Juneau inventor bets his money, time on golf Pop-a-Tee

PHOTO/Michael Penn/The Juneau Empire
JUNEAU -- Thomas Knightlinger put his money where his ideas are, packed the finished product into a big crate and took off for Georgia and Florida recently to see what reactions he would get.

Knightlinger is a Juneau inventor who came up with a golf tee dispenser called Pop-a-Tee. It’s about the size of a pack of cigarettes, can be clipped on a pocket or golf bag, "and all it takes is one finger to work it," sparing golfers the indignity of fumbling around in the lint and loose change of their slacks looking for a tee, he said.

First he headed for the Atlantic Gift Show in Atlanta, and then to the 2002 PGA Merchandise Show, which is expected to attract 53,000 visitors, in Orlando, Fla., from Jan. 24-27. Of the 1,500 exhibits, Pop-a-Tee will be the only Alaska booth.

Booth rental is $3,000, and there are additional charges for electricity, carpet and even chairs, not to mention $9.75 hot dogs, condo rental (cheaper than a hotel) and plane tickets.

"It’s been an interesting adventure because the average person does not understand what it takes to get a product from a countertop display to where they will reach into their pockets to pay for it," Knightlinger said. "It’s an interesting thing -- but it’s scary, too."

Knightlinger and his partners have been working on this idea since last March. Pop-a-Tee (patent pending) holds 12 to 13 tees, measures 1 7/8 to 2 1/8 inch long and retails for $9.95 in utilitarian injection-molded plastic. For custom orders, or the upscale duffer, Chris and Tim Bradley of Tim’s Woodworks will produce a wooden version in birch, oak or walnut for about $20, said Chris Bradley, showing off an example in purple heartwood.

Holding up a giant version of Pop-a-Tee bearing a "your logo here" circle, Knightlinger said, "it’s a good promotional product as well as a personal-use item."

The officers of the corporation are Knightlinger and his fiancee Ann Pittman, the Bradleys and Sandy Lichtenberger, Knightlinger’s sister, a network marketing professional. Dick Bradley, father of Chris and Tim, designed their 8-by-10-foot booth, drawing on his background designing movie sets.

Knightlinger and Pittman have spent months on the Internet, researching price and packaging and sending e-mails.

Knightlinger said the original concept just popped into his head one day when he was reading a book. He tried the idea out on Pittman, who liked it, and then he and Lichtenberger set to work in his garage. When they had a model, they brought the Bradleys into it.

"We went through a lot of prototypes and development," Chris Bradley said. Not including work hours, the group has invested $20,000, including a trademarked logo, a Web site and a countertop display box.

"If we sell one or 1 million, we can honestly say we gave it a try," Knightlinger said. "We don’t want to sit back 10 years from now and say, ’We should have done this.’ "

Another Knightlinger invention, Napper, is going into travel shops around the world. It’s a compact headrest that clamps onto an airplane seat, and can be adjusted up and down without choking the traveler. The major distributor is Don Mark Solomon Inc. of Atlanta.

Knightlinger, a former billboard painter, was born in Indiana and grew up in Alaska. After serving in Vietnam and spending some time on the East Coast, he’s back in the state.

He points out that there are 600 million golfers in the world, and golf is a recreational sport growing at 17 percent a year.

"All we want is one-tenth of 1 percent -- that’s our marketing goal, the rule of thumb in a product," he said.

01/21/2002 - 8:00pm