Feb 04, 2014
Shoelace products for athletes
Employees: 100 (65 in Denver)
Gary Hammerslag worked in the medical device business and had a hand in developing a steerable catheter that made for a much more precise product. He sold his business in the 1990s and moved to Steamboat Springs, where his kids got into snowboarding and ice hockey.
A problem emerged. Hammerslag was constantly yanking on his kids' shoelaces to tighten their boots and skates.
Then came Hammerslag's epiphany: the technology that underpinned the steerable catheter would make a great replacement for shoelaces, thanks to micro-adjustability and leverage that makes for a better fit.
"It's basically like a little gearbox," explains Boa CEO Mark Soderberg, a longtime snowsports industry and former CEO of Volant Skis. "It was miraculous to me."
It follows that Soderberg joined the company in 2000. At the time, the footwear industry wasn't making an effort to develop a better lacing system, he adds. "Shoelaces are 400 years old. Everybody had been working on what's on the bottom of footwear and not as much on the top."
Boa soon relocated the operation from Steamboat to Denver to take advantage of the deeper talent pool. Soderberg says the company followed "the Gore-Tex model," noting, "We're an ingredient with a brand that has meaning, working with premium partners."
Boa's engineers design products in Denver and the company's contract manufacturer in Shenzen, China, works closely with brand partners who have integrated the system into their footwear.
Soderberg explains the process like this: "We court a brand. Then we collaborate with them to integrate Boa into their line, and they place orders with the factory." Since the lion's share of footwear manufacturing worldwide takes place in South China, the shipping logistics are streamlined by Boa partnering with a local manufacturer.
Boa first gained traction in snowboarding, "with everybody wanting it," says Soderberg. The company has since moved into the golf, cycling, outdoor, athletic, work, and medical markets.
Dial-based systems like Boa's have become "the de facto standard" in cycling and golf -- driven largely by Japan -- has emerged as the company's largest market. "It just passed snowboarding this year," says Soderberg. Footjoy and Adidas "are just powerhouses for us."
"Micro adjustability works well in wet environments," says Soderberg of the outdoor market. "Where that caught on the fastest was Korea -- maybe the world's largest outdoor market. Everybody hikes, it's pretty affluent, and there's a lot of mountains and trail systems."
Medical uses include braces and cervical collars, and the next big target is the athletic market for runners and endurance athletes.
Today Boa works with about 200 brands, including K2 Snowboarding, Footjoy, Red Wing, and Vans, and the company's market is evenly split between Asia, Europe, and North America. Hammerslag recently relocated to Mondsee, Austria, to open Boa's European office there.
Challenges: "Breaking into the athletic market," says Soderberg. "The athletic world is typically controlled by much larger companies than these other categories. It's scary for them to do something new."
Boa is working with a pair of smaller brands, Zoot and Topo, in the athletic market. "Those are some great starts," says Soderberg.
Opportunities: "We're going to try to help our brand partners break into the United States in golf," says Soderberg. Currently, 90 percent of Boa's golf market is in Asia. "We're trying to cross the water." He says the company has a blueprint, as it helped port initial snowboarding success in Japan to the U.S. a decade ago.
Needs: "Finding the right people who enjoy collaboration," says Soderberg. But once they find them, he adds, they are often lured into the Boa fold by the corporate culture and the perks. "There's definitely a culture of health and wellness here. Everybody is an owner and everybody gets stock options."