What businesses can learn from the “father of snowboarding”
The story of how tenacity, irreverence and pioneering spirit took snowboarding to the Olympics
Jake Burton Carpenter is known today as the ‘father of snowboarding’. His role in evolving snowboarding into an Olympic sport, boasting more than 6 million participants, was a feat that took years, a healthy amount of irreverence and a good deal of fortune.
What can we learn from Carpenter? How to identify an opportunity to challenge the status quo, how to deftly handle becoming mainstream in a way that doesn’t undermine your subversive status and the role of market analysis in underpinning all of this.
How disrupting the status quo can solve problems and clear the slopes in your industry
Carpenter was a keen snurfer – a kind of crude monoski-cum-sled. He thought snurfing was too practical. Wanting to add more balance and potential for tricks, he created an entirely new, more exciting snowsport.
When Carpenter first presented his radically modified snowboard with shoe grips – after more than 100 failed prototypes – at the National Snurfing Championship in Michigan in 1979, there was uproar. After much negotiation with the Championship officials, Carpenter was eventually allowed to race in a modified ‘Open’ division; which was won by him as the sole entrant. This was the beginning of a surge in interest and growth in the sport throughout the 1980s.
A similar course of initial complexity followed by smooth piste was experienced by Spotify. When it first launched in 2008, it aimed to tackle the piracy of music prevalent in the noughties, such as controversial file sharing websites like LimeWire and The Pirate Bay. The cost to the music industry was millions. Daniel Ek, founder, told The Telegraph in 2010 that he ‘realised you can never legislate away from piracy.’ And thus, a new channel to stream music (instead of buying it) was founded. With a freemium business model that bridged the gap between piracy and the pay-per-track model of iTunes, Spotify has become the dominant player in the music streaming industry and is currently valued at $25B+.
If embedded challenges in your industry look too difficult to overcome, but you can see a third way, it is possible to make it on your own. However, you will need to be prepared to be your own evangelist and to put in the hours! Knowing that consumers identify with breaking through the red tape, or are excited about your innovation (as in these examples) can help you maintain focus and convince others.
Becoming a mainstream avalanche whilst keeping your subversive style
Ski areas were much slower at adopting snowboarding than the winter sports public. For many years, snowboarders would have to take a small skills assessment prior to being allowed to ride the chairlifts and in 1985, only seven percent of US and European ski areas allowed snowboarding. The culture around snowboarding has always been seen as subversive and anti-establishment. How did it manage to maintain its cool edge even as it was adopted by more than 6 million participants through the 1990s and became an Olympic sport? Exclusivity powered by the difficulty of learning snowboarding, advocacy of the sport by respected athletes and brand image.
Another business that has been empowered by its counter-cultural community is streetwear brand Supreme, founded in 1994. What made Supreme successful and a desirable brand was its niche status and relative obscurity; however as it grew it instead transitioned its brand image to a powerful status symbol. Sales strategies involving huge queues at every one of its retail outlets and collaborations with luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton have made this brand successful to this day.
Trading on your ‘outsider’ status can help to generate appeal. Advocates can provide crucial support when growing your brand, but ensure you look for collaborations that support your development without giving the impression you are ‘selling out’. Making sure you understand which advocates, influencers and brands are respected by your end customer is crucial to ensure you develop the right partnerships.
Success tends to snowball – but you need an initial nudge
The history of snowboarding offers insight into how identifying a gap in the market, and managing the popularity that results from this, can lead you from fad to sustained success. 97% of North American and European ski resorts now offer snowboarding and snowboarders now account for more than 30% of all snow sports participants. However, not all businesses have the good fortune of growing organically.
How White Space Strategy can help
Through understanding how your customers think and what they need, what your competitors are offering and what the market conditions are, you can identify the right innovations to capitalise on. We can help you develop strategies to be the next snowboarders of the world – and aid you in tail sliding your way to success.
More information on how we can help, and on our experience, is summarised on a dedicated page on our website.
If you’d like to discuss this with us further, we’d love to hear from you.
Project Team Leader