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.