Accidental Encounters with Two Magazines and Market Evolution

The other day I was reading Vanity Fair. That’s a little weird. But my wife gets it, and one of the highlighted cover stories was “Surfing the World’s Giant Waves.” I enjoyed it and learned a little more about surfing history. Still, I was a bit surprised to find the story there. The mag was full of high end fashion ads. Those ads weren’t a surprise.

Then, on another other day, I picked up Complex magazine while getting my oil changed. Actually, it was my car’s oil. Mine should be okay through trade show season.

There were five pages of Vans ads and Volcom had a two page spread. They were right there with the Smirnoff’s ad, the Puma ad, the video game ad, and the various car ads.   DC had an ad for the Rob Dyrdek collection.
None of the ads I notice in either of these magazines (I might have missed one) mentioned skateboarding, snowboarding, surfing, or any of the other sports that might be considered to be “action sports.” Not even the Vans, Volcom or DC ads.
Vanity Fair obviously believes that big wave surfing is of interest to its readers. That’s good news for surf companies. I’m guessing that most of Vanity Fair’s readers don’t surf. But all but the smallest surf companies sell a chunk to most of their product to non-surfers, and they are certainly pleased to see upper income non-surfers be exposed to surfing.
Complex represents a culture, attitude, lifestyle that I’d characterize as young, urban, sarcastic, and a bit in your face. It suggests a certain level of indifference to convention and norms and implies that if you adopt its standards you’ll somehow be self-confident and respected. Cool, if you will.
It is what and how the cores of skate, snow and surf began. Except that you actually had to skate, snowboard or surf to achieve this differentiation back then, and that was a simple distinction.
If our industry was all about, and only about, supporting people who surf, skate or snowboard, I doubt there would be any successful public companies. The participant market and its growth prospects are not large enough to interest Wall Street.
Vans, Volcom, and DC, public or owned by public companies, know this. So we find them running what I think I can fairly characterize as fashion ads (hell, maybe all ads in our industry are fashion ads) making no mention of their roots and the sports they are/were closely associated with. You and I, of course, know what those associations are and our perception of those three brands are influenced by that knowledge. And the people who read Complex? Some of them know, but I imagine a lot don’t. And apparently that’s fine or these brands would feature that association in their ads.
No ads in Vanity Fair yet, and maybe we’ll never see that day. The Vanity Fair sensibility (high style?) is a lot different from Complex (urban/trendy?). Still, though I don’t expect to see it, wouldn’t it be interesting if some brand decided to take a flier just for fun? I can see the Mervin Manufacturing ad now. “Some fool in the marketing department put an ad in Vanity Fair.  They’ve been fired but you can buy our snowboards anyway if you want to. They work good and besides, the ad’s already paid for.”
Yes, it’s easy for me to be cavalier with somebody else’s money.
But you can see a divide happening in the industry, whatever industry we’re in. On the one side are companies that service participants. On the other side are the ones who are more and more fashion based and have to decide how to position themselves with respect to their roots. Is it about trendy, stylish, comfortable product or about making the trick? Can it be both? Depends on your market and how you segment it.
It isn’t that black and white, and the discussion would be different for every brand. But if you make the fashion decision, then you are choosing to compete in a market that dwarfs the traditional action sports industry in resources and sophistication. And you probably need help. This is, and will continue to be, the rationale (a valid rationale) for consolidation and the acquisition of brands that want to “take it to the next level.” In fact, I think it will be the unusual company that gets to that next level without being acquired.



Opportunities for new Labels and Small Brands. What, Exactly, Should You Do?

I’ve been chanting for the last few months, and maybe longer, that our current economic environment represents a great opportunity for new and smaller brands. At an ASR seminar in September, somebody actually, finally, asked me, “What do you mean by that exactly?”

My answer was that if you were a specialty retailer, and were still standing, you weren’t likely to succeed by relying on big, national brands as much as you use to. I think I cited four reasons this was true.
First, a lot of that product has become available in different channels cheaper than you can afford to sell it. Second, a specialty retailer can’t differentiate itself (which it has to do) by carrying the same product everybody else carries. Third, the percentage of revenue large brands get from specialty retailers is declining and even though those brands may be supportive, specialty retailers are simply financially less important to them then they use to be. Fourth, the size of some of the offerings from the large brands makes it tough as a smaller square footage store to carry and effectively merchandise a selection from that brand that meets customer expectations. And of course, we’re not talking about just one brand.
I think I’ll add a fifth. If those big national brands are the focus of your store, then you risk being defined by the brands you carry, and I like to think it should be the other way around. The specialty retailer should give credibility to the brands they carry.
What Specialty Retailers Want
 If you’re a new label or small brand, and you agree with my above points, what should you do? First, consider this from the specialty retailer’s perspective. I think the ones I’ve talked with would mostly agree with what I’ve said. But that doesn’t mean they are ready to throw out the big national brands they have long term relationships with and make money on. The ones they don’t make money on are another issue, but that’s for a different article.
What do they get from, or at least expect to get from, the established, larger, brands?
·         An advertising and promotion campaign that, hopefully, creates demand.
·         Discounts and extended payment terms.
·         Maybe some POP and other kinds of in store support.
·         Reliable, though certainly not always perfect, delivery.
·         Some level of customer service.
·         Margins and a merchandise selection you can make money on. Hopefully.
And they also get a comfortable, long term relationship that has a certain momentum to it. I’m not quite sure if that’s a good thing or not.
As a new label or small brand, you might look at that list and think, “Well, I’m screwed. No way can I match that.” You are, I suppose, partly right. But if we cut to the chase, what does a retailer really require?
You have to be able to reliably deliver a quality product that offers the retailer some exclusivity and differentiation and that turns well at a good margin. That’s it. And if the retailer is sophisticated, or maybe has read an earlier column of mine, they might also be interested on the possible gross margin return on inventory investment.   If you can do that, I guarantee all the other stuff will fall into place.
On the other hand, if you can’t do that, forget it. You’re not in business.
A Checklist
Life’s a whole easier once you’re brand with a track record, so I’ll address my comments to people with new labels that they want to turn into brands. However, most of these items are appropriate to small brands as well.
First, we’re assuming you can make and reliably supply a quality product and have identified some trend or point of differentiation that makes the product relevant to the specialty retailer. You’re on your own as far as doing that goes. You also have to have access to some working capital. One of your advantages- maybe your biggest- is that unlike a large brand, you don’t have much to lose by trying something really innovative, creative, and maybe even a little controversial.
Second, you’ve got to prepare a business plan. This document will be important not just in clarifying your own thinking, but in building credibility with stakeholders. More on that later.
Third, you have to solidify your relationship with a supplier. A known, reliable one would be good. This is not a matter of a few emails and a phone call. It requires visits and takes some time. Show potential suppliers your plan. Explain to them the market opportunity you see. Make sure they understand how they will get paid, and what the longer term potential can be. A supplier can be a crucial source of support.
Fourth, figure out your initial target market. Are there three skate parks where you first want to show your product around? What local influential people do you know that can help you build a little credibility?
Gotcha founder Michael Tomson, in an interview in the last issue of Transworld Biz, pointed out that when you start, you don’t have a brand- just a label. “You become a brand once you develop equity in that name and label,” he said. That takes time. Maybe five years he suggested.
He’s right, and it’s a great distinction. But of course you’re not a label one day and suddenly a brand five years later. There are baby steps along the continuum of brand building. As a new label, you have to pick the place or places where you want to become a brand first. On a mountain, in a skate park, at a couple of local retailers in a club, or some combination of these and others. You aren’t a brand because you call yourself one. You’re a brand when people recognize the name and attribute certain characteristics to it and the product it’s on.
Now, it’s time to make some product, and because of all the work you’ve done educating and building your supplier relationship, that hopefully goes well. Or as well as production ever goes. I don’t mean you’re going to make three samples. That’s already happened. It’s time to make enough product to make a quality presentation to potential retailers (assuming you’ve decided you’re not strictly internet) and to begin to build some support and awareness in the local community you’ve chosen as your first target. If somebody says, “Okay, we’ll take it,” you need to be ready to supply and service your new account. “Great! I’ll have product for you in three months,” is probably not the answer you want to give.
The steps I’ve listed above don’t happen as independently and sequentially as I’ve listed them. But they all have to happen. Now comes the big moment.
Meeting With the Potential Customer
This cannot be a casual meeting where you talk in off the street.  And it cannot be with the second string, substitute, relief buyer. Because of all the work you’ve done, the owner/decision making buyer may have heard of you and your label. Maybe they’ve even had a few kids ask for it. You schedule half an hour or 45 minutes or maybe more and when they say, “I don’t have that kind of time for a brand I’ve never heard of,” you say, “Mr. Owner, we both know it’s a great time to look at new labels, but I have no idea how you’d decide to take a risk on one without spending that kind of time on it.”
And no matter what they say, you do not just “drop off a few samples” or let yourself be pushed down to somebody who isn’t in charge.
Now comes the hard work. You have to get ready for this meeting. Find all you can about the shop. Prepare a meeting agenda and send it to them in advance. Put together a folder or a power point for the meeting that might include, but is not limited to:
·         The executive summary of your business plan.
·         An explanation of your points of differentiation and the niche the product is going to fill. Why are you going to be competitive?
·         How you are financed and why that financing is adequate.
·         Information on your suppliers. Who they are, how long they’ve been around, who else they produce for. Perhaps a personal letter   to the owner of the shop explaining how you’ve been working with them and that they are prepared to provide product.
·         Personal and business references.
·         An explanation of your distribution strategy. Who else in the area will have the product and when?
·         A copy of your insurance certificate, business license, etc.
·         Brief biographies of the principals and investors.
·         A suggested order, terms sheet, and explanation of how you’ll support the shop in merchandising the product. If you’ve done your homework, you should be able to suggest where in the shop the product should go, and how much space it will take.
·         Your marketing and promotional program- what you’ve done, and what you plan to do.
This list isn’t all inclusive, and not everybody will be able to make equally strong presentations of all the items. But if you do this, and you’re making the presentation (which you have practiced for hours and hours) to a business person, I can pretty much guarantee you will blow their socks off. Because for some unfathomable reason, in this industry, they will generally not have seen this level of professionalism from a new label.
This whole discussion started with the premise that it’s a great time to be a new label or small brand. Here’s a link to an article in the New Yorker that talks specifically about why opportunities exist right now.



Can We All Please Just Calm Down? A Business Perspective on Blanks

I can’t believe I’m doing this. Oh lord, how many people am I going to piss off this time? I mean, I could just lay low and let the slings and arrows fly back and forth but no, I just don’t have the intestinal fortitude to keep my mouth shut. Instead, there’s this almost pathological need to try and reduce a highly controversial and frankly emotional issue to a series of business bullet points. I guess I’ll console myself by remembering that I’m not going to say anything here I didn’t say some years ago in Market Watch.

I might as well get it over with. Maybe it will help me sleep at night.
For those of you who live at the United States Air Force weather station three miles from the South Pole (and don’t have an internet connection), IASC and the leading skate hard goods companies created and wrote the 32 page insert called “Under Fire” that you all received in the recent issue of Transworld Business.
My hats off to them for achieving a level of efficiency and cooperation that, honestly, I wasn’t sure they could pull off. And they succeeded in highlighting what I think most of us would agree are the major issues confronting the skateboard hard goods industry today and identifying some action items. What I’m going to do is review those issues and then go a little deeper into the business implications of what they are saying and advocating.
Remember that “Under Fire” is a consensus document. That is, not everybody who was represented in it would agree with everything everybody else said. Still, I thought there was remarkable consistency across a number of key points.
And the Key Points Are……
The bedrock of the whole argument is that pros are the foundation on which skateboarding is built and that their influence is key to getting kids excited about and continually committed to skating. Okay, I agree that pros have big influence on the core of skating. How much? As much as they use to? Don’t know.
The next point is that the brands’ marketing activities, including their support of pros, is critical to the health of skateboarding. If skaters are buying blanks and shop decks (I consider those separate categories, and will discuss why later) rather than the more expensive branded decks, the brands can’t afford the same marketing programs. That’s simply a financial equation. Can’t argue with it.
And, the argument continues, if professional skateboarding and the associated promotional activities aren’t strong and can’t be continued at the same level skating, as an activity, a lifestyle, an attitude, and as a business is fated to decline.
Well that would suck if it actually happened. What do the brands want to do about it?
First, they acknowledge that it’s time to introduce some technology and innovation into skate hard goods to give skaters a reason to buy the more expensive branded decks. We’re already seeing some of that start to happen and you’ll see more. But of course it’s not an instant solution. The industry has spent a lot of time, effort and marketing dollars to convince skaters that a skateboard is a seven to nine ply laminated product made of hard rock Canadian maple. Skaters seem to believe it. Getting some of them to pay more for something that ain’t quite that, even when the benefits seem obvious, will take some persuasion and some time.
I guess where we’d like to be in where, for example, golf is. You know- they come out with “new and improved” models every year and people buy them even though there’s nothing wrong with their old stuff and the new stuff is expensive and doesn’t necessarily make a difference in their game. Or like in automobiles- where the newest technology appears in the top of the line product and works its way down year by year.
This will require, however, that the pros be in lock step with their sponsors.
Second, they recognize the shop’s need for a better margin on branded hard goods. What are they going to do about it? Somewhere between lots and nothing. There are brands already offering better margins and some that just don’t want to compete at the lower price point. There is, by the way, nothing wrong with a business decision to not offer a less expensive product if that’s what your market position and targeted customers require.
“Under Fire” is only “the first step in IASC’s plan to continue educating and informing the industry about this issue.” There will be additional steps in the program. The supplement ends with a call to action suggesting some tactics that all the industry’s stakeholders should consider.
So, Where Are We Exactly?
You remember all this from a few years ago. Skating takes off, skate parks start to sprout like mushrooms, brands can’t keep up with demand. Everybody’s happy. Then the market gets big enough for the foreign, low cost manufacturers to notice it. “Hey, we can make this cheap,” they say. They’re right. The usual startup problems. Problems resolved. Eight bucks landed cost for a blank skateboard if you’re buying in quantity. Maybe less. Consumers get the idea that the quality of blanks and shop decks are the same as the branded deck. Big price difference. Product wears out. No fundamental change in the product in 20 years or so. Percentage margins decline. Worse, total margin dollars earned on a deck decline. Fifty to seventy percent of deck sales world wide (you pick the number you believe) are blanks and shop decks.
So after a period of rapid growth, the industry matured a bit and started to consolidate. Product becomes a bit of a commodity, price and margin pressures, volume matters, etc. Look, I’m not going to go through this for the 14th time. All the usual things happen that happen to any industry in its life cycle. Big surprise. It’s so predictable it’s boring.
Anyway, wherever you go, there you’ll be. And here we are. There are some business issues implicit in Under Fire that it didn’t specifically discuss. Well, you can’t blame them- if they had, you’d be confusing this thing with the telephone book. But me, I always wanted to write a phone book.
Why People Buy
As far as I know, there are three things that motivate people to purchase a product. They are advertising and promotion, product features, and price. It appears, right at the moment, that advertising and promotion isn’t working too well for branded skate decks. If it was, there would be no Under Fire and I wouldn’t be writing this. Which, frankly, would be fine with me. There must be a better use for a Saturday morning. I mean, I could be doing yard work. Never mind. I’ll write and send the two teenagers out. Same to you kids. No, you can’t play with the chain saw.
New product features? Well, uhh, there really haven’t been any that have caught on, though hopefully that’s starting to change.
That, I am afraid, leaves us where we really, really didn’t want to be. At price. Let us then discuss the elasticity of demand with regards to price. If the blank/shop deck is, say $20.00 and the branded deck is $50.00 and you’re a fourteen year old without a lot of money or the a parent of a fourteen year old who knows you’re going to be back in this shop in a month, that’s a big difference. Apparently, too big a difference for a lot of people.
How big a difference wouldn’t be too much? Judging from the discussion of the demand for the $35 branded deck in the sacred supplement, the retailers seem to think that’s a price point at which they can sell branded product. But would $40 also work? Or does it need to be $30? What kind of and how much advertising and promotion and product innovation can change that?
We don’t really know. Or at least I don’t know. Actually, I guess I do know the answer. The answer is, “It depends.” Isn’t that helpful? It depends on the brand. It depends on the shop. It depends on buyer motivation. Has anybody out there rigorously asked 500 skaters, or even 100, why they bought the skate board they bought?
Right at the moment, if we asked a bunch of skaters, we know quite a few of them (fifty to seventy percent I suppose) would say that price was a big factor, as is their belief in a lack of meaningful product differentiation. More troubling, I suspect that if we asked our questions just right, we’d find that many are indeed influenced by the pros- but that doesn’t translate into buying a branded deck.  Finally I’d expect to hear, “I support my local skate scene.” And that brings us to our next topic.
Blanks and Shop Decks
Let’s define a blank as a skate board either with no graphics at all or with graphics with absolutely no legitimate connection to skateboarding. There will always be a market for both. Some percentage of the market, especially lacking any real or perceived product differentiation, will always want to buy the cheapest thing they can. It’s true in any market. And somebody will always supply it.
I’d like to say that again- If the customer wants it, somebody will always supply it. Lacking a change in skater perception and motivation, every store and shop that stops selling blanks creates an opportunity for somebody who does sell them.
The non branded board with graphics has been the province of the larger chains and sporting goods stores, often as completes. There’s no possible reason for a “real” skate retailer to carry them, if only because they’d make more money on their shop decks as well as promoting their shop. They are going to be around, and I imagine the quality has improved.
Shop decks, though, are a different story. What I hear, and what I suspect is often true, is that a shop deck, in a good shop’s neighborhood, is essentially a lower priced substitute for the traditional branded product. It offers a certain customer the same sense of legitimacy, belonging, and connection to skating and the skate culture that they use to get from the branded pro deck. And it’s cheaper. And shops make good money on them. I wonder how many shops put out their own pro models. Shop decks are not going to disappear. In fact, they may get stronger. And as I said, I don’t think the success of shop decks is just a price issue.
Maybe, with the right technology and promotion by the brands, shop decks can become the entry level boards.
It would be interesting to collect some good information on sales of shop versus blank decks as I’ve defined them. They really are separate categories, but they’ve been lumped together.
The Role of the Pro
I suspect there are some people who feel no need to collect any data on buyer motivation. They believe they already know the answer they’ll get back. In Under Fire, most of the brands say their companies are rider driven, or words to that affect. Always have been, always will be. That’s a valid statement of principal, but it may not be an adequate basis for a business, judging from the decline in the sale of full price branded decks.
I would not try to push a comparison between snowboarding and skateboarding too far. But I will point out that snowboarding use to have a pile of pros and sell lots of pro decks. Once the industry matured, that started to decline until today, the number of pro snowboards sold is vanishingly small.
That doesn’t mean that the pros don’t still influence snowboarders. But what the snow board brands finally figured out was that the best pros were worth whatever you had to pay them. The ones that you just flowed product to and maybe offered contest and photo incentives were influential at their local scene. All the riders in the middle? Not worth what they cost was the decision, and they are gone.
By the way, my definition of the best pro is not just the one who’s the best skater. It’s also the one who’s personable, responsible, professional, and shows up on time.
The other things that happened, in surf especially, is that the apparel and footwear companies picked up most of the team/pro sponsorship and other marketing expenses.
Is this how skateboarding will evolve? I don’t know. Skate hard goods companies have historically been the bedrock of skate boarding.   Certainly shoe and apparel companies are spending plenty of money supporting skateboarding.
So here’s the marketing matrix. Some skaters are influenced by the pros and buy pro decks. Some are influenced and buy the pro’s brand. Some are influenced, but still buy what’s cheap, maybe spending their money on shoes and clothing again. Some are influenced and would like to buy the pro deck but can’t afford it. Some don’t give a shit and buy whatever is cheapest as long as they perceive the quality is equivalent.
Well, we’re back to buyer motivation. Let’s talk to those few hundred skaters and figure out just where the industry (and individual companies) should be spending its advertising and promotional dollars.
Everybody gets together to discuss distribution, tries to blame the other guy for the so called mess, and nothing changes. I’ve seen it too often, and I’m not talking just about skateboarding. Anybody who runs a company in the action sports business sits at their desk and ponders distribution every day. They know who they can absolutely sell to. They know who they should definitely not sell to right now. They try and figure out when and what and how much they can sell to all the accounts that don’t fit neatly in the “sell” or “don’t sell” categories. They ask themselves, “What will other accounts think? How will it impact the brand? How much money can I make? What’s the potential for growth? Is it consistent with my brand’s market position and brand strategy?”
So distribution evolves as companies grow and brands change. It just does. There is no mess. There’s just normal industry/brand/retailer evolution. Do what’s right for your business given this inevitable fact. Don’t look for somebody to blame, and don’t wait for it to be fixed.
Industry Evolution
Industries change. They just do. Companies adapt or die.  The customer always gets what they want. You can influence them, but not always as much as you’d like. An industry succeeds when the companies that make it up compete. Part of that competition is always innovation. Some do well, some don’t. But the industry itself progresses; sometimes kicking and screaming, but it progresses. I guarantee that every company will do what it perceives to be in its own best interest.
I went to the Park and Recreation Convention here in Seattle last October. Basically this is the convention of people who sell stuff to playgrounds, and I can only say that I wish I was a kid again. Lots of cool stuff that’s beyond what I could have imagined when I was of an age to use it.
I saw Per Welinder from Blitz there, manning the IASC booth and promoting skate parks. I walked around a corner and came face to face with Beau Brown, formerly of Sole Tech and now COO of Radius 8, a seller of portable skate ramps. His face was all aglow from the huge number of business opportunities he thought he had at the show. As we talked, a guy from some municipality came up and, apparently amazed to learn that portable ramps existed, asked how quickly he could get some. He guessed at the price, kind of suggesting that one might cost $3,000 as I recall. Beau, who seems to have a nasty ethical streak he needs to get over, told him that no, the one he was looking at was only $300. The guy scurried away to get his boss.

Action Sports; Are We Still in That Business?

Seems a silly question I suppose. Action sports are what we do. It’s what we’ve always done. It’s what we love. Our trade shows are more fun than anybody else’s. We get to take vacations and call them business expenses or, even better, product testing. Uh, not that I’ve ever done that, Mr. Tax Man, sir. But I’ve heard about it.

I’m not quite sure that’s the business we’re in any more. Or, to put it more precisely, I’m thinking that action sports is only part of our business. A smaller part for many of us. Maybe I’m just playing with words. “What’s in a name?” somebody once asked. Maybe a lot if that name determines how you think about who your competitors and customers are, how you need to do business, and the market where you position your product. Put like that, it’s a survival issue.
If you’re going to make money in this industry, you need to recognize how it has evolved and run your business accordingly. By reviewing that evolution, and talking about how you might redefine the business you’re in, I’m hoping some things you should be thinking about doing differently will become obvious. Or, at the very least, you can start to move in the direction of identifying those issues and opportunities.
Can It Be This Simple?
I thought this would be a nice easy article to write. Just sort of review some industry evolution. You know- how we use to sell mostly to participants and tended to be focused on a single sport, but now we’re selling across the sports, increasingly to non participants who just want to look good and maybe feel some connection to the lifestyle and account for the majority to most of our sales and even more of our profits. Then pronounce we’re in the fashion industry and be done.
Wouldn’t it have been great? “Wham! Bam! Thank you ma’am!” [good luck translators] and Boardsport Source would send me a check, and I could move onto my next project. But then I realized two things. First, that Boardsport Source pays by the word.  This was looking like a damn short article, and that wouldn’t do.
Second, and arguably more importantly, pronouncing that we are in the fashion business wasn’t much help to anybody. It was kind of like saying the goal of a business was making money. True, you need to do it, but it doesn’t say a thing about how to go about it.
So it appears I’m stuck at my computer a bit longer.
Still, my blazingly short description of our evolution as an industry- from participant to non participant as main customers and towards the fashion business- is generally accurate, though not adequate as I explain below.
Fashion Business- What’s That?
Are you thinking, “We all know what the fashion business is, so there’s no need to discuss it?” Well, you’re smarter than I am because I’ve decided I don’t quite know what it means, at least not in a useful way. Have you ever noticed that when the consensus is that “everybody knows,” you’ve probably got something worth digging into?
Here’s what I think characterizes the fashion business:
  • All product differentiation is created by advertising and promotion (branding) and design.
  • No functional product difference remains exclusive for long.
  • The fashion business is huge. The action sports business is tiny.
  • The fashion industry encourages product replacement. If we all wore our shoes and apparel as long as we reasonably could, the fashion industry would be a hell of a lot smaller than it is.
  • In a product we are encouraged to replace from season to season, function can become less important than form.
  • The customer base is no longer easily identified or segmented. Marketing (the process of figuring out who your customer is and why they buy from you) is critical. And challenging.
  • Your relationship with core participants is different. You want to sell to them, but they may be more important to you for the legitimacy and brand power they can give you with all the non participants who represent your biggest opportunity for growth.
If you think about these points, you may come to some of the same conclusions I came too. The one that sticks out like a day glow, skin tight orange/lime green ski suit on the slopes (Those aren’t fashionable again yet are they?) is that it is absolutely futile to say, “We’re in the fashion business,” because that business is too vast and varied and massive to tell you anything useful.
Which bring us to marketing.
Marketing- No Way to Avoid It.
Remember that we all use to be our customers. Market segmentation? If they boarded, they were a potential customer. If they didn’t they weren’t. Marketing done. It was easy, accurate and damn near perfect. It was seductive because it didn’t require any effort and didn’t generate any uncertainty.
Like an archeologist digging down through the layers of a civilization, we can find the remains of those days in some companies, where the people who manage the still critical advertising and promotions function continue to be called The Marketing Department. I have no idea why. If you accept my definition of marketing above, they don’t do any marketing. But somehow the name hangs on.
“What’s in a name?” I asked at the beginning of this article. Maybe a lot if you think you’re doing marketing, but what you’re really doing is running ads, supporting riders, and sponsoring contests. Lacking effective marketing, you have no way to judge if you’re running the right ads, supporting the right riders, and sponsoring the right contests.
If you agree with me that you’re now in the fashion business to some extent, your first job is to find out just what part you are in. You have to do some real marketing. You have to find out who your customers and potential customers are and why they buy from you.
Competitor Identification
As soon as you recognize you aren’t just in the action sports industry, but in some (clearly identified) segment of the fashion business as well, then the lists of companies you are competing against changes. Those non board sport participating customers that you are selling to are comparing your product to those of brands that have nothing to do with action sports.   Why might they buy your product? Why will a particular non skating customer buy Brand X of skate shoe rather than a Nike if they are just looking for a comfortable, casual shoe?
Obviously, if this wasn’t an issue skate shoe companies wouldn’t be making casual shoes less closely tied to actual skating.
So, you may have some different competitors. I wonder if those advertisements and promotions being churned out by your non marketing department are as relevant as they once were? You might wonder too. Are you spending all that money in the right place?
Then There’s the Customer
Just who is your customer? For most brands and retailers it’s not just core skaters, or surfers, or snowboarders anymore. It hasn’t been for quite a while. I think we’d all agree on that. If you want to grow your business to a serious size, there just aren’t enough of them around.
Look at your distribution and how it’s changed. There are a lot of clues about your customers there. Go ask your fifty largest customers to describe the person who buys your product. Don’t accept a vague answer. Work to collect some of that data if you don’t already have it.
Consider what you might learn. When you sell to a core participant, your customer tends to be  knowledgeable, function oriented, possibly less price sensitive, and knows about the competitor’s product. When you are selling to somebody who’s a lifestyle customers they are, well, not necessarily like that. They perceive themselves to have choice of brands beyond what the core customer may consider.
This has huge implications for how you advertise and promote your brand. Just as one example, the core customer may recognize and identify with specific sponsored riders and how they perform. The broader market “fashion” customer is less likely to recognize the rider or the trick, but may be attracted to their perception of that rider’s lifestyle and the places they go.
If that’s true should your ads be less technical? Does it change your choice of sponsored riders and how you compensate and present them? Etc.
For most brands and retailers, it’s no longer accurate to say only that, “We’re in the action sports business.” There’s an important and growing (maybe dominating) fashion component to your business, but describing your company as being, “In the fashion business” is too broad a statement to be useful, even though it’s true.
Chuck out the old habits. Recognize that your market is changing, and you have to do some work to figure out how and what that means. It’s no longer handed to you on a silver platter. And if you’re calling your Advertising and Promotions Department “Marketing,” will you please change that? You’re driving me crazy.



Look! New Brands. That’s Great! Or These People Are Crazy. Or Both.

Probably both. It’s not like brands haven’t been coming and going for years beyond count in skateboarding.

Historically, there have been two categories of new brands. The first was the truly new company started by some skaters who wanted in on a burgeoning industry that just happened to be something they loved. The second were the new brands that came from established companies where brands came and went as their popularity rose and fell with time and the popularity of the brand’s team.
Let’s look at who may be crazy and who may not be, and why.
The list I was sent of around fifteen “new” brands turned out to be mostly brands started by existing companies. Some of the ones not clearly associated with an existing brand I tried to contact, but in a couple of cases I either couldn’t find a phone number or email address on the internet, or I didn’t get an answer.
The reason I was hoping to reach some new brands not associated with existing companies is because when they are popping up, skating is prospering and dynamic. The level of enthusiasm and optimism that leads to skaters starting new brands or new shops is just what we need in this industry.
Brands being started by existing companies, on the other hand, may or may not indicate any market growth. They may represent just that ongoing brand rotation I referred to above we all know about.
Certainly the almost weekly phone calls or emails I use to get from kids who were going to start shops or brands are a thing of the distant past. I always tried to encourage them to go for it, but also to do it with a certain level of business realism. I wonder if any of them ever pulled it off.
Excuse me as I wipe a tear from my eye, sign deeply and bemoan the loss of “the good old days,” when men were men and margins and prices were high and you could sell everything you could get or make.
Was I suppose to say, “People were people” to be politically correct? Oh, the hell with it.
Anyway, in a desperate attempt to get back on topic, let’s look at how the business model of starting a new independent brand has changed.
Same Old New Business Model
The bad news, I suppose, is that the expense side hasn’t changed all that much. At first, when you’re very small and “underground,” building one shop and one order at a time, maybe you can get away without some of the usual expenses.
As you begin to grow, you will need team riders. You have to begin to advertise and promote. You will find yourself giving away more stickers and promotional product. iThere are magazines to be advertised in and trade shows to go to. My guess is that none of this has gotten much cheaper, though trade show booths bigger than my house (and with more floors) are largely a thing of the past in the core skate industry.
You’ll have to pay rent or a mortgage when you outgrow your garage, and it’s likely you’ll need employees who will, inconveniently, want to be paid. So will the phone company.
And while you do what you can to control expenses like any competent business person, a lot of these expenses are unavoidable. Especially, maybe, the marketing expenses since you’re product is the same as everybody else’s and without brand differentiation you’re ultimately toast. In fact, if skate isn’t growing as fast as it use to, maybe you need even more of those marketing expenses.
Let’s hope, of course, that you also have some revenue. More than expenses, eventually, would be nice. And of course you’d like that revenue to come from selling full price, high margin decks that kids buy because the brand, or skater, or both, are cool. You and every other brand.
But I suspect that part of the market, in both percentage terms and in total decks sold, is not as big as it use to be and may be getting smaller. And prices, at both wholesale and retail, are expected to come down in the broad skate market.   You know the drill; Shop decks, China, blanks, competition, fewer core shops, wider distribution, no real product difference, blah, blah, blah, blah.
We’ve been through that analysis enough, so let’s just recognize the danger of less revenue from the same number of products sold even if the percentage margin is the same. You are in general going to need to sell more decks to make the same total gross margin dollars. Those dollars are what you need to pay all those pesky expenses. So breakeven is a little farther away, in terms of sales, then it use to be. Financial risk is higher and more bucks have to be invested in the business.
And now that I’ve got anybody who was actually thinking about starting a new, independent brand standing in a puddle of their own making, let me tell you that you should go for it. But plan for it and recognize the changes in the business as a way to improve your chances of success.
Old New Brands
It’s not a surprise that of the 15 or so new brands on my list, no more than three or four are really independent new brands. And it may not be that many. We all know of cases where somebody has started their “own new brand” that is distinct from a marketing point of view but is supported financially and logistically by an existing skate company.
Which, by the way, makes a hell of a lot of sense. Starting from scratch is a pain in the posterior region. If you’ve already got a warehouse, accounting system, and product source, there’s not a reason in the world not to take advantage of it. Especially since the consumer will probably never know the difference and will be just impressed by a correctly marketed new brand supported by an old company as a new brand from a truly new company.
And many retailers, I suspect, would prefer to have a new brand from a company they know they can count on for quality, delivery, service, and marketing. For better or worse, they aren’t prepared to take the same risks on new brands they use to be.
Just to confirm that, I spoke with Craig Nejedly, President of the wheels and soft goods brand Satori Movement. Within the last year, the company has launched the new skateboard brand Creation.
“Some of our retailers had been asking for a deck for while,” he indicated. “Finally, we couldn’t see any reason not to accommodate them.”
But it isn’t a blow out the doors, grow at all costs kind of approach. Far from it. Unsold inventory is kept to a minimum. Growth, at this point, is determined by pull from the retailers, not by demand created by marketing. Between the terms he gets from the factory and the way the retailers pay, Satori hasn’t had to invest a whole lot of capital in the new brand to make it fly. And marketing dollars only go out the door based on sales dollars coming in. Marketing, at the moment, is based more on limited distribution and scarcity than on advertising and promotion.
I’ve always thought that was a good plan. Demand creation through some level of scarcity is probably better marketing than, well, marketing.
When Taking a Risk Isn’t
From the consumer’s point of view whether a new brand is independent or not may be irrelevant since the consumer doesn’t know. But when I see new independent brands, I know the market is more vibrant and optimistic and probably growing. So my advice to those interested into getting to the skate business is to listen, but not be intimidated, by people like me telling you how hard it can be. That’s true but it’s not the whole story.
As a new brand, you can do things the existing brands wouldn’t even think to do. In fact, if you come out of the shoot doing exactly what everybody else does but trying to do it a little better or differently, with your goal being to take somebody else’s market share, you reduce your chances of success and for sure you don’t do much to grow the market.
Why don’t you make a deal with the local skate park so that a pass to the park comes with each deck you sell? How about arranging a skate demo where people wouldn’t expect it? Include a coupon that’s good for a discount off a deck if you’re over 40. Okay, maybe that’s a retail strategy. Think of the parents that would get dragged into the shop. My point is that as a small brand, there are few rules about what you can do and can’t do.
Forget what all the other brands are doing. As a new brand, don’t benchmark yourself against your competitors. Figure out something new you can give the skater. It’s what the customer wants that matters. Create a new market instead of fighting over a crumb of the existing one. It’s your best, and maybe your only, chance.



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.



“Jeff, This is a Hard Business!” Why Is That and What Can You Do About It?

That unsolicited quote is from the President of a snowboard brand that you all know and that’s been around for a while. It would generally be considered successful. I consider it successful.

It’s not the first time I’ve heard the comment. I’ve responded by agreeing and by explaining why it was true. Over the years I’ve had some suggestions as to how you could work to counter, it but I’ve never really had a strategic answer about how to deal with it.
Now, as a result of some thinking, consulting, and reading I’ve done, I’ve got some new ideas on the subject. This article does not end with a Deus Ex Machina like an ancient Greek drama that resolves everything, so don’t rush to the end to read THE SOLUTION. It’s not there. But I think I’ve maybe figured out how some of our old assumptions about snowboarding, and marketing in general are no longer valid, and how and why they have changed. Maybe when we know that, we’re a step closer to running our businesses better.
Ancient History
Somewhere around 1995 I started the process of making myself the messenger that everybody wanted to shoot by writing that there wasn’t room for 300 snowboard companies and that most of them were going to go away. I talked about what happened when a fast growing industry matures and consolidates.
Any of you who may have followed what I had to say about consolidation back then can relax. I’m not going to say it all again, though lord knows I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of my list of changes in consolidating industries over the years.
I use to write about how you could find a competitive advantage in the snowboard industry. Maybe you could get your product faster, or cheaper, or have a better pricing structure, or make it better with more features, or have a business that was less seasonal. Then I talked about controlling distribution to have a market niche. Some of those things worked well when snowboarding was younger- for a while. A little while. A very little while.
Snowboarding, because of changes in information technology, the sheer speed of market evolution during our growth and consolidation phase, the impossibility of maintaining a real product advantage, etc. was experiencing what other industries were already experiencing.  Access to and control of information has moved down the food chain from the manufacturers, to the distributors and now, via the internet, etc. to the consumer. Nothing stays the same very long. And nothing stays exclusive. What one company has done, another can duplicate sometimes literally over night.
Though it took us all (in snowboarding and lots of other industries) a long time to figure it out, it turns out there was no longer a sustainable competitive advantage as traditionally defined resulting from anything you do operationally. The price of entry was making a good product, pricing it right, delivering it on time, supporting your dealers, having good information systems, hot team riders and, uh, well, a whole lot of other stuff.
Let’s say that again for emphasis. Doing everything right doesn’t give you a competitive advantage. It just let you play in the game. It was the entry ticket.
A few years ago I even wrote that. I said, “Hey, you got to do everything well just to be here!” I was right, but I didn’t make the leap I needed to make.
The Focus on Branding
Well, if everybody can do what you can do, and pretty much do it at least as quickly and as well, and if the consumer can compare prices and product features with hardly any work, what exactly can you do besides price it lower, give the dealers longer terms, sell it to anybody who will carry it, and spend more money on marketing? No wonder this is such a hard business.
Back in 1997 I wrote, “Realize that all you have is your brand name and do everything you can to build and protect it.” Perhaps that wasn’t quite as obvious back in1997 as it is now. But it quickly became obvious and companies did the usual things to try and build and protect their brand names to give them that alleged Holy Grail of business, the sustainable competitive advantage.
They boosted the marketing and promotional budget, hired more team riders, made films, did deals with resorts, sponsored contests, expanded product lines, put stores in stores. Fighting for market share was the mantra, and it killed a lot of brands who couldn’t afford it.
Nobody would deny that some of these companies did great marketing- and it worked. They grew and their brands became better known and established. But no amount of good marketing changed the fact that product was the same, consumers had lots of information, what one company could do another could duplicate, and the demand for growth caused sprawling distribution.
Advantage to the big diversified players with the year around business. But even they weren’t getting rich in snowboarding.
So I was right- we were all right. Your brand was all you had and you had to do the right things with it. But I still didn’t make the leap. Maybe some of you did.
What is Marketing?
Well, it sure isn’t The Four Ps anymore- product, price, place, promotion- like they taught in the 60s and 70s. Your only advantage may lie in your brand. That’s what everybody apparently thought as they spent buckets of money on marketing.
But the marketing they spent, and are still spending, all that money on was developed back when the conditions of rapid change, perfect consumer information, etc. that I describe above didn’t exist. It was done not for the benefit of the customer but for the benefit of the company to tell the consumer, what to buy, where, and why. The consumer, having many fewer choices of product and purchase location and no easily available product comparisons tended to do what they were told.
It must have been wonderful.
Now the consumer doesn’t need you, or anybody else thank you very much, to tell them what to buy, where to get it, how much it should cost and whether it’s good or bad. Just what the hell, exactly, do they need you for?
Just make it good and sell it cheap and they’ll figure out the rest. Not much of a business model from our point of view is it. Might it imply that a goodly chunk of your marketing spending, as currently configured, is wasted?
Marketing is no longer about telling your customer what they want and where they can get it. They don’t need you for that because of their ease of access to information. But you have the same access to information, and you can make your company one big marketing machine.
But it isn’t up to the marketing department. It’s the job of the whole company. Oh god, how’s that for an overused cliché? Let me be more specific.
First, marketing happens, and you are probably gathering information on your customer, every time they are in contact with you. When they call customer service. When you send them an invoice.   When you try and collect that overdue bill. When you ride up with a kid on the lift. Every point of contact creates an impression with the customer. What impression? How can you make those points of contact, to the extent they are predictable, into a positive experience that reinforces the customer’s relationship with your brand?
You can’t- unless you identify them and analyze how you can make them better in a coordinated way. The best example I can think of in winter sports is the way some resorts have evaluated, torn apart, and completely reconstructed the process of renting equipment and taking lessons to make it more pleasant for the customer. That’s what I think marketing means now. And obviously it wasn’t done by the marketing department.
Second, your customers may have all this information that makes them less dependent on you, but you know a lot more about them now as well. Who are your best customers? What are they worth to you over a period of time? Why do they identify with your brand? Easy questions for me to ask. Damn hard to answer. See, I warned you at the beginning you would not find THE SOLUTION at the end.
At least some of this information is already available in your existing data bases. But often the various systems aren’t compatible and they haven’t been structured to provide the data you need. If you think the accounting department designed it’s systems to make it easy to extract information on customer behavior, you’re dreaming. But the accounting department has a lot of contact with and information on your customers. Get your hands on it
Use your information to find out why your customers are loyal to you. Or why they aren’t. Take just a bit of the money you’re throwing at advertising and promotion and use it to extract this information where available from your existing data. I’ll bet you do a better job of spending that advertising and promotional budget when you know more about your customer.
We don’t sell products any more. We sell a customer brand experience. Certainly your traditional marketing influences that, but it doesn’t get to the heart of customer motivations. Please stop telling me how “rider influenced” your product line is unless you can prove to me that your best customers have the same motivations as your team riders.
Marketing means something different than it use to. This new marketing may be the only way to create a competitive advantage that lasts longer than twenty minutes.



You Did What !!?? Starting a New Snowboard Brand

Your first reaction is that they must be crazy. Starting a new brand when the snowboard market is dominated by five companies fighting to take market share from each other, pushing distribution to every corner of the retail world and, to some extent, using price as a weapon in the battle doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. You can’t meet their prices. You can’t afford their ad budget. You can’t pay big bucks for team riders.

We all remember the uncounted brands that died when these market conditions started to emerge. What’s changed? Something? Or maybe nothing, and the people starting the brands have decided they’d rather have a good time losing their money in snowboarding instead of losing it in the stock market and not having any fun.
Like the stock market, the time to get involved is often when everybody else is fleeing into the night. It’s at least possible that the market conditions that make it look like the worst possible time to start a brand actually make it the best.
Making the Case
The argument would go something like this. There are a group of smaller (or at least non chain) snowboard retailers who are, above all, snowboard shops. They need a product that everybody else doesn’t have. There are a group of snowboarders for whom snowboarding is important. That is, it’s still part of their lifestyle, they think of themselves as snowboarders and they aren’t interested in just buying what’s on sale. Maybe that group isn’t as large as it use to be, but it’s still there and it’s still big.
To succeed as snowboard shops, those retailers need a product that everybody else doesn’t have, that has roots in snowboarding, that offers them a margin they can live with and the high probability of selling it at that margin. The customer they are looking to serve also wants something everybody else doesn’t have that confirms their deeper interest in and commitment to snowboarding. The new brands, the argument goes, provide a way for these retailers and these snowboarder to do some business together based on a common need and interest. It’s niche marketing.
The downside for these new brands is that success may mean fairly slow growth and staying pretty small (Option and Never Summer are the pioneers in recognizing and implementing this strategy over many years). In fact, if they tried to grow too fast, they’d lose the market advantage they have over the large players. They can succeed because they don’t have to compete on price and don’t have to run a huge advertising and promotion program that’s required to reach the mass market.
Hell of a theory. The counter argument is that even if everything I said above is accurate, the business may still not make financial sense. You’re may be paying more for decks and other products than larger companies. Slow growth is fine, but how long can you afford to lose money while you’re true to the market strategy. At the end of the day, can you get big enough quickly enough to provide a reasonable return on investment? Maybe even for “core” shops, the terms, prices, and support they get from the big guys is just to compelling to leave much room for new, small brands.
I guess I know which side of the theory the guys at the new brands will come down on.
Josh Reid, along with Paul Maravetz the founders of Rome Snowboards, takes a philosophical approach to building the Rome brand. No, no, no, he’s not getting marketing ideas from reading Plato’s Republic (Didn’t somebody already do that and name their brand Atlantis?). But he believes that snowboarding continues to be “rooted in the counterculture,” if not to the same extent it was ten years ago and that as a result the “philosophical aspects of the brand are more important than in other industries.”
What he means is that there are still a lot of committed snowboarder who see their choice of snowboarding as more than a sport and the equipment they purchase as more than getting the best deal on what they need to participate in that “sport.”  Those people are Rome’s target customer.
Well, so far it seems to be working. The brand came out two months before Vegas- not necessarily the best timing to attract dealers for the coming season. Still, they’ve got around two hundred dealers in North America and, both last season and this season are getting requests for more product from dealers who have been surprised by demand.
Mike Arbogast, at Mountain Riders in Stratton, says there’s lots of buzz about Rome. He doesn’t know exactly why- maybe the kids are just looking for something different. Mike would probably agree with Josh’s comment about the counterculture. According to Mike, “Every kid who comes through with a Grenade sweatshirt is looking for a Rome hat [“sex, drugs, and snowboarding”] to top it off.”
It’s telling that Mountain Riders carries only four brands total. They’ve cut back on the two large ones to make room for more Rome and Allian. They’ve dropped a third large brand this year season.
By design, Rome has chosen not to meet the requests for more product. They built to orders for this season. Dealers may be disappointed at not being able to meet demand, but hopefully they’ll console themselves with good sell through at full margin and remember to order more next preseason.
In the long term, that’s probably good marketing for Rome, but it also reflects financial realism, something was often sadly lacking in the snowboard feeding frenzy of seven or eight years ago.
Rome’s on track to be profitable in the next year or two. They could have shown a financial profit the first year but decided, correctly I think, that there were some required expenses that had to be made consistent with the brand strategy.
Allian is practically an old timer among the new post consolidation brands. Their first season was 2000-2001. “It’s run and owned by people who stand on top of 100 foot cliffs and jump off them for no good reason,” is how Sales Manager John Stanos puts it. “We’ve had enough head injuries that maybe we can see a little clearer. It’s not complicated. It’s just snowboarding.”
Allian has a target market of the kids who spend a hundred days on the mountain. They are in about a 175 shops in North America and have about 20 distributors world wide. They only make what they can sell, and they try not to spend money they don’t have. The company expects to be self sustaining financially this year.
There’s a certain relaxed attitude and flexibility that I see as contributing to their success. They see their shops, reps and riders as partners. Sure they want to grow, but they don’t want shops to take product they can’t sell. Of course the reps have a sales budget, but it’s doing what’s right for the brand that’s important. “If there are five shops in town, we should only be in one right now,” says Stanos.
Boardsports in Eugene, Oregon is an Allian dealer and Jon Faulkner is one of the owners. They started looking at new, smaller brands a couple of years because the distribution of the usual brands was getting so huge, and because they don’t carry any ski brands of snowboards. John said they liked Allian right away because, “It was new, it was local, and the boards rode great for how basic they were- the company wasn’t based on hype or design or team.
What strikes me and is that the first dealer I called described the brand to me in essentially the same way Allian Sales Manager John Stanos did. It’s not about hype and craziness like it was the first time around. It’s just about snowboarding. If Allian can maintain that connection between its brand and its dealers, it should do great.
So What Do We Got?
Rome was a bit more formal in describing its business model. Given the owner’s background, that’s not too much of a surprise. But both brands have much the same strategy and market concept.
They’re both rider driven. But that doesn’t mean just team riders like it use to mean, but serious snowboarders in general. That’s both brands’ target market. They both want to grow, but not at all costs. The brand’s positioning has to be maintained. They know the mistakes other brands have made, and are going to make building a snowboard brand a lot more fun by not making them.
They won’t spend money they don’t have, make product they can’t sell, or try to be “the next Burton.” It may be snowboarding and it should be fun, but it has to be good business. There’s a sense of realism that didn’t exist in a lot of brands that aren’t around any more.
That’s a good model for success.



Three Business Models That Might Work; Ideas From Vegas

You might have thought I could have gotten around to this before now, but there were no more SnowBiz issues after Vegas, and I kind of forgot about this for a while. Sorry.

As we’ve watched snowboarding evolve, we’ve noticed how closely products of different brands resemble each other. Differentiation is based largely on marketing and making a buck requires a strong brand, adequate financing, and solid operations.
Well okay, that’s basically what happens in any industry as it matures and no, I’m not going to make that speech again. Seems a waste of time at this point.
But, the bottom line is that companies that make money tend to have what’s called a “sustainable competitive advantage.” Sustaining it is typically a lot of work. Just because you have it doesn’t mean you keep it. At Vegas, I saw three brands (I’m not suggesting there aren’t others) that I thought had a potential competitive advantage. Whether it’s sustainable or not isn’t clear. That depends not only on what they do, but also on what their competition does.
I thought we might learn something by looking at them.
Head Snowboards
Two years ago, Head had the beginnings of a snowboard program. This year at Vegas, they had a complete snowboard program with a product line that looked as good and as complete as some better-known brands.
My more recent information is that their bookings have increased substantially for the coming season, but at the time I asked them, in my usual subtle way, “So are you telling me that the best you can do is to be as good as everybody else? Doesn’t sound like the basis for a competitive advantage.”
They smiled and showed me their rental product with a setup time of 59 seconds. Boot sizes are color coordinated with board widths. There’s an embedded microchip for inventory control and to get people in and out fast. The boards are delivered with premounted rental discs. The step-in bindings can be adjusted in two steps for stance and angle without any tools, as can the straps for boot size.
Okay, I liked that. Seemed like it would make life easier for everybody. Renters move through lines quicker and get a better setup. Instructors can change things for students on the fly. The resorts save a few bucks by improved efficiency and hopefully lose fewer newbies as they go through the hazing that has too often been lessons.
So where should Head allocate their resources? To selling a snowboard line that, at best, will be perceived as being as good as everybody else’s to specialty retailers or pushing their rental system, with some clearly identifiable advantages, to the rental shops at the resorts? Who knows, maybe they’ll both depending on the resources available. Well, you know what I told them.
It isn’t of course that easy. Company size, terms, price, relationships and momentum all make a difference. The best technology doesn’t always win. Ask Apple Computers.
“Street clothing for girls who ride.”
Let’s just wallow in that tag line of theirs for a minute. Six words don’t create a competitive advantage, but my guess is that some thought went into creating it. When you read it, don’t you know exactly whom their customers are? Certainly the people at Nikita know.
At the same time, their potential customers know if Nikita is a brand they should be interested in. Are you a girl and do you ride? If so, how can you not check out Nikita?
They also have what’s called “first mover” advantage. That is, Nikita is the first company that I know of that has moved exclusively into this space. First movers often have lower cost of establishing and maintaining a brand name in their chosen category and they may build a reputation that later entrants will have a harder time overcoming. The company also may enjoy temporary early profits from its position and define the competitive rules in their niche.
Think of Clive and Nixon. They were early movers who defined their market niches. Sure, they already had competitors. As a result of their success, they attracted more. But they are more closely identified with their target niches than most other companies that sell similar products.
Clive and Nixon also share with Nikita the fact that they don’t just sell to snowboarders. Their businesses are less seasonal than they would be as snowboard only businesses and the target market, much larger.
Nikita’s positioning statement, and the focus it represents, also gives them some advantages in efficiency and resource allocation. In the fashion business, which we are all in to some extent, you sit at your desk and are bombarded by advertising, promotion, and product opportunities and ideas. Wouldn’t it be great if you spend no more than a micro second thinking most of them? The people at Nikita can do that I think. If it isn’t interesting to girls who ride, then they don’t have to think about it. And they don’t have to spend (or misspend?) money on it.
The downside, I guess, is that when you position your company so specifically, you give up some potential areas of growth. In my experience, that downside is largely illusionary. Nikita certainly has plenty of room to grow. Well-defined market niches aren’t necessarily small.
Yeah, I know it’s a ski, but look around the snowboard industry and you can’t take too much umbrage at that. The point is that the transition of Volant from an independent company making its own skis to a brand owned by GenX changes the whole dynamics of the brand. My expectation is that GenX will make money on the brand where Volant couldn’t make money as a stand-alone company. Let’s talk about why and the source of Volant’s new competitive advantage.
You remember the Volant story. They made steel skis at their own factory in Colorado. They had some ongoing production problems, expensive labor, and difficulty getting to the volume they needed if they were going to have their own factory. In an attempt to solve these problems, they tried an ill-fated internet venture that really pissed off retailers. That seems to have been the last nail in the coffin.
But Volant, with the only steel ski, had a ski that was really different from all its competitors and, according to Volant anyway, worked better.
Certainly GenX knew that, but they also had a different business model in mind.
They bought the production equipment for not so much money and moved it to a factory in Europe where they were already having some of their various brands made. In one easy step, they set up that manufacturer to make the Volant ski. They hired just a couple of key people from Volant, and moved them to the GenX headquarters where they could share facilities and expenses.
Since the factory was already making various other skis, the cost for each pair of Volant’s, I assume, went down. GenX didn’t have to worry about running a factory. Back at their headquarters, their overhead could be spread even more efficiently over more sales. The number of pair they had to sell to break even dropped.
True, they still have to run a marketing campaign, and I’m assuming you’ll see some Volant ads. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the most critical part of the marketing campaign was the part where the sales manager tells the retailers, “Yes, we’re going to deliver on time, the prices will be better, the ski is really different and works, and those guys who tried to hang you out to dry by selling on the internet are gone and we won’t do that.”
Sounds like really effective marketing to me. Winning retailers back will be a challenge, but with the lower breakeven point, I’ll bet they can work it out.
It’s not like having multiple brands, sharing overhead, and having somebody else make your product is a new idea, but it’s interesting to watch it be put into affect. It’s pretty much the GenX business model.
There you have three businesses with three different sources of potential competitive advantage. Head gets its from product improvements. Nikita’s comes from the market niche they have targeted and their early movement into it. Volant’s is the result of GenX’s usual operational efficiencies.
Which is best? None. But you’ve got to have some competitive advantage or another. 



Market Niches; Gimme One! Now! But How?

Last issue I took most of this space to discuss some tactical measures businesses could take to respond to the extremely difficult competitive conditions in the snowboard industry. I went on to say in what may have seemed like an after thought that none of those measures mattered if you didn’t have a way to compete. That is, a market niche you can succeed  in.

Then I ran out of space.
So it’s a month later and time to talk about market niches as part of your business’  strategy.
What’s a Niche?
Well, for one thing, it’s a term that’s thrown around a lot without much specificity. A market niche exists when you can offer features and benefits in your product or service that appeal to a specific customer group. These features and benefits have to be ones that your competitors are unable or unwilling to offer. Put another way, it’s  a portion of the market where growth prospects are acceptable and competitive pressures are manageable.
Niches can also be very difficult to identify, and your success in identifying them will ultimately determine your company’s success.   Is snowboard boots a market niche? How about women’s’ boots? Maybe women’s’ step-in boots? Perhaps women’s step-in boots with heel/toe lockdown. Let’s go one more step further and say that they can only be made of leather.
I suppose those are all niches,  but all or none of them may be a niche in which a successful business can be built. That depends not only on identifying the product characteristics and customer base, but the specific resources and capabilities of the company trying to succeed in the niche. And that, I suppose is why defining market niches is so difficult. They don’t actually exist until somebody has succeeded in creating or exploiting them.
Market niches are very dynamic. They change in response to economic conditions and the actions of all the players in the industry. What was the most popular highback binding three years ago would be tough to sell today.
Even the strongest niche doesn’t necessarily last forever.    When was the last time you sent a Western Union telegram? Okay, how many of you have even heard of a telegram? Visi Calc was the first computer spreadsheet program and was an incredible advance. But Lotus ate it for lunch and, in its turn Lotus, is being munched on by Excel. 
To companies that aren’t already industry leaders in snowboarding, a niche strategy means reduced expectations and cutting back operations. This is consistent with the general concept of market niches representing a small part of a market.   But that’s not always the case. The best market niches in the world are those in which the product is identified with the product category; Coke in colas, Kleenex in tissues. Maybe Burton in snowboards?
Burton’s market image is based on brand recognition built up over a period of years. They spent a lot of money on dealer brochures, riders, ads, and promotions when most other players didn’t have the resources to match them. Switch and K2 are trying to establish the technical standard for the step in binding as a market niche. Mervin Manufacturing’s market niche is based on their consistent appeal to a clearly defined group of young consumers. Sims seems to be focusing on being pure to the roots of snowboarding as a way to distinguish their products.
A market niche isn’t enough to insure a successful company. Beta was a better technical format for videotapes than VHS, but guess which one we all rent? Switch and K2 know that being first into the market and having the best technology (if they do) by itself does  not guarantee  their products will be adopted as industry standards. They are both involved in licensing programs to expand their market penetration.
Why Do Niches Exist?
A niche strategy is viable because smaller companies can take advantage of the compromises that larger players have to make as they expand their reach. As they expand their reach into more and more segments, over performance for some customers and under performance for others is inevitable.
In the snowboard business, we’ve seen some industry leaders increase minimum orders and impose other terms and conditions that all retailers can’t meet. Those leaders have found that it doesn’t pay to do business with an account if it can’t do a minimum amount of business with them. This perfectly rational business decision may create a niche opportunity for other players.
Community banks have survived the ongoing consolidation in banking (or have positioned themselves to be bought out at high multiples) by offering better service and being part of their community.
Continued growth means an inevitable reliance on larger accounts. Look at the numbers. Let’s say you are a five million-dollar company looking to grow ten percent. That means you have to sell another five hundred thousand dollars in merchandise. If you were to accomplish it all in new accounts, that would mean fifty accounts each buying ten thousand dollars of merchandise- not easy, but theoretically possible.
Now let’s say you’re doing twenty five million in business and want to grow ten percent, or two and a half million dollars. Finding two hundred and fifty new shops to buy ten thousand dollars each is probably not in the cards- especially in an environment where most of the possible customers are already carrying your product or your competitor’s. Larger dollar sales increases usually have to come from bigger customers.
Can You Create Your Own Niche?
Four things seem clear from the discussion above. First, even the most powerful niches don’t guarantee a company’s financial success. You have to do all the other things well, if not quite as well as your competitors.
Let’s say your new snowboard jacket hits the season’s colors and style dead on.  It’s got the latest fabric and the technical features everybody is lusting for. Maybe you can price it a little higher than the competition; but not double. You can be a week or two late delivering; but not a month or two. You’ll still have to finance your production. 
Second, market niches don’t spring forth fully articulated in a blaze of customer acclaim. Fred Smith, the founder of Federal Express, identified a powerful, distinct market niche but it still took time, work, money, faith and some good timing to make his idea into an industry leading company.
“The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C,’ the idea must be feasible,” said a Yale University management professor in response to Mr. Smith’s paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service.
Burton didn’t exactly spring to the top of the pack over night either. I recall the story about Jake being unwilling to leave his trade show booth for a bathroom break because he was the only one in the booth and was afraid he’d miss a sale. It would be going too far to say that having a stronger bladder than your competition represents a market niche, but it’s indicative of how tough it can be to define one.
Third, the customer must perceive and accept the qualities of the product or company that you are offering, or there is no niche. If 300,000 1996-97 snowboards from Japan of almost any brand you can imagine show up in various chain stores this summer/fall for prices not too far over $100 (“Attention shoppers, we have a K-Mart Blue Light Special today on snowboards…….”) you are going to need a hell of a niche to sell many for north of 300 dollars. I have, by the way, no information that is going to happen, but I am concerned.
Finally, if too many companies pursue the same market niche, it’s no market niche at all. There’s no room in the snowboard market for another brand that wants to be “the high end board sold to core shops.”
Now What?
If you don’t have a market niche now, it’s probably too late to create one in the snowboard business. That’s not to say that somebody won’t succeed in doing it, but because of where we are in the business cycle, the odds against you are long indeed.
Just because you’re already in business doesn’t mean you have a market niche; just a customer base. Whether that base is sufficient to make you successful in creating a niche in a maturing market is another question. Make a start on figuring that out by asking: Who are my customers? Why do they buy my products?
Hunches don’t count. The usual glib and imprecise answers that seemed adequate when you could sell all the product you could get won’t be any help. Answering these questions is hard work. It takes time, planning and effort. The answer may never be “right” but it can keep getting better.
With that information in hand, stand in front of a full-length mirror. With the most serious demeanor you can muster (difficult, granted when you’re talking to yourself in a mirror) repeat the following, one at a time, with firm conviction
·         I can compete based on price.
·         I can compete based on image.
·         I can provide better customer service.
·         My technology differentiates me.
·         I’m king in one geographic area.
·         My graphics are better than anybody else’s.
·         We’re closer to the market than the competition.
The list above is by no means complete, and you should modify it to fit your situation. The ones that don’t leave you feeling ridiculous or laughing hysterically are probably worth exploring if you really understand your customers.
The above exercise may appear goofy, but the business of determining your market niche and basis of competition is deadly serious whether you’re a materials supplier, brand, or retailer. If you can’t annunciate it clearly and quantitatively in no more than a paragraph, you’ve got work to do. Don’t put it off any longer.