What started as a career as a golf course superintendent has gone in a different direction for Jason VanBuskirk, who co-founded the tech startup Turf Cloud. The company was acquired by GreenSight Agronomics in November 2017. Photo by Rick Bern
Most of us are familiar with Thomas Edison’s definition of genius as 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. Here’s another one you’ve probably heard a million times: Necessity is the mother of invention.
Jason VanBuskirk, who founded one of the golf industry’s rare tech startups (and whose company was recently acquired by another), bridles at the genius label. “I’ve always thought of myself as the resident geek,” he says. But if we meld the two aphorisms above and salt that mixture with a serious case of viral encephalitis, we’ve outlined the factors that led one superintendent — whose work-life balance was sorely lacking — to build two companies that help fellow superintendents combat the same issue.
VanBuskirk, a GCSAA Class A superintendent and 13-year association member, founded Turf Cloud in 2016 with fellow superintendent and University of Rhode Island turf grad Stephen Ohlson. The firm’s proprietary online dashboard, Turf Dash, gathers for turf managers the entirety of a property’s relevant data in one place via three core programs or “bins”:
- CourseTrakk, a digital job board that helps superintendents manage and monitor ongoing labor allocations
- EquipTrakk, a digital logbook that allows superintendents and equipment managers, together, to keep tabs on equipment coming into the shop for routine maintenance or emergency repairs
- AgTrakk, which enables superintendents, their assistants and any staff member to log and monitor all agricultural practices and inputs performed each day, each week and each month on any square meter of the property
“This is the sort of data most supers, in an ideal world, attempt to gather, analyze and deploy right now, but superintendents know better than anyone just how much time that requires,” VanBuskirk says. “Turf Dash streamlines the process by digitizing it, storing it in the cloud and allowing the super or any authorized staff to pull it down in one accessible place — a phone, a tablet, a desktop computer.”
What has also become clear: This technology, and the time it saves, enables more sustained, far better analysis of this information.
“I formulated the ideas behind Turf Cloud based on running a 36-hole golf club, something I did for eight years,” VanBuskirk says. “But then my life changed suddenly, and I didn’t have the time I once did. I wasn’t arriving at 4:30 a.m. and wiping down the job board. I wasn’t there to do that sort of thing, lots of things. But I still needed to keep tabs on my staff, my assistants. I still needed budget numbers, input information, all that stuff, and I needed remote access so I could dial in from wherever I was — the hospital, my house or halfway down the turnpike.
“I used to be the sort of super who went in on Sunday night, just to get this sort of thing in place — to get everything in place — for the week to come. Looking back, I can see my work-life balance was not good. I just didn’t realize how bad it really was until Gloria got so sick.”
The all-American dream
VanBuskirk had always been a man with a plan. He was in a hurry too. The Massachusetts native grew up outside Boston, in Framingham. At 15, after he’d started working course crews at nearby Wayland Country Club, he got it in his head to become a golf course superintendent. He graduated from the turf program at the University of Rhode Island in 2006, with the goal of a head superintendent’s gig by the time he was 30. Before he’d even left URI, he was offered an assistant position at the private Oakley Country Club in Watertown, Mass.
He was 21 when he met Gloria Bennett. She was 18. VanBuskirk fell hard, he says, for this “fiery little redhead with no filter.”
“We met young. We were both kids,” he says. “But I knew from the get-go I was going to marry her. We grew up together, and from the beginning, we agreed that I would work work and she would work home. First four years, that’s just what we did. Job, house, dog, kids, white-picket fence — the all-American dream.”
VanBuskirk (far right) developed Turf Cloud along with his partner, Stephen Ohlson, as a tool to help superintendents manage a property’s relevant data. Here, he reviews the product with superintendent Matt Powell (standing, second from right) and his team at Dedham (Mass.) Country and Polo Club. Photo by Rick Bern
After VanBuskirk had been at Oakley for two years, there was a changing of the guard. The head superintendent left, and the resulting chaos left a bad taste. He wasn’t ready for the head job, he reckoned, but the routine of an assistant’s life didn’t thrill him either, so he bolted and took a job with Scotts Lawn Care. “I wanted to try something else in the industry, and that was a good gig in a lot of ways,” VanBuskirk says. “I learned a lot of things — but one of those things was I don’t want to be pushing a spreader all my life.”
After five months, he applied for an assistant’s position at Stow Acres Country Club, a 36-hole, daily-fee facility located just inside I-495, Boston’s outer beltway that just happens to be dotted with dozens of tech companies, from giants to wee startups. Outside of Silicon Valley, it’s one of the largest concentrations of tech in the country.
“After nine months, my boss at Stow comes to me and says he’s leaving. I was not ready, but I put in for it, and got it,” VanBuskirk recalls. “That was March 2008. I was 24. I had met my goal, six years early.
“I was pretty green, but I threw myself into the job. It was a great facility — a place where I could try all sorts of cultural practices that might not have even been attempted at a private club. I got involved in the New England (golf course superintendents) association and built a network. I learned a ton from those guys. And, like I said, I was the resident geek — the techie they came to with all those types of questions.
“At Stow, I had a staff that, in turn, I was able to raise up and teach and mentor,” he says. “We hosted a Junior PGA and all sorts of Massachusetts Golf Association championships. Great ownership. Two great golf courses. I worked ridiculous hours there, did a lot of cool things and had a lot of fun.”
A ‘gut-wrenching’ life change
In late 2013, with the Christmas holiday approaching, Gloria VanBuskirk (right, with Jason) started complaining of stomach pains. When they didn’t pass and actually worsened one night, Jason rushed her to the local hospital. Everyone thought she was suffering from ulcers. Jason figured they’d head home straight away with some medication, maybe schedule a follow-up. But doctors kept her that night. Then the next night. And the next.
On day four, she experienced a grand mal seizure, lost consciousness and suffered violent muscle contractions — the type of seizure most people associate with an epileptic episode. Indeed, a grand mal seizure is most often caused by epilepsy, but it can sometimes be triggered by other health problems.
Then Gloria had another seizure, and doctors rushed her to Beth Israel Hospital in Boston.
“I wouldn’t talk to her again for two and a half months,” her husband recalls.
The doctors at Beth Israel were baffled by her symptoms at first. They monitored her closely for two days before putting Gloria in an induced coma to stop the seizures. Her diagnosis was delayed, but she was ultimately diagnosed with viral encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain tissue caused by viral infections. Even those who recover from viral encephalitis can suffer irreversible damage to brain function. For some, the result is a vegetative state.
Still in her coma, Gloria fought off pneumonia four times. “Infection after infection,” Jason says. “I was there every day. I blogged about everything, so she could remember who we were, who she was, what she’d gone through. We had such amazing support from friends, family, guys in the industry, on email and Twitter, donations coming in. ... But there was no getting around the reality, either. It was gut-wrenching.”
Gloria was coaxed from her coma after 10 weeks. There was damage, but doctors were confident she could relearn the functions she’d lost. She spent two months at a resident rehabilitation center, learning to walk and talk again. She returned home, but the lives of Gloria, Jason, their children and their extended family were forever changed.
“I praise God for her ability to walk now — and talk and exercise,” Jason says. “But she still has seizures. She had one today, and I talked her through it over the phone. I’ve carved out a soft spot in my heart for people with this sort of condition. It’s debilitating. She can’t drive, can’t walk sometimes.
“I didn’t work for 90 days that winter. The first day I went back to work was the first day she went into rehab. The owners at Stow were the best. They said at the beginning that it was all about family, and they backed that up. They paid me the whole time.”
But the Jason VanBuskirk who eventually returned to the Stow maintenance complex was a different guy. He was more religious, for starters. He was no longer that superintendent who went in on Sunday nights. Most of his priorities had utterly changed.
“At that point, I was fictitiously living this life as a superintendent,” VanBuskirk says. “My wife was healing, but at a level where she needed me — a lot. There were a lot of workdays I just missed. I remember the next 18 months as a difficult time. Gloria was improving, but I just couldn’t devote the time to my job that I once had.
“(Stow Acres owner) Walt Lankau and his wife, Collette — they were so great, so understanding and supportive. But then they had the opportunity to sell the place. Walt came to me in December 2015 and says, ‘Look, I don’t know how this is going to shake out, but I feel I need to let you know, this might happen. The sale. You need to be thinking about the next option.’ That was a hard thing for him to tell me, knowing me and my story. But I’m grateful that he leveled with me.
“In a lot of ways, the decision to move ahead with Turf Cloud was made for me.”
Turf Cloud is born
VanBuskirk had been developing the idea of a Turf Cloud system since 2010, but he didn’t beta-test it until 2015. Even then, he wasn’t ready to bring it to market. Clearly, he couldn’t go back to a full-time superintendent position either — his family obligations wouldn’t allow it.
“I did interview for a bunch of jobs, sales counterpart positions in the golf industry,” VanBuskirk says. “They all needed me in the office by 8, on the phone or on the road this many hours a day. I didn’t want to hold out the pity card. There were some good offers, but none of them made sense. And I had this need to see what Turf Cloud could really be about.
“It was a big leap, and it seems like I had enough chaos and uncertainty in my life already. But one day, my mechanic, Justin Parker, had me write down all the things I was already doing for friends: blog construction, video editing, social media, network stuff,” VanBuskirk says. “I was the techie guy that people called for this stuff. He urged me to put a price on all that ‘project work,’ so I did. He told me, ‘You’re gonna vomit when you see how much you’re giving away. But here’s the upside: You already have a brand.’
“Then I had that talk with Walt and went for it. My thought process was, I didn’t really make the call — it was made for me, and the Lord has better plans for us than we will ever know.”
From left: Rob Knochenhauer, GreenSight Agronomics’ director of flight operations, VanBuskirk and Matt Powell, Dedham Country and Polo Club superintendent, take a GreenSight drone for a spin at the Massachusetts club. Photo by Rick Bern
VanBuskirk had recruited Ohlson, his college buddy and fellow superintendent (at the Country Club of New Bedford), by this time. Together, they attempted to grab hold of the New England market, reaching out first to folks in their respective networks, but especially to all of those people Jason the Tech Geek had served over the years. Because networks often beget entirely new networks, those Turf Cloud customers in New England soon introduced the product to their colleagues farther afield.
“My extended family had to be on board, because if I’m on the road all the time, they’d have to take care of my family when I couldn’t,” VanBuskirk says. “And my dad said, ‘You can’t even think about doing this without going all-in,’ so that’s what I did. Started driving all over New England. And you know what? We never moved out of our house. We lived tight but never missed a bill payment.
“I wanted these fellow supers to know that we have a digital job board that’s going to rock their world. But it’s more than that. We’re going to upend what you’re doing now, and supers are crazy creatures of habit. I had to learn the sales and marketing process, the customer service process. I could always talk the talk, but two years ago, I was scared to go pitch the super at a nine-hole golf course. That was the scariest thing ever.
“Just the other day, I sat down with Mark Kuhns at Baltusrol. That was scary too, but our platform is so much better now. I’m so much more confident now. It’s not quite so scary.”
Living the dream
It took a few months for the numbers to be gathered and interpreted, but it only took a few weeks in the field — proposing the utter disruption of a superintendent’s work habits (to say nothing of his work-life balance) — for VanBuskirk to get that feeling any entrepreneur craves: His pet project was going to work.
Indeed, VanBuskirk and Ohlson, his vice president at Turf Cloud, felt it was only a matter of time before another Massachusetts-based turf/tech firm would reach out in some way.
Founded in 2015, GreenSight Agronomics’ business centers on drone systems, using daily flights and deploying thermal cameras to deliver to superintendents all sorts of data and imagery relevant to turf health. The firm’s proprietary software automatically interprets and provides that data on issues relating to evapotranspiration rates, soil temperature, water usage and soil compression, among others.
Turf Cloud’s dashboard just happened to be the perfect place to store GreenSight’s data.
“What they were doing was clearly effective, and they knew their way around the golf course,” VanBuskirk says of GreenSight. “They reached out in spring 2016, wanting to talk, but we were still so new. We hadn’t had our slice of the entrepreneurial pie yet. It was just getting fun.
“In 2017, I did a consultant gig for GreenSight, helped them sort a presentation. They circled back and made an offer. It made too much sense, so we accepted it. Our mission now is to build up GreenSight in the same way we did Turf Cloud. We just closed out our first quarter together, and I’m pretty comfortable with how it’s working out.”
VanBuskirk with his family’s dog, Kingston. Photo by Rick Bern
GreenSight acquired Turf Cloud in November 2017. The following month, GreenSight Ag was selected by Airbus, a leading aircraft manufacturer, to provide hardware, firmware and software tools for the Airbus Reliable Aircraft Connectivity Demonstrator, a flexible new radio architecture designed to enable formation-flight, package delivery and Urban Air Mobility, in addition to the digitization of maintenance and flight-operations support services.
In February, The Toro Co. announced a strategic minority equity investment in GreenSight. According to Philip Burkart, vice president of Toro’s irrigation and lighting businesses, “We are intrigued and see great potential to align with GreenSight Agronomics to apply their technologies and analytics with our water management expertise.”
VanBuskirk says the entire company was thrilled by these developments, though turf remains the firm’s broad focus.
“GreenSight really gets the lifestyle-changing aspect here,” VanBuskirk says. “They get it on a product level. They get it on a personal level. Gloria still has bad days, and they (GreenSight operators) have been great. Family comes first. They talk it and walk it. I’m on the road a lot, but I get to work at home when I need an office day or a family day.
“I’m not sure what our marriage would have been like if Gloria hadn’t gotten sick. Even now sometimes I slip up and get too heavy into all the calls and the emails. I can lose sight of the balance I’m looking to achieve. But generally, I’ve been able to marry my loves for both worlds, turf and tech. People who know me, they joke around saying I’m living the dream. They’re not wrong.”
Hal Phillips is the managing director of golf and resorts for Mandarin Media, a public relations firm with offices in Portland, Maine; Park City, Utah; and Saigon, Vietnam. He is the former editor of Golf Course News.