Thursday, June 12, 2008

Snowboarding: Fear Doesn’t Get You Down the Mountain

Tom Kelley in The Art of Innovation shares this story and principle:

Thinking about what you might lose—market share, revenue, a title, your status, your job—makes it nearly impossible to take a leap. That’s why the big new ideas usually come from small companies, or big ones who somehow manage to act small. Fear doesn't get you down the mountain.

Take the amazing phenomenon of snowboarding. Plenty of journalists and ski resorts at first called it a fad. During the early ramp-up of' snowboarding, Time dubbed it America's "Worst New Sport." Ski resorts tried to ban boarders, and mainstream ski manufacturers figured it was a passing fancy.

But looking back, it was the ideal time to break the rules. Downhill skiing had been stagnant for years and was starting to lose its momentum as rising ticket prices were keeping families and children off the slopes. Once a symbol of youthful rebelliousness (remember Robert Bedford in Downhill Racer?), skiing was becoming dated.

Great time for the dominant downhill ski makers to reinvent the sport, right? Not exactly. Rossignol, Solomon, Fischer, and the other ski powerhouses were too busy protecting market share in their mainstream business to ride the first snowboarding wave.

Meanwhile, upstart Jake Burton Carpenter was breaking the ice—so to speak—by hacking outboards in his Vermont garage. He went to his local hardware store—and Austria—to get ideas. In the early days, Burton's toll-free customer service line rang in his bedroom at all hours. He built one of the first boards that could handle ice and hard pack, partly because Vermont's conditions were so icy. While he didn’t invent the snowboard (being first isn't always critical), he did popularize the sport through a combination of quality, persistence, and lobbying that would have done Macintosh evangelists proud.

In retrospect, it's easy to see why manufacturers and ski resorts initially fought the tide. Early boarders had a nasty habit of embodying the worst of male adolescence at high speeds. But Burton's campaign to convince ski resorts to open their mountains to boards gradually took hold. Within a few years, 90 percent of U.S. resorts accepted snowboards, and now over 5 million Americans enjoy the sport. Burton is the world's leading manufacturer of' snowboards, and even IDEO has hitched a ride on the sport, designing face-hugging goggles for use on the slopes.

Source: Tom Kelley, The Art of Innovation: Lessons and Creativity from IDEO, America’s Leading Design Firm (London: Profile Books, 2001), 236-238.

A review of this fine book can be seen at Reviewing Books and Movies.

Dr. Geoff Pound

Image: “Fear doesn't get you down the mountain.”

Get on your bike: Success Breeds Complacency, Stories for Speakers