To keep his business going in these tough economic times, Pete Hamborg is counting on people to continue to spend money on basic needs: "food, shelter and a really big skateboard."
So far, enough people share Hamborg's view of life's essentials to keep his family enterprise afloat. Hamborg is the creator of the Hamboard, a nearly 7-foot-long skateboard he says mimics the feel of a surfboard on the water.
Hamboards have picked up a devoted following among hard-core surfers and skateboarders -- those devoted enough to the sports to shell out $395 for one of the boards. They are sold in specialty surf and skateboard shops and directly from Hamborg through the company's website.
Hamborg says he sold $180,000 worth of his extra-long skateboards last year at a pace of about one a day. The company, which Hamborg runs out of his Huntington Beach home, is just breaking even after two years in business, he said. So for now, Hamborg, 48, continues to work full-time as an Orange County firefighter.
It all began in 1995, when Hamborg wanted to find a fun alternative to strollers for shuttling his younger kids to the park. He had four boys -- ages 1, 3, 5 and 7 at the time -- and another was born the next year. Hamborg cut a board out of plywood and screwed some skateboard wheel assemblies into the impromptu deck.
The board served two purposes: transportation for the preschoolers and a training device to get the older boys started on surfing. As neighbors saw the family on the boards, some asked Hamborg to make boards for them.
Despite the neighborhood popularity, Hamborg didn't think he could create a business selling the boards. Because of the great length of the decks, the plywood began to sag in the middle after continued use, and the bolts holding the wheels in place eventually would break through the wood.
A turning point came in 2005, when a man driving a concrete mixing truck through Hamborg's neighborhood saw the boards on the lawn and stopped.
"I heard the air brakes set, and the big diesel engine. This guy comes out of the concrete truck and says, 'These are really cool, why don't you sell them?' " Hamborg told the truck driver about the problems with the wood, and the man told him about an Anaheim supplier that carried a special European plywood that could take the stress. The tip proved correct, and Hamborg began to experiment with the rigid wood.
The 18-ply European wood was strong enough to build the skateboards 6 feet, 8 inches long. Hamborg painted the decks himself in striped patterns reminiscent of the long surfboards on 1960s Beach Boys album covers. Hamborg found a financial backer in Steven Bray, a businessman and friend from church who was a fan of the boards.
Just after Christmas 2006 ("really bad timing," Hamborg said), the boards went on sale.
He advertised them in niche skateboarding magazines and created a website. Skateboard shops took samples on the trade show circuit. Orders began to quickly pour in, Hamborg said. But as with many start-up businesses, an unforeseen problem hit the company in its first year.
The Hamboard skateboards are covered with a clear, sticky coating to provide traction for the rider's feet, instead of the black grip tape commonly used on skateboards. In early production, the grippy coating gummed up and peeled, making the boards unsuitable for sale.
"It almost collapsed the business. We couldn't meet orders. The next production run was wrecked," Hamborg said. "We'd imported the wood, cut them, painted them, and all it was good for was a colorful tongue depressor for a dinosaur."
After much trial and error, Hamborg and the local painting facility he contracted with found the problem and corrected it. The painting company and Hamborg shared the expense caused by the defects and delays, he said.
Although the company has grown to require much of the manufacturing be done at off-site facilities, the Hamborg garage is still filled with boxes of wheels and prototypes of possible models. The family processes orders at the kitchen table, and a list of shipped boards is scrawled on a garage wall.
Along with the original 6-foot-8 Hamboard, the company also sells a 4-foot-5 board called the Fish, which is more maneuverable and sells for $365. It is also experimenting with a motorized version.
Now that sales are stable, Hamborg faces a common question among family-business owners whose products are taking off: How much, and how fast, should one try to grow?
The answer for him is not too much, not too soon. Hamborg and Bray hope that in three to four years the business will grow into a full-time job for at least some of their sons.
The oldest of the five Hamborg boys, 20-year-old Gus, and Bray's 21-year-old son Chase now work part-time on the business, as does mom Kathy Hamborg, who is also a real estate agent.
"I want to keep it growing organically," Pete Hamborg said. "We don't want to over-leverage our family" by stretching either the production ability or financial resources.
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On a roll
Business: Hamboards of Huntington Beach makes super-long skateboards designed to simulate surfing.
Owners: Pete Hamborg and Steven Bray
Employees: Hamborg's five sons (and sometimes his wife, Kathy) and Bray's two sons
Revenue: $180,000 in 2008
Products: The original Hamboard, 6 feet, 8 inches long, sells for $395. The Fish, a 4-foot, 5-inch board, is $365.