Innovation, Gliding Across Generations - by Amy Wallace
Prototype Column - New York Times Sunday Business - Published 5/15/2011
DOES inventiveness run in families? Is there a gene that awakens the entrepreneurial urge? A look at the Smith family offers at least anecdotal evidence that the answer is yes.
Nick and Billy Smith, California-born brothers, grew up admiring the derring-do of their father’s father, a mechanical engineer and sometime race-car driver named H. W. Smith Jr. — or Bill to his friends.
“He was all about having a good time — still is,” says Nick, 22. That’s why, in 2006 on a visit to their grandfather’s ski cabin in Vail, Colo., the brothers were drawn to its dusty attic. They were certain they would find something fun to do there. “We were looking for schnapps or fireworks, one of the two,” Nick says.
“I think it was both,” says Billy, 26.
Instead, poking around, the Smith brothers found a crate filled with 24 cardboard boxes, each about the size of a travel umbrella. A drawing on every box showed a man on skis, a parachutelike sail attached to his wrists and legs. Ski-Klipper, the label said.
The boys hurried downstairs, demanding to know what they had found. Capes? Kites?
“Our grandfather just said: ‘Put them on. They’re a lot of fun,’ “ Billy says.
Flash forward to April 6, 2010, when the brothers received a patent for something they call the Sporting-Sail. It has almost the same design their grandfather created in the late 1960s — and quickly abandoned, he says, because he was too busy — but is made from modern materials. And the product — which lets users harness the wind to decelerate on steep inclines — is not just for skiers any more.
“There are more kids skateboarding today than playing Little League baseball,” Nick says, explaining the modern need that inspired their company, called Sukräfte — a melding of the words “surf” and “skate.” As he put it, there are 18.5 million skateboarders worldwide, “and not a single efficient braking system on the market — ka-ching!”
Billy Smith works as a wet-suit designer at Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company, when he is not tending to their start-up business. He recalls a childhood in which the two brothers puttered in the family garage in Mill Valley, Calif.
“The garage was the base,” he says, recalling how he created bags from recycled materials as a teenager while his brother shaped surfboards and skateboards. “Sewing machines to screwdrivers. We had it all: Fiberglas, Kevlar, carbon fiber, rubber scraps.”
Nick says, “The garage was the think tank.” He graduated on Friday with a bachelor’s degree from the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California.
The brothers’ mother, Brigitte Smith, is an architect, and their father, Bill Smith III, is a landscape architect. The sons credit their parents along with their grandfather with encouraging their creativity by setting an example.
“Reinvent the descent” is the marketing slogan the brothers coined for their product, which costs $79 and comes with a lifetime guarantee. But the principle that guides the company is best articulated in this description on their Web site, sporting-sails.com: “A Downhill and Downwind Friend and Family Tradition.”
From his home in upstate New York, H. W. Smith Jr., now 83, says he based his Ski-Klipper on a contraption he saw while skiing in Europe in the ‘60s. “I love deep and steep, but sometimes it’s a little steeper than I’d rather,” he says. “But with the sail I could do some pretty darn steep places.”
Mr. Smith, who signs his e-mail “Bill, the OLD OLD man,” has nevertheless already enjoyed 39 days of skiing this year. He says that growing up in Cooperstown, N.Y., he was always inventing things. “I had a science club I belonged to,” he says. “You couldn’t do this today, but we made bombs and huge hot-air balloons that you could let go.”
Later, that tinkering spirit led him to be a co-founder of what is now McLaren Performance Technologies, a Detroit-area company that, among other things, builds engines and drive trains for automakers. He says his Ski-Klipper side venture, developed on a lark, stalled when one Vail ski resort prohibited the use of hang gliders and his product.
“I thought we would try to sell a few, but I had a lot more to do, so I boxed them up and stowed them away,” he says. Asked about his grandsons’ reinvestment in the idea with an emphasis on skateboarding, he sounds tickled. “They’re good lads,” he says. “They’re staying out of trouble, and I’m proud of them.”
So what does it feel like to use a Sporting-Sail? Nick and Billy Smith liken it to the feeling you get on a roller coaster when you’re going over a hump. “As you’re on your way down a hill and you deploy this thing, you get instant stability,” says Billy, who received a bachelor’s degree in art and business from the University of Puget Sound. “As a result you can take a new line down the same old run.”
Nick recalls the first time he tested the sail on a skateboard during a downhill run. He was just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, on a steep, closed road that heads into Fort Baker. He’d been there before, but this time, he was in control. “I could go straight — I didn’t have to put my hands down or wear out my shoes or slide,” he says.
“I opened up the sail and it decelerated me,” he adds. “Then I tucked back up and got going again. By the time I was done with my third run, I had 30 people on the bridge watching me. It was a whole new approach to the downhill experience.”
The Sporting-Sail is available at only a few retailers. About 700 of the sails have been sold so far, mostly online. But while the brothers are in no hurry for the business to grow, they have big ambitions. They hope to develop Sukräfte into a lifestyle brand with many products. And to think it started because their pyrotechnic-loving grandfather had a yen for fun.
“He’s mellowed out a little bit with the explosives, but when I was 8 years old, he’d be on the chairlift, lighting bottle rockets,” Nick recalls, laughing.
Billy says: “He’d be like, ‘Follow me!’ We’re still following him.”
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!