talk to people, even when you don’t feel like it. I’m the only employee of Brilliant Swim, and I work from home. That isolation can have all kinds of negative effects, not only on my physical and mental well-being, but also on my ability to make good business decisions. I need to get other thoughts and opinions.

I try to make a habit of attending StartupBozeman’s Open Coffee Club every week. It’s an informal gathering at a local coffee shop every Thursday morning. People who are interested in startups show up and share what they’re up to, bounce ideas off of each other, or just listen and learn. Some of the days that I have been the most reluctant to attend have been some of the most rewarding, so I try to make these whenever I can.

I’ve also tried to stay involved with swimming. I’m not coaching as much as I used to, but I try to swim with the local masters team 2-3 times a week. Not only does it keep me connected to one of the primary target markets for Brilliant Swim’s products, but the time in the water is a great opportunity to brainstorm, think through business strategy and come up with improvements to products in development.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

I’ve only been in business for about a year and a half, and selling product for about eight months, so it’s a little early for me to answer this, but I try to keep the PR and marketing machine going. Whether it’s writing and distributing press releases, responding to HARO (Help A Reporter Out) requests, running targeted advertising (online or offline), creating and sharing interesting content via social media, or just talking to people about Brilliant Swim and the PaceWatch in person, it’s important to keep trying to get the word out. A startup with little-to-no marketing budget needs to keep pushing against that big boulder until you gain a little momentum and things get a bit easier.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I guess I would point to my failure to take action on various business ideas I have had over the past 20+ years. I overcame this by deciding at age 41 that I was going to regret it for the rest of my life if I did not at least try to make a go of it. It also helped that I was making less at my full-time job than I had made in any of my previous three jobs. I decided that I’d rather make no money pursuing my own dream than earn less than I’m worth working for someone else.

I recognized that a variety of obstacles had stopped me in the past, so I was determined not to let these things stop me this time around. Here’s how I did that:
* Risk aversion – I’m not a risk-taker, so this was one of the hardest things to overcome. When you start a business, there are a lot of unknowns, and a lot of startups fail. I realized that I had been successful throughout my career heading up projects that I didn’t necessarily know a lot about going in, so I shouldn’t really be afraid of the unknown. I acknowledged that failure was a distinct possibility, so I shouldn’t do anything to increase that possibility or speed up my demise, and I need to be prepared to lose whatever I put into the business monetarily.
* Funding – In my 20s, I didn’t have any savings to tap into, and I didn’t want to ask people for money to start my business. I had set aside a few thousand dollars in 2005 to start a business, but that had evaporated by 2012. One benefit to starting a business in my 40s is that I had some retirement savings built up, which I was able to borrow from to fund my startup. My wife assumed the burden of providing for the family while I pursued my dream, which was a huge sacrifice for her, but invaluable in making this work.
* Mentors – My dad is a retired dentist and my mom was a household wrangler, but mostly, I come from a long line of farmers. Some were pioneers, but I don’t really have any entrepreneur role models in my family. My maternal grandfather was a small business owner, but he died when I was two. Neither did I have any close friends who were entrepreneurs that I could turn to for advice. To compensate, I started attending StartupBozeman events, which not only connected me with other aspiring and successful entrepreneurs, but led me to other groups that support entrepreneurs in my area (such as SCORE of Bozeman, Prospera and BEAR). I’m not naturally outgoing, so I had to force myself to operate outside of my comfort zone just to attend these events and meet other people.
* Paralysis by analysis – In previous “attempts” at starting a business, I got bogged down in researching, writing and revising my business plans. Those businesses never got off the ground. This time around, I was committed to not making that same mistake, so I tried to avoid writing a business plan. Instead, I used the business model canvas, and any planning documents I put together were comprised of bullet points, not essays. I also removed my safety net, by quitting my job. That encouraged me to start generating revenue quickly, and put a premium on action over planning.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

This is hard for me, because I like to imagine that I will eventually be able to execute all of my business ideas.

I’d love to see a bike taxi (pedicab/rickshaw) business here in Bozeman, Montana. Our summers are pretty short, but we enjoy a lot of sunny days, and we get a bunch of tourists because of our proximity to Yellowstone National Park. We already have a robust downtown district, and there are 2-3 boutique hotels in the planning or construction phase downtown. A bike taxi would be a great way for hotel guests to get out and enjoy our shops, restaurants, bars, theaters, farmer’s markets, outdoor concerts and festivals.

With Montana State University here in town and a high concentration of fit, outdoor-oriented people living in Bozeman, I would think that it woule be pretty easy to find willing and capable employees. As a bonus, Bozeman is relatively flat, so you’re not likely to wear our your employees or equipment as quickly as you might in hillier cities.

I’m not sure how lucrative a bike taxi service would be, but it could have a number of benefits for residents of Bozeman, including:
* One more unique attraction/activity for visitors
* Reduced vehicle emissions
* Reduced demand for parking
* Increased visibility for cyclists on Bozeman roads
* Another alternative to drinking and driving

Like Uber and Lyft, you could have a mobile phone app to locate and request a pedicab, and eliminate the need for employees to carry cash.

I’m sure someone is successfully operating bike taxi service in other cities. If you are, feel free to move to Bozeman and start one here.

Tell us something about you that very few people know?

When I was 13 or 14, I was awarded the Medal of Merit from the Boy Scouts of America for my quick thinking and actions when one of my fellow scouts had the side of his knee torn open by a falling boulder. The Medal of Merit is awarded “to a youth member or adult leader who has performed some outstanding act of service of a rare or exceptional character that reflects an uncommon degree of concern for the well-being of others.”

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

I try a lot of mobile apps and cloud-based services, but pay for very few of them. Here are some of my favorites:
* Shopify – Shopify gives me a feature-rich, reliable, fast, flexible, professional-looking e-commerce site. Sure, I could have built my own WordPress-based e-commerce site from scratch, but being a one-man operation, it’s comforting to know that this is one extremely critical element of my business that I don’t really have to worry about. I also like the fact that Shopify’s $14/mo. starter plan has enough features to get your business up and running. To top it all off, Shopify has amazing and relevant blog posts for store owners and incredible customer support.
* Google Apps for Business – I am a long-time Gmail user. When I first started my business, I tried using a mail client for my business email, but I felt like I had been transported to the 1990s, so after a few months, I switched to Google Apps for Business. I’m much happier now, although it took me a while to get over the idea that I would actually have to pay for Gmail.
* QuickBooks – I started out using a cloud-based accounting solution, but everybody and their brother told me that I needed to be using QuickBooks, so I switched. I don’t really like it, but it meets my bookkeeping and financial reporting needs.
* MailChimp – I first used MailChimp in 2008 and loved how easy it was to create and manage email marketing campaigns, so when it came time to select an email marketing platform for my own business, I knew what I wanted to use. The fact that it is free until you get to 2,000 subscribers sold it for me. It also integrates nicely with Shopify and Survey Monkey, two other services I use.
* SurveyMonkey – SurveyMonkey is another tool I used in a past life that I use regularly at Brilliant Swim. I use it in three ways: 1) To do market research on product concepts, 2) For post-purchase surveys immediately after customers buy from me, and 3) For my monthly customer satisfaction surveys. I am able to do all this on the free plan.
* Olark – As a new, small, largely unknown startup with only one product, I understand that I don’t have a lot of credibility with first-time visitors to my website, so I want to do everything I can to answer their questions and alleviate any fears they may have about making a purchase. Olark lets me have real time chat on my website, just like larger companies. What’s really cool is that I can see in real-time when I have visitors to my website, where they are from, how they found my website, what pages they are visiting, how long they have been on my site, and if they have placed anything in their shopping cart…and I’m getting all of this on their free plan! When I can afford to, this is one of the first services I am going to upgrade to a paid plan.
* Dropbox – I don’t have Dropbox for Business, but I do use my personal Dropbox account to give me easy access to my important business files wherever I am. It also gives me a little redundancy, in case disaster strikes my business computer.
* Click-N-Ship – I fulfill all of my own orders. The United States Postal Service website makes it easy to print shipping labels with prepaid postage. I don’t have to buy a postage meter or pay any subscription fees, and I get a discount on the postage. Sadly, the downloadable (and also free) Click-N-Ship for Business program does not offer all of those same benefits, so I stick with the web version. One downside to the web version of Click-N-Ship is that it does not work with the thermal label printer I just bought, so lately I have been using PayPal Ship Now for domestic shipments.
* Buffer – Buffer makes it easy to post updates across multiple social media accounts. I especially like the flexibility it gives me to schedule the timing of the posts and adjust my messaging for the various social media sites. I have a tendency to be a binge sharer on social media. Buffer lets me spread out that sharing so that I don’t overwhelm my audience.
* Mention – I’ve tried various social media monitoring services. Twilert and Talkwalker Alrts are fine tools, but Mention’s free plan seems to be more robust. They just launched an iOS app, which has allowed me to respond quicker to relevant mentions.
* Fishead Analytics РSince downloading the Fishead Analytics iPhone app, I rarely log into Google Analytics in a browser anymore. The app lets me take a quick glance at the website metrics I care about quickly and easily. I use this app at least once a day.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Bootstrapping Your Business: Start and Grow a Successful Company with Almost No Money by Greg Gianforte and Marcus Gibson

There is some great advice in this book for any kind of startup, although a significant portion of the concepts only apply if you are entering the B2B space. If you’re familiar with The Lean Start-Up, you’ll quickly recognize that some of the concepts that Eric Ries is known for are not new ideas. Gianforte was pushing the idea of an MVP and customer validation years prior. The book is a quick, enjoyable read, filled with real-life examples, and lots of lists and “now you do it” activities. Some of the web marketing advice is a little dated, but there are still some solid core concepts regarding lead generation via the internet.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

In the weeks and months leading up to, and after, my decision to quit my job and start my own business, I read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs and read, watched and listened to advice from Eric Ries, Steve Blank, Brad Feld and Greg Gianforte. I’m also a loyal listener of the podcast “This Week in Startups.” Host Jason Calacanis can be a bit narcissistic, and overly focused on investor-funded startups, but he has incredible guests that make almost every episode a learning experience.

Finally, my attendance at two events, the first TEDxBozeman in 2012 and the first Startup Weekend Missoula in 2013, were instrumental in me believing that I could create and build a successful startup, and Fast Company and Inc. magazine have always been informative and inspiring to my inside entrepreneur. I know these aren’t people, but people created them, and they influenced my thinking just as much, if not more than, the entrepreneurs mentioned above.


Phillip Luebke’s Email: [email protected]
Phillip Luebke on About.Me: