Taro Tamai – Masters of Marketing (Snowboard Edition)
“He is the Japanese Craig Kelly” was quite the introduction when I first met Taro Tamai (back in early 1990’s). This was high praise for anyone to be described as such, as at the time, Craig Kelly was the most popular snowboarder in the world. This comparison was based on more than just popularity as Craig Kelly had just decided to walk away form the circus surrounding pro snowboarding and pursue his love of “freeriding”.
I remember reading how Taro had also decided to follow his own path in the snowboard industry travelling and riding big mountain first descents all over the world.
This was while snowboarding, at that time, was focused on big pants (covering your boots and bindings), wide stances (26”+), lowbacks (or no-backs) and jibs. Rather than conform to the trends to keep himself marketable as a pro he chose to seperate himself from the mainstream to focus on snow surfing.
To pursue his passion Taro decided to locate in the Niseko area of Hokkaido, Japan, considered by many to be the powder capital of the snowboard world (For example: December 2011 Niseko received 600 cm of snow). He wanted to “Not just to ride powder, but to use the terrain much like the wave, the way you would ride to connect with nature; to enjoy the terrain and different features, any kind of conditions really, but just to connect. That’s what it is to me; surfing is to connect with nature, to use the energy and the flow. The kind of snowboards I wanted weren’t really available; the companies I met with weren’t able to do such things. To actualize that style for snowsurfing, I had to make my own.” (read interview)
Way back in 1991 (see photo of his pro model) Taro already was riding his own snowsurf style board with a flat camber system (flat or negative camber is considered by many to be a recent innovation in snowboarding). In 1998 Taro established the Gentem Stick brand to focus on discovering and utilizing technologies, materials and shapes that would take the feeling of surfing to the snow. His shapes were decidedly retro, looking similar to the first Wintersticks. This retro look wasn’t his destination but rather it was just the starting point. He added cutting edge materials (bamboo before it was trendy), design innovations (“Accel-camber”, “Double Pin-tail”), a dash of mad scientist and the attention to detail that comes from being totally immersed in the production of the product. What he came up with is a line up of boards that enable any snowboarder to joining him in discovering the flow and exhilaration of snowsurfing. They also are an aesthetically pleasing product prominently featuring wood grain veneers as the top sheet and shapes that look fast and surfy! (nice enough to hang as artwork)
He has continued to refine and develop his product and has built up a loyal following. A segment of snowboarders have connected with his style of snowboarding and embraced the unique designs. Today Gentem Stick brand is sold in over 70 shops across Japan.
1) Focus on your passion. This has become a bit of a cliché and many people say it is unrealistic. In some ways it is, not every passion is capable of becoming a sustainable business. So lets restate it like this: do what is necessary to discover if your passion can become your employment. Taking your ideas to a consultant can help you discover if it will be possible. Or for more excitement (and sleepless nights) take your idea and start a business and see where it goes.
2) Focus your product on those who share your passion – don’t get distracted with “greater volume”. Taro could have decided to make snowboards for the mass market and pumped out twin tip freestyle boards. These boards would have to compete with thousands in an extremely crowded snowboard market. (Interesting aside: at one point during the Japanese snowboard boom at the end of one season there were enough unsold boards left over in shops and distributer’s warehouses to supply the entire Japanese market for the next season.) It is next to impossible for a smaller company to compete with their similar product in a crowded market. So wisely Taro focused on his niche and supplied those who share this passion with the best product possible.
3) Share your passion to grow your market. While it is easy to say focus on your passion and supply product to those who share this passion it often is not enough. Part of being any successful business is growing your market. This is especially important if you are focused on a niche. You have to continue to promote your passion, educating people about why it is something they should pursue. This can be done through traditional advertising but it is expensive and often difficult. For Taro it would be hard to convey the experience of “snowsurfing” in a magazine ad. It is better to focus on the grassroots. Contests, demos, videos and opinion leaders can all be valuable ways to expand your market.
So what are you passionate about? Can it be a sustainable business? Maybe now is the time to find out.
Watch Taro in Action in this Video by Yoshiro Higai:
Yoshiro Higai has a very good snowboard photo book! You can buy it here.
Watch more Snowsurfing:
Gentem Stick 2012 Line Up
Taro Tamai – Gentem Stick: http://www.gentemstick.com/
Yoshiro Higai – Studio fish i: http://studiofishi.com/index.html