Chase Kaczmarek has been an avid longboarder since middle school. Now a rising college senior, he mostly uses his board — similar to a skateboard, but longer — to get around the University of Maryland’s campus. Kaczmarek’s longboard also provided the impetus for his start-up.
Last summer, Kaczmarek had a terrible fall off his longboard when he swerved to avoid a rabbit that jumped into his path. The sharp turn caused his wheels to scrape against the board itself, something boarders call “wheel bite,” and the momentum shift flung Kaczmarek off the board. The accident had him brainstorming ways to make sure it never happened again. He dreamed up a device that would fit onto his board’s wheels — a mud flap-like barrier between the wheel and the board. To Kaczmarek’s surprise, nothing like it existed on the market. So he set out to make it himself. He posted for help on where to start on an entrepreneurship board on Reddit.com. That led to a fortuitous connection with Christopher Wagner, an expert product developer who wanted to help. Kaczmarek’s new business, Wheel Shields, was off and rolling.
“Wheel Shields eliminate wheel bite by creating a physical barrier around the wheel. Instead of the board coming in contact with the wheel, it is stopped by the Wheel Shield. This allows the wheel to rotate freely. Wheel Shields also keep you dry when skating. Similar to a mud-flap, Wheel Shields capture water when it is flung off the wheels and prevent riders from getting soaked when they skate over wet surfaces. And for riders interested in stunts, Wheel Shields allow you to stand directly on top of your wheels, opening up a whole new world of trick possibilities.
“We are currently resolving some engineering problems. The device needs to be incredibly strong to withstand the rider’s weight, plus the G-forces creating by turning — easily 400-500 pounds of pressure. We also had to resolve problems with rocks getting stuck in the device, determine how to make it work with all types of wheels, and prevent it from catching on ledges and cracks.
“We’ve really taken a product that was an idea — that first 1.0 prototype — and we’ve turned into something that is an active part of a better longboard. It’s not just some gimmicky thing. The last thing I’d want to do is release a product that doesn’t really help people.
“I’m spending the summer rushing to finish the design and shooting for a fourth-quarter release date. I have people pounding at my door, waiting for it to come out. We have more than 58,000 ‘likes’ for the product on our Facebook page, and I’ve had 50 to 60 retailers reach out to me directly.
“Lining up manufacturing shouldn’t be a problem; our challenge may be more in the distribution and the logistics. There are an estimated 2 million longboarders worldwide and it is an exploding market, including a huge international demand. I have a two-pronged approach to distribution. I’ve run some small e-commerce Web sites in the past, so I understand how to use order fulfillment services. We also have plans to sell Wheel Shields through retailers. But how do I take this from a U.S. launch to an international launch, especially since a big part of the longboarding market is outside the United States? There are so many things that go into the logistics.”
Harry Geller, entrepreneur-in-residence, the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship
“Given that longboarding is gaining popularity in so many markets around the world, looking at this as an international launch is the right strategy. It is important to understand the demographics of your international market. Specifically, what five or so countries will comprise the bulk of your customer base? Then you can tailor your offering to be more country specific, even going as far as having a local fulfillment service handle your in-country or inter-regional logistics.
“In the interim or if no clear country trend develops, I recommend fulfilling international orders yourself, using the USPS first-class international and parcel services, depending on your package size. You can preprint the customs documentation and the packages should be received in a week in most destinations. Most international customers receive packages this way and are used to a bit longer delivery times and paying more for the shipping. A quick look at longboard retail Web sites shows this is how they distribute their product.”
“I completely agree that the popularity explosion of longboarding demands a structured international approach. I’ve done some demographic analysis by looking at the statistical data that Facebook provides me for the Wheel Shields fan page. Achieving a strong presence in both North and South America is essential. We have the most Facebook ‘likes’ from longboarders in the United States, Brazil, Peru, Argentina and Mexico. Luckily, these countries are very close geographically, so it might be possible to work with one or two continent-wide fulfillment services to blanket the entire Western hemisphere. You make a good point about internally fulfilling international orders, which may certainly be required as Wheel Shields is getting off the ground when volume doesn’t necessitate the use of fulfillment services. I am very excited about the future of Wheel Shields, and am confident that I can create a powerful international supply chain/distribution system to meet the needs of all my customers.”