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Thursday, June 7, 2012
Updated: June 27, 2:05 PM ET
Snow Business: The entrepreneur

By John Symms

Snowmaker Entrepreneur Marketing Guy Shop Owner Heli Outfitter

[Last winter, admittedly, was a lousy one: Ski resort visitor numbers were down 15 percent, ski and snowboard gear sales dropped 12 percent, and the amount of snow that fell was, well, pitiful. In this five-part interview series, called Snow Business, we talk to the people in the snowsports industry who are coming up with innovative ways to keep their businesses thriving. Stay tuned next week for the third installment: How one resort managed to increase their visitor numbers during one of the lowest snow years on record.]

It's tough out there for ski industry startups, with equipment sales plummeting last winter even at established brands. To be successful in this economic climate, a new brand really has to stand out with a unique product and a strong marketing message. Which is why we decided to call Truls Brataas, who, along with skier Jon Olsson, is the mastermind behind the Douchebag -- yes, the Douchebag -- a new ski bag company that launched last January in Europe. Their ski travel bag weighs less than 10 pounds, adjusts in length to fit your skis and rolls up to the size of a sleeping bag when you're not using it. Despite the economic slump, the bags are in high demand with distribution in 10 countries in Europe, Australia and Asia (they're not yet available in the U.S.). We caught up with Brataas to learn what it's like at the helm of a ski equipment startup.

In Europe, the term "douchebag" doesn't really mean anything more than being kind of a jerk. It's not as strong as it is in the U.S. We had a competition on Jon's blog where we invited readers to suggest a name for the company and the name Douchebag came up several times. It went along with the mindset of the company, too. We want to play and have fun -- it's a name that really sticks out and draws a lot of attention.

We were standing at our booth at ISPO and people would constantly stop and say what a funny, fantastic name it was. A lot of people came wanting to buy our promotional t-shirts, which said, "Where is my Douchebag?" across the front, because they thought the name was so funny. A lot of Americans would come just to get their pictures taken by the booth. There was really not that much negative feedback, especially from our core users.

The idea was born in the summer of 2009 when I was finishing my master's degree in engineering with a specialization in product development and entrepreneurship. I was surfing in western Norway and next to me in the lineup was Jon Olsson. We started talking and we hit it off right away and found that both of us loved the extreme sports world and traveling. We just had the same mentality but we were both also super serious when it came to the business end.

From the beginning we knew we wanted to make new ski bags. With Jon traveling 300 days a year and me traveling a lot as well, we knew that current ski bags were not optimal, they were kind of a hassle. We wanted to make a new product that reflected the needs of the modern skier who travels a lot and needs technical solutions. We wanted to not even look at existing bags, but instead go to the core user and find out what they really wanted.

We interviewed 150 skiers in Norway. We also went to retailers and asked what is their perfect product to sell. We went to airline companies and interviewed baggage handlers about what they want in a bag.

Five things that a modern ski bag should have: a length adjustment system, so one bag will fit every ski; a light weight to accommodate the needs of travelers and airlines; solid protection to make sure your skis come out all right; compactable to solve the storage problem; and a new carrying system.

Truls Brataas and the compactable ski bag he designed.

I sewed the first prototype by hand. Then we built three more versions in a laboratory. We then brought those more detailed prototypes to a firm that creates hand-sewn bags for the Norwegian military. They inspected the construction and showed us how to make the seams as durable as possible. Using their input we went through several more prototypes to finally create our master sample.

Starting a company, there are so many other things you have to think about besides the product you're creating. There are all the legal parts of it, like making sure the patents are there to protect your idea. You have to build a foundation for a company that can grow easily in the future.

At ISPO, we got requests from 32 distributors from all over the world that wanted to have the product. During the first week of our launch, we sold Douchebags in nine different countries. We received our production units on February 3, which is really late in the ski season, and we sold out of our entire stock within two months. After this year's success, we are planning to ramp up production tenfold.

I believe that a company started by people with the right expertise will have a high success rate. All the first people to work on this project had a passion for skiing and snowsports and also have very high competence. For us, the team was really the strength of the whole thing -- our mutual passion for skiing and product design was what made this project as successful as it has been.