Small Brands Are Cool! How Can They Stay That Way?

Actually, the question is not how small brands can stay cool. It’s how they can stay at all. As in stay here- alive, in existence, solvent. Not toast.

I have been so encouraged by the number of small brands I’ve seen in snowboarding recently. I love them. There was a bunch at the SIA show in Vegas. There were some of the same ones at ISPO and some different ones that I’d never heard of. At ISPO there were some small brands with skis and snowboards with the same branding and graphics.
 
There were even a couple of new kinds of snowboards. I have to admit that I don’t think they have a chance in hell, but it was great to see somebody trying and may they prove me wrong.
 
If snowboarding is going to be something besides a sport, which is good for business, then we need the enthusiasm and excitement that these small brands represent. But, I wouldn’t want all this enthusiasm and excitement to overwhelm good business practice.
 
That’s the other thing I’m seeing that I like. When you talk to the people running these brands, they refer to balance sheets and cash flow without being prompted and without their eyes turning brown from trying to bullshit you into thinking they know why that’s important.
 
Josh Reid, one of the founders of Rome Snowboards, demonstrated the benefit of a solid financial approach when he told me, ” Our close attention to our budget and balance sheet allowed us to come out with our binding a year early than we expected to.” 
 
So some of these smaller brands, partly because of a businesslike approach to financing, have a real chance to succeed. Here are some things they might want to consider doing to improve their chances and a few ideas about why that’s important to us. I can’t believe I missed the strippers in the Atomic Booth.
 
Normal Business Stuff
 
Just a reminder- building a quality product with great detail and finish, pricing it right, delivery it right, servicing accounts right, and supporting it with appropriate advertising and promotional programs gets you nothing more than the right to try. Market positioning and branding is what will make you successful. Along with having enough working capital to get through the year.
 
Adopt a Shop
 
If I were a small brand, I’d identify one, or maybe a handful, of really successful retail shops and I’d adopt them. By which I mean it would be just my first goal to have my product in those shops. Then I’d be all over them weekly or daily to figure out how my product was doing and why. I’d work like hell to learn from that shop or few shops. I’d watch their sales people sell my product. I’d try to talk to the customers who bought my stuff. I’d talk to the retailers about what they bought and why. I wouldn’t leave it only to my rep- I’d do it as the owner of the brand. I’d take these bits of information and develop a short manual about why the brand was successful in the shop, identifying anything that was unique about that shop’s situation. 
 
Then I’d take whatever I learned and develop it as training and selling tool for my sales force, doing my best to create a shop development approach that in some ways was the “signature” of the brand’s approach to working with shops. In the meantime, I’d probably try to convince the shop owner that he should be an investor in my brand.
 
I’ve heard too many retailers complain about this brand or that brand, their reps, and a general lack of attention once the products in the door. Here’s a chance to distinguish yourself in a way that maybe larger brands can’t and to learn a few things in the process.
 
The Buying Cycle
 
 Not the trade show buying cycle we all agonized about some years ago. The consumer buying cycle for snowboard goods. I’ve heard that skiers buy equipment something like every six years. Maybe it’s less or more. But whatever it is, I think (or maybe I hope) that snowboarders buy stuff more often. Or at least they use to. My guess is that they are moving towards the ski model. Products are all of solid quality right now. They just don’t wear out as quickly. Expansion of distribution, price declines and general product availability means there’s not quite the same urge or need among many snowboarders to get the newest thing.
 
If the number of snowboarders doubles, but they only buy half as often where are we as an industry? Do the math.
 
I see this as a big problem that nobody is really talking about. From a strict financial point of view the skateboard guys have it right. Make sure the product wears out pretty quickly and that it’s cool to break it. Of course, it’s also a lot cheaper to replace, so we can’t quite follow that model.
 
Small brands obviously can’t change this trend, but they have a role to play in resisting it by being cool and not quite so easy to get. It is, obviously, also a way in which they can differentiate themselves- at least for a while. So, small brands help themselves and the industry by restricting their distribution. It needs to be the big brands- who have encouraged retailers to buy with pricing and volume discounts and terms- whose product is left to be discounted after the holiday season. The small brands’ retailers need to more or less sell through at full margin if the small brand is going to differentiate itself and succeed. Further, the shops that carry the small brands need to be a destination for customers who want to buy that brand. What’s the value of the brand to the shop if the customer has to come to their shop to get the brand because it’s the only place in town that carries it and the shop has the chance to sell them some other stuff as well?
 
Obviously, the small brand and the shop have common cause here and it is a source of advantage for small brands. At least for a while.
 
Expectation Management
 
There’s never enough marketing dollars and there are always too many ways to spend what you have. If a new brand does everything right, and it grows in the correct way, it will create expectations on the parts of its customers, its retailers, its employees, its investors. But do too little, and you disappoint. Do too much, and you go broke. How to manage that? Well, my experience is it’s more an art than a science. But you can start by spending some time- actually a lot of time if you do it right- on developing a quality brand positioning statement for your brand. If you do it right, it will be a filter through which all your opportunities are passed, and you won’t waste time trying to figure out which one is right or money on the wrong ones.
 
Like Nikita’s “For Girls Who Ride.” Best one I’ve ever heard. I wish somebody would send me their brand positioning statements so I could plug them. I keep using the Nikita example and I’m giving them entirely too much free publicity.
 
Growth Problems
 
Someday, if you succeed, you won’t be a little brand any more. You will lose some of the possible competitive advantages I’ve described above. As every company wants to grow, those of you who prosper are likely to face this to some extent. So there you are- too big to be small and too small to be big. What are you going to do?
 
Interestingly enough, the answer is almost completely financially driven. I don’t care about marketing, I don’t care about distribution and pricing, I don’t care how cool you are. None of that will drive your strategic business decisions when you get to that point of being somewhere between big and small.
 
What you’re going to find is the extreme seasonality of the snowboarding business means that the risk return ratio is out of line if you are just in snowboarding. Most of you already know that because while you probably love snowboarding, you aren’t naïve kids who only want to be in the business because it is cool.
 
Working capital comes from either debt or equity. Okay, from retained earnings too, but that’s just another form of equity. In snowboarding it doesn’t make financial sense to finance with equity, because you don’t need it year around. But lacking all that equity and the strong balance it give you, debt that isn’t prohibitively costly can be damn difficult to find.
 
So you’re going to try and find a way to become, or become part of, a company with year around cash flow. Because for most companies, it’s the only solution that effectively balanced risk with return and makes working capital requirements manageable.
 
I would dearly love to get an email from some new small brand telling me I’m crazy and explaining what their financial plan is and how it will work differently. Because it would be great if that plan were out there. In the meantime, all you small brands keep up the good work but remember the wonderful problem of too much growth that you’re going to have when you succeed.