Stepper Hall, the son of some friends of ours in Montana, sent me the following email: I’m writing my senior thesis on small business in the ski industry and I’d like you to help me with the question: “How can a small ski business survive in the ski industry that is dominated by a few big companies?”
Most of the large companies of today started out in a garage somewhere by entrepreneurs with a better idea.
Here are a few names of old friends of mine who found a niche for their products or ideas and filled that niche with a modification of an existing product, finding a way to make it work better than something that was on the market already.
Howard Head was not an athlete so he devoted his life to making a pair of skis that were easier for him to turn. In the early years, his skis were four times the cost of laminated wooden skis, which were much harder to turn in powder snow. Good skiers bought them and started tracking up the powder snow all over the world. But not until after his first dozen pair of aluminum skis all broke within a week of when they first arrived in Sun Valley. Sixty-plus years later they won three gold medals in the World Championships.
Bob Smith was a dentist in San Francisco with a partner who liked to sail, so Bob did the drilling and pilling practice in the summer and then skied all winter while his partner worked the reverse seasons and sailed. Bob could not find goggles that stayed fog-free and worked, so he kept modifying World War II surplus Air Force b-8 goggles and formed the Smith Goggle Company. Smith today has outlets in almost every ski shop and ski resort in the world.
Edward Scott got tired of repairing heavy, bamboo ski poles with big baskets so he invented the Scott Ski Pole Company by substituting a very strong small, tapered, lightweight aluminum shaft with a small, very lightweight basket. He later went on to make goggles and boots and then was involved in the biking business, as well.
Mike Brunetto created a different method of making skis with a different shape and he did it in Ketchum, Idaho, where he made his first 100 or so pair of skis in a one-car garage and as long as he made them, one pair at a time, I passed up all other skis on the market because his worked so well in so many different snow conditions.
Everett Kircher came to Sun Valley, Idaho, in the spring of 1949 and bought the old Dollar Mountain chairlift, which was the first one built anywhere in the world for $4,800, took it apart bolt by bolt, and shipped it to what became Boyne Mountain in Michigan where he put it back together on a hill he bought for a dollar because it was too steep to grow potatoes on. Today Everett’s four children own several ski resorts stretching from Washington to Maine.
The founders of the K2 ski company built their first factory on Vashon Island about a half-hour ferry boat ride from Seattle. Chuck Ferris was selling the K2 skis on the road and in a few years he had sold K2s to all of the best ski shops in every town in his territory so that he had no way to earn any more money. So he had the cosmetics changed on some K2 skis and named them Pre Skis. Now he could sell his Pre Skis to all of the shops that could not carry K2 skis because of the competition proximity to each other.
Every one of these people, and their stories, have a common denominator. They all found a need and did not mind the long hours necessary to outrun their competition whatever it may be.
Almost without exception every large company in the ski industry today started in the same manner, by just refining something that improves an idea. New ideas are everywhere. Just figure out that need and remember that the ski industry may be as dominated by big business as any industry, but in an industry as young as the ski industry, there are still many places where entrepreneurial thinking people can come up with better ideas.
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