A group of Quad-City bowling buddies hope to leave a mark on the sport they love with their new creation: a high top bowling shoe.
More than a year after one of the partners, Mark Clayburne, set out to design a shoe that would offer better ankle support, their Hollmark Shoes now are on the market.
The shoes — available for now only in men's sizes and in three color combinations — extend above a bowler's ankle and beyond that of traditional bowling shoes. But Clayburne, of Bettendorf, said "They're really a mid top."
Among bowlers, ankle issues are a regular complaint especially for older adults, said Rob Hausman, president of the startup Hollmark Shoes Trade Holdings, Davenport.
But at Big River Bowling, the shoes also are finding a strong following among the teenage set. The Davenport bowling alley is the home lanes for Hausman and Clayburne, who bowl on the same team, and their business partner Dan Schons, who bowls in the same league.
"We have younger kids who want the new, hip shoes," Hausman said, adding he hopes their new offering can draw youth back into the sport. Hollmark's black and gold option has proven to be a hot seller with the young Bettendorf bowlers.
Clayburne, the company's vice president, credits his teenage son Holland for providing the inspiration for the invention. He recalled many times picking his son up from bowling and "Holland would tell me 'Dad, my ankles hurt.'" Those ailments got the father and amateur bowler thinking how a high top shoe would be as beneficial to bowlers as other athletes.
So for nearly three months, Clayburne worked on a shoe design before sharing the idea with Hausman, who at the time was Holland's bowling coach. The company name combines Clayburne's son's names, Holland and Mark Jr.
The pair, both entrepreneurs, soon recruited Schons, of Davenport, to be an investor in their new venture. Clayburne is the owner of Alenajs Inflatables, an inflatable rental company in Bettendorf.
Hausman, an accountant at the VA Hospital, Iowa City, founded an armored shirt company, Legacy Safety and Security. The compression shirts with armor built in are used by the military, law enforcement and other first responders.
Of their new venture, Hausman said they've had "the typical startup issues" including having to first raise capital through a GoFundMe page.
For a long six to nine months, the partners used Hausman's connections to manufacturers in China to get a prototype made.
"We had the top (part of the shoe) as a prototype for three months, but no one could understand the bottoms," Clayburne said.
Hausman said "a communication problem" arose as they tried to explain to suppliers the type of material needed for the shoe's bottoms, or slides. Eventually, his connections led them to a Chinese company that already produces bowling shoes for one of the major brands.
"The shoe is as important as the ball," said Schons, who brings his own business acumen to the team. The vice president of Hollmark Shoes, he works as vice president of finance and marketing for Promotion Fulfillment Center, a distribution company in Clinton.
After all the startup challenges, the company's first shipment of 900 pairs arrived in October. Locally, they are sold at Twisterz Pro Shop, the bowling pro shop at Big River Bowling. They also are sold through Hollmark's website, hollmarkshoes.com, as well as at a dozen other bowling pro shops nationwide and through Amazon Prime.
"They're selling great," said Twisterz owner Scott Wohlwend, who has been selling 20 pair a month.
He said customers are satisfied. "They're a comfortable, well-constructed shoe and they're for everybody, not just top bowlers."
For Hausman, a 20-year U.S. Navy veteran, the business venture interested him because of his own service-related disabilities including a replacement knee. "I personally know how hard it is for guys like me to do activities, like bowling, while dealing with discomfort," he said.
But the company has had to get creative to sell its new invention. "It's hard to grow a new brand," Hausman admitted. "Getting Amazon Prime, that was huge for us."
The trio also have turned to social media, spreading the word about their high top shoes including offering a 300 Challenge, in which, they will refund the price of a pair of shoes to anyone who scores a perfect game within one year of purchasing them. They also ask customers to guess their team's weekly score for a free pair and to send videos and photographs of them bowling in their Hollmark Shoes to post on Facebook.
But once sales and revenues begin to grow, the men already plan to add more color combinations, an option with removable slides and a women's line in pink.
Asked if the shoes are improving their own games, Hausman said "We're in first place and we've never been in first place."