From the age of 12, all Derek Rucki wanted was to be a golfer. The Calgary native cracked the top 10 Canadian ranking as a junior, and was well on the way to achieving his dream when he received a full athletic scholarship to play for the powerhouse Texas A&M golf program.
There was just one problem. “Right when I got into Texas I really started getting that entrepreneurial bug,” Rucki explains.
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Once bitten, Rucki found himself devoting more and more time to his business ventures. Day trading from his dorm room, he tripled a $15,000 loan from his parents within his first semester at A&M. Rucki ploughed the profits into an eBay business, and decided his priorities had changed. “I really just decided that I wasn’t going to try and become a professional golfer,” he recalls. “So I went home to pursue my eBay business.”
After that venture floundered, Rucki enrolled at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, at the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. There he launched TLink, the startup for which he won the first Canadian National Competition of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization’s (EO) Global Student Entrepreneurship Awards (GSEA) in Toronto last week. Rucki was chosen from six regional winners, all of whom are currently full-time undergraduate students running businesses that are generating revenue.
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Rucki’s venture stays true to his first love—TLink is a GPS golf wearable. The founders finished developing their product in July 2014, and took it to the GPA Fashion & Demo Experience in Los Angeles the following month. Unsuccessful talks over a deal with a large GPS company forced Rucki to rethink TLink’s business plan.
“We learned that large GPS companies like Garmin and Bushnell are going to be releasing a $99 watch in 18 months,” he says. “We had to decide whether over the next 18 months we were going to grow quickly and be acquired, or pivot into a new market.” Pivot they did, focusing on selling customizable, branded wristbands to corporate clients instead of consumers.
Rucki will represent Canada at the GSEA finals in Washington, D.C., and received $10,000 for his Canadian victory. The cash injection is a small sum compared to the $500,000 in soft commitments he received from some of the 14 judges to whom the student entrepreneurs pitched their businesses.
It’s the perfect outcome for Steve Kearley, president of Benson, Kearley Insurance Brokers and Canadian GSEA Chair. “We want to find these young bright minds that are making a big difference in their communities and not only reward them for what they’re doing, but help them accelerate their growth and their entrepreneurial journey,” he says.
The networking opportunities arising from pitch competitions are particularly useful to young startup founders, with the Canadian GSEA judging panel including success stories like Lavalife founder and former Dragons’ Den star Bruce Croxon and Century 21 Real Estate Canada founder Peter Thomas.
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TLink is all Rucki is thinking about right now, but he intends to maintain these new-found connections. “It’s a network that is extremely valuable not just for this company but for what my future companies might bel,” he says.
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