Des Moines Register: Triathlete Puts Passion for Sport into His Business

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

By David Elbert
Des Moines Register

Like most entrepreneurs, T.J. Tollakson is always looking for a better way to do things.

His interests, though, are a bit unconventional, which makes his business niche a bit unusual.

Tollakson is a professional triathlete. And most of the things he wants to improve are tied to his sport.

The Ankeny native and 2003 graduate of the University of Iowa created Ruster Sports in 2009 to design and market training aides and other gear for triathletes.

The corporate name is a play on the word rooster, which becomes apparent when you hear the company motto, "Rise and shine," and see the logo - a stylized "R" topped by a rooster's red comb.

Both are an indication of Tollakson's dry sense of humor, not to mention the unconventional nature of his business.

Ruster Sports has only one full-time employee, Tollakson. But this summer he hired five college interns and turned them loose on designing new prototypes of gear that he or others in his sport might find useful.

They collaborated on 22 concepts that were designed on CAD (computer-assisted design) software, before prototypes were built and tested in real-life situations.

Some were successes, like a twin snorkel that is designed to provide swimmers with a wider field of vision as they train.

Others had problems, like the pair of foam cubes whose purpose is to provide additional resistance during training swims. The problem with the cubes, Tollakson said, was they were too buoyant and produced too much resistance.

Most of the concepts are like the portable swimsuit dryer that the interns designed: They need further refinements before they go into production and are listed for sale on RusterSports.com.

The purpose of the swimsuit dryer is to quickly and easily spin most of the water from a suit, so an athlete doesn't have to carry around a wet suit after a workout.

The biggest success of the summer was the experience that the interns had.

Interns don't usually get to work with, let alone design, prototypes, said Ethan Davidson, who is a senior in marketing at the University of Iowa.

"This was great," he said. "Usually, interns just push paper."

"My full-time job is racing," said Tollakson, 31.

Encouraged by his parents, Nan and Rick Tollakson - Rick is the head of Hubbell Realty - Tollakson swam competitively and ran cross country from an early age. He also wrestled and played soccer in high school.

He started doing triathlons when he was in college at Iowa, where Joe Sulentic, who teaches management courses at the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center, was a mentor.

After graduating in 2003 with a degree in industrial engineering, Tollakson took a job at Alcoa in the Quad Cities. He hadn't been there long when he told Sulentic he was not really happy in a desk job.

Sulentic, who encourages students to follow their passions, told Tollakson to do just that.

"I'd met some guys in Davenport who were more serious about triathlons and started training with them," Tollakson said.

He won several amateur races in 2004 and was invited to live at the Olympic Training Center in 2005.

"I left the training center at the end of 2005, turned pro, and I've been racing full-time ever since," he said.

As most racers do, Tollakson began collecting sponsors, who helped pay living expenses in exchange for the exposure that athletes give to their equipment.

Because Tollakson has an engineer's mind and an entrepreneur's heart, he began tinkering with things.

His first invention in 2009 was an aerodynamic hydration system that he called the Tricaero Top.

It's pronounced similar to the dinosaur, and consists of a triangular, carbon-fiber pouch that attaches to the handlebars on a racing bike and holds liquids and other nutrients.

He's designing a replacement for the Tricaero Top, which he says will be simpler and more efficient, but he said he's not ready to unveil it yet.

Tollakson won his first professional Ironman triathlon a month ago in Lake Placid, N.Y., in a time of 8 hours, 25 minutes and 15 seconds.

His professional goal is to win the Ironman World Championships, which are held every October in Hawaii. The best he's done so far is a 30th-place finish his first year in 2007. Last year, he finished 38th, with a time of 8 hours, 54 minutes.

He's not discouraged. In fact, he's optimistic, noting that he is only 31 years old and that most triathletes peak in their late 30s.

That leaves him plenty of time to achieve his goal and to develop his business.

In addition to the 22 prototypes that the interns developed this summer, Tollakson has another product in mind. He wants to design and build racing bikes that would sell for upwards of $15,000 each.

Tollakson has the design pretty much complete and hopes to have a prototype model that he can race on next year.

"We hope to be able to sell these by 2013," he said.