Strategic Planning – Question your most cherished assumptions.

This article sort of popped full-formed into my brain at the TransWorld Snowboard Industry Conference at Whistler in April. It happened in an elevator. A kid carrying a skateboard got in (shows you what kind of lousy winter it was in Whistler). As the door closed, I asked him how often he replaced his deck. He said, “I’ve been skateboarding eight years, and this is my fourth deck.”

Let’s hope he’s not our average customer. I don’t believe he is. Still, how do we really, really know and prove, for sure, that he isn’t? What percentage of our market does he represent? Hopefully, he replaces his shoes and clothing more often than his deck. Should we be marketing to him differently? Is he really what we mean by a “skateboarder”? Does he care about all the marketing we do?

No doubt somebody is reading this and saying, “Well, the answers to those questions are obvious!” Maybe. But I’m reminded of H.M. Warner at Warner Brothers in 1927 saying, “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” Or Digital Equipment President Ken Olson in 1977 saying, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” Or the Yale professor who wrote, “The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C,’ the idea must be feasible” while critiquing Fred Smith’s plan for an overnight delivery service (Fred went on to found Federal Express).

I’m sure all these guys thought what they were saying was “obvious.” Strategic planning, I’ve learned, is the process of using the same information your competitors have to make better decisions than they make. You do it, in my experience, by questioning cherished assumptions, rigorously collecting good information, and looking at that information from a different perspective.

In a difficult market, the industry’s general response seems to have been to cut expenses, including marketing, and discount to get orders and keep volume up to the extent possible. I’m all for good expense management-in any market conditions-in fact, I wrote about it here some issues ago. Still, we’ve lived by marketing, and I wonder if we can’t hurt ourselves by not marketing, lacking any real product differentiation among brands.

But marketing what and to which customers? When everybody was fat and happy and selling everything they could make, we had the luxury of not worrying about that. Now, companies who prosper are going to take some risks and do some things differently. What things? Depends on the company, but let’s look at some “cherished assumptions” and see if we can get a glimmer.

‘Core Shops Are The Foundation Of The Industry.

Hold the hate e-mail, please. I recognize the importance of shops, and I’m not saying that statement is inaccurate, but I’ve got a couple of questions.

What, exactly and specifically is a ‘core shop? What are its attributes? It probably doesn’t sell skateboarding only, so can it be both a ‘core skate and say a surf or snow shop at the same time and still be “‘core?” Is ‘core then not a function of what a shop sells? As the industry has involved, have other “foundations” emerged? Like televised skateboarding, the skatepark movement, the contest circuit? What’s their relative importance to individual companies? How has it changed? How is this different for apparel and shoe companies compared to hardgoods companies?

Riders Are The Key Influencers Of Skaters.

If so, why are there so many blanks and shop decks sold? It appears that price is also a key influencer. Obviously, riders don’t influence all, or even most, skaters to buy a certain brand of deck, though hopefully their prominence promotes skating in a general sense. From a company’s perspective, then, how has the relative influence of pro riders changed? How strong is the association between the brand and the rider? How strong is the tendency of kids who like a rider to buy his pro deck, and how has it evolved? Or do they just buy a blank and slap a sticker on it? Interesting questions to ponder whhen considering issues of budget and marketing.

Chain Stores Suck.

Well, I doubt the shoe and apparel companies would put it quite that distinctly. Chains-not all chains, but chains-move a lot of product for them and make them a lot of money. There also seems to be a certain level of conventional wisdom that says chains, by selling cheap completes, are important in getting new skaters involved in the sport. That would be interesting to research.

At the end of the day, though, chains are neither good nor bad-they just are. And they are more all the time. My opinion is that the Zumiez and PacSuns of the world are going to make it increasingly tough on ‘core shops. I hope to be wrong. No company can grow very big without an increasing percentage of its sales being to chains. That’s not an opinion, and it shouldn’t be controversial. It’s just mathematics. In a market with little or no product differentiation, where price matters, volume becomes an important survival strategy. So companies-including hardgoods-need strategies for working with certain chains if they want to prosper and maybe just if they want to stick around, given the evolving financial equation.

Of course, it may be a viable strategy for some companies to not work with big chains, and to constrain their growth. But the companies that do that won’t ever be big. By way of definition, I don’t believe there are any “big” companies in skating. My information is that the shoe companies are the largest, but I still see them as pretty small. And note that getting to even that size required sales to chains.

A Skateboard Is Seven Or Nine-Ply Laminated Canadian Maple-Period.

What a remarkably conservative industry we are, and isn’t it funny to hear that? Granted, laminated hard-rock maple has worked great. But it’s also true that the industry has encouraged the idea that anything not made of Canadian maple couldn’t be a skateboard, wouldn’t function right and, worst of all, might get you laughed at. For a long time, all that was true. But industry growth and visibility, coupled with advances in composite materials, engineered resins and manufacturing techniques, along with the acceptability of blanks, suggest that this may change. If it does, I hope the charge to adopt new technology is lead by the current industry leaders.

Lots of questions and no solid answers-although we’ve all got lots and lots of opinions. But opinions, even tried and true and generally accepted opinions, can’t be the basis for a business plan when the industry is changing. And I’m pretty certain that doing “more of the same” isn’t going to work for at least some companies. I’ve always thought that doing the same old things when the market was changing was riskier than trying something new that might not work out. The companies that feel that way, and that go through the process of questioning their assumptions, will most likely emerge as the leaders.

Jeff Harbaugh is president of Jeff Harbaugh & Associates, an action-sports consulting firm specializing in helping companies manage issues of transition. Reach him at (206) 232-3138 or at jharbaugh@msn.com.