Vodafone xone Innovators Series: Springfree’s Dr. Keith Alexander and Doug Hill on getting past no, global domination and gamifying trampolines
Ben Fahy, publisher and editorial director of Idealog: Keith, thanks for joining us here. You’ve created a bit of a monster, haven’t you, with Springfree. You’re selling around, correct me if I’m wrong, 35,000 trampolines a year, bringing in $50 million revenue.
Keith Alexander: I don’t know about the revenue, but the numbers seem about right otherwise.
That’s a pretty amazing story. Can you tell us the origins of that? What was happening in your life at the time when you decided to get into this?
Well, it was a very long time ago. Just like having a baby, it starts a long time before you see anything. When I was a kid I just loved trampolines, but all we had then was at the school gym there’s a trampoline and you had to line up. You’d get on, you have three seat drops and three bounces and then a seat drop and that was all you’re allowed and you had to get off and then next person had their turn. You couldn’t buy trampolines unless you bought a gymnastic one. I really liked them, and when I had my own child, the first one, she was 18 months old. I said to my wife, “We’ve got to get a trampoline because you can buy them now.”
She basically poured cold water on it. She said, “No. They’re too dangerous.” I thought, “What do you know about trampolines? You’ve never mentioned one before.” Little bit of tension there. I looked around, looked at the literature, and found that indeed there was a paper done by University of Otago and the person said trampolines were dangerous and becoming increasingly dangerous. I thought, “Oh. Dear, maybe I don’t want my child injured. Maybe since I’m an engineer I can do something about that.” So I started thinking about ways of making a trampoline that was going to be safer.
Dads protecting their daughters are the cause of many innovations around the world.
Yes. Well, I would think so, particularly this one.
Overnight success is mythical, really, and they tend to take a very long time. How long did it take you to get from the original idea, the thought that maybe I should try and fix this, to possibly getting to the shelves? How many iterations of it were there?
Well, it’s really hard to know how much you put into one iteration, but when I did a PowerPoint on it sometime later I did something like six iterations, but that was from a product that was already actually working. Then the entrepreneur who took it up did about three more iterations after that. About 1989 was when I was first thinking about it in a little house here in Sandringham until it was starting to sell in 2004.
Was it a side project for you at the time where you were a full time employee somewhere else or something you did in your spare time?
Yes. Originally this was something I did in my spare time. When the idea first came to me I was here in Auckland working as an engineering consultant, and then I subsequently moved to Christchurch and it was a side project there in Christchurch for a number of years. Then I got to the University and then I could actually use it as student projects to help develop it.
Did you ever think it would get to this stage?
No, no. I didn’t have much of a vision for it. I’m not that much of an optimist. I had imagined that maybe I would sell something like 30 a year in the New Zealand market. That was about as many as I could imagine manufacturing here in New Zealand. I got that really wrong.
Of all the things to get wrong, that’s a good thing to get wrong.
Yeah, yes. I suppose that’s right.
Have you always been a tinkerer? Obviously judging from your expertise and your interests. Were you a tinkerer growing up? Were you always puling things apart and putting them back together again and figuring out new ways to do things?
Yes. I guess I was, but I didn’t know that at the time. I was just who I was, but my father was an engineer and he had lived through the depression where they had to fix everything. He taught me to go to the dump and get stuff from the dump because that’s where you got interesting stuff. He also admonished me repeatedly when I pulled apart my clockwork milk tanker. I was just really intrigued at what was inside it and pulled it apart and he’d have to put it back together again. After about four times he said, “If you pull it apart again I’m not putting it back together.” I had to figure out how to put it back together again when I pulled it apart. Yes, I did take quite a lot of interest in the things that my father did. He was the sort of person who encouraged it, which was a big help.
Inventors need to be tenacious and driven in part to deal with the knock backs that they seem to receive a lot of the time. I know Jeff and Justine Ross’ book Every Bastard Says No hints at that. Did you get a lot of no’s along the way, and what were some of the hardest things you had to face along that path?
I think you’re absolutely right. I got lots of no’s, not so much from people but from nature itself. I think I early on learned to form relationships with things and machines rather than people. People were very complicated and they often ended up hurting you, but machines were well behaved. They had real rules that they behaved by and I got to know them pretty well. If they told me it wasn’t working well I didn’t feel bad about it, I just knew that I hadn’t figured out the rules yet and so I could keep persisting with it. I think I learned a lot of that persistence from just pulling things apart and finding that I couldn’t put it back together, but there would be a way. I found out ways of doing it and eventually those no’s started to disappear. When it came to the no’s that I was going to get from other people they weren’t so bad because I figured, “They’ll be a way around this.”
I think Edison talked about his many failures and he said he just found lots of ways not to do it.
Yes, absolutely. They’re all education.
Keith, often inventors have a belief that their product is destined to succeed, often because their friends and family maybe think it’s a great idea. While there might be a gap in the market, sometimes there might not be a market in that gap. Did you have to change your designs to suit what the market wanted? I like the advice you gave about making it easy to prepare. It needed to be assembled by a solo mother with no tools in half an hour on Christmas eve after a glass of wine. That’s a good challenge to meet, isn’t it?
Yes. That quote came from Brandon Duffy, who owned Canvas Land in Levin. He was the first commercial partner that I approached and I learned a lot from him. Before that I was really focused on the technology on how to make a trampoline work well, how to make it bounce properly, and how to make it safe. Once I’d got there as an engineer I achieved what I thought I needed to achieve. As soon as I then began to interface with the market and interface with the commercial realities, yeah, you’re absolutely right, I had to change my ideas and make sure they fitted with what the market wanted.
You mentioned before that you liked machines. They’re simple, humans are difficult. Often you see innovation, and invention more particularly, as a solitary pursuit; the image of the inventor perfecting their life’s work in the back shed. But is that the reality? How important was it for you to get help from others to make this successful?
It’s both, really. You have to have a certain amount of self-confidence to keep going to keep pushing through the no’s and the no’s from the machine. But pretty soon when I started to work with commercial partners I realised that this was a team effort. They were teaching me stuff I didn’t know, and another thing that I didn’t really know much about was money. I just earned money and I didn’t know how to invest money. I didn’t really understand investment, but once we got together with an entrepreneur who was prepared to take it to market, he suddenly came up with $10,000 and said, “There were are. There’s $10,000 to keep moving.” Then when he started talking I realised he had to be investing huge amounts of money in order to do this. How could he buy a whole container load of these trampolines just for trial unless he had enough money somewhere. When you start adding it up it was a huge amount. This was a different way of treating money than I was used to. I was learning about investors and what they do, and entrepreneurs and how they will judge the market. It was a team process, in the end I did the technical bit. I was dependent on others to make the connections with the market, dependent on an entrepreneur to see what could be done in the market, and I had an amazing ride seeing it all unfold.
Originally trampolines had springs and metal and that lead to the injuries. The manufacturers’ response to that seemed to be put some pads on it. It’s a great metaphor in a way for lazy innovation for putting a band aid on something that doesn’t really work rather than completely rethinking it. I guess that makes you think about all the other things in the world that might be poorly designed. And I bet you see a lot of problems that you want to solve. What are some of the things you’re working on at the moment?
One of the things I’m working on at the moment is the population is ageing, often someone at home gets sick or disabled in some sort of way so that they can’t get out of bed, they can’t move themselves around. I think it would be good if we had some device that grandma could use to shift grandpa around, get him off the toilet, get him out of bed, and get him to the kitchen table. You can buy these machines, they’re quite big and expensive and electronic and have batteries and have to be recharged and all this I think is a bit overwhelming for grandma. If we could come up with some simple device, something along the lines of a walker that grandma feels that she can manage and still be able to lift grandpa, I think that would be a great device to have.
You’ve also been involved in some other relatively well known New Zealand inventions. The Martin Jetpack and Alan Gibbs’ Aquada. You’ve done air, land, and water. When’s the submarine coming?
Well, I haven’t done the submarine, but the one you don’t mention is the walk on water shoes. I did develop some walk on water shoes, and they were very useful when I was doing my PhD because I had a small amphibious vehicle that I had to rescue many times from out in Lake Victoria in Hagley Park. The walk on water shoes are smaller than a boat and as long as I had the skills to stay on my feet I could walk out there and pick it up.
Are there any other inventions, maybe New Zealand inventions particularly, that make you jealous or that stand out for you?
Yes. I continue to be amazed at what other people can come up with. I’ve got a lot of respect for the way people can think laterally and come up with different ideas. The Martin Jetpack I was quite excited about and got a little bit involved with early on. The University fed students to Glenn Martin for a long time. They had a finishing school with Glenn Martin, a number of them. There’s also another one called Skyboard, which is in Temuka. You wouldn’t expect it, but there’s a contractor down there who does steel construction at steel works and he’s made this little airplane that a sky diver could hang onto, jump out of the plane with, and then press a button and open out its wings and tail and fly around the sky doing aerobatics. Then when he got too close to the ground he jumps off and parachutes down. I got a little bit involved with that too, he came to us and wanted some help from a student and we had a bit of an adventurous ride. He’s got lots of connections with the American military now, which is quite amazing.
That seems to be a trend throughout your career. Obviously your connection to the University of Canterbury has helped, not just with the students but you look at places like Silicon Valley where they’re surrounded by Universities, often smart people doing cutting edge research that might not make it consumers for years. But it’s an important cog in the wheel of innovation. How has that helped you throughout your various projects?
The University? Well, I found that I really liked making stuff and inventing stuff. I wanted my life to be worthwhile. I thought it’d be great to do something worthwhile for mankind. I thought probably the best way to do that would be to get an engineering degree. I didn’t realise until I started it that I was actually really good at that. That’s one way the University has helped me by giving me a qualification and the capability to not only do engineering things, but to understand the research behind it. Also, now that I’m working at the University, the University’s got a good brand. Whenever someone says the University you think of smart people sitting there thinking of cool stuff. It really attracts people, it gives you a credibility if you just work there, and that’s meant that I’ve been able to connect with people like Glenn Martin at Martin Jetpack and Bob Harris who did Skyboard, and others as well.
Even if you look at Auckland as a large centre and this is a true around the world, the bigger cities are more innovative and more productive because of those connections, the ideas that bounce off each other, and often serendipity.
Yes, the more people that you put together the more clever people with clever ideas that you’re going to mix together, and so there’s the more that’s going to come out of it. I think it’s as simple as that really.
You are now a consultant to the company that you founded, and you sold it to a Canadian entrepreneur, Steven Holmes. It was no doubt financially rewarding. I’m not sure if you can go into the details on that. The buy out is something many entrepreneurs strive for, but was it hard giving up something that you created?
Yes, it was. I well remember the day when Steve Holmes said to me, “Right. Now I own this, you might have to just accept you’re not going to have anything to do with trampolines ever again.” Then he said, “But I need your help. Do you want to help me on those conditions?” So we formed a relationship. One of the things I think that’s most important to me about the whole project is that I value that relationship and protected that relationship. I thought that was the most important thing to do because I wanted this product to get to market, especially the big market that he was thinking about.
In your experience are there any character traits that separate successful inventors from the less successful inventors?
Well, one is persistence. Another one seems to be to perhaps trust your own judgment. A new invention, it’s like a baby. When it’s just first started it’s pretty helpless. You have to be an advocate for it throughout it’s life. It gets to a certain point where it’s a bit like a teenager and it starts to go off on its own and form its own friendships and go off into the world. You need to be able to let it go, but it still wants to be in touch with you, very much like a child.
I’m sure you get a lot of pride out of those children as well. It may be impossible to answer this question, but is there one thing you’re most proud of?
I think that the trampoline is the one I’m most proud of, in large part because it spread so far and got such a profile. People understand a trampoline. I could’ve invented something that no one understood, but any family understands a trampoline. It’s really satisfying to see kids jumping on one to get feedback from the other side of the world. I saw one of your trampolines. I got a photo sent from 400 kilometres inside the arctic circle north of Alaska somewhere, “Here’s one of your trampolines outside an Eskimo’s house.”
Wow, that’s pretty cool. You can’t sell a secret obviously, but a lot of inventors seem to struggle with, as you’ve mentioned, the financial side of things, often also with the marketing of those products. How did you get that idea out into the world, or was it one of those rare and precious ideas that was so compelling and, as you say, so easy to understand that it just seemed to sell itself?
Well, it didn’t sell itself. The people involved didn’t think it was particularity valuable. Fortunately, I was connected with Steve Holmes, the entrepreneur. He did his sums and he could see that it was going to work. That connection was mediated by the University, which had a commercial arm and the right person was in the University commercial arm at the time, and he made the connection with [current managing director] Doug Hill. That’s really the most important part. Then we had the beginnings of a team that was going to work together for a long time. In some ways it’s a bit like a marriage where you don’t have to just marry two people but you got to marry four or five of them and they’ve all got different skills. Recognising that and recognising that you got to keep the team together is one of the most important parts I think of getting an idea out there. You’ve got to have these people with these skills that can accept working together.
Maybe to finish, Keith, what’s your favorite move on the trampoline? Have you ever pulled off a triple back flip?
No. I’m not very comfortable on a trampoline, which is funny. I think I left it too late. I joined the trampoline club when my kids did. I thought it was quite important that they belong to a trampoline club and they were interested in it because dad was inventing them. I particularly thought it was important because we had so many dangerous prototype trampolines in our backyard I thought that they better be pretty skilled in what they’re doing.
So, not too many broken arms or broken bones for your children, who I imagine were quite important for experimenting with these prototypes?
Absolutely. Very important for experimentation. I was experimenting when the prototypes weren’t complete and when they were pretty dangerous. None of them got broken bones on there, although one of their friends got a fractured wrist, but that wasn’t really the trampoline’s fault. That was just teenage boys wrestling on the trampoline.
Excellent Keith. Thank you very much for your time. I look forward to seeing what you come up with next.
Thanks very much Ben.
[Enter Doug Hill]
So Doug, what’s your connection to the company?
Doug Hill, managing director, Springfree New Zealand: I own Springfree New Zealand, so one of the many Springfree companies that exist around the world. I guess I basically got involved with Keith fairly early on in his innovator cycle with his tramp product.
You saw something in him that you should be sticking with?
Yeah. It’s funny. I met Keith back in 1999. I’m an entrepreneur many times around. I was visiting Keith for another project, looking for some engineering input, and ran across this trampoline idea while I was trying to get his insights into another problem that I had. I joked about it in 1999 with him, that maybe this is something we should look at together, but had other fish to fry, so to speak. It was a couple years later that I ended up cycling back around and having remembered what he was up to. We started to look at it together.
What else have you been involved with in the past? Fish fryers, obviously.
Fish fryers. Basically, I studied philosophy at university. I did a bunch of things. I came to New Zealand when I was 21. I decided that I wanted a real job when I was 29. Went to IBM.
Delay the inevitable.
I decided it was time to make some dough. Computing was happening then and in a big way. I went to IBM, asked them for a job, and they told me I was too old, at 29. I thought, “Well screw that. I’ll start my own computer company.” I started effectively a networking company back in the mid-eighties, which was kind of new and novel at that stage. That led to some other internet working ICT stuff. Basically I was involved with a bunch of really smart guys who came out of the DSIR, back when the CRIs were being formed, back in the early ‘90s. There were a bunch of orphans there that they didn’t know what to do with the technology. They were part of what was called the Network Team. We took that out and commercialised that. That technology platform and the company ultimately morphed into something is a reasonably big enterprise now in Christchurch called Allied Telesis Research. Those are couple of things I’ve done. A few failures in between.
That’s a bit of a leap, excuse the pun, from technology to trampolines. Although, the latest evolution of the company is combining those two things together with TGOMA, which stands for take gaming outside and make it active. Can you explain what that does, and maybe the process that you went through to create this next iteration?
Sure Ben, and I’m glad you asked that. It’s a fascinating thing. We keep asking ourselves how to describe this. It is, we think, a very cool innovation. We think it is, again pardon the pun, a leap forward. It’s fascinating. No one’s ever done anything like this before. Our timing, we think, is pretty good. It’s very hard for people to get their head around what it is. Effectively what we’ve done, on the tech side, we’ve developed a sensor kit that you plug in to the trampoline. We’ve developed a CPU kit that talks to that, and then you basically load a tablet, an iPad or an Android tablet, into a special holder we built, hanging on the trampoline. Essentially the jumper becomes the finger, if you want to call it, or the hand on the joystick. The trampoline bed becomes the joystick. So you control the software and the apps by jumping around the bed of the trampoline. Try to describe that to people. It’s a little bit hard for them to get.
Maybe you need see that rather than explain it? We’ll put a video on. When you say it’s good timing, I imagine that’s related to the rise of the quantified self, as they call it, with these trackers that are able to map your runs and activity, Fitbits, sleep monitors, mobile phones to track everything. Is that where this idea came from?
Not really. And again, you were talking to Keith a little earlier, these things do cook for a long time. The seed of this concept, and ultimately the product, came from one of our customers. They were coming into our business to buy an accessory for a trampoline, and the mum instructed her kids to get on a trampoline that we had, one of our demo units, and do something. The instruction was, “Get on, and play moonlight.” If they hear this, I’d love them to come in and get a TGOMA kit from us because they were basically the little spark. These kids heard the instruction, thought it was rather fascinating. I’d never heard anybody instruct their kids to do that before, so I watched. The kids had built, or designed, what I would call a very elaborate rules-based game. They had no props, and so it wasn’t perfect. And there were a few conflicts as I watched them play, but who said where they were and when they did what. Basically, you could see they spent a huge amount of effort trying to come up with something else besides just jumping on a trampoline.
I think we knew that as vendors of these products, that kids do all sorts of things and use them in what you might call a predictable manner for a short period of time, and then they start broadening the envelope of what they’re prepared to do and ultimately they can get very dangerous. You go on YouTube and watch trampoline accidents. You’ll see kids pulling them under balconies of apartment buildings and all sorts of crazy stuff because jumping up and down after a while gets just a little bit boring. So that was kind of the seed. In terms of your question, we started the research back in 2010. At that stage we had a vision that we would build a sort of a completely integrated system, providing audio, VDU type or screen type technology as part of our offering. Over the course of the project, of course the world took off. Android, iOS became mobile solutions, and all of a sudden we have screen products that are very cheap and available to everybody. I think we’ve been lucky that way.
I guess the other element here, with timing, is around the idea that kids, particularly, are more sedentary than they have been in the past. Technology can be the cause of that. I think there’s a study that showed kids in the US consuming 60 hours of media every week, versus 60 minutes of outside time. Another stat that I heard recently was that kids in the US spend half as much time outside as prisoners in maximum security prisons.
That’s right. I saw that in Time magazine.
That’s pretty worrying. If it’s done right, the technology, like Pokémon Go, can also get people to be active. Is that kind of the thinking here, that you’re gamifying trampolining.
Absolutely, and I think that’s the fundamental difference, I suppose. What we do is, I think we do have a portion of the community and families and parents, and I think fairly so. In fact, I don’t know if you saw Nigel Latta’s Hard Stuff. He did a thing called Screenagers, about two months ago. It was just fascinating looking at the anxiety that some families and parents have around device use with their adolescents. There’s a layer of thought, we have to break through.
What we’ve done is we’re simply using the technology to get kids using the product more. What we have found in our analysis of use is that, give a kid a trampoline, they’ll use it pretty regularly for a few months, and then that use starts to drop off. Put TGOMA on it, and they’re probably using it around four times more, on a daily basis, after six months than they would be without it. So it basically is a level of engagement with the product. And, as you said, all we’ve done is gamify the activity, but parents hear the word game sometimes, and they think about the sedentary, couch potato type activity, and they go, “Oh, not sure if I want that.” All we’ve really done is gamified trampoline use, as opposed to put gaming on a tramp, if you want to call it that.
So Doug, this is seemingly mostly about fun for kids and also about fitness for kids. Is it also creating a new market around adults, possibly using this kind of technology?
Yeah, we think so, Ben. Tramps have tended to be seen as a toy, a little bit. I think one of the challenges that Keith’s innovation has had for some time, is it … I heard some of the questions you asked him. It really is in a class of its own. Most of the other products, it’s been a race to the bottom, in terms of cost. There hasn’t been any innovation in this space for a hundred years, since George Nissen invented his first variant in the 1930s.
It’s a fantastic activity. Keith and I were just joking on the way up. I’m not sure what I’m allowed to say. But there’s research going on that suggests in a number of ways that when you apply more gravities to your body, or more pressure on to your body, provided you can do it a uniform way, that you get wonderful health outcomes. The research on that’s pretty new. There’s some studies he’s involved in and some work that is going down that pathway. Kids love it. Everybody loves to fly, and TGOMA helps kids. It gamifies that surface and engages them in a way that is beyond what they normally get.
For parents, all of a sudden … I do it myself. I jump on a trampoline for about 15 minutes a day, which is why I’m so buff. It is great core strengthening exercise. But you know what? Jumping up and down, I don’t know. Running along a side street is a lot more interesting. Put this technology on to it, and again, I’m just as happy to play the 2048 number aggregation game while I jump, as I am to squash fruit or kill aliens, but all the time I’m doing all those cardio and core strengthening things that actually I haven’t thought so much about by the time I’m finished.
I can see it now, Doug. Remuera mums going to the trampoline class. It’s the new yoga, possibly.
Preach it, Ben. Preach it.
Springfree totally transformed the idea of a trampoline in some ways. I think the stats are that it’s stopped 90 percent of trampoline injuries and potentially saved a few lives on the way, too. It would be pretty easy to give up there and settle for that. What keeps you going?
I think that Keith probably said it pretty well. I think we’ve been very, very fortunate in having a group of people come together who enjoy working together, enjoy the challenge, and have found a mechanism to challenge one another in the work we do. I guess, unless you get really old, really bored, that’s kind of great way to wake up and look at your day. Somebody’s always got a different spin on things, and the ability to collaborate and together and test that thinking, has been a real pleasure, and TGOMA is an example, where there’s probably been, I’d argue, seven or eight key people in the process through the way. It’s a little bit different than say, Keith’s tramp invention, which was very … centered on Keith’s vision, Keith’s tenacity, and Keith’s engineering skills. TGOMA was the result of an idea, but six or seven guys who basically said, “Can signal process? Can we waterproof it this way? Can we manufacture it this way? Can people install it this way?” Those sorts of questions had to be asked. They came from different people.
Division of labour.
Division of labor, and just I think it’s that ability to constructively argue. Argue is maybe the wrong word, but basically to challenge somebody’s view of things.
How have you actually brought that into the culture of the company? Is it something you incentivise?
I think you incentivise it through your behaviour and probably through celebrating the positive results of it. It’s not always easy. An example would be … We’re now September. I guess we got to June 2015, and we thought we had a product we could take to market. Steve Holmes is still fundamentally involved in the whole innovation space with us and we basically had what I’ll call an M1 solution, a manufacturing one solution. We were all sitting around, the engineering team was sitting around with the design team, and Steve just said, “We’re crazy. Look at what we’ve decided to do here. We shouldn’t do this.” That was a hard thing to swallow when you’ve spent, by that time, about four years coming up with what you thought was a manufacturable, sustainable product that would perform environmentally, and as somebody says at the last minute, “We’re going to change this.” We had a deadline to have this product in the market by Q1 2016. We’d already spent about nine months testing the final variant that we thought we were going to take to market. That’s the sort of challenge that has to come into the discussion. It was the right challenge. It was the right decision in the end. It was pretty painful at the time.
That’s part of the process, isn’t it? Actually knowing when to stop something that isn’t going to work.
Yep. Kind of like Kenny Rogers. Know when to hold them. Know when to fold them.
So like the original trampoline, TGOMA has already won a few major design awards. I’m sure that’s been quite helpful from a marketing perspective, but looking more broadly, the most innovative companies are generally the most profitable, a lot more profitable that those that aren’t. Sounds like common sense. But has that innovative streak allowed you to command a premium in the market, when everything else is going the other way?
Yeah. I think that, obviously, and Ben, you see a lot of innovation. There’s innovation for the sake of innovation. People will come up with a new mousetrap that may be a slight iteration on the existing. Does it really do a better job? Does it really add value? Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t. I think that we have managed to run and build a successful business on the back of innovation. That’s continued. We argue, what percentage of our engineering resources should be applied to continuous improvement, as an example. And it’s high. So I think because Keith’s design was so out there. I always remember our patent attorney, Greg West-Walker at AJ Park at Auckland, once said to me, “I’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve only seen a small number of really, really, really out there steps, and Keith’s was one of them.” So it wasn’t just a radical design. It required radical material science, as well. That’s taken a lot of effort to get right. Right across the operating the business, you have to look after your customers in a way that’s maybe a little bit different. We haven’t always got it perfect. It’s about looking after people who’ve backed the product and become your customer.
It’s often a scary prospect for people to change. Again, there are quotes, maybe apocryphal, around people not knowing what they want until you give it to them. They’re used to a certain way of doing things, and it takes them a while to embrace a new way.
Is that a challenge that you had with the first trampoline, and then also, this idea that you were trying to sell?
Very much. I think when we first launched Springfree … It’s fascinating. I still remember people saying, “Where are the springs? Come on. Show us the springs. They must be inside those tubes.” It’s just a fascinating thing. You realise that the world runs on belief systems, not really on facts or data.
I guess the other thing that is interesting is, “What’s a trampoline worth in your backyard?” Our rods that are manufactured in Gisborne … We keep a lot of the high tech materials built here in New Zealand. They cost more than a whole traditional trampoline manufactured in Asia somewhere, just the rod component itself. So people said, “Is it worth it? Do I need this? Why would I spend this money in my backyard?” There’s a range of value propositions that we put out there. They resonate with a part of the market. It’s fascinating.
Safety is a big function. That was what drove Keith. We’ve tried to build a quality solution for people. That’s probably our second major plank of success, you might say. People know they buy Springfree, it’s going to last the lifetime of their kids type of thing. And TGOMA takes us to a new place now, where you’re not just jumping anymore. You’ve got your kids out there competing against one another, Mum and dad are competing with the kids, and the kids are competing with players around the world and all of a sudden you’ve got a whole different layer of use than traditionally available on a trampoline. So yeah, it’s been cool.
I was checking out your website before the interview, and saw that there’s a global jump counter to track the number of jumps. That must be highly addictive. Checking in every night just to see, “What are we up to now?”
Well, it’s millions. We just turned the system on at the end of May. We just don’t know where this is going. We’ve worked … get back to collaboration. We are engineers in a certain sort of way. We’ve collaborated with some gaming companies, Cerebral Fix in Christchurch, put a plug in for them. Great guys. Smart guys. They’ve provided some real thought leadership for us. It is quite cool to get on and do stuff on a trampoline and then be able look at what you’ve done and look at what other people are doing. We had a Trans-Tasman jump-off last week. I tell you what, the Kiwis weren’t going to lose to the Aussies, that was for sure. It was fascinating watching the numbers click up, and people going, “I’m going to get back on.” I had to beat our product manager, which I did by 42 jumps.
How high did you jump?
We were playing one of our games, Alien Stomp. It was, I think … The Kiwis won with an aggregate score of eight or nine thousand over a slightly lower score.
Doug: I won’t dis them.
That’s one of the things you say you see with Apple, I’m sure you’re not selling quite as many, shall we call them devices, as Apple. They’re also creating an ecosystem around apps and because developers puts those apps in there, they have a market for that. Is that something you see as potential new revenue stream, where there will be developers who are creating games for the network of trampolines that you have around the world?
Yeah, very much so. I think at the end of the day, we sort of have tried to hang a tag on it so people understand what we’ve done. We call it the Smart Trampoline now, and so it is enabled and lets you do stuff that you can’t do on anything else. As part of the software environment, we’ve built a software development kit. We’re just getting to the stage of pushing that in to the wild. We’ll make it an entirely open system.
We’re working with a couple of people to bring that to a level that actually kids could use. So right now, we’ve got some high school students and university students who are using that software dev kit. They’re building really quality apps for us. We’ve got a couple young guys who have built a new one called Mara’s Defender, for example. People love it, and they’re not professional app developers, but they’ve been able to take what is a classic play surface, use their intelligence and the skills they’re building at university and poly tech, and build a really compelling piece of software. The environment isn’t Grand Theft Auto. It’s not that big, so even if you’re a novice, you can get your arms around it as long as you can get your head around things like Phaser and Java Script and some of the game dev systems. More and more kids are playing with that stuff anyway. We think that will take it along a whole new pathway as well. You can’t just play it, but you can build stuff for it, too.
It sounds like a lot of potential there. Look forward to seeing you on the tramp in the future. I’ve got three daughters, so I’m sure I’ll be getting one at some point.
Good on you Ben, I’ll look forward to beating you at Fruitants one day.