Success from a shoestring

In 1997, a Steamboat Springs-based snowboarder named Gary Hammerslag had one of those insights that makes consumers lives’ easier and entrepreneurs wealthy.

Hammerslag saw something that wasn’t there, a niche nobody had noticed. And he asked a question: Why is it everybody is paying attention to the bottom of shoes, and no one takes notice of the top? Why is it, in other words, that shoes nowadays can behave like a tire tread or a tire pump, a rocking chair or a bed of nails but – whether cloth or leather laces or Velcro – hardly anybody can close them properly?

The answer to this question was called the Boa Closure System, a technology that enables any shoe or boot and  any other applications to close completely and comfortably. The result has been a company with close to 250 closure system clients and 100 employees worldwide. Meantime, Boa registered $13.6 million in sales in 2010, $36.9 million in 2013 and an estimated $47 million in 2014.

One upshot of all that success is that Denver-based Boa Technology has been named winner of the 2015 Rocky Mountain ACG Emerging Growth Company Award. Another result is that Hammerslag, now company chairman, today lives in Austria. There, when he is not aiding company operations, he can snowboard to his heart’s content.

We all know how to lace or otherwise close our shoes, but making them really fit is another story. How many workers, runners, golfers, in-line skaters and cyclers find their footwear crimping, pinching or wobbling? Before moving to Steamboat Hammerslag had worked in the medical device business, on a maneuverable catheter. One day, while struggling with his children’s bootlaces, the lightbulb went on. Why not adopt some of that same catheter technology to shoes and boots?

Hammerslag’s ingenious answer combined three technologies. First, laces made from aircraft-grade stainless steel (“stronger per gram than tank armor,” the company boasts). Second, nylon enclosures for the laces. Third, a gearbox “that’s almost like a miniature fishing reel that you use to wind up the cable,” explains Boa President Mark Soderberg. “Being able to introduce that power and making it easy to close something like a snowboard boot, which is how Gary started, is really huge.”

To make the closure system work, all wearers need is one hand. All they have to do is pop the reel/gearbox out about a quarter-inch, wind it, and pop it back in. Boa’s stainless steel laces rarely break, but when they do the company replaces them – or any other part – free.

Back in the day, Boa started out trying to sell its product to ice skate makers – oddly, one of the few product categories the company does not sell today. Instead, most of Boa’s manufacturing clients fall into seven product categories or “summits”: snow sports; cycling; golf; outdoor and trail; utility/safety; athletic shoes; and medical devices such as braces and prosthetics.

“Utility and safety are huge for us,” Soderberg says. “We are wannabes for athletic and we are growing in medical.”

Medical applications are a smallish part of Boa’s whole as yet, but significant because of the overall size of a hugemarket and the non-footwear avenue they represent.

“Medical is fun because it’s not just a great-performing sports type of solution but actually helping people,” says Soderberg. “We’re working with the bracing and support designed by orthotists and prosthetists who are either custom-making things, or products off-the-shelf – everything from back braces, knee braces, ankle braces and more.

“So you can imagine, when you see Velcro you can scratch your head and say, ‘Does Boa belong there?’ Because we are always creating this solution that is micro-adjustable, easy to use, and never wears out. There are endless possibilities.”

Far from worrying about coming up with the next Boa application, “Probably our biggest challenge is fending off ideas,” Soderberg adds. “We’re already on things like a camera mount and an iPad case. Our vision is a Boa-powered product in every life. That’s really an evolution from originally making shoelaces obsolete.”

Categories: Company Perspectives, Management & Leadership