An award-winning carbon fibre high-performance sled from Central Otago is on the cool list with international gadget writers.
The sunny South Island town of Clyde is home to one of the country’s most innovative innovations – only most of the country’s never heard of it.
Central Otago entrepreneur Sean Boyd was keen to rip on the excellent snow the region gets every year. He didn’t have the co-ordination to get to grips with snowboarding and skiing, but he still had a need for speed. So he came up with a high-performance snow sled, which he’s managed to hoon on at speeds of up to 65km/hour (the current record for sledding is 100km/hour, but Boyd (below right) hopes to crack 150km/hour).
The Snolo Stealth-X sled made a splash on overseas websites when it launched last year. With a price tag of US$3,000 and made from carbon fibre, it attracted the attention of gadget writers the world over.
The 4kg sled can be quickly disassembled by the removal of a nut and worn as a backpack, adding to its design and innovation appeal – as well as making it lightweight for the trek up the hill.
“I wanted to have some serious fun in the snow without looking like a fool,” Boyd says.
“It was only because it was so extremely cool and exciting to ride that I decided it had to go to market – and because the market was ready for adult extreme sledding.”
It all started with parts of an old bike and blue builder’s foam, which Boyd used to make the first sled. Then came market research and refining the concept and handling over six years.
He took his fifth and final prototype, an aluminum and plastic “speed machine” to Queenstown design firm 4Design to take it further.
“I had the skills to develop the idea and to build a ‘works like’ prototype, but not a ‘looks like’ one,” Boyd says. “I asked them to make it look like Enzo Ferrari and Steven Spielberg had a few beers and designed a snow sled. I had the basics of the functionality, but not the cool factor that it deserved and needed to break the stereotype associated to sledding. Parents have a great time sledding with their children, but would never take the sled on their own up a hill! The main reason is that it’s perceived as pretty uncool.
“I wanted to make the Stealth-X a product that would not be out of place polished and sitting on the lounge floor so the owner can show it off. 4Design also helped with the construction/mechanics of how the final design worked and it really is a functional design delight.”
The next hurdle was investment money, and this is where the lessons come in.
“I knew this would be a fantastic brand and capable of huge international success, but for someone who had been an employee most of their life, it was too much money for me to have instantly available,” Boyd says.
“Also, the intellectual property side of things was a very expensive exercise. It is hard to start small without protecting yourself against the inevitable world-wide awareness of your product. But when you know that the US sledding market alone is worth US$100,000,000, it has to be done.”
He took on two investors but is now going it alone again. The investors, he says, unfortunately ended up voting against his plan of direction and business model that was based on six years of research. Snolo launched the Stealth-X to the world without stock or even a website to sell product, and a price hike from the original profit margin by more than 300 percent.
“The initial launch was just emails introducing the product and brand to as many ‘cool, guy, gadget’ type websites as possible. It was a great tool to use because it was free and got huge exposure. The willingness of the websites and magazines to run articles on Snolo and the Stealth-X was purely due to it being a very cool looking revolutionary brand and product with extreme capabilities.
“The initial launch – as mistakenly premature as it was – went out to an international audience of millions. Some of the sites and magazines it was featured in had subscriber lists of more than 20 million people, so it was a huge error not to have it for sale at the time of the launch.
“I was adamant that we needed at least a website to be able to take advantage of the overwhelming interest the product would attract in regards to the impulse buyers. I also knew from my research that a price tag of US$3,000 would draw criticism of greed and an unrealistic company, but I lost control of those decisions.”
Using carbon fibre was always going to mean the sled was an expensive item, but the business model was to show that Snolo was “serious about sledding”. A cheaper, plastic version of the Stealth-X was on the cards, as well as disability sleds and children’s sleds.
“My biggest lessons from starting Snolo are firstly, choose the right people for your business with the right experience for the role they’ll take, and get agreements signed regarding control of direction. And secondly, I’ve learnt that I am a product designer first and foremost. I have a good common sense business head, but not the fire of leadership to maintain or regain control. So know what you are good at and know that the other people you partner with or employ are good at their role and that they can stick to it.”
Boyd’s now looking for a suitable investor to drive Snolo forward with his designs and knowledge, and its getting into toy design.
“After years of sitting on designs and then seeing them on the market through someone else’s thought process I have finally taken an idea to be developed. Fingers crossed for that one too. My favorite saying is ‘Do nothing, go nowhere’!”