Brad Payne came up with the idea for a new product while on a golf trip in Scotland, the birthplace of the sport. For 10 days in the late spring of 2018, the 39-year-old former digital advertising manager for Apple News played courses where people had been whacking balls since the early 15th century, when the game became such a distraction to Scottish youth that in 1457 King James II instituted a ban that lasted nearly half a century.
Payne was waiting to tee off at Royal Dornoch when he was struck by the disparity between the high-tech aesthetic of new equipment and the ancient setting, the sport’s rich tradition of tweeds and tartans, waxed canvas and leather, what Payne calls “the fabrics and materials from the history of golf.” “You’re sitting there about to tee off on a course that’s 500 years old and you’re using a pushcart that’s neon green and covered in molded plastic,” Payne says. “Why isn’t there a pushcart designed for the golf course?”
Returning home to Austin, Payne enlisted the help of his brother-in-law, Bryce Gibson, a Boston-based industrial designer whose company, Boston Labs, specializes in baby strollers. Both men are avid golfers. Payne began playing with his dad when he was six, and Gibson played on his college team. Both felt that the game’s equipment had grown a little too techie. “Like the razor,” Gibson says. “Let’s add five blades! Six blades!” Golf cart design became mainly focused on “how tight can I fold it. Put a knob here, another hinge there. Put a racing stripe on it!”
Trying to create the smallest folding pushcart is, according to Payne, “a fine goal. A very utilitarian goal. But because of that, the industry kind of converged around a similar design. Everybody kind of copied everyone else.” The starting point for the Walker Trolley, Gibson says, was not how the thing was going to look in the trunk of a car. “Should it fold simply? Yeah, but that shouldn’t drive the design. We want it to present your bag in a beautiful way, using the materials that respect the past.”
Payne and Gibson began by sending sketches back and forth. They also shared images of things that evoked golf’s golden age, the classic Bobby Jones era of the 1920s: English prams and old bicycles and the Ford Model A Roadster with its prominent white-wall tires. They also studied the carts that postal workers use. “They’re indestructible and highly functional,” Gibson says.
Funded by friends and family, they began producing prototypes, subjecting each one to a 65-point test that included things like an uneven surface test (a giant treadmill embedded with steel bars that each prototype, loaded with 50 pounds, had to run on for 72 hours) and folding the cart 5,000 times. “It looks simple to use on the outside, and it is easy for anybody to use, but there’s a lot of complex engineering that goes into that,” Payne says.
Gibson and his Boston Labs partner, Kurt MacLaurin, took Payne with them to tour factories in China and Taiwan, eventually settling on a Taiwanese manufacturer Boston Labs has worked with for more than a decade. Gibson says he’d love to manufacture more products in the U.S. but the manufacturing network in this country is so scattered that coordinating with different parts makers becomes complicated and therefore more expensive. “I can talk to a tube supplier in Ohio and a leather supplier in Texas, and they have such rigid specifications for each one of their elements that they’re not able to work together.” In Asia, when Gibson or MacLaurin need to make a tweak, they can walk from one manufacturer to another, resolving issues quickly.
Payne began taking orders for the $399 cart in November 2019 through a Kickstarter campaign and then a couple months later on the Shopify website he designed himself. He uses a third-party vendor for fulfillment. The first production run sold out, and Payne began shipping to customers the second week in July. He’s now gearing up for a second run.
In addition to the U.S. market, Payne has his eye on the U.K. and Europe and Australia, where, unlike in America, motorized carts are frowned upon and walking the courses is more prevalent. The global golf equipment market is projected to reach $17 billion by the end of the decade. Hand carts represent just a fraction of that total, and the European market represents the largest share, about $350 million. One report projects that push and pull cart sales in the U.S. will grow by more than $100 million before the end of 2024.
“The goal is to sell as many Walker Trolleys as possible and keep innovating,” Payne says. “But we don’t necessarily consider ourselves a pushcart company. We consider ourselves a company that makes golf equipment for those who love to walk the game.”
Right now, as the pandemic continues and more and more players choose to hoof it from green to green, the trends may favor Payne’s vision. He’s as eager as anyone to wave bye-bye to the coronavirus but hopes walking remains “the new normal” after the pandemic. “I mean, obviously, that would be great for our business, but I think it would be great for the game here in the United States. Just to see people out walking and being healthy.”