Pro Skaters And The Skateboard Business Model

Somewhere back in Economics 1A, my professor (the guy was actually a rugby coach in his spare time-probably explains why he didn’t get tenure) said that economics was really pretty simple. The more there was of something, the less it was worth. Like, oh, maybe with pro skaters-just to pick an example. Certainly that’s where skateboarding has gone. In an attempt to differentiate products and brands, there has been an increasing reliance on pro skaters and pro models. But the higher the level of reliance, the less benefit there seems to be. Why is that? And how might pros be managed differently?

It starts out simple enough, the logic going something like this:

1. Skating is fun, so I’ll start a company.

2. This isn’t quite as easy as I thought.

3. Uhhhh, well, gee, the truth is that my product isn’t much different than the next company’s.

4. I’ve got to figure out a way to differentiate my product.

5. My customer is influenced by his peers. I’ll get a team rider, maybe do a pro model.

6. That worked some. I’ll get another team rider-a second pro model couldn’t hurt.

7. And so on …

8. Why is it that my four-hundred-and-ninth pro model didn’t do as well as my first?

Back to the drawing board.

On the off chance that somebody out there isn’t already caught in the team/pro model pit of woe and despair, I’d like to suggest a slightly different model for managing this. My thesis is that even with an oversupply of pro skaters and models, you can hope to make your team an effective and important part of your business if you put some thought and patience into building and managing it.

What’s the Goal?

“He’s hot-make him a team rider and give him a pro model” isn’t the way to approach this. In a general sense, you hopefully have some company goals, and knowledge of those goals guides you and your staff’s actions on a day-to-day basis. Fundamentally, if you don’t have a general sense of direction, where you’re trying to go, it can be awfully hard to know what to do every day. It can also be a huge waste of time as you focus on things that don’t move you toward your goal.

That was a great paragraph full of general high-sounding business stuff, but let’s move down to the level of the team. Your overall business goals should allow you to create some tactical goals for your team. Those might include increasing your presence and sales in a particular town or region, ruling some public skatepark, or making a splash at a certain event. Meaningful goals, by the way, are always measurable and reasonably obtainable.

Selecting Team Members

After you review your list of goals, it should be immediately apparent that there’s more to building a team than selecting the best skaters and offering them enough money/product/flattery to get them to join up. To build up your image (whatever that means-it’s not specific enough to be a goal) in Seattle, Washington, you probably don’t select a skater who lives in West Palm Beach, Florida. If you’re interested in increasing your press exposure in TransWorld SKATEboarding, skaters who don’t trip on their tongues when trying to complete a sentence and who can land great tricks would be nice. A willingness to work with the editors and photographers is also good. If you want to rule at a park, you’d like it if the rider you have there didn’t have a full-on attitude that made him feel the need to tell everybody to go, well, treat themselves to a rectal-insertive experience.

So your company goals, and your team goals, probably go a long way toward telling you about how big your team should be. The other interesting thing the goals will highlight is that getting the best/hottest/coolest skater isn’t the be-all and end-all of team selection. If they don’t show up for a photo session or demo, it doesn’t matter how good they are. Look for a sense of responsibility, a little maturity, and some ability to look past next week. I always like the team members who are trying to figure out how to get an extra 10,000 dollars out of me next year, not an extra 100 dollars next week.

Build the team on the assumption there will be some turnover. It will be dynamic. My preference is to develop team members so they have some loyalty, and there’s continuity with the company and the brand. The benefits the team creates for the company have to survive the departure of one or a couple of team members. With very few exceptions, paying higher-profile riders more and more money to keep them from defecting is a trap. When it gets to be about the individual riders and not about the team and the brand, the cost-to-benefits ratio isn’t working for you any more.

Team Management

If you’ve set some goals for the team, then hiring the right number of skaters with the right skills living in the right places should be easier. Once that’s done, the work starts. In a process that should have been initiated during selection, it’s the team manager’s job to lay out, in writing, the obligations of the skater and the company to each other. You don’t necessarily need to have this document lawyered, but laying it out in writing is always a good idea so expectations are clear on both sides. There should also be a written plan for each skater. Where are they going to be and when? While they are there, what are they going to accomplish? What’s their budget for expenses and product? How often will there be contact? How will results be measured? What’s the plan?

Team management is nuts and bolts work. Sometimes it borders on being a nanny. If you’re grumbling that this sounds like a lot of effort, you’re right. If you don’t think each and every rider you have on the team is worth it, then what are they doing there? If, after all the excitement and good feelings of putting them on the team, they end up ignored, what kind of enthusiasm and performance do you think you’re going to get?

Consider changing your definition of team rider. Are they associate salespeople? Are they assistant product innovators? Are they maybe your best source of new employees a few years down the road? Show them that you value and trust them by expanding their responsibilities as the relationship develops. They can be members of your team even when they are no longer team riders.

Please don’t give me the “I’m not paying them much” or “I’m only giving them product” lines. Does it mean anything to be on your team or not? Is it a trinket you throw somebody, like from a float going by in the Mardi Gras parade? Or is it meaningful commitment conferring status and indicating mutual respect and a desire to work together? A pro model isn’t something you give somebody because there’s no reason not to. It’s an honor that’s conferred on a rider because he or she has earned it.

Fundamentally, this is why bigger teams haven’t necessarily (or even usually) meant better teams. It’s why more team riders and more pro models don’t translate into higher sales and better margins. The industry is sending the signal that being a team member and having a pro model is like being a vice president at a bank. They all look and talk the same, and they’re interchangeable. And there are lots and lots of them.

It doesn’t have to be that way, and the companies that take a more rigorous and in-depth approach to managing their teams, and a cautious approach to expanding them, have a lot to gain.

Jeff Harbaugh works with companies in transition in the action-sports business. Reach him at (206) 232-3138.

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