Future History; What’s the Price of Success

Originally, it was enthusiast driven. People started companies because it was an important part of their lives and they wanted to be part of what was happening. It wasn’t just about a sport- it was an attitude and a lifestyle.

At first bigger companies in related sports weren’t interested because the market wasn’t large enough. When they got interested, they couldn’t figure it out because they just weren’t close enough to it. When the entrepreneurs who created the industry woke up in the morning and looked in the mirror, they saw their customer. No market studies, no focus groups, no statistical analysis. Clearly, obviously and directly they were their customer. If they liked it, the market liked it. They could smirk at the corporate giants in suits trying to figure out what to do, because they knew the giant just didn’t get it.
 
More and more small companies got started. The industry and the participants grew. Hype overtook reality. Product quality improved to the point where there wasn’t much difference among brands, and the consumer started to figure that out. Margins dropped even as companies spent more and more money trying to differentiate a product that wasn’t any different. Making a profit got harder.
 
With growth and acceptance, the sport became more legitimate and more accepted. Big companies decided they had to have a piece of it. Not just because of the sport, but because they wanted access to the customer group it represented and to coop the lifestyle to use in selling other products. They still didn’t really get it, but by buying a couple of successful companies, and throwing a bunch of money around, they changed the market at the same time they legitimized it. The small companies who had created the sport were outraged by what was happening to “their” sport, but outrage didn’t change any basic business principals and pretty soon most of them were out of business.
 
The sport was bigger, and here to stay at a new level. But it had paid a price.
 
I was thinking about snowboarding, not skateboarding. But the industry evolution I described could have been referring to personal computers. Or flush toilets (invented by Thomas J. Crapper- how’s that for your own piece of immortality?). Or automobiles, if we went back to the early decades of the century.   
 
In the past, an explosion of skateboarding popularity has been the prelude to a big decline. Why might that not be the case this time? What, if anything, is unusual about skateboarding that might check the kind of industry evolution I’ve described? What’s the owner of a small skate company to do?
 
What Goes Up……..Could Stay There
 
The thing I really like about the skateboarding business is that you know exactly who your customers are; males age 13-17. Who can blame them for giving up skateboarding for girls and cars when they get a little older? I seem to recall being willing to give up almost anything (my money and self respect for sure) for girls at that age.
 
That age group, according to the census data, is and will be the fastest growing group for the next several years. Check out the information in the chart. It may be that, with the target customer so clearly defined, those numbers are a great predictor of where the skateboarding market is going.
 
With K2 having purchased Planet Earth and other mainstream companies increasingly interested in the sport, it’s clear that Corporate America, for better or worse, has decided skateboarding is worth its attention. They may not understand the sport and its culture; they may not even succeed in becoming part of it. But as they stumble around and throw money at it, they’ll change it as the ski companies have changed snowboarding.  
 
The good news is you may get respect for skaters and acceptance of the sport by a more mainstream group. Hell, you may even be as lucky as snowboarders and get your very own Muppet as a mascot.
 
What’s to Stop It?
 
Typically, a period of rapid growth in an industry is followed by a period of consolidation where the number of companies declines dramatically and the growth rate falls. There’s one reason to hope that the industry might escape that pattern and a couple why, if it doesn’t escape, it might be manageable.
 
The reason you might escape it (though I doubt it) is because the industry is too small to become really interesting to big companies. If they don’t find growth opportunities, they’ll milk the culture and lifestyle in hopes of benefiting their image and other product areas, and then move on. Note that the larger companies becoming interested in skate aren’t like the ski companies; they don’t need skateboarding to survive like ski manufacturers and the resorts need snowboarding.
 
More companies (though not most by a long shot) may hope to survive a consolidation than in snowboarding. This is because of the relatively year around basis of the business, the shorter product cycles, what seem to be selling terms that favor the companies, and the speed with which what’s in and what’s out changes. In short, you don’t have to lose money six to eight months of the year and by being nimble you can compete against bigger companies.
 
But inevitably, the skate industry is already making it harder on itself as companies jockey for position in a growing industry. The proliferation of companies, the declining credibility of the pro model, and blank boards are starting to turn skateboards and their components into a commodity. Which means lower prices and margins. Which means higher breakeven points. Which mean more working capital investments.
 
All of which is fine with any corporate companies looking to stake a claim to the skate market. Because market changes that are financially devastating to a small company are pocket change to them.
 
What’s An Owner to Do?
 
All the outrage over the changes in the industry, the “prostitution” of pro models, the “selling out” that blanks are suppose to represent, the threat of Nike the industry should “stand against” all sounds ominously and sadly familiar. No matter what it does, the skate industry is not going to repeal the laws of economics and human nature. The snowboarding industry shot itself in the foot because each company pursued what it perceived to be in its own best interest. Betcha the skateboard companies do the same thing. Not because it’s good or bad. Just because they will compete to find their most viable position in a changing market.
 
While Powell has come in for some criticism because of its commitment to blanks and mini logos, I applaud their business acumen. By recognizing an emerging industry trend, and by further recognizing that it wasn’t going to go away, Powell prepared itself to benefit from it. Because they were first to move aggressively into the product category, they have positioned themselves between the blanks and the traditional full graphic boards. If they do it right, they may not have to share that niche with anybody else. I haven’t talked to anybody at Powell, and I obviously haven’t seen their financial statements. But I imagine that the cost, volume and margin numbers are pretty compelling.
 
It’s not that Powell doesn’t want to “support the industry.”   But since blanks aren’t going to go away, Powell figures they can support the industry better if they take advantage of the opportunity the evolving market presents. They sure as hell won’t support the industry if they are financially flat on their back because they stood on principal and ignored industry change. If Powell hadn’t done it, somebody else would have. 
 
Don’t forget your principals. By all means support the industry (you might start by joining IASC if you haven’t). But don’t let emotional resistance to change you don’t like prevent you from making good business decisions. In working with companies in financial distress over a period of 10 plus years, I found that they all (not some, not most- all) got into trouble because of denial and perseverance during a period of change. Skateboarding is going through some changes. You change with it.

 

 

Winter Resorts and Snowboarding; Why Does It Seem Like an Arranged Marriage?

The Medici family of Italy rose to commercial prominence during the renaissance at least partly because of their ability to make or receive payments in widely dispersed geographic locations. Lacking a wire transfer system, they arranged marriages between family members and other prominent merchants in commercial centers that gave them the ability to move money or goods through somebody they could trust. There was no love lost, but the commercial opportunities were too good to pass up.

 Sound a little like winter resorts and snowboarding?   The antagonism of past years has largely evaporated. We don’t have complete enthusiasm, but it seems like we’ve at least worked our way past grudging acceptance. We’re certainly a long way from understanding. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t have had Animal foisted on us as a mascot.
 
At the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) last May, the moderator asked the panel of four CEOs of major resorts, “What about snowboarding?” There was a pause before Adam Aron, CEO of Vail and, interestingly enough, a newcomer to the winter sports business said something like, “It’s here, it’s not going away, that’s it.”   There was another pause before the conversations moved on, with what I thought was palpable relief, to another subject. 
 
Is this any way to treat the sport that represents 17% of lift tickets, is growing rapidly, and, frankly, has saved your posterior quarter while skiing has stagnated?
 
Maybe. There’s a couple of things that may explain this can’t live with us, can’t live without us attitude and behavior.
 
Legitimate Lifestyle Differences
 
The NSAA meeting was my first exposure to a ski industry gathering. Those of you in snowboarding who have never been to one should try it. It really brings home the differences between the two sports. It was more subdued than a snowboard gathering, dress was more conservative (tuckers in button down shirts) and the average age, higher. The number of relationships that went back thirty plus years seemed astounding. The meeting was about business and, for better or worse, the passion and concern for the sport that has been so common in snowboarding was less obvious. A number of ski industry veterans commented on that fact with concern.
 
I had a good time and don’t make the above comments as a criticism, but as a statement of obvious differences. Skiing use to be a lifestyle but now it’s a sport. Snowboarding is still closely associated with participant lifestyle choices in music, clothing, culture, and other sports.  Skiing and snowboarding are of different generations, with different participant concerns and focuses at their different stages of life. It’s not good or bad. It just is.
 
These generational differences go a long way towards explaining why the resorts want the snowboarders’ money, but would just as soon we all took up skiing. We share sliding down a hill, and not much else. Really catering to snowboarding requires that the skiing establishment develop a commitment to lifestyle activities they aren’t attracted to and don’t understand.
 
Remember, this isn’t about finger pointing or right/wrong. We’ve just got groups of people with different life experiences who are at different stages of their life.
 
Financial Realities
 
If you take the time to read through the stock offering prospectuses of Vail Resorts and Intrawest Corporation from earlier this year, you’ll quickly realize that there’s a lot more to their business visions than selling lift tickets. It’s not enough, and it’s not accurate, to say simply that they are in the skiing business, or even the resort management business. It’s closer to the mark to say they are in the business of maximizing asset utilization, but I think a better way to put it is that they are in the theme park business.
 
Yup- just like Disneyland.
 
Walt Disney and successors have spent and are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on castles, monorails, fancy roller coasters, hotels and retail space. Their ongoing maintenance and operating expenses are big numbers. Even if they shut the parks down, interest expense and depreciation by itself would be a huge financial burden.
 
Disney’s revenue in the year ended September 30, 1996 was 18.7 billion dollars. Depreciation expense by itself was 3.94 billion. They had long term debt of over $12 billion on which they have to pay interest. Not all of that is associated with the theme parks, but you get the picture.
 
So how are they going to cover all those expenses and make a buck? By keeping those assets busy. They don’t want you to come for a day and go on a few rides. They want you to come for a least a week, stay in their hotels, eat their food, shop in their stores, play a round on their golf course and ride all the park attractions. And it would be nice if you got there via an airline they have a deal with. Keep those assets busy and hear the cash register go ca-ching!
 
Now, check out this nice juicy quote from Vail’s prospectus.
 
While lift ticket sales….have grown each year over the past ten years, revenues from other sources have grown at a much faster rate and, as a result, have increased as a percentage of Resort Revenue from 36% in fiscal 1985 to 51% in fiscal 1996.
 
The Company’s focus on developing a comprehensive destination resort experience has also allowed it to attract a diverse quest population with an attractive demographic and economic profile, including a significant number of affluent and family-oriented destination guests, who tend to generate higher and more diversified revenues per guest than day skiers from local population centers. While the Company’s Resort Revenue per skier day is currently among the highest in the industry, management believes that the Company currently captures less than 20% of the total vacation expenditures of an average destination guest at its resorts. Vail Resorts’ business strategy is not only to increase skier days and guest visits but also to increase Resort Revenue per skier day by capturing a higher percentage of the total spending by its year round destination and day guests, by continuing to expand the range and enhance the quality of activities and services offered by the Company.
 
Intrawest says much the same thing.
 
Intrawest’s operating strategy is to link the staged modernization and expansion of mountain facilities at its resorts with the controlled development of four-season resort villages focused on high occupancy accommodations.
 
I think it’s a hell of a good strategy, and if I were CEO of a large mountain (not winter!) resort, I’d do the same thing.
 
I wouldn’t do it because I didn’t like snowboarders. I wouldn’t do it because I didn’t want them on my mountain. I wouldn’t do it because I didn’t like/understand/participate in their activities and life style. I’d do it because it made business sense and my first responsibility was to my shareholders or myself as the owner. I’d believe that right now I can attract more destination guests and make more money on a golf course than a skate board park, because the people who golf have more money than the people who skate. That’s just the way it is.
 
But it won’t always be. And so the mountain resort community has to deal with a bit of a conundrum that I think explains their sometimes schizophrenic approach to snowboarding. The larger resort’s strategies seem to require them to focus on the current generation of skiers. Given that this group is constant to shrinking in numbers, skier days can only be increased by taking market share from other mountains. This explains some of the consolidation pressure in winter resorts, but it also represents a marketing opportunity for some smaller mountains (Hey-I think I feel another article coming on!).
 
But those skiers are going to get old and, someday, stop skiing. So are current snowboarders, but not so soon. How do resorts that have to rely on the current skiing generation to achieve their strategic and financial goals keep a growing and important minority of their customers happy?
 
Do they need to do very much at all? Will snowboarders turn into their parents, have similar disposable incomes, and want the same facilities and amenities their parents wanted by the time they are the destination decision makers? Don’t laugh; it’s been known to happen. I wonder if Nike will come out with an adult diaper someday (Just do it?).
 
Maybe snowboarding and snowsboarders need to take the time to understand the ski industry that we wish they would take to understand us. Betcha there’s some business opportunities there somewhere.

 

 

Now What Do We Do? Living With the Industry’s Success

I guess you can start by congratulating yourself. Though the snowboarding industry is still relatively small ($800 million at wholesale?) it’s continuing to grow at a rate most industries can only dream of and is clearly here to stay. You’ve been a part of that.

 
But now, you are face to face with the results of your own success. The consolidation we knew would eventually come is here. Three years ago, it was an intellectual concern for the future. Last year we could see it happening, but were hopeful it would be gradual and, therefore, manageable. This year, in the wake of the trade show season, it’s a lot like a cow pie dropping on an ant hill; sudden, stinky and overwhelming.
 
I couldn’t back this up statistically, but my travels and conversations tell me that a lot of companies lost money last year and are poorly positioned to carry themselves through another season. I’d guesstimate that retailers typically committed no more than half of their open to buy for the season and are expecting to rely on closeout product available during the season. Brands, including a couple of the larger ones, have been disappointed by their preseason orders. I view being positioned to do as much business in units as you did last year as a big success.   I suspect that quite a few smaller brands (hard and soft goods) are past disappointed and approaching scared.
 
There are a lot of deals being discussed among companies. Buyers want to give themselves the critical mass and product mix they think they need to be a successful industry player. They also see it as a time to pick up good brands cheap. Most sellers are making deals out of necessity. Ride has never made a secret of the fact that selected strategic acquisitions were part of its plan. The Silence board brand was acquired by Straight Line Manufacturing. I think you can count on some more announcements over the next couple of months. 
 
Everybody that’s having a tough time isn’t going out of business. But some are. I’ve talked to too many companies who’s strategy for surviving the consolidation is to “hunker down until it’s over.” The problem with that particular strategy is that they’ll have to hunker down a hell of a long time; by definition a consolidation isn’t over until smaller players without clearly defined market niches are gone.
 
It’s also not appropriate to assume that “getting through” one more year will be enough. Over capacity, which I see as the primary cause of the consolidation, isn’t going to go away that quickly. As soon as I get my crystal ball working again, I’ll let you know exactly how long it will take.
 
Well, I hope you enjoyed that little dose of doom and despair. Now let’s talk about what you can do about it.
 
The funny thing is that when times get hard and things get chaotic, there are always opportunities if you can just raise yourself out of the paralysis and myopia that is always the result of short term pressures. I’ve seen it time after time with companies in difficult transitions and been the victim of it myself. The effort, time and focus that it takes just to manage from day to day when money is tight takes most of your energy. You are so busy hiking through the forest that you never find the perspective to climb one of the trees and see if you’re going the right way, or are even in the right forest.
 
The good news is that the tougher things get, the less you have to lose my trying. You’re probably better off dying in a fall from the top of a tree than starving to death hiking through the wrong forest.
 
We all come to business with a clear sense of what “makes sense.” Forget it. Pull out all the apparently crazy ideas you’ve rejected out of hand and look them over. Put a sock in the mouth of the little voice in your head that says “We can’t do that.”
 
It’s time for absolute openness and absolute honesty with the people you work with. Listen, have respect for everybody’s crazy ideas and don’t reject anything out of hand. Stop worrying about people finding out things ain’t great right now. They already know it. Chances are they will respect you for your honesty and for dealing with it. Get the all the big uglies on the table so you can deal with them. The companies I have least confidence in are the ones who tell me everything is going great (“Oh yeah, we’re booking lots of orders!”) when I know they aren’t.
 
·         Cut that expense you didn’t think you could do without. What have you got to lose?
 
·         Ask that supplier for better terms and lower prices. All they can say is no.
 
·         Get rid of that old inventory at whatever price. Take the income statement hit and generate some cash. It’s not going to be worth more later.
 
·         Renegotiate your lease. Tell your landlord you need the rent to come down by 15% if he wants to have a viable tenant. Get him to give half of your security deposit back. 
 
·         Let people go if you have to, even if they are relatives and friends of long standing. How else are you going to preserve the company and jobs of the remaining employees (including yours).
 
·         Cut everybody’s salary 10%. And never pay payroll if you can’t pay the associated payroll taxes. Those taxes are a personal obligation.
 
·         Tell your creditors you can’t pay them now. Explain what happened and what steps you are taking to change things. Be honest with them. Keep them informed. Ask them for a discount and make a deal.
 
·         Get rid of the 800 number. Call the phone company and tell them you want a better rate per minute. You’ll probably get one. I did.
 
·         Stop making nice to people who owe you money and haven’t paid.
 
·         Raise your prices. Now. If you can’t survive with in your current financial circumstances anyway, what do you have to lose?
 
If you’re shocked by that last one, good. I want you to be. Maybe it’s not the right step for you. But there are a dozen other equally crazy sounding ones that are. All you have to do is think of them.
 
All these tactical steps will help as long as they are part of a feasible, overall plan. Don’t tell me it’s impossible. I’ve implemented all the steps above at one company or another. Remember that the power of enhancing revenue or reducing costs is in how quickly you do it. $2,000 a month becomes $24,000 over the period of a year.
 
So much for tactics. Unless you’ve got a workable strategy none of the above matters. Fundamentally, there has to be a reason why you are going to be able to successfully compete. If you can’t specifically define who your customers are and why they will buy your product instead of a competitor’s, you don’t pass go and you don’t collect $200 dollars. If you can’t differentiate your product and your company, you have a limited chance of being a survivor.
 
Ask 200 customers why they bought your product or why they came into your store. Listen to them carefully. Tabulate the responses and looks for trends and consistencies. Visit 20 other stores who are your customers or competitors. Have a check list of things you want to ask or note. What are they doing better or worse than you? How are they displaying your product?
 
Developing an effective strategy doesn’t result from taking everybody to a nice hotel for three days of meetings. It comes from a tedious process of collecting and studying meaningful information. Strategic planning is the process of looking at the same information your competitor can get from a different perspective and making better decisions as a result.
 
So you think you have identified a competitive advantage and have a strategy to carry out. Is it worth the effort?
 
Envision your store or company as you want it to be three years from now. What will it’s sales be? What will its customers think about it? How hard will you be working and what you will be earning? How much risk will you be taking? Ask the questions that are relevant to your circumstances.
 
Now look where you are right now. What resources will you need to get where you want to be? What are the risks? This is part of a much more detailed process but, in general, does it look like what you have to go through to get where you want to be is worth the time, risk and effort? Can you get the resources you need? If not, why are you considering doing it?
 
Nimble, aggressive companies that can identify opportunities, have a competitive advantage they understand, and have made an explicit decision about what they want to achieve and how they are going to get there will be the survivors. Don’t starve marching around the wrong forest. Climb the tallest tree and see which way to go even if you risk being killed in a fall.

 

 

Hard Choice Time; Strategies for Success in the Snowboard Industry

It all kind of came together for me at the industry conference at Banff, though I couldn’t say if it was on the lift, in the spa or at the bar. Probably at the bar. The time is over when a small or medium sized independent player in this industry can just focus on getting from one year to the next. If all you think about are tactics and operations, chances are that one year soon, you won’t make it even as the industry as a whole continues to prosper.

 Your choices are pretty clear cut. There are four. They are discussed below. The goal of this article is to motivate you to dispassionately evaluate your business and the market, and then actively pursue one of the four. To do that, we’ll consider the impact of some recent industry transactions and identify the problems that most smaller companies say they have in common.   To begin, we’ll get past some of the hype and excitement of snowboarding and look at it as another industry starting to enter its maturing phase.
 
In 1980, a Harvard professor named Mike Porter wrote a book called Competitive Strategy. The whole volume is worth your consideration, but Chapter 11, “The Transition to Industry Maturity” is especially relevant at this time in the industry’s evolution. I think we can safely assume that Dr. Porter was not a snowboard pioneer, but his discussion of what happens in a consolidating industry (any consolidating industry) will look ominously familiar to anybody who thinks about what snowboarding is going through.
 
Step One in our analysis, then, is to agree that as much as we may love it, and as exciting as it may be, the evolution of this industry won’t ultimately be different from that of any other industry. At this point in time, the only difference I perceive is that it is happening faster than it does in most industries. I believe that’s because there are really no significant barriers to entry, but the fact that you have to commit to the next season before the last one ends makes it hard to get out.
 
No entrepreneur succeeds without an almost heroic belief in themselves and their business; if they didn’t have it, they would never take the risk.   It can be difficult to have an objective perspective on industry trends and the potential of their company. The euphoria engendered by rapid growth, the hype of any fashion related business, and the fact that companies try to make themselves look bigger than they really are (except Burton and Gnu/Libtech, who seem to want to look smaller) can make it tough to be dispassionate.
 
Get dispassionate. Talk to business people outside of snowboarding. Set some measurable goals. Figure out what success means (hopefully more than bare survival). Formally decide if the risks are worth the potential returns, financial and other.
 
Step Two is to look at some recent industry transactions to figure out why, in general terms, they happened and what their impact on the industry may be.
 
Let’s see, Morrow went public, Salomon bought Bonfire, Ride bought Thermal, Hooger is buying American Snowboard Manufacturing, Madison Sport bought Purged/Mantle and Variflex bought Plunkett Snowboards, Inc. What’s going on?
 
Companies are building their balance sheets, vertically integrating their businesses, associating themselves with stronger partners, developing year round cash flow, and generally positioning themselves to survive and compete with lower margins on higher volume. 
 
Are we shocked by all this activity? No, because under Step One we agreed that the same trends that occur in any other maturing industry will also occur in snowboarding.
 
Let’s look specifically at the Variflex deal. Variflex produces protective equipment and in-line skates that it sells directly to large retailers.  In May 1995, it acquired Plunkett Snowboards, Inc. to produce its Static brand of snowboards. Variflex’s goal at the time was to produce a board that retailed in the $300 price range but was comparable in features and quality to the most expensive brands.
 
Because Variflex sells directly to retailers, from a financial perspective this goal won’t be difficult to achieve. Based on my discussions with a number of board manufacturers, I’d estimate that the cost to produce a high quality board in volume is probably under $90.00. Let’s say it is $100 and the board is sold to a retailer for $140 to give Variflex a 40 percent margin over cost. The retailer wants to make their traditional 40 margin too, so the consumer pays $233.
 
Hey, what happened to the $300 retail price? Remember this is a bit of a moving target, and K2 already has the Dart out for a suggested retail of $270. K2 and Variflex are both selling direct, as is Elan with the Nale brand. Eliminating the profit for that extra middleman frees up a lot of margin.
 
Happily, there’s more than financial calculations at work here. Even in skiing, brand names and marketing keep retail prices higher than they need to be from a financial perspective. Nobody is going to scurry to give up margin before they have to. But I do see the day where a high quality wood core board will retail not too far north of $200. With boots and bindings, there appears to be more of an opportunity to keep margins up through technological innovation, assuming you can afford the cost of developing those innovations. 
 
Step Three is to identify problems most companies have in common. One’s obviously price pressure. It’s more or less important depending on your market segment and size, but it exists for everybody.
 
A second is inability to differentiate a brand. Most smaller companies are unable to spend enough to make an impression in the market. Even when they do spend it, it gets lost among the hundred of brands trying to do the same things, driving operating margins down even further.
 
A third issue is the working capital requirements of a highly seasonal, fast growing business. Success probably requires you grow at least as fast as the market. Seasonality, and the increasing tendency of retail accounts to require longer terms, means you have to tie more and more capital up in the business for longer and longer periods. Many company’s’ track records and profit potential don’t justify either a loan from a bank or an investment. Lacking a rich uncle or a trust fund, it’s going to be tough to come up with the money. 
 
Fourth is dependence on the Japanese market. A few months ago, several sources estimated that there would be 800,00 boards brought into Japan this year. Interestingly, I’ve also heard 400,000 and 1.2 million. Maybe 800,000 is a reasonable number.
 
I don’t know what reality is in the Japanese market. But I am certain that the days of 50 percent cash deposits and 50 percent site letters of credit are going to vanish. Companies creating brands that are sold only in the that market should not expect those brands to survive. How will they replace that cash flow?
 
In summary, then, margins are declining while required marketing costs increase. The financing
necessary to grow quickly enough so that volume offsets reduced margins is, at best, difficult to find. Cash constraints will be accentuated by changes in the Japanese market.
 
Step Four is to look at possible strategies given the conditions and market evolution described above. There are four of them.
 
The first is to find enough capital to reach a volume world wide, as a manufacturer or a wholesaler, that makes you a “player.” That is, that puts you in a position to compete at least partly on price and to be profitable under the circumstances described above. As a stand alone snowboard industry company, if you aren’t close to being there now, you probably won’t be able to get there. The reason is that you won’t be able to show the return on investment required to attract the funding.
 
The second, in theory, is to find a market niche where you can differentiate yourself so that brand loyalty offsets sensitivity to price and, to some extent, insulates you from the emerging competitive conditions. I say “in theory” because the only company I believe has really accomplished that is Mervin Manufacturing, and they’ve done it by having a consistent focus over a period of years. Nitro, with what I’ll call their high tech, retro-ski approach to advertising this year, may be trying to establish a niche for themselves and I think they’ve got a good chance to do it. Not a jumping rider in sight on some of their ads. For a long time, they tried to disguise the fact that they were a European owned company. Now it looks like they are using that “liability” as a strength.
 
AK Bommer Boards in Valdez, Alaska is another good example of a niche strategy. They make individual custom snowboards. “Big Boards for Burly Riders with Big Feet” it says on the business card. As a guy with a size 13 attached to my leg, I called for information. Probably won’t ever be a big company, but at $500 a board, their margins should be okay and their break-even point low.
 
They have the additional advantage of knowing exactly who their market is; “Big Boards for Burly Riders with Big Feet.” Think of the power of that phrase. With those eight words they know exactly who their competitors and customers are and what their position in the market is. Consider the efficiencies it gives them if only because they don’t waste advertising and promotion dollars.          
 
The problem is that there are too many companies and not enough niches, and no niche completely insulates you from price pressure. Sales dollars required to break even are rising, and I expect they will continue to do so.
 
The third strategy is to become a product line of a larger company with year round cash flow. You share overhead, facilities, possibly distribution channels and reduce your break-even point. Year around cash flow eliminates or at least reduces the annual crisis of working capital common to one season businesses.
 
A corollary to this strategy is to find someone better capitalized than you are to distribute your brand. You continue to control product development, and maybe advertising and promotion, and earn a royalty on sales. It’s probably a lower return strategy, but it’s lower risk as well.
 
The fourth strategy, which is inevitably the least popular, is to pack up and go home. If you go through the kind of analysis suggested above and can’t find a way to implement one of the three strategies I’ve identified, maybe the chances of success don’t justify the risk and effort anymore.
 
There’s actually one more strategy, if you want to call it that. It’s what I characterize as the “more of the same” approach. This will prove to be the most popular approach and some companies taking it will succeed. A lot won’t. There’s not much to this; just keep doing whatever you’ve been doing before and hope it works. Every company has a strategy- even if it’s a bad one and they didn’t actively chose it.
 
I know how hard it is to find time to deal concretely and dispassionately with issues of strategy when you’re trying to run a company. But the surest path to failure is to be caught in between strategies, unable to compete on price and not having established a defensible market niche. If you are caught there you aren’t going to enjoy it, and you aren’t going to survive.
 
SIDEBAR:
 
Trends In Any Maturing Industry
Shamelessly plagiarized in a good cause from Competitive Strategy by Michael E. Porter
·         Firms sell to experienced, repeat buyers who shift their focus from the decision to buy to choosing among brands.
·         Industry profits fall. Smaller firms are most affected. Cash flow declines when it is most needed, and capital becomes increasingly difficult to raise.
·         Danger of over capacity accentuates the tendency towards price competition.
·         Company attitudes must be disassociated from the euphoria of the past.
·         New products and applications become harder to develop.
·         Dealer margins fall, but their power increases as more brands compete for shelf space.
·         Slowing growth means more competition for market share. Frequently that competition can border on irrational.

Competition may emphasize cost and service