From the July 2000 issue of Startups

What's a pair of thrill-seeking snowboarders to do when there's no snow on the ground and no clouds in sight? If you're Jason Lee and Patrick McConnell, you invent the MountainBoard. With a deck similar to a snowboard, all-terrain wheels, and a suspension system that can be used to go down a single trail or track on a mountain, the MountainBoard hit the market in 1996 and helped Lee and McConnell bring in sales of $2 million last year for their Colorado Springs, Colorado, company, MountainBoard Sports (MBS).

Not too shabby, considering Lee, 32, and McConnell, 35, were introducing a totally new market category on a limited budget. What made it possible is that the company targeted a very specific market: "men 16 to 20 who like to snowboard," Lee states emphatically. Having a clearly defined market in mind gave MBS advantages in launching its product, including rapid retail acceptance at trade shows, the ability to create a substantial market buzz, a clear content strategy for its Web site, the ability to stage events, and an easy-to-implement media strategy. Here's a closer look at their company's marketing tactics:

Trade Shows

MBS launched its major marketing campaign at the 1996 Action Sports Retailer Trade Show and at the Snowsports Industry Trade Show. These shows allowed MBS to build its distribution network of specialty snowboard, surfer and skateboard retail shops. What did the shops like about the pair? They gave them what they wanted-products for their adrenaline-junkie customers.

Specialty shops offered another major advantage to MBS. Knowing their target customers like to try out products before buying them, the shops were willing to rent out the MountainBoards-and that willingness was a huge contributor to MBS' early sales success.

Hold Your Horses

Trade shows are an effective tool for introducing a product to retailers, but they're also expensive, notes Douglas L. Ducate, president and CEO of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research or www.gotoexhibitions.com, 312-808-2347), a nonprofit group that offers helpful "how-to" packages for first-time exhibitors. Even a plain exhibit costs $2,000, and that doesn't include your travel expenses, shipping costs and promotional materials. Often, your expenses will run $5,000 to $10,000, which is not necessarily a bad investment, as 75 percent of attendees typically leave a show with at least one purchase, and 85 percent either decide what to buy or will be influenced in a purchase decision. Many inventors attend trade shows too early, before they're ready to ship products. All that does is turn buyers off because they're at the show intending to buy. Jason Lee and Patrick McConnell made the right choice. They waited three years before attending a show-with ready supply.

Market Buzz

Lee and McConnell created the All Terrain Boarding Association in 1994. While their first competition was small-only six competitors-what was important was that the race attracted the attention of their target customers, who then started to look for the product and talk it up among their thrill-seeking friends. This word-of-mouth effect is typical of tight target markets. Prospects know each other, and they talk about what's exciting in the market. As Lee says, "We sold almost $1 million our first year because we had people talking."

Web Site Content

As you know, people don't go out of their way to visit a Web site unless it has information they need. Lee and McConnell nailed this one, too, with www.mountainboard.com. Information about the board, upcoming races and new ways to generate thrills are par for the course here; their target customers crave this information on a regular basis. Plus, when prospects visit the site, they're exposed to more information about MBS' products.

Events

Big events create market awareness, adding credibility to the company and helping to promote a new product. Most new inventor companies don't have the resources to stage events and need a partner. That's the same boat Lee and McConnell were in. But they found a willing partner at Snow Valley Ski Resort in Big Bear, California, a resort that catered to MBS' target market. Snow Valley has a large terrain park for snowboarders and an expansive skate park. Lee explains his success with Snow Valley as follows: "We didn't need to make a full presentation to Snow Valley. They're on the cutting edge. They didn't need much convincing to give mountainboarding a try because it was geared toward their customers."

Advertising And Publicity

Lee says that MBS has focused its past publicity efforts on magazines for bikers, surfers, skateboarders and snowboarders. Most inventors have difficulty getting advertising to pay off because they have to advertise to a broad market to reach a group of prospects. For example, an inventor of a product for keeping gutters clear will advertise in home and garden magazines, where only 5 to 10 percent of the readers may be interested. That's not a problem with MBS. At least 50 percent of the readers of these magazines will be interested in a new extreme sport.

Lee and McConnell had a clearly defined target group, which allowed them to target retailers and other businesses that catered to the same group. That group also shared several other important characteristics that improved MBS' chances of success. First of all, they were easy to identify-through the products they bought, the events they attended and the magazines they read. But perhaps more important was this group's overwhelming desire to participate in extreme sports-every retailer in the market was ready to feed that need as the group had proved its purchasing power through the sales of snowboards, surfboards and skateboards. Retailers wanted MBS' products because they knew the sales potential if the market adopted them. Put these factors together, and you have ideal conditions for an inventor's success-conditions that Lee and McConnell took advantage of.

Steal The Shows

Lee and McConnell found specialty retailers willing to give their product a try-not all inventors are so lucky. One way to build retailer support is to attend consumer shows such as ski demonstrations, sportsmen shows, home and garden shows, bridal shows or any event that includes your target audience. Approach your potential retail customers before the show, and tell them you'll pass out fliers and other information about their stores at the show as long as they stock your product. Retailers are usually willing to do this if they feel the inventor will create a demand for it. Inventors may lose a percentage of their profits if the sale goes through a retailer, but they'll be better off in the long run establishing that their product is a winner on retailers' shelves. Trade show directories at your local library will often list consumer shows, or you can go to any of these Web sites: www.tsnn.com, www.scheduleearth.com and www.entrepreneur.com.


Don Debelak is a new-business marketing consultant who has been introducing new products for more than 20 years. He is the author of Bringing Your Product to Market (John Wiley & Sons, $19.95, 800-225-5945).