Deploy and Enjoy: Mill Valley Brothers Capitalize on Grandfather's Invention by Marketing Wearable Sails for Skateboarding
By Dan Nied, 7/4/2010
VENTURA - At the Patagonia offices in Southern California, Billy Smith bounces from one department to the other like a pinball. He is a compact package of smiling, manic energy.
Upon reaching his desk in the design department of the outdoor clothing company's headquarters, Smith comes upon a realization. He is being interviewed by a very large man, and he happens to have a very large wetsuit that he designed hanging on a rod near his desk. Once he starts talking, he doesn't really stop.
"What size are you? Triple-X?" he asks. "Dude, we have a triple-X. I don't know anyone else who's a triple-X É I can't believe we have a triple-X! You seem to be the only person who can fit in that. You surf much? I've been trying to find someone to fit that in. Triple-X? Yeah, cool!"
His excitement seems genuine. But then, Billy Smith seems genuinely excited about everything around him. The Mill Valley native and Marin Catholic High graduate has been working at Patagonia since 2007. During a tour of the sprawling campus, he stops to greet every person he sees.
"We need to hang out soon," is his usual closing remark.
His excitement hits a fever pitch when we start talking about the Sporting-Sail, an invention he and his 21-year-old brother, Nick, believes will revolutionize downhill skateboarding. Here's how Billy describes his experience with the red-and-white parachute:
"You're flying down the redwood groves, managing your speed, increasing your stability, keeping your style
intact, weaving in and out of turns, sharing this experience with your friends, staying in your lane, keeping safety a priority," he said. "You're flying down the mountain, using these sails, deploying and enjoying the whole way down the hill. As the sun penetrates through the redwood trees, they go through the sails, they illuminate with these colors and light. And you get the traffic coming up, they just pull aside. They just let you go by."
He gives business pitches in catalog text. For a man who lives a "carpe diem" life and constantly sports a smile, it is easy to see how Smith thinks in landscape prose.
Skateboarders attach the Sporting-Sails to their arms and legs to maximize wind resistance and go downhill without stopping or even putting a hand or foot on the ground.
"We're reinventing the descent downhill on skateboards," Billy said. "And that is where it is taken to new heights."
Billy and Nick developed the sail after a trip to their grandfather's attic in 2006. There they found a similar product their grandfather designed for skiing years ago. The brothers had the idea to adapt the product for skateboarding. Nick tested it at Fort Baker and several steep roads in Marin.
"It worked so well, it was so much
fun, I knew we had something there," Nick said. "I went on this closed road and did the run three times. We had a crowd of 30 people by the time we were done. Just that response right there triggered something in our minds."
The process from idea to product was ideal. Their grandfather, Harry William, put up the capital. Billy, with his experience and connections at Patagonia, perfected the design. Nick, an expert skateboarder and USC business student, tested the product, helped keep Billy's dreams based in reality and figured out a business plan.
They took their marketing photographs in Marin, with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. The idea, said Nick (also a Marin Catholic grad), is capturing the Sporting-Sail while conquering steep roads they never thought could be navigated by skateboard.
"The terrain in the Bay Area is unparalleled in the state," Nick said. "In terms of natural beauty and the hills that you can find, there isn't anything like it (in Southern California)."
The three equal partners acquired a patent on the product, and in August of 2009 the Sporting-Sail was sold on the Internet under the company name of Sukrafte. The Sporting-Sail is currently available at Fat Kat Surf Shop in Fairfax and Proof Lab in Mill Valley.
"I've been skateboarding hills for a while, and with this I don't have fear of any hill," said Jack Duysen, the manager of Fat Kat Surf Shop. "I think it can be as revolutionary as the helmet."
According to numbers by Billy and backed up by Nick, they have sold nearly 300 of their initial order of 1,000. On their website, sporting-sails.com, Billy estimates they are averaging one order per day.
Billy is quick to point out that the Sporting-Sail is not a Patagonia product, but is just as quick to note that the company has embraced the endeavor from the start. The 2010 Patagonia catalog features a photo of Nick using the Sporting-Sail.
What it all adds up to is a new, almost-thriving business for a pair of Marin natives and one more reason for Billy to dream. How about kids using Sporting-Sails as the skateboard version of training wheels? Or maybe flag-designed sails as a featured part of the Winter Olympics opening ceremony? Heck, how about a Sporting-Sail competition in the Olympics? Or maybe cross-country skateboarders special ordering Sporting-Sails with their route ("San Francisco to New York") stamped on the back? If nothing else, the Sporting-Sail has allowed Billy's sweeping visions room to breathe.
"When we were kids, we'd always use our imagination and would take bed sheets and pieces of fabric and try to use them to slow down," Billy said. "The more we grew up we never let go of that imagination. We just grew upon it. So when we saw this in my grandfather's attic, we were inspired. (We wanted) to share them with the rest of the world."
Freelance writer Dan Nied, who insists he did not accept the free wetsuit, can be reached at email@example.com
Long Distance Skateboarding - Downhill Skate, Ski, Snow Body Sails, Parachutes, Capes & Kites - Bird Man Longboarding Wing Suits, Longboard Wing Suits - Nick & Billy Smith - As Seen On LegalZoom TV Commercial!Original Artwork by Charlie Donalson
Downhill Skateboarding, Skiing & Snowboarding Wing Suits, Body Sails, Parachutes, Kites & Chutes - The Original Downhill SPORTING-SAIL - Skateboard, Ski, Snowboard Wingsuit, Body Sail, ParachuteSPORTING-SAILS is a member of 1% For The Planet © 2007-2015 Sukräfte, LLC (Surf + Skate = Sukrafte) - A California Company - All Rights Reserved - Patent No. US D613,316 S - Deploy & Enjoy!