How do you launch a successful startup in a floundering economy while still having fun and staying true to yourself and your family?
By the spring of 2012, former Navy F-14 Tomcat pilot Michael Maloney found himself looking for a job and in desperate need of just that kind of inspiration. He found both in the unlikeliest of places: a local playground.
Maloney, 52, a graduate of the Navy's elite "Top Gun" Fighter Weapons School, had spent about a decade on active duty before pursuing a civilian career, first as an airline pilot and then working his way into business, eventually becoming the CEO of a clean energy startup.
He thought he was on his way to an early retirement. Then the bottom fell out of the economy. And then he lost his job.
"Here I am on the playground trying to figure out how am I going to survive in this very stressful economy and what am I going to do," he recalls.
As their kids played, a friend — "a guy I can only describe as the coolest cat in the neighborhood," says Maloney —– mentions that he'd made a couple of longboards for his kids over the weekend.
"This is where it's going to sound really weird, but it was literally like a bolt of lightning hit me. All of a sudden I just had this vision: I saw the name of the company, I saw the logo, I saw the style of the board, I saw it all just laid out on the road in front of me in a third of a second," Maloney says. "I was like, 'OK, that was really weird.' "
It was the perfect marriage of his lifelong passion for woodworking and strong desire to become a risk-taking agent of change in the flailing economy.
But could he build a business around longboards?
Maloney hadn't thought about skateboards in years. As a kid, he'd crafted makeshift boards by bolting roller-skate wheels to pieces of wood, and more recently he'd noticed college guys on their sleek, smooth-rolling rides, inspired by the first surfboards.
But now his brain was on skateboard afterburner.
He kept telling himself he was crazy. "But it was such a vivid vision. Finally, in my many, many sleepless nights, I just said, 'Screw it, I can't sleep — I'm just going to start researching this market.' What I found out shocked me."
Among young male surfers alone, longboards are a $3 billion market, he says.
"And if you look at the mainstream action-sports market, it's even bigger. The three major board markets — snowboards, skateboards and surfboards — carve up $17 billion in business every year in the U.S. alone.
"One of my first questions was where are the women? Women surf, they snowboard, they ski, road bike, mountain bike, why not longboard?" he says. Of course, the same was true of men his age.
"I'm in the first generation to grow up with skateboards. What happened to those 20-year-olds [from] 20 or 30 years ago? Why did we stop?"
The main reason, he realized, was control.
"Skating is associated with going too fast, doing crazy stuff, hurting yourself, and we don't heal like we used to. But I'll still ski or snowboard fast because I have control."
If he could build a board that appealed to women and older men — bringing the fun, but also high-performance control — he was convinced he could build a successful business.
Less than three years later, he's done exactly that.
KOTA Longboards has moved out of his garage into a 3,000-square-foot factory in downtown Denver where eight full-time employees — most of them veterans — hand-craft high-end pieces of free-wheeling freedom. In the past year alone, sales have spiked more than 200 percent.
His boards employ a unique design that provides control and stability while a propriety finish allows him to jettison the grip tape found on most boards and shift the beautiful custom graphics to the topside of the deck.
Drawing on his own military heritage — KOTA stands for Knights of the Air — each deck type draws its name from early fighter aircraft. A portion off all proceeds to go helping veterans causes.
"It's a very heady startup," he says. "It's a volatile, emotionally stressful, entrepreneurial environment. We are building a brand that is bigger than all of us. We are building a brand that adds value to people's lives. For many, we're unlocking a kind of joy they haven't felt in a long time."
Indeed, Maloney says his business is riding the wave of a larger national reawakening. "You can feel it happening. This is where we remember we're Americans. We don't wallow in self-pity and fear, and we go out and kick ass. This is where we start to get our courage back," he says.
And like the roll of a big wave, it translates directly back into building his business.
"America has always rewarded risk-takers. We have a culture. It's written into the DNA of our country. ... We understand that psyche. We're trying to buck everyone up. Look at our brand. This should give you courage. Our tagline is not a tagline. It's a challenge to our consumers: 'It's your life, carve it!' "
Highlights from the recent conversation:
Q: KOTA stands for Knights of the Air. What's the story there?
A: By the time the first shots were fired in World War I, the airplane was only 11 years old. Most pilots were generally officers pulled from the cavalry corps, but most could trace their lineage directly back to the medieval knights. One French magazine did an expose on an ace and dubbed him a "Knight of the Air."
That was a moniker that stuck for all fighter pilots on both sides of the conflict because these gentlemen adhered to and lived by the chivalric code. It was part of their heritage. It was a code of honor, integrity, courage, and esprit de corps, even among adversaries, that defined fighter aviation from the very onset. And defines it still to this day.
For KOTA Longboards, we wanted that imagery embedded into the brand. Plus, anything high performance will eventually be related back to fighter jets. They're considered the pinnacle of performance.
Q: Why only longboards? What do you have against regular skateboarding — or snowboarding, surfboarding or boogie boarding, for that matter?
A: Nothing at all. The short-board skateboard is going to have less appeal to an older demographic. They're harder to control. But we do intend to expand and branch out. Give us time. We've only been out of my driveway and into our factory for 20 months now. We will come out with surfboards. That's a natural extension as soon as we can be sure of the quality control. We're also launching an action-sports apparel line.
Q: Everyone knows Charlie don't surf. Who doesn't longboard?
A: We have an alternative saying at KOTA: "Why can't we all get along … board?"
We had an initiative with the National Tactical Officers Association trade show. We had police officers taking off with our boards. One was gone for 15 minutes. I asked one of her compatriots, "What happens when a cop steals my longboard?" He just looks down, doing this kicking motion with his foot, and said, "Yeah, well, the taillight was out, so we had to confiscate it." Now her chief of police wants to buy them as Christmas presents for all of her officers.
Q: What were your goals when you started KOTA?
A: I am so sick and tired of win-lose thinking. If you're a win-lose person, you're a hack, and I have no time for you. This company is about the win-win. This company stands for integrity, honor, courage, freedom, esprit de corps and all of those qualities that I embraced as a warrior in the U.S. Navy.
In my career, I experienced so many people who failed to live up to those ideals and were instead quite a bit more destructive. I said no more. The economy that emerges out of this economic malaise we're in today is going to be one that's shaped by risk-takers, and risk-takers are always looking for the win-win. Because risk-taking is so hard, you don't have time to be about the win-lose. You can't exploit other people to mitigate your risk. You have to collaborate and cooperate with other people to mitigate your risk.
Q: What have you been learning about building a business in this economy?
A: Money follows value; value never follows money. If you are here to chase money, you will never last.
We are all here to do one thing: build a company, a brand, a product of value. Everything you desire follows that. If you want the Lamborghini or the third home in Aspen, or whatever, it all follows building something of value.
Q: You make a point to hire veterans. Why?
A: What matters for me is that you understand the essence of service. That means you have made a conscious decision to put someone else's interest ahead of your own. That is the most noble calling you can have in life. Every warrior crosses that Rubicon and it becomes a stamp on their integrity for the rest of their lives. When I hire veterans, I don't even care if they have post-traumatic stress issues. We will help them through that. I can trust them, because I know they will execute as long as they have clear objectives. If they buy into that objective, they will move mountains to make that happen.
Q: What's your advice to veteran job seekers?
A: Stop putting all those crazy military acronyms in your resume. You need to put one thing and one thing only: You have executed. The vast majority of Fortune 500 companies are full of management that have the ability to think strategically and tactically, but can't execute. Well, we didn't get paid to not execute. We got paid to think strategically and tactically and then go and make things happen, affect the outcome. That is so important in business. It is the automatic advantage that anyone who was trained in the military has over their civilian peers. It's the ability to get things done. And that is called execution.
Q: What is the secret sauce in your no-grip-tape-needed varnish?
A: I knew stylistically, to attract that older demographic, we needed to break the mold and move that primary art surface to the top of the board. I called a good friend who is a chemist in my old company and asked him if he could create a finish that is still sticky. He said, 'That's like a mistake we make in the lab. I'm on it.' We ended up doing chemical formulations in my kitchen and figured out we could do it. The result is a synthetic polyurethane that's so durable and grippy you can't even believe it. And it's a very tightly controlled trade secret.
Q: There's a small decal on all of your boards that reads PLANET720. Seems kind of cryptic.
A: All we say on our website is that it's a call sign and a date. Lt. Matt Claar was one of my roommates aboard the [aircraft carrier Abraham] Lincoln. His call sign was "Planet" after the B-52s song "Planet Claire." On July 20, 1993 — 7-20 — we were in rough seas off India, when he crashed into the back of the ship and was killed. So, the sticker is not only in memoriam to Matt Claar — Planet — but in remembrance of all of our fallen brothers and sisters, and a reminder to everybody that buys our boards that we actively support veterans causes.
Q: Favorite "Top Gun" line quoted while on a longboard?
A: I started flying F-14s a year after "Top Gun" came out. It was like being a rock star. If you didn't live through the late '70s and early '80s, you can't understand the impact that movie had on the confidence of Americans. We were going through this nasty recession, just like we've being going through now. People needed something to remind them that they are Americans and we don't wallow in self-pity and fear. When that movie came out, it had a palpable impact — whether you are military or not — on the confidence and psyche of the American public. It was more than pop culture, and it goes into why we make the decks we make. So, that's easy: "I feel the need, the need for speed."