Like most soccer-crazy kids his age, Eli Dent was a devout hacky sack juggler growing up in the Lowcountry.
When Dent went to the beach or the mall or anywhere around town, he’d bring along a hacky sack and try to keep it in the air.
So when he was a junior at the School of the Arts in North Charleston, he decided to capitalize on his passion and began selling his homemade hacky sacks to classmates and friends.
He got a luke-warm response. There was something about the bean-bag kicking game that seemed to keep any non-soccer players at arm’s length.
“Hacky sack has always been very much related to the soccer community. It was like having a soccer ball in your pocket all the time,” said Dent, a former College of Charleston standout. “A lot of people had this preconceived notion that hacky sack was too hard, so I went back to the drawing board and thought about how can I could make it easier and more fun for the average person.”
Dent broke his collar bone during his junior season at College of Charleston and was forced to sit out for more than eight months in 2016. It was during that time Dent stumbled upon the Chinese game of Jianzi. Jianzi is similar to hacky sack but uses a weighted shuttlecock with feathers instead of beans and a bag.
“Jianzi is an ancient game in China that’s basically a weighted base with feathers,” Dent said. “The feathers slow down the base and if you go to China you can find 50- and 60-year-old men kicking it around and there can be groups of 20, 30 or 40 people in a circle kicking it around. So I started to think that maybe feathers was the solution.”
The problem with Jianzi was the shuttlecock was cheaply made and would easily break. Dent liked the idea of the feathers but knew he needed his product to be more durable. He poured over the internet and came up with the idea for the Sidekik, which has feathers like Jianzi but a rubber base that makes it nearly impossible to break.
“I’m not an inventor, but I took components from other products I found and then put my own spin on it,” Dent said. “I modified it a little bit, put different colors on the feathers and got a prototype. It’s much easier to play than hacky sack because it’s not a bag of beans, which is basically what a hacky sack is. It’s very difficult to make good contact with a hacky sack and to keep juggling with it.”
In the summer of 2016, Dent was playing soccer for Tormenta FC, a Premier Development League squad, in Statesboro, Ga., and took his first Sidekik prototype to the team’s clubhouse.
It was an instant success.
“The guys were like, ‘What is that?’ ” Dent said. “The second we got a couple of guys to juggle it, immediately everyone loved it and started to juggle it around the locker room. It broke down barriers because it was pretty easy to pick up and everyone was having fun with it.”
He went to the Tormenta FC team owners to ask if he could promote the Sidekik and use the club as an affiliation. The owners agreed and he spent $1,000 for 300 Sidekiks, which he began selling at Tormenta FC games and at youth tournaments in Statesboro.
“I was like, I’ve got 30 days to make back my money, so I’ve got to get motivated,” Dent said.
He sold out in three weeks, ordered another shipment and sold all of them in less than month.
“At that point, I knew it was a sustainable idea,” Dent said.
When the summer ended, Dent returned to Charleston. He was confident the Sidekik would be a hit in the Lowcountry. To date, he's sold more than 5,000.
“I knew when I came back home it would work,” Dent said. “I knew the area and I knew where to go, so I just went for it.”
However, Dent had to be careful about marketing his product. To keep his amateur status with the NCAA and College of Charleston, Dent could not endorse the Sidekik, especially while wearing any College of Charleston apparel.
“We did all these videos with guys on the team and Sidekik but I couldn’t show them because then the NCAA would step in,” Dent said. “I knew I had to be careful. I understand the rules, but I think it’s silly. It's like if they’re not making any money then they make sure you can’t either.”
Dent, who graduated in May with a marketing degree, said branding the Sidekik has been crucial to its initial success.
“I wanted this to be something that every soccer player could bring with them everywhere they went,” Dent said. “Sidekik just seemed to me to be a natural name for it. It just made sense.”
Dent's entrepreneurial spirit comes as no surprise to his former college coach.
"Eli is a very driven young man," said College of Charleston soccer coach Ralph Lundy. "When he puts his mind to something, he's going to succeed."
With school behind him, Dent has been able to concentrate full-time on expanding the Sidekik’s market. He recently got the Charleston Battery, the local professional soccer club, on board as an affiliate.
“That was big for us,” Dent said.
Another big move was going to Atlanta for a youth tournament.
“Atlanta’s a huge market,” Dent said. “That was my first traveling tournament and it was a big success, so that’s a market where we want to be.”
The Sidekik is sold in about 50 retail stores nationwide, and Dent hopes eventually to partner with clubs in Major League Soccer.
“That’s the biggest soccer market in the United States,” he said of the league.