Action Sports enthusiasts (skaters/skateboarders, surfers, riders/snowboarders) are largely defined by a heightened level of risk-taking and the ability to build strong and dedicated communities – two attributes that are also vital characteristics of successful innovation. Not surprisingly, groundbreaking Action Sports companies – such as Burton Snowboards, DC Shoes and Quiksilver – offer unique insights on innovation and specifically how to gain initial and ongoing acceptance among consumers, regardless of your industry.
These companies have not only been the primary growth drivers of their category; they’ve also developed an ability to repeatedly offer fresh products.
By habitually serving young, fickle, trend-setters with short attention spans, they’ve developed a refined ability to not only predict, but to also influence, their community’s wants.
Additionally, by competing among hundreds of other trend-driven brands, these firms are challenged to offer fresh products, season after season, to sustain consumer interest. This environment of creative destruction operates in an ever-changing pop culture where product uniqueness is king. It’s a climate where players keep each other progressive. As a result, leading companies become hyper adept at inventing, repurposing and refashioning their offerings.
So what lessons can learn from these companies? We propose that they:
Driven by a Higher Purpose
Action sports companies are motivated by an underlying countercultural driving force. They’re not just building skateboard shoes; they’re also fueling an alternative, do-it-yourself (DIY) community. This pursuit began as a consumer-created street movement; and, it has remained in their value structure. In essence, these firms’ activities serve as community building blocks.
These companies, with their unstructured tendencies, attract stakeholders who uphold the same creative DIY values. Like a religion, they are driven by a cause. It’s their opportunity for creative expression, connection and belonging. For some, it’s a surrogate family.
Additionally, an authentic purpose can help improve employee commitment and performance. In action sports, it can drive individuals to work for comparatively less compensation, or even to volunteer, just to join the affiliation.
When a firm’s purpose is authentic, stakeholder engagement increases. Conversely, lacking an authentic purpose can diminish a company’s success. For example, Nike was an action sports outsider when it first attempted to enter the skateboard shoe category in 1997. Despite its heavy media blitz, Nike failed because it underestimated, and didn’t authentically adopt, the community’s DIY ethos. A more humble follow-up attempt, starting in 2002, proved more successful. This second effort was more deferential towards this community’s culture. Additionally, it partnered with community leaders and incorporated rider-designed product features into pro models.
Jake Burton, the founder of Burton Snowboards, once described discovering his higher purpose as follows: “Once I became focused on growing the sport, instead of just getting rich, things took off. People started talking about snowboarding, then the dealers started calling and making orders.”
Reduce Barriers to New Ideas
The boundaries among action sports companies, employees, athletes, retailers and consumers are permeable compared to other industries. There’s a relative kinship, and abundance mentality, among core participants.
Information barriers are relatively low among competing companies. Participants fraternize with each other at all levels. Additionally, designers, marketers, and other professionals float – officially and unofficially – from one company to another. Loosely, this behavior results in information sharing and collective innovation.
On a small scale, this informal collaboration is best observed at industry trade shows such as Snowsports Industries of America, Surf Expo and Outdoor Retailer. These events demonstrate co-opetition in action.
Quiksilver refers to this collaboration as “benevolent market leadership.” According to Matt Jacobson, co-founder of Quiksilver Entertainment, “Sharing equity lies at the heart of Quiksilver’s philosophy. A company should seek to grow the entire market with which it is trying to get involved. It’s not about dividing or conquering – nor is it about thoughtless, lemming-like co-optation. It’s about giving back to a culture in an honest way – and profiting from the connection as a result . . . Everything we did was about building surfing and skating culture, not just being number one or simply selling more stuff.”
Additionally, since young people are attracted to this industry, companies gain fresh insights by involving them in branding and product development projects. Younger perspectives are actively sought in mid- and high-level decisions. These viewpoints are explored because they’re devoid of tired boundaries.
Reward Visionaries and Risk Takers
Action sports companies walk a fine line between nurturing a creative culture and running a business. They attract unconventional people who possess the DNA of artists, designers and visionaries. Many not only thrive on being unique themselves, but they’re also driven to extend their uniqueness through various mediums, such as snowboard binding design, wetsuit fabrication or wearable technology.
Because of their high need for creative expression, they’re hungrier for it; they become increasingly good at it. And, they become rewarded for these traits at action sports companies.
Embracing risk is in this group’s DNA. Undaunted, they thrive on uncertainty. Think about the nature of skateboarding, snowboarding and freestyle bmx athletes (who, by the way, often rise to become these companies’ executives). At the very least, they possess an experimental mindset. At most, they employ a courageous, nothing-to-lose mentality. These cultural traits can threaten any established player.
DC Shoes demonstrates this courage well. According to the Eric Blehm, one of DC Shoes’ founders, “The company is not about success based on deep pockets, because there was no money in the beginning. It’s not about a single athlete or a single ad campaign. It’s about taking chances and making sacrifices like putting your house up for collateral.”
Combine Work and Play Energies
In the action sports industry, employees are passionate about their category, their brands and their products. As mentioned above, surf, skate or snowboard enthusiasts often become the employees of action sports companies. And since these individuals continue to blend their sport with their work, they never really leave their work environment. The concept of play is infused in their work.
What would our innovation results be if we channeled our work and play energies into one objective? What if we immersed ourselves in a lifestyle where work and play are the same? What additional insights might we absorb? How many additional revenue opportunities would we create? How much more committed would we be to our profession?
Many studies have demonstrated the benefits of play with regards to divergent thinking. For example, a study by Lieberman in 1965 showed how quality of playfulness correlated significantly with measures of divergent thinking. Additionally, a study by Russ et al in 1999 demonstrated that fantasy and imagination in early play predict divergent thinking over time. By leveraging their playful impulses, action sports firms have become adept at pumping out new offerings.
Lessons for Other Industries
The pioneers of skateboarding, snowboarding and surfing thrived on risk, creative expression and nurturing a DIY community. These values continue to fuel action sports companies such as Quiksilver, Burton Snowboards, DC Shoes and many others.
Other industries can elevate their own innovation capability by understanding the creative qualities of action sports companies. By discovering a higher purpose, non-action sports companies could identify a new context for growth. By fostering community, increased trust could lead to an ongoing flourish of new ideas. By encouraging play, employees could free themselves from tired habits. By supporting smart risk taking, companies could fuel the ambitions of its best value creators.
This week, think like a skateboarder. Start with a new trick that inspires you. Once you stick it, you’ll be hungry for more.