Exporter - - FRONT PAGE - By Glenn Baker.

If you're look­ing for a les­son in speed to mar­ket – look no fur­ther than Ja­cob Ka­javala and Ralph von Brause's Switch Kites. By giv­ing the ‘mid­dle-man' the flick and de­ploy­ing some 500 ‘Team Rid­ers' (ex­pert kite surfers that act as brand am­bas­sadors) world­wide, the com­pany has gone from a stand­ing start in June 2011 to three per­cent of global sales by the end of 2013, and sales in 95 coun­tries. Three per­cent may not sound much, but Ja­cob says on many of the beaches of France and Italy, for ex­am­ple, Switch Kites is al­ready the dom­i­nant brand.

Kite­board­ing – if you've never tried it – com­bines wake­board­ing, wind­surf­ing, surf­ing and paraglid­ing. It's an ex­treme sport which de­mands the high­est stan­dard of equip­ment.

Ja­cob and his brother Daniel have been wind­surf­ing and surf­ing for decades and took up kitesurf­ing ten years ago. “Daniel's ex­tremely skilled at it,” says Ja­cob, “and he in­tro­duced me to Ralph back in 2009.”

Ralph, as it turns out, had moved to New Zealand in 2008 to raise a fam­ily. With a mar­ket­ing and en­gi­neer­ing back­ground, he has also been a keen kitesurfer since its gen­e­sis.

Ralph was mar­ket­ing a brand of kite­board from a strug­gling US com­pany when he and Ja­cob got to­gether. They ini­tially con­sid­ered buy­ing the Amer­i­can com­pany, but then de­cided to set up Switch Kites from scratch.

What's more, by elim­i­nat­ing the mid­dle-men (dis­trib­u­tors and re­tail­ers) with a ‘di­rect to con­sumer' busi­ness model, they could cut 40 to 50 per­cent off nor­mal re­tail prices, with­out sac­ri­fic­ing qual­ity. As far as the two co-founders could tell, no­body else had the same busi­ness model.

Start­ing from a clean sheet of paper, within a year they had de­sign­ers on board, a man­u­fac­turer in China, third-party ware­houses in Hong Kong, Europe and New Zealand, and the sup­ply chain hum­ming.

Price points are not enough on their own – the goal is to be one of the top three trusted brands in

world.” the

Switch Kites' global com­pe­ti­tion rep­re­sents around 18 brands, mostly sold through re­tail stores. Cen­tral to Switch Kites oper­a­tion is the 500 or so Team Rid­ers, whom buy­ers can ac­cess through the web­site, and can ar­range to meet at lo­cal beaches to trial the kitesurf­ing equip­ment.

In their first year of busi­ness Ja­cob and Ralph also en­listed New Zealand's top kitesurfer, Marc Ja­cobs, and spon­sored him on the world cir­cuit – ini­tially on an un­branded kite.

This was a de­lib­er­ate move to en­cour­age spec­u­la­tion amongst the world's on­line kitesurf­ing com­mu­nity, says Ja­cob. The strat­egy worked, with the Kiwi kitesurfer catch­ing the eye of in­flu­en­tial people within the in­dus­try.

Also part of the start-up team was aero­nau­ti­cal en­gi­neer and de­signer Bill Hansen, and the world's best wave rider Felix Pivec.

To cut a long story short, Marc Ja­cobs is now ranked num­ber two in the world and won the lat­est round of the World Cup – all on Switch Kites.

From zero to world hero

Ja­cob is un­der­stand­ably stoked at the progress of the busi­ness. “To think we started off com­pletely flat-footed with a brand no­body had heard of. Now we mar­ket a top qual­ity, recog­nised global kite­board brand and kitesurfers can buy them any­where in the world at up to half the price of re­tail brands.

“By hav­ing a global fo­cus from day one we've kind of de­fied the laws of grav­ity,” he laughs. “We now have 5,500 reg­is­tered cus­tomers who trust the brand, our price points, and the qual­ity of the prod­uct. All these people iden­tify with the Switch Kites brand and, to be hon­est, I find that very hum­bling.”

Switch Kites' mar­ket­ing strat­egy has been all around on­line vis­i­bil­ity and reach. The brand has the most Face­book friends in the mar­ket seg­ment, for ex­am­ple, and there is a lot of on­line ac­tiv­ity around video, blog­ging and so­cial me­dia. Switch Kites videos are par­tic­u­larly well re­ceived and Ja­cob says they have plans to tre­ble the size of their video pro­duc­tion team to bet­ter cover the world.

In terms of mar­ket cov­er­age, Ja­cob re­ports steady growth in the New Zealand and Aus­tralian mar­kets (New Zealand rep­re­sents eight per­cent of Switch Kites global sales) – but their big­gest mar­kets are cur­rently the US, France, Italy, Ger­many and Spain.

It's still early days, but Ja­cob says they've learnt many valu­able lessons in their ex­port jour­ney, and are still learn­ing. “Price points are not enough on their own – the goal is to be one of the top three trusted brands in the world.” He be­lieves their unique di­rect sales busi­ness model pro­vides a solid foun­da­tion for gen­er­at­ing gen­uine trust and re­li­a­bil­ity.

On the draw­ing board for Switch Kites is a spe­cial lab­o­ra­tory where they'll be able to test kitesurf­ing equip­ment to de­struc­tion in a sci­en­tific set­ting. Ja­cob sees this as vi­tal for buy­ers want­ing to com­pare the per­for­mance of their gear against the com­pe­ti­tion's. So “watch this space” he says.

Of course, such rapid growth in the world's mar­kets has re­sulted in some heavy on­line crit­i­cism through the re­tail dis­tri­bu­tion net­work, or what Ja­cob refers to as “the ma­chine”.

“We're re­garded as a rebel brand, but that res­onates well in par­tic­u­lar coun­tries and cul­tures,” he says. “See­ing our cus­tomers de­fend­ing Switch Kites on­line is truly grat­i­fy­ing. Many ad­mit that they could only af­ford to take up kitesurf­ing be­cause of our pric­ing model.”

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