Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.
Jason Boddam is a classic entrepreneur. He was the kid who cut the neighbours' lawns, washed cars and set up Kool-Aid stands to make enough money to control his own destiny.
Fast-forward nearly three decades and he has done just that as the founder of Boddam Custom Hockey Ltd., an Orangeville, Ont.,-based manufacturer of goalie equipment for hockey and lacrosse players.
Mr. Boddam grew up playing hockey and lacrosse in the backyard of his childhood home in Brampton, Ont. He originally set out to start a goalie-equipment repair business, but when he went to the bank looking for $100,000 they "actually laughed at me," he recalls.
He began offering repair services anyway, and one day a customer came to him with an old goalie glove and asked him to make a new one. "I wasn't busy and thought, 'Why not?'" Mr. Boddam remembers. "I built the most beautiful glove."
The customer then took it to a sporting goods store in Brampton, told the owner that it was a handmade product, and the store owner ordered three that afternoon from Mr. Boddam.
The business began taking off. "I went to Just Hockey in Toronto, working out of my parents' basement, and they ordered 25 blockers and catchers. And the blocker didn't exist – I was only making catchers," Mr. Boddam says with a laugh. "I had to go home and figure that out, which I did. It went fast-forward from there pretty quickly."
Boddam Custom Hockey also has supplied North America's National Lacrosse League with goalie equipment exclusively for the past 12 years.
But the Canadian brand is struggling to reach a new wave of young hockey players and compete with the big manufacturers including Bauer, the biggest name in the sport, and CCM. Both have more marketing prowess, and players in the NHL are more likely to use CCM or Bauer gear rather than a smaller name.
"The consumer is in the driver's seat because there are so many choices," he says.
But Mr. Boddam isn't giving up. "If you didn't know it was a Boddam pad versus Bauer or CCM, many people would say ours feels better," he says.
At the same time, the hockey-equipment business is at a crossroads. The company that makes Bauer products, Performance Sports Group Ltd., declared bankruptcy recently. The company cited a downturn in retail sales, among other problems. In addition, consumers and parents have expressed complaints about the high cost of equipment, the cost to play, and the safety of the sport itself.
Boddam has stayed steady, bringing in sales in the "mid to high six figures" each year. This is down from a peak of $1.5-million in recent years but still enough to keep the seven-person operation going.
Mr. Boddam says he will never turn to overseas labour. "To create something by hand is an amazing feeling," he says.
THE CHALLENGE: How can Boddam compete against the big labels that young players see on their favourite NHL players?
THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN
Mike Humes, chief development officer at the Business of Hockey Institute, and former executive vice-president of the Arizona Coyotes, Phoenix, Ariz.
If they could establish just one or two relationships with a player who has the authenticity to say they use that gear, and wear it, and can give a reason why, that's the perfect way to connect with potential customers.
If Boddam were to align themselves with the right player – an influencer like Paul Bissonnette, a Canadian winger in the Los Angeles Kings organization, who has 886,000 followers on Twitter – and he says you're cool, then it's an instant connection. You could buy a TV spot during the NHL all-star game and still not reach that many people directly.
Robin Ritchie, associate professor of marketing, Sprott School of Business, Carleton University, Ottawa
Boddam has multiple ways of compensating a player for their support, to help market their brand. One obviously is a cash payment for being an endorser, but the other is an ownership stake.
That might be a little dicey if you're a small business owner who has been working for 30 years building up your company, to instantly offer a big chunk of your company to a hockey player. But there could be creative solutions to compensating that player based in part on the success of the company as a result of the endorsement. You could offer them an ownership stake on a sliding scale depending on growth and sales, which could be an incentive to have a hockey player use the product. You're not spending cash, you're not bankrupting the business, you're making it contingent on performance.
Jesse Kirshenbaum, co-founder, director of sales at the apparel retailer Bardown Hockey Inc., Toronto
Boddam seems to have a unique Canadian story and a great product, but despite being heavily engrained in the hockey world I was completely unaware of their brand. With the ability of social media to reach consumers directly without spending any money, Boddam needs to focus on growing its following across platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and Facebook.
Bardown has never spent a dollar on traditional marketing, and we owe a lot of our success to these platforms. The best part is you can do it yourself. We frequently are approached by firms/agencies to manage our respective accounts, something that's just not necessary in today's world. It has not only become part of my daily routine but allows me to keep engaged with the marketplace and consumers and legitimately see trends developing as they happen.
THREE THINGS THE COMPANY COULD DO NOW
Align with influencers
Find individuals who have a large digital community in your space and bring your product to them.
Offer an ownership stake
Instead of offering a cash-for-sponsorship agreement, allow an individual to have a stake in the company.
Increase social media presence
Be original, be yourself, engage with your audience.
Interviews have been edited and condensed.
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