Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.
Ted Hunter isn’t a skateboarder. The 62-year-old furniture-design professor at Toronto’s OCAD University would rather rip an ocean wave on his windsurfing board. But his innovative woodworking technique – called “pinching” – could change the shape of the skateboard and furniture industries.
Not bad, considering the discovery came out of a bet. “I was on a forum talking about building skateboards and somebody says, ‘Laminated skateboards are basically all the same. They’re really boring. Everybody knows how they’re built,’” Mr. Hunter recalls.
“I said on the forum, ‘I bet I can come up with a laminated board that you can’t figure out how I built.’”
So he got to work. A year later he found a way to “pinch” layers of wood veneer to make them ripple like the surface of the ocean, all while strengthening the product and still preserving the flat, rideable side of the board. Quite different than the conventional process, which requires inserting pieces of veneer to make wood strips hold the contours.
“I built a number of boards and posted them on the forum and not one person could figure out how I did it,” Mr. Hunter says.
But now, four years since he patented the pinch process in Canada and the United States, Mr. Hunter has some figuring out to do on his own: What should be done with the process he created? “We’ve just sat on it,” he says. “We want to make the right move.”
Mr. Hunter has been teaching for 23 years and working with skateboards since 2002, when he and his wife, Norah Jackson, launched the Roarockit Skateboard Co. in Toronto. The five-employee company produces DIY skateboard-making kits using another wood-shaping process created and patented by Mr. Hunter.
Roarockit makes about $500,000 a year in revenue that comes from an average of 100 customers a month. Among them are independent builders ordering online from all over the world and participants in an after-school mentorship program.
As for his “pinch” method, “We know it’s a good idea but I don’t really think we want to start manufacturing – we don’t have a lot of cash.”
Mr. Hunter and his wife have toyed with the idea of licensing the process to manufacturers of skateboards, furniture and housewares. The process could be used to add designs to the back of a chair, for instance – a swirl or a fleur-de-lis. But they are overwhelmed by the thought of building out a new enterprise.
“We’re not sales people and we’re not really business people,” Mr. Hunter says. “The problem with [licensing] is we have none of those contacts, and both Norah and I aren’t great at walking in a door and saying, ‘Hey, here’s what we’ve got, you should be using that.’”
The pair also worry that explaining their idea to potential licensees could result in the method being stolen.
“I’m 62 and the last thing I want to do for my 20 years on this earth is be involved in litigation,” Mr. Hunter says. “With Roarockit we feel as if we’re giving something back to society, and we don’t want to change that.”
The Challenge: How can Roarockit best capitalize on its patented pinch technology?
THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN
Knud Jensen, professor of strategy and entrepreneurship, Ted Rogers School of Management, Ryerson University, Toronto
In terms of practicality, if a manufacturer were making furniture in the U.S. one has to wonder whether it would be worthwhile for them to send stuff up here to get it pinched and then send it back down. If Mr. Hunter wants volume and large scale then it would seem very impractical for him to do this.
Eventually he would have to scale up in order to make this worthwhile. He’d have to raise funds and set up marketing and everything else. Personally, I don’t see any way other than licensing.
Steve Copeland, founder and consultant at the product development firm Humanscope Inc., Barrie, Ont.
One of the first things I tell inventors with great ideas is to do a one-page business plan outlining how this is going to get to market and how this is going to affect you personally. In retirement age does he really want to start a business? Not likely. Licensing is the way to go.
On the one-pager he should explain the advantages of what he has developed and which companies could benefit from it. Would it save them money? Would it give them a new market? He really needs to understand who they are and what their goals are. It’s tough to walk into a company that’s already making money doing what they’re doing and convince them that what you’re offering is going to change their business.
As for not being a salesman, we never see ourselves as one but we all are. He’s got a passion for making stuff out of wood, and he’s found a unique way to do it so – that’s his sales pitch.
Kevin Mako, president of the product development firm Mako Invent, Toronto
A strategic partnership could be a good way to go – whether it’s a company like ours or a company that is in a product-specific industry like skateboards or furniture, or even one that works with wood materials that could really utilize and enhance the technology.
He could find potential partners, sign a non-disclosure agreement with them to protect his intellectual property and have confidential discussions with very targeted partners in industries that could really utilize the technology or specific projects built using the technology. These connections could be colleagues who know certain key industry people, or found by poking around online.
THREE THINGS THE COMPANY COULD DO NOW
Develop a one-page business plan
Establish the essence of the business and value proposition in a succinct, one-page info sheet.
Find potential partners or licensees
Start by researching companies online and in his immediate social network.
Hold confidential talks
Make sure he has a proper non-disclosure agreement in place before he reveals anything proprietary.
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Interviews have been edited and condensed.