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It's halftime at a Dallas Mavericks basketball game. Champ, one of the team's mascots, races onto the basketball court with his customized air cannon. He teases the rowdy fans with the launcher, waiting to hear which set of fans deserves to take home a prize. Champ launches a T-shirt to a man in the last row of the arena. The man, waving his arms excitedly, high-fives friends as he proudly displays his prize.
For Air Cannons Inc. president Jake Wilson, that's what it's all about. "You've got this guy up in the nose-bleed section, but he gets this T-shirt and he's a ll excited," says Wilson. That's why [Air Cannons] are successful and make an excellent marketing tool."
Air Cannons, based in Aurora, Colorado, has been hyping up crowds at sporting events, concerts and other public places since 1996. The idea came from Terry David, Wilson's brother-in-law. David initially tested T-shirt launchers with a partner from the Colorado Rockies. When that partnership fizzled, David founded Air Cannons.
In 2003, Wilson learned about David's venture and noticed that the company wasn't living up to its potential. As a consultant in the construction field, Wilson stepped up and by the end of 2004, quit his own full-time job to run the company as president.
Wilson's full-time attention and business acumen have boosted the company's sales and made them a force to be reckoned with. "Before I came aboard, the company did as much sales in the entire year as we now do in a month," he says. "The big jump came in 2004, when we increased our sales by more than 180 percent and our profits by more than 200 percent."
Although Wilson won't divulge sales figures, he says the company grows and exceeds their expectations each year. Comprised of about four employees, the company owes some of its recent success to adding ammunition on their product list. "Companies would buy an Air Cannon from us every five years or so, but they'll continually buy T-shirts, stress balls, baseball caps, rally towels and whatever else we can launch out of the Air Cannon," Wilson says.
Air Cannon's diverse clientele includes professional and amateur sporting and racing teams, radio stations from across the globe, professional musicians and entertainers, high schools and colleges and marketing and promotions companies. Popular sports teams that purchased Air Cannons include the Dallas Cowboys, the San Diego Padres, the Colorado Avalanche and the Phoenix Suns.
Surprisingly, Wilson says sports teams aren't his largest group of clients. In fact, marketing, promotions and advertising companies comprise about 95 percent of the company's business. One of Air Cannon's most unique clients was a funeral home, which used the Air Cannon at a high school football game. "Businesses realize it's a good way to market themselves," he says.
Air Cannons produces five models of launchers, ranging in size. The Twister 325, which is the company's most popular model, can be rented, or sells for $2,195. Launching a distance of 10 to 325 feet, the Twister 325 can reach a crowd of 5,000 to 12,000. In addition, Air Cannons offers customized cannons. "If somebody has an idea, we'll build it," he says. His favorite launchers include the black panther and the tank, which a mascot can actually climb inside to stir up excitement.
Wilson says his T-shirt launchers aren't the only ones on the market. Websites like tshirtgun.com are competitors, but Wilson makes the distinction. "We do not use nor will we ever use a PVC or any type of barrel that has plastic in it. All of our models are made out of aircraft aluminum," he says.
As Wilson faces pressure from competitors, he makes sure the company stays a step ahead, especially in the realm of technology. In the late '90s, the Air Cannon was accompanied with a backpack to hold the CO2 tank, and was connected to the launcher with a hose. Today, the company is developing double and triple-barreled launchers. "We're working on the evolution of a semi-automatic, and we've already done a few prototypes where you can pre-load six shirts and launch them at the same time," he says.
For the time being, Wilson is having fun while still thinking about the future. "If we were to evolve, we could take some of the things we've learned from the shooting of these Air Cannons and apply it to something entirely different and that would provide another opportunity for us." The rest of us will have to keep grabbing for T-shirts and wait and see.