Thomas E. Smith, founder of an eponymous nonprofit whose mission is to cure paralysis, is on his way to revolutionalizing the sport of hockey.
Smith's product is the "Look-Up Line." It's an orange stripe painted around the edge of the rink, so players know to look up before they smash into the boards and potentially get head injuries. The stripe is 40 inches wide. It costs rinks $500 to install. More than 225 rinks in 21 states have agreed to install it.
You might think it would be an easy sell, in an era of concussion-awareness. But you'd be wrong.
Smith, 24, is facing the uphill climb of selling a striking visual product to a very stubborn group of traditionalists: the owners and managers of hockey rinks and hockey teams. The sales challenge is neither the $500 cost nor the acknowledgement that head-safety is important. Smith--a superb motivational speaker who himself is paralyzed and uses Lofstrand crutches to walk--can get past those objections pretty easily.
No, the hurdle Smith must overcome is that of tradition itself. It's no stretch of the language, and only the slightest of blasphemies, to compare modifying a hockey rink to amending an orthodox religion. Even if the modification makes sense and harms no one, there's tradition to defend. And that's why any entrepreneur can learn a lot from how Smith has sold the Look-Up Line to hockey's establishment. Here are four keys to how he's done it:
1. Integrate your personal story with the story of your product. When asked to tell their story, many young entrepreneurs make the mistake of rambling about the boring features of their products. Nic Gray, an Iraq veteran who founded the high-tech startup Hyprloco, admitted making this mistake before one of his mentors set him straight, and told him to verbally connect his Iraq experience to his startup idea.
Why is proper storytelling so essential? You're hooking potential customers by showing them who you really are. You're displaying the awareness that they're not just buying a product--they're potentially entering into a long-term, trust-based relationship with you.
Smith's personal story is completely integrated with the story of the Look-Up Line. That's because Smith's paralysis came as the result of slamming hard into the boards, in June 2009. Incredibly, it was the second serious hockey injury of Smith's life. The previous one, one year earlier, also came from a collision with the boards.
These injuries made Smith realize that his life's mission would be to make the world a better place for those with spinal-cord injuries. And during sales calls, he can say things like this: "'It only costs $500. My medical bills were $550,000 for the first six months. Spending $500 to potentially save a life? It's not about an orange line. It's about saving a life.' When you position it like this," he adds, "You'd have to be a real donkey not to recognize the value."
2. Find esteemed third parties to support or endorse the product. Traditionalists are more likely to change their minds if they realize they're not the first ones to change.
Smartly, Smith has enlisted the support of several key hockey organizations. Massachusetts Hockey even created a $50,000 fund, to reimburse the full $500 cost for the first 100 rinks that install the Look-Up Line.
Smith also has an endorsement from the NHL Alumni Association. And while two other organizations--the NCAA and USA Hockey--stopped short of providing a full-fledged endorsement, each organization did officially grant permission for any rink under their auspices to install the Look-Up Line at its own discretion. As a result, many the Look-Up Line appeared in the high profile college games at Boston's Fenway Park. The line will also appear in an NHL prospects game in September at Nashville's Ford Ice Center.
3. Test your idea, using realistic simulations, before taking it to buyers. It's easy to think of the Look-Up Line as an obvious innovation solving a serious hockey problem. But that would ignore the usual truth about seemingly obvious innovations: They are often the result of years of anonymous hard work, small failures, and trial-and-error improvements. "We didn't do this overnight," Smith deadpans.
Smith's initial idea was not an orange stripe around the rink. It was an attempt to modify the boards. Smith researched NASCAR's response when driver Dale Earnhardt died in 2001, after his car smashed into a concrete wall. "What NASCAR did was they added foam and a springboard behind the concrete," says Smith. "So I thought, 'Hockey has boards, not concrete. What if we added foam and springboard behind it?'"
The challenge was this: How could Smith modify the boards, without altering the speed, intensity, heritage, or rules of the game? Hockey players at all levels are accustomed to the distinct way that the puck caroms off the boards. If Smith's safety modifications changed any of that, then it was unlikely the sport would ever accept the modifications.
Smith and his team of engineers worked on modifying the boards from the fall of 2011 to the summer of 2012. "We had 35 different prototypes," he recalls. There were three problems. First, it was difficult to actually prove that the softer boards were soft enough to prevent or reduce concussions or serious injuries. Second, the puck hit the boards and died. There was no carom, no bounce, no ricochet. While it was plausible (if not provable) that the modified boards were softer and safer, what was obvious was that they severely altered the speed and heritage of the game. Third, the cost of modifying the boards was roughly $75,000-$100,000 per rink. "It wasn't practical, and I knew that," says Smith.
4. Find your innovation's place in history. Discouraged, Smith took a step back. Later on in the summer of 2012, he was watching a Boston Red Sox baseball game to unwind. The game was at Fenway Park, where the tall wall in left field is known as the "Green Monster" or the "Monster." In the 7th inning, an outfielder raced back toward the Monster chasing a deep fly ball. "He saw the warning track and put his arm out, looking down and up but never at the Monster," Smith recalls.
This was Smith's lightbulb moment. Why not create a warning track for the walls in hockey? He began researching the warning track in baseball. He learned that the New York Yankees implemented the first outfield warning track in July, 1949. He saw that other sports undertook comparable safety initiatives. For example, in 1974, football moved its goalposts from the goal line itself to the rear of the end zone. In the late 60s, basketball changed the hoop post to an "L" shape. That way, the post was actually six feet behind the baseline, rather than right at the baseline.
The real kicker for Smith was what he noticed during aquatic therapy, which he does five days a week. In the pool, there was a black line in each lane that ended 6.5 feet before the wall. It was another warning track of sorts.
"It didn't make any sense to me that in hockey--which is the fastest of all the major sports, and the players heads are always down--there was still no warning," he says. He soon realized that this argument could form a strong sales pitch to the convervative guardians of hockey's traditions. He could position his warning track not as the radical innovation that the traditionalists feared it would be, but rather as a commonsense safety modification that all other sports had implemented long ago.
It still took some testing and tweaking before Smith settled on Pantone 151 C as the official color. Initially, he wanted it to be "recognizable to everyday life," and he set up a beta that was "like a stop light." Of the 40 inches, the inner 24 inches were red and the outer 16 were yellow. Players told him it was "a bit confusing." Bob Sweeney, an ex-NHL player who is currently the Executive Director of the Boston Bruins Foundation, told him specifically that red wouldn't work, since the ice already had so many traditional red markings.
It was then that Smith sought a universal caution color that wouldn't interfere or cause confusion with the colors already on the ice. He first tested the Pantone 151 C orange at his high school alma mater, the Pingree School in Hamilton, Mass.
The players approved it with the proverbial flying colors. And Smith knew that he was on his way, one step closer to fulfilling his life's mission.