It’s interesting how a handful of events and business trends seem to be converging in skateboarding at this time. They have, I think, the potential to change the industry and how it does business. The consumers, as always, will get what they want. For some companies–usually those willing to take a risk and do something a little different–this will represent an opportunity. For others, it won’t.

Let’s look at these trends and speculate a little on how companies might be impacted and how they might take advantage of them.

The Trends

I don’t claim to know which of these is or will be most important, so don’t conclude anything from the order in which I list them. More interesting than individual trends may be the way they interact. One plus one plus one plus one plus one may be more than five. It may also be three, or at least result in some surprises.

First is Chinese (or wherever is cheap) production. I wrote a whole article on that last issue, so ‘nough said.

Second is the apparent slowing in the rate of growth of skateboarding. Look, some slowing was inevitable. If skateboarding kept growing at recent rates, soon every person on the planet would be on a skateboard and we’d be trying to sell to people (or whatever) on the third planet in the system of the star at the end of Orion’s Belt. Imagine a vert contest on a low-gravity planet: “Dude, I’m going to go have lunch while we wait for him to come down.” Kind of boring.

Anyway, the third trend is the increasing willingness of kids to buy blanks and shop decks to save money. No surprise there. It’s not like that’s new. I don’t see it slowing down.

Number four on the hit parade is the decision on the part of certain brands to include new materials in their decks. It’s been tried before and hasn’t really taken hold. But what if it does?

Finally, like really baggy jeans and baseless snowboard bindings, the habit of changing shapes on skateboards every twenty minutes has run its course, at least for now.

A Lesson From Snowboarding

It seems like every four articles or so there’s a section with this title. Before snowboarding became run by a bunch of ski companies, back when it was nearly as hot as skateboarding is now, I always looked forward to going to the SIA trade show in Vegas and seeing the latest “new” snowboard. One year it was the articulating snowboard. The next it was the dual-camber snowboard. One especially memorable year it was the honeycomb snowboard. That’s my all-time favorite because somebody flexed the prototype in the booth and it broke in half. A gut splitter for me–not so funny to the guy trying to sell them.

Anyway, did any of these technologies actually work? Who the hell knows? It didn’t matter because they were never adopted by any of the leading snowboard brands. So they weren’t legitimized in the minds of snowboarders. So they died. Snowboarders knew what a snowboard was, and these things weren’t it–no matter how good they might or might not have been.

Skateboarders have always known that a skateboard is made of Great Lakes-region maple and glue. Now Tum Yeto, Santa Cruz, and Mervin Manufacturing (Lib Tech) all have skateboards with new materials in them. They claim they work better and/or last longer. Great. But now skaters are being asked to accept that a skateboard isn’t just Great Lakes-region maple and glue. It can be something else as well, and this something else can result in a better skating experience.

What else can it be? What other materials might be included? How about a complete composite deck if (when?) somebody figures out how to do that right? Might different woods be okay with Kevlar or fiberglass reinforcing the deck? Like Chinese maple, maybe.?

Plots Within Plots Within Plots

Now things get strategically interesting, and we can look at some of the other trends we identified earlier. Let?s say growth slows enough to leave us with some excess manufacturing capacity. The usual result, if you’re making product that isn’t really different from what everybody else makes, is price competition. So maybe brands without factories start shopping for manufacturers who can offer a little better price, or terms, or something. The factories with brands go, “Oh shit.” They want to keep their factory working, so maybe they try new materials in certain deck models. The skaters like it. The decks do, in fact, last longer. But of course any factory can eventually learn to make a deck with these materials. As skaters (bombarded with pictures of their favorite teamriders on these decks) accept them as legitimate skateboards, more are produced. But they last longer, so total deck sales decline. And competition keeps margins from moving up. So unless skateboarding continues to grow quickly, total gross margin dollars available to the industry decline.

Maybe the good news is that the factories with brands are smart enough not to make blanks and shop decks. And early on, the new-material decks might even sell for a premium. Blank sales decline as longer-lasting decks with Kevlar or fiberglass take hold.

But advertising is lauding the functionality of new materials. Intentionally or not, part of the message is “the wood isn?t as important as it use to be.” Some factory without brands, or some smart person, sees an opportunity. Soon blanks and shop decks with new materials are pouring out of their factory. Or they go over to China and, with wood not quite as important as it was, bring in Chinese maple decks with Kevlar or fiberglass or whatever. The price is low–like half the price–and they now have a way to deflect the wood argument.

Back when everybody was experimenting with new skateboard shapes every month, bringing decks in from China was even tougher. With that phase apparently over, another barrier to entry has fallen.

At the end of the day, when there is little real product differentiation, product changes are fairly easy to copy, and there are no effective barriers to entry, the consumer tends to get a better product at a lower price.

Good for the consumer. Not so good for the industry. I don’t expect skateboarding to be threatened with the kind of near total collapses in interest it has experienced in the past. I won’t say never, but not in the foreseeable future. It’s just become too accepted and too much a part of the mainstream for too many kids.

Still, in the scenario I paint above, you can see the pressure on the industry that could be created. Some of that pressure is inevitable and already starting. I don’t claim to know which pressures will be greatest and how they will interact with each other. I, or you for that matter, could probably imagine half a dozen other ways things could get tougher for the industry than they are now.

On the other hand, we could also imagine ways things could get better. Maybe skateboarding can continue to grow. Demographics are still favorable. Maybe most kids won’t want to pay more for a deck even if it lasts longer. I have no idea how a twelve-year-old skateboarder thinks. Speaking from the perspective of having a thirteen-year-old boy, it isn’t even clear that they do think regularly and clearly. He, of course, feels the same way about me, I suspect.

What To Do

If skateboarding continues to grow, and kids want wood decks with pictures of their favorite riders, enjoy the ride. It’s not that you shouldn’t try and run your business better, but cash flow covers up a variety of shortcomings.

If, on the other hand, you think, as I do, that some of these trends–individually or as a group–will make the skateboard industry tougher than it is right now, what should you do?

First, when you hear people talking about what “the industry” should do, smile politely and nod your head. Then remember that every single company out there will do what it perceives to be in its own best interest. You’re going to scurry back to your company and do that, I bet. It’s this dynamic that always leads to somebody trying to do some of the things I outline above.

At the recent surf-industry conference at Cabo San Lucas, the surf companies were worrying about skateboarding and the new chain of Hollister surf stores. At the National Ski Areas Association convention in New Orleans (tough spring I’ve had) they were worried about retention of new snow sliders. I remember when snowboarding was worried about the buy/sell cycle. In each case, the industry seemed to hope that the industry, or their association, would collectively fix the problem for them.

In all three of those circumstances, and in skateboarding’s current circumstances, the message is the same. Business is a risk. It’s a risk whether you sit on your butt and do nothing or try some innovative approaches to a changing competitive environment. If you do nothing, competitors may walk right over you. Or maybe not. If you try some innovative things, some of them will probably fail and some will probably work. But at least you’ll be leading the way and making people react to you. It’s a risk either way, but my experience is that the companies with the mindset to take some risks are usually the winners when competitive circumstances change quickly.

Create your plan and execute it. Focus on what you can do right, not the stuff that can go wrong that you can’t control anyway.

Don?t worry, be happy. After all, you could be in an industry that’s a whole lot less fun than this one.

Jeff Harbaugh is president of Jeff Harbaugh & Associates, a consulting firm that works with action-sports companies to help them manage issues of transition. Reach him at: (206) 232-3138. Or e-mail: jharbaugh@msn.com. Thanks to Tod Swank of Tum Yeto for an interesting e-mail exchange that helped me clarify my thinking on the issues above.s to somebody trying to do some of the things I outline above.

At the recent surf-industry conference at Cabo San Lucas, the surf companies were worrying about skateboarding and the new chain of Hollister surf stores. At the National Ski Areas Association convention in New Orleans (tough spring I’ve had) they were worried about retention of new snow sliders. I remember when snowboarding was worried about the buy/sell cycle. In each case, the industry seemed to hope that the industry, or their association, would collectively fix the problem for them.

In all three of those circumstances, and in skateboarding’s current circumstances, the message is the same. Business is a risk. It’s a risk whether you sit on your butt and do nothing or try some innovative approaches to a changing competitive environment. If you do nothing, competitors may walk right over you. Or maybe not. If you try some innovative things, some of them will probably fail and some will probably work. But at least you’ll be leading the way and making people react to you. It’s a risk either way, but my experience is that the companies with the mindset to take some risks are usually the winners when competitive circumstances change quickly.

Create your plan and execute it. Focus on what you can do right, not the stuff that can go wrong that you can’t control anyway.

Don?t worry, be happy. After all, you could be in an industry that’s a whole lot less fun than this one.

Jeff Harbaugh is president of Jeff Harbaugh & Associates, a consulting firm that works with action-sports companies to help them manage issues of transition. Reach him at: (206) 232-3138. Or e-mail: jharbaugh@msn.com. Thanks to Tod Swank of Tum Yeto for an interesting e-mail exchange that helped me clarify my thinking on the issues above.