Originally, it was enthusiast-driven. People started companies because it was an important part of their lives, and they wanted to be part of what was happening. It wasn’t just about a sport¿it was an attitude and a lifestyle.
At first, the bigger companies in related sports weren’t interested¿the market wasn’t large enough. Then when they became interested, they couldn’t figure it out because they just weren’t close enough to it. When the entrepreneurs who created the industry woke up in the morning and looked in the mirror, they saw their customers. No market studies, no focus groups, no statistical analyses. Clearly, obviously, and directly, they were their customers. If they liked it, the market liked it. They could smirk at the corporate giants in suits trying to figure out what to do, because they knew the giants just didn’t get it.
More and more small companies were started. The industry and the participants grew. Hype overtook reality. Product quality improved to the point where there wasn’t much difference among brands, and consumers started to figure that out. Margins dropped even as companies spent more and more money trying to differentiate a product that wasn’t any different. Making a profit became harder.
With growth and acceptance, the sport became more legitimate and more accepted. Big companies decided they had to have a piece of it¿not just because of the sport, but because they wanted access to the customer group it represented, and to co-opt the lifestyle to use in selling other products. They still didn’t really get it, but by buying a couple of successful companies and throwing a bunch of money around, they changed the market while simultaneously legitimizing it. The owners of the small companies who had created the sport were outraged by what was happening to “their” sport, but outrage didn’t change any basic business principals, and pretty soon most of them were out of business.
The sport is bigger, and here to stay at a new level¿but it had paid a price.
I was thinking about snowboarding, not skateboarding. But the industry evolution I described could have been referring to personal computers. Or flush toilets (invented by Thomas J. Crapper¿how’s that for your own piece of immortality?). Or automobiles, if we went back to the early decades of the century.
In the past, an explosion of skateboarding popularity has been the prelude to a big decline. Will that be the case this time? What, if anything, is unusual about skateboarding that might check the kind of industry evolution I’ve described? What’s the owner of a small skate company to do?
What Goes Up … Could Stay There
The thing I really like about the skateboarding business is that you know exactly who your customers are: males ages thirteen to seventeen. Who can blame them for giving up skateboarding for girls and cars when they get a little older? I seem to recall being willing to give up almost anything (my money and self-respect) for girls at that age.
This age group¿males age thirteen to seventeen¿is according to the U.S. Census Bureau data the fastest-growing group for the next several years. Check out the information in the chart. It may be that with the target customer so clearly defined, those numbers are a great predictor of where the skateboarding market is going.
With K2 having purchased Planet Earth, and other mainstream companies increasingly interested in the sport, it’s clear that Corporate America, for better or worse, has decided skateboarding is worth its attention. They may not understand the sport and its culture, they may not even succeed in becoming part of it, but as they stumble around and throw money at it, they’ll change it as the ski companies have changed snowboarding.
The good news is skateboarders may earn respect, and there might be acceptance of the sport by a more mainstreamroup. Hell, skaters may even be as lucky as snowboarders and get their very own Muppet as a mascot.
What’s to Stop It?
Typically, a period of rapid growth in an industry is followed by a period of consolidation where the number of companies declines dramatically and the growth rate falls. There’s one reason to hope that the skateboard industry might escape that pattern and a couple why, if it doesn’t escape, the pattern might be manageable.
The reason small skateboard companies might escape (though I doubt it) is because the industry is too small to become really interesting to big companies. If they don’t find growth opportunities, they’ll milk the culture and lifestyle in hope of benefiting their image and other product areas, and then move on. Note that the larger companies becoming interested in skateboarding aren’t like the ski companies; they don’t need skateboarding to survive like ski manufacturers and the resorts need snowboarding.
More companies (though not most by a long shot) may hope to survive a consolidation than did in snowboarding. This is because of the relatively year-round basis of the business, the shorter product cycles, what seem to be selling terms that favor the companies, and the speed with which what’s in and what’s out changes. In short, you don’t have to lose money six to eight months of the year, and by being nimble, you can compete against bigger companies.
But inevitably, the skate industry is already making it harder on itself as companies jockey for position in a growing industry. The proliferation of companies, the declining credibility of the pro model, and blank boards are starting to turn skateboards and their components into a commodity¿which means lower prices and margins. Which means higher break-even points. Which means more working-capital investments.
All of which is fine with any corporate companies looking to stake a claim in the skateboard market; market changes that are financially devastating to a small company are pocket change to them.
What’s An Owner to Do?
All the outrage over the changes in the industry, the “prostitution” of pro models, the “selling out” that blanks are supposed to represent, the threat of Nike the industry should “stand against” all sounds ominously and sadly familiar. No matter what it does, the skate industry is not going to repeal the laws of economics and human nature. The snowboarding industry shot itself in the foot because each company pursued what it perceived to be in its own best interest. Betcha the skateboard companies do the same thing¿not because it’s good or bad, but because they’ll compete to find their most viable position in a changing market.
While Powell has received some criticism because of its commitment to blanks and Mini Logos, I applaud their business acumen. By recognizing an emerging industry trend and by further recognizing that it isn’t going away, Powell prepared itself to benefit from it. They were first to move aggressively into the product category, and they’ve positioned themselves between the blanks and the traditional full-graphic boards. If they do it right, they may not have to share that niche with anybody else. I haven’t talked to anyone at Powell, and I obviously haven’t seen their financial statements, but I imagine the cost, volume, and margin
numbers are pretty compelling.
It’s not that Powell doesn’t want to “support the industry,” but since blanks aren’t going away, Powell figures they can support the industry better if they take advantage of the opportunity the evolving market presents. They sure as hell won’t support the industry if they are financially flat on their back because they stood on principle and ignored industry change. If Powell hadn’t done it, somebody else would have.
Don’t forget your principles. By all means support the industry (you might start by joining the International Association of Skateboard Companies, if you haven’t). But don’t let emotional resistance to changes you don’t like prevent you from making good business decisions. In working with companies in financial distress over a period of ten-plus years, I found they all (not some, not most¿all) got into trouble because of denial and perseverance during a period of change. Skateboarding is going through some changes¿change with it.
Jeff Harbaugh works with companies in transition. Reach him at: (206) 232-3138.