Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
In 2001, Eric and Sarah Cylvick of Park City, Utah, went to Costa Rica for a surfing trip. While they were there, they took a zip-line tour of Monteverde, which is known for its forests, orchards, birds, and countless other natural attractions. "I looked at the client base and technology and all else that was involved, and I knew we could come up with some design and technology that could take this primitive style zip line and do it bigger, more elaborately, and safer," recalls Eric.
The Cylvicks' home stands 8,300 feet above Park City. Their backyard is literally mountainous. So when they returned home from Costa Rica, they began using it as a testing ground. They built a 550-foot zip line prototype and "created the product basically that we have now," says Eric. One year later, they installed their first ZipRider line at the Park City Mountain Resort. It was 2,300 feet long and could reach a top speed of 50 mph.
Now, after 13 years in business, ZipRider has completed 28 installations at ski resorts and other venues, and it's on track for 30 by the end of this year. Most are in the U.S., including five in Utah, while nine of them are in international locations, including Brazil, Switzerland, Russia, and South Korea.
For ZipRider's ski resort clients, it's no small investment: The total cost of an installation is usually in the neighborhood of $1.3 million to $2.5 million, depending on size, design, and equipment needed. In a typical year, ZipRider will complete three installations, so annual revenues for the 10-employee company are generally on the high side of seven figures.
As a niche category of American industry, zip lines have grown steadily in the last 15 years. In 2001, according to Los Angeles Times research, there were 10 zip lines in the U.S. Today, there are more than 200. Likewise, the number of insurance companies that will insure zip-line rides has increased from two to 10. What's fueling the growth? It's not so much a sociocultural trend as it is the gradual awakening of the seasonal ski industry to summertime revenue-generating possibilities.
In Praise of the Ski-Bum Lifestyle
You might be wondering: How did the Cylvicks have the skills to build a state-of-the-art zip line? Eric's education and experiences prepared him well. He graduated from Clarkson University in 1988 with degrees in both computer science and electrical engineering. One year after graduating, he left an engineering job and moved to Park City.
He had no grand plan at the time to build a business and live there permanently. "I was just moving out west in general," he says. If there was any specificity to his plan, it was the ski-bum lifestyle: Find a way to ski whenever you want, without ever having to pay for it.
Eric quickly fell in love with the city--the Park City Mountain Resort, in particular. He got a part-time job as a patroller in the park, and over the years held various other jobs there. At one point, he was an avalanche forecaster, a job that required his athleticism, independent thinking, and ability to communicate.
As an avalanche forecaster, you collect meteorological data at a desk. But you also check out mountain conditions firsthand, using your eyes or binoculars to see and your skis or a snowmobile to move from one location on the resort to another. You even dig holes in the snow to check the strength and depth of its layers. And that's just the research. The other part of the job is preparing a report and relaying the key details to resort staff.
Eric worked at Park City Mountain Resort for 14 years, giving him knowledge and insider access that made ZipRider's first sales pitch more like a casual conversation between longtime friends. "The resort had total confidence in me to build the product," he says.
While he was tight with the staff, he also had to make a business case for the ZipRider. Given the seasonal nature of ski resorts, Eric knew just how to position the product: as a ride that can add revenues in the off-season.
In this way, the company is actually a business-to-business play, even though the ZipRider itself is geared toward individual consumers. While the ride has to be fun, safe, and spectacular for riders, it's the resort that needs to see a slam-dunk return on its investment. In Sarah's hands, each installation has become a convincing case study on how worthwhile the investment is for resorts.
For example, the company Web page describing the ZipRider at Icy Strait Point, Alaska, notes:
- Biggest Day: 502 riders. (This was a $67,000 day!)
- Average Day: 180 to 200 riders .
- Approximate total riders in 2014: 13,000 (over 50 cruise ship call days). Gross revenue $1,560,000.
Got that, future resort customers? This kick-ass device will cost you, but you'll reap the benefits in the end.
Like Father, Like Son (Eventually)
Eric's know-how as a builder and resort worker gave him an ideal background to design and build the ZipRider. For the company's first five customers, he assisted hands-on in the construction of the rides. Today, the building is handled by seven of ZipRider's employees, plus additional workers the company hires as contractors for the particular job. All told, there are usually 20 workers on a site during the building phase.
Of course, designing and building made up just one facet of the business. When it came to formulating a business plan, Eric leaned on his father's savvy. Frank Cylvick is a longtime entrepreneur who owns a defense-contractor business in Laramie, Wyoming. "He's 77, and he still goes in every day," says Eric.
Frank's main lesson for Eric was that as much as he enjoyed the designing and building, he had to focus on sales. Sarah also took that lesson to heart. She assumed the dual role of controller and chief marketer, at once helming the company's accounts on QuickBooks and developing its website and marketing materials. "Eric's dad told us early on: 'If you're not selling rides, you don't have a business,'" she says.
While they knew the core of their opportunity--a new product for ski resorts in the summertime--was a good one, they quickly learned that the sales process "always takes longer than you think," says Eric. Even after landing Park City Mountain Resort as a flagship location, they had to wait a year or two before other resorts recognized what a moneymaker something like the ZipRider could become.
Depending on the size and scope of the ride, installation takes anywhere from four months to one year. The rides are built to exceed generally accepted safety codes and criteria (including the PE seal, ASTM standards, and international codes for building and construction). In addition, the rides are rigorously tested before they open to the public.
To this day, the company is focused on outbound sales. Sarah says about 30 percent to 40 percent of its sales begin with the resort or tourist area making the first contact. But the majority still begin with ZipRider reaching out. As the business has grown, more inquiries have come from places other than ski resorts. For example, the ZipRider in Copper Canyon, Mexico began with an inquiry from the region's director of tourism. In late 2012, the department asked ZipRider to build a ride across a stunning expanse of terrain inside the Copper Canyon. At 8,350 feet, it would be the longest single-span zip line in the world, surpassing the company's previous record, the 5,495-foot-long Icy Strait Point zip line.
By the spring of 2014, the installation was complete. Jorge Estrada, director of tourism for the state of Chihuahua, has stated that the attraction--which costs $70 and lasts two minutes and 20 seconds--has increased the annual number of tourists to 75,000, from 45,000. Sarah says that nearly half of the company's business now goes to non-ski-areas like this.
Of course, the history of entrepreneurship is littered with husband and wife co-founders whose collaborations have ended in acrimony or divorce. Both Eric and Sarah (who have two children, ages 5 and 7) say they don't argue or fight. "We love to be together, and that helps," says Sarah.
For Eric, the many years he spent having a good time skiing with his friends have helped him stay focused on the family and business. "If you're trying to fit in other friends and spend time with them and ski 50 to 60 days a year, it doesn't work," he says. "I played for 15 years, really hard, in the outdoors. When I started this, I told myself, 'Now there's nothing else but Sarah and this business.'"