By Virginia Van Zandt
One surprise of the new post-pandemic economy is that 25-year-old skateboard CEOs from Portugal have things to teach executives more than twice their age.
Pedro Andrade, the CEO of Hunter Boards, a Lisbon-based firm that builds battery-powered electric skateboards, isn’t your typical corporate-ladder climber. He went to ISCTE Business School, where he learned how to sell beautiful things to trendy people. (The Lisbon school is well known in Europe for teaching marketing.) Next, he attended New York’s Parsons School of Design, where he learned to make products that were both beautiful and functional. (Not a lot of wannabe corporate execs there.) Finally, he pulled it all together in a business that designs, makes, and sells high-end skateboards – growing rapidly while disrupting an established market.
By all measures, he and Hunter Boards are succeeding. Andrade and the firm’s chief product officer, Miguel Morgado, made the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in 2021. The firm increased production by 700% in under two years – an increase usually seen at software giants, not small-batch manufacturers.
The lessons that emerge from Andrade’s experiences can be applied to any outfit launching a new product into a market dominated by big players or any company trying to preserve market share among young consumers.
Product quality matters. Hunter Boards began as an idea in 2017, when Morgado, who studied mechanical engineering, was building an electric motorcycle. He knew that the market for full-size electric vehicles was packed with competitors with billion-dollar bank accounts. Can’t compete with that. But, why not an electric skateboard? Inspired by the idea, Andrade and Morgado worked nights and weekends, sweating over hot-metal prototypes. They knew that to break into this crowded market, they needed something that wasn’t 5 or 10 percent better, but a standard deviation better. They kept testing and testing.
The skateboards carry the rider along without footpower; the tiny electric engine powers the wheels just like an electric motorcycle – with a top speed of 34 miles per hour.
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Andrade secured $1.3 million in funding by early 2022. Soon, his firm were manufacturing skateboards priced up to $1,999, grossing some $299,000 over the past two years.
The Hunter board justifies its high price point by pointing to its premium parts: space-grade aluminum, a 24-mile rechargeable battery, and a suspension system that is customized for the buyer’s weight before shipping.
Andrade and Morgado have relentlessly improved the product. “It’s okay to start selling before the product is perfect,” Andrade said. “We kept receiving feedback, and we kept upgrading the product.”
Quality control – the key to customer retention – has to be a reality, not a slogan. All of the materials are produced in-house at a warehouse in Lisbon, rather than flown in from around the world – saving transportation costs and time. “While the rest of the industry buys parts from Chinese factories and they just assemble, we develop the board ourselves,” Andrade said. “This is something that differentiates us completely from the rest of the industry.”
The target market is bigger than you think. Hunter Boards is positioning itself to become a leader in the “micro mobility” industry, which is starting to boom. The team isn’t just targeting skateboarders, but snowboarders and surfboarders too – expanding their target market, Andrade said, from 20 million to an estimated 200 million.
“Because it’s such a new industry, the micro mobility industry, you can really innovate. Smartphones, ten years, ago, all looked so different. Now, the smartphone industry has already matured,” said Morgado. “But there isn’t a perfect skateboard right now. We are going along to discover what makes the perfect skateboard.”
Know more about your customers than anybody else in the universe, Andrade said. No government can give you a skateboard monopoly, but your customers can give you a monopoly on their attention.
It’s okay to copy what works. The firm was directly inspired by the smartphone leader, Apple. The Hunter Boards’ website bears a strong resemblance to Apple.com. This, Andrade admits, was done on purpose.
Apple.com’s displays of its iPhones and other products offers many insights to website designers who study it carefully. One lesson that Hunter Boards adapted was close-up photos of differentiating product details.
Watch that supply chain. Morgado, the firm’s chief product officer who often builds skateboards himself to understand the assembly process, learned the importance of in-house production when he was met with a supply chain-induced shortage of joysticks. (The Hunter board has a remote control feature guided by a joystick.) With a 5-month wait time for key parts, Morgado began experimenting with creating his own joystick.
“We are keeping the production limited,” Morgado said. “So that we can tackle every product problem that will appear.”
The boards are still made-to-order, giving the high-end product a sense of exclusivity and ensuring that each board is made with precise care.
By using small batches and building and designing in-house, Hunter Boards reduced its supply-chain risk.
Live in your target market. Once the founders realized that Americans bought 80 percent of the firm’s first batch, they knew they had to move closer to their core customers – to the skateboard mecca of the world, Los Angeles. So Andrade traded one coastline for another.
Southern California’s high concentration of board-hoarders, including those of the snow and surf variety, increased brand recognition for the skateboard startup. Customers quickly turned into ambassadors — the brand offers a meet-up service for people who want to test the board, pairing up potential customers with nearby board-owners. Customers soon formed a social network that prosthelytized for the brand.
“We entered the market with such a different product. And we had opinions varying from this a scam to this is amazing,” said Morgado. “Now, we don’t have to defend ourselves because our clients already do that for us.”