- Matthew Thorsen
- David Bird
With all the cringe-worthy news of businesses closing around Burlington, it’s refreshing to hear of companies starting up. But one of the area’s newest entrepreneurs isn’t located anywhere near the Church Street Marketplace, or along Williston or Shelburne roads, either. Nope — a spare bedroom in a condo on South Burlington’s Harbor View Road houses Sawol, which is short for “soccer, a way of life.”
Well, the spare bedroom holds most of Sawol. “It frequently spills over to the living room and onto the kitchen table,” says 24-year-old David Bird of the online business he began six months ago. “We recently put in some shelving in the second bedroom to store some of the product.”
That would be the T-shirts, track jackets and soccer balls that Bird envisioned long before they started encroaching on his home. Soccer really is a way of life for this Vermont native, who played on the Essex Recreation league as a kid and then was a sweeper, midfielder and goalie for Trinity Baptist School in Williston. At Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, Bird focused on midfield in the intramural program. Now he’s returned to Trinity Baptist as assistant coach. “Since I began coaching with them, our team has won two consecutive championships,” says Bird with pride. “In the off-season, I run a pickup soccer program and also play in various soccer leagues.”
All this soccer on his brain sparked the idea of a company dedicated solely to the “beautiful game.” But it’s also a canny business move based on Bird’s observation that international sports-merchandise corporations can get overextended. “Too many companies have lost their commitment to the sport by trying to offer products related to multiple different sports,” he says. “We have no intention of ever doing this. We love to stress the fact that soccer is not merely a sport or a pastime.”
Sawol started with T-shirts, which are easy to create and distribute. “We wanted to get the word out fast,” Bird says. “We also wanted some products that could be worn both on and off the field.”
The company has just launched its first line of match-level soccer balls — standard white-and-black spheres accented with gold and the Sawol logo, for $29.99 apiece. “Everyone needs a good-quality, reasonably priced soccer ball and, if you’re like me, you need three or four,” Bird declares. “It seems like a lot of the soccer balls that are being produced by other companies are very low quality or extremely high priced.”
Though Sawol operates mainly from South Burlington, the T-shirt printing is outsourced to Bandwagon Merchandise in Kansas City, and a friend in Pakistan manufactures the soccer balls. Bird notes he’s also collaborated with South Burlington’s Jeff Sheldon, who founded the Ugmonk apparel website; Catamount Web Solutions maintains the Sawol site. So far, there’s no brick-and-mortar store.
It takes some serious handling skills to start a business amid the current financial fracas, but Bird says he and his business partner — his wife, Kristen — are keeping their eyes on the, well, ball. The couple’s dog, Teddy, provides “comic relief,” he adds.
“Instead of looking at the current economy as an insurmountable obstacle, we have chosen to look at it as a challenge to meet and overcome,” says Bird. Like most savvy companies these days, Sawol is on Twitter and Facebook — with more than 200 group members at last count — and the site has an RSS feed. Bird says he uses online social networking to meet clients and share ideas.
Soccer fans may remember that Danish company Hummel scored a U.S. headquarters in Burlington in 2004, only to go way offside — by mysteriously vanishing — shortly thereafter. “Currently we have every intention of growing and expanding while staying here in Vermont,” says Bird, heading off a Hummel comparison. “It’s important to our local economy that we stay here and continue to add value and assistance to [our] fellow Vermonters.”
Besides, says Bird, he really loves the Green Mountain State. “Vermont offers an excellent quality of life that cannot be found in most other states,” he elaborates. “I was born and raised in Chittenden County, and it’s been exciting to see how soccer has become more and more popular over the last few years.”
Next up for Sawol is another product launch — Bird says he’ll float a few ideas by the company’s Facebook fans and Twitter followers for a vote.
“Soccer is a universal language that unites all cultures and people,” he concludes. “It truly is a way of life.”