What is the first thought that comes to mind when you think of skateboards? Bart Simpson? Nineties punk rockers with baggy jeans? Nick Smith is on the BR!NK of putting a halt to those old-school connotations and replacing them with images of riders going faster than ever with a cutting-edge accessory behind their backs. With his award-winning venture, Sporting Sails, the California native and his brother have come up with a way to simultaneously enhance downhill experiences on any boards and to allow for skateboards to slow down. While one might initially mistake a person using Sporting Sails for an oversized flying squirrel, this increasingly popular product is adding a whole new dimension to the world of sports.
What is your elevator pitch for Sporting Sails?
Sporting Sails is the first multi-purpose parachute-like device that can be attached to the human body for application in various action sports, mainly those involving downhill trajectories – skiing, skateboarding…
How does it enhance the downhill experience?
It puts you in control a lot more. It also allows for longer and steeper runs with less risk of harm from foot-braking and hand usage. You can attach it to your ankles, calves, or thighs. Once you’re in a descent and can’t jump off or slow down because you’re going too fast, you can deploy Sporting Sails.
The feeling must be pretty incredible once you try it, right?
We call it the Sporting Sails effect. [laughs] You get this incredible feeling of letting your board go, the wheels running faster than ever, with the confidence that you’ll be able to stop. My brother and I go to Santa Barbara and skateboard from the top of the mountains where you see the 101 freeway all the way to downtown. As far as I’m concerned, no one has ever done that before without a speed check.
Practically, and for someone skateboard-illiterate like me, how does Sporting Sails allow you to slow down?
By opening your arms up: you catch the wind, harness it, and when you capture it you create drag. You use air resistance as a tool to slow down. You can also go faster by tucking your arms behind your back.
Who did you create Sporting Sails with?
I started Sporting Sails with my older brother, Billy Smith, who is the designer and a developer at Patagonia. We have a great business relationship.
How did the idea of creating this crazy venture come about?
I’ve pretty much been skateboarding all my life. The idea came when my brother and I were kids – we realized that there was no way to stop on a skateboard. In 2006, at our grandfather’s place in Colorado, we found these silk cloaks that he had used back in the seventies as “Ski-Klippers.” In fact, the first original cloaks were the ones used by Italian ski champions in the thirties.
Tell me about the initial reaction to Sporting Sails – were people excited or turned off by the idea?
It’s been a tough road, with lots of criticism along the way. That said, almost all of the responses have been extremely positive. We’ve been operating a slow growth model: we initially had a thousand manufactured, put them in the right hands, and have created a good company image. After just a few years, we were elected fifth most brave and bold entrepreneurs in the Bay Area by San Francisco Magazine. We’ve been featured on national TV campaigns and have become recognizable not only because of the quality of our product, but its design – which we certainly did not expect.
Tell me about skateboarding in late 2010. How popular is it still?
I’d say skateboarding is still really popular. It’s just undergoing a generational shift. That punk rock image of skateboard that older people have stuck in their heads is gone. But skating is not going away. It’s turning into an industry that can afford a bit of a higher price. Sales have increased thirty-seven percent for long boards in 2009, and the regular Popsicle Skateboards are on their way out.
But is there really room for innovation within the industry?
You can try to reinvent the wheel, reshape the deck, but in the end you’re still riding a skateboard. That said, the accessories can completely change your experience. Sporting Sails opens up doors; it can be an instructional piece to push it to the next level.
By the way, congratulations on winning the $12,500 first prize at the New Venture Seed Competition earlier this week! Was it a stressful experience?
I went up there, and even though I sometimes get nervous, I knew that this was our product and we just had to tell them how much potential it has. We showed videos, pictures, testimonies… It was very emotional. I’ve never been in that winning position before. The judges, who are so involved in venture capital, were able to give us this money and say, “Go for it.” It was very humbling.
Apart from spending it on booze and strippers, how do you plan to use that money?
[laughs] We’ll let the money sit for now. Since a lot of professional riders are pushing for a pro-model, we’ll mostly use it for research and development with new designs.
You must have had some pretty incredible experiences with Sporting Sails. Give me a couple of key moments when you realized that you had created something amazing.
Let’s start with a skiing example. There was a great moment in Vail, Colorado, where we got team jackets for Sporting Sails and became known around the village as “the crazy guys with the sails.” Everyday at 3:30PM we’d go down the steepest run that is always icy – locals like to sit at the bar and look at beginners fall. But we were charging in total confidence. Some days, we’d get a standing ovation from the people at the bar, and we’d hand them our business cards. It was a great marketing strategy for us and it sparked a lot of interest.
That’s pretty great. How about a key moment with skateboarding?
It’s actually saved my butt a couple of times! One day in San Francisco, I was on my board with my friend driving behind me. I decided to pull out because all of these other cars were behind me and I needed to let them pass. So I pull out, and everyone in the cars started screaming: “No! Keep going! We’re watching!” At this moment, I have a five-hundred foot cliff on my right, the San Francisco skyline in front of me, and it just felt amazing. However, the wind changed and I started going a little too fast. I cranked a turn and the Sporting Sails filled with air and saved me. Everyone was cheering in their cars.
How can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to your success?
If you love Sporting Sails, you’re already helping. Buy one, take it out with your buddies, and have a good time. Make sure to submit your photos and share your experience. Make sure to also give us feedback, as we’re really trying to create something new together.
Log on to www.sportingsails.com to buy your Sporting Sails today for $79.