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Edgy board maker is on a roll

Sport Technology's marketing has lifted sales of the firm's 14-wheel Flowboard.

September 08, 2008|Conor L. Sanchez | Times Staff Writer

Mike Kern has a knack for catching a wave.

When tattoos became all the rage, Kern developed a sunblock for body ink. And when actress Demi Moore sported a henna tattoo on the cover of People magazine, he began selling a do-it-yourself kit.

Now, looking to profit from the action sports craze, the Long Beach entrepreneur is marketing a product he sees as a crossover for boarders of all kinds. It looks like a skateboard, rides like a surfboard and, as Kern put it, is "the next best thing to the snowboard." It's called the Flowboard.

"See? I'm carving just like I'd do on a surfboard," business partner Scott Rickett said as he demonstrated the board's ability to make sharp turns in an alley outside the company's warehouse in North Long Beach.

For five years, Rickett and Kern have been working to bring the experience of carving deep powder and awesome waves to the asphalt. Their goal is to make it the nation's latest skating sensation.

"We're being compared to the Rollerblade trend where it started out as a hockey trainer in the off-season," Kern said. "From there it went into recreation, workout and transportation."

Developed in 1999 by a couple of San Francisco design students looking for a way to skate down the city's steep hillsides, the board appeared in Kern's warehouse one day when one of his employees rode it to work. Unlike a regular skateboard, the Flowboard has 14 wheels, enabling the rider to make the curving motions of a snowboarder.

"We all started riding it around the warehouse and we thought, 'This is pretty cool,' " Kern said. "We realized this is more than just a trend -- it really works."

Kern saw an opportunity.

After licensing the product for a year, the Southern California native made the Flowboard a long-term investment. He bought the board's maker, Flowlab, in 2003 for $400,000 and has been steadily increasing sales with a company he founded in 1991 called Sport Technology Inc.

Today the board can be purchased at many specialty skate, surf and snow shops as well as some broader sporting goods retailers such as El Segundo-based Big 5 Sporting Goods.

Since Kern became the sole distributor, Flowboard's annual sales have increased to nearly $4 million in 2007 from $1 million in 2002, and this year the 11-employee company is set to reach $5 million in sales. Kern expects that number to increase to as much as $15 million next year.

Turning the Flowboard into a profitable set of wheels was no skate in the park for the small business. Sport Technology faced an uphill challenge carving its niche in the boarding world, especially with a product whose price might discourage casual boarders.

Kern started by broadening the Flowboard's appeal through an aggressive marketing campaign that included a 40-foot-long promotional tour bus that traveled to action-sports trade shows, the ESPN X Games and the Warped Tour, a nationwide music and extreme sports festival.

Before putting it on the market, Kern also lowered the board's price from $200 to $79.99 by taking production overseas.

Within a year, the Flowboard's popularity had jumped, in terms of both sales and credibility among boarders. The first "Flowboarder X" competition was held in fall 2005 at the X Games.

"You have this crossover of people who want to train, and this board gives you the muscle workout," Rickett said. "They don't get to get up on the hills and snowboard every day. The waves aren't always good enough. Kids are looking for another way to enjoy gravity."

Rickett says growth also can be attributed to the company's marketing methods, using a combination of traditional and nontraditional advertising vehicles. As vice president of sales and marketing, Rickett's job is to ensure that target audiences are reached, including boarders, teenagers and, of course, boarders' parents.

"Mike's more the business guy," said Rickett, who likes to hit the waves at Huntington Beach before work. "I'm the one who gets up and surfs. I've done all the different action sports, so I'm the one who markets it to the youth network."

In addition to using TV commercials, Sport Technology offers internships that earn college students credit for promoting the Flowboard online. Rickett calls it "a low-cost way to grow a business." Students working toward marketing degrees from universities in California, Colorado, Florida and Texas have created MySpace pages and posted videos on YouTube to increase the board's exposure.

The next step may prove to be an even greater challenge as Kern and Rickett prepare to expand the Flowboard's distribution. Kern sees the Flowboard reaching a level of popularity comparable to Jake Burton Carpenter's snowboard. But at the company's current size, supply can't keep up with demand, he said.

The biggest hurdle facing Sport Technology is a lack of capital, which has Kern actively seeking investment to expand the business. He's even willing to give up part of the company.

"We have 90% growth rate as far as demand goes," Kern said. "But delivery has remained relatively stagnant. We just need the financing to have this stuff sit in distribution centers."

Although the Flowboard remains the company's flagship product, Sport Technology isn't taking any chances and has decided to diversify the products it markets to the skate, surf and snow crowd. Its latest undertaking is the SnowSkate, a skateboard with four miniature skis instead of wheels.

"In business, you don't get married too much to your product so you can figure out where you need to move and watch things as they go," Kern said. "It's the companies that are being innovative and smart right now that are prospering."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

On a roll

Company: Sport Technology Inc.

Business: The Long Beach company sells the Flowboard, a 14-wheel skateboard that rides like a surfboard or snowboard.

Owners: Mike Kern, Scott Rickett

Employees: 11

Revenue: $4 million in 2007

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