"Repetitive head trauma chokes the brain." When the words of Dr. Bennet Omalu flowed from the 2015 Will Smith hit Concussion, all of a sudden there was a new conversation. Of course it wasn't entirely new, the NFL, trauma experts, Neurologists, helmet manufacturers, and the likes had been discussing these topics for a long time. But the public eye of scrutiny opened up a new door for innovation; one football fanatic, former racecar driver, and entrepreneur Nicholas Esayian took notice of.
Of course there's plenty to be said about the NFL, but for me- this is a product story through and through because we can clearly see the pivotal moments when change to a stagnant industry became welcome. This never happens without challenge, so we'll answer the questions around successful market disruption and the challenges along the way.
First, A Little Bit of Background
Esayian is the CEO and founder of Light Helmets, a company that designs, tests, manufactures and markets football and other sports helmets composed of advanced and lightweight materials. In the near future, the product line will encompass lacrosse, hockey, and baseball. Light Helmets are used by players in the NFL, NCAA, high schools, and Pop Warner leagues. The helmets provide better impact protection, better performance through their light weight and the materials/technology were transitioned from military and auto racing applications.
A Few Important Points, from a Product Design Perspective:
Serious traumas to the head are still common. Data showed that concussions in the NFL were 291 in 2017, up from both 2016 (244) and 2015 (275).
Football helmets must withstand multiple impacts.
The 1920's were the first time helmets were widely used in football.
In 1939, Riddell started manufacturing plastic helmets in Chicago.
Mid 1940's saw helmets become a requirement in the NFL. These were leather, and adoption of the plastic helmet, by the NFL, didn't happen until 1950.
In the helmet design and manufacturing game today, are names like Riddell, Light Helmets, Vicis, Schutt, and Rawlins. The variety of brands proves one challenge right from the start, which is that the players have the freedom of choosing their own helmets. For plenty of these players, they've used the same brand and style of helmet their entire playing career and are very resistant to changing. From a marketing standpoint, how do you connect on this level, with players or even entire teams, to convince them that they need to make a change? As Esayian points out, bringing the marketing to the level of your consumer, and then hitting on their "pain points" is very effective. If you do your research well, you'll hear about the struggles or dislikes of the current product you're trying to replace. Maybe the chin strap moves too much, maybe that particular player would prefer an integrated face mask, or especially that the helmet is too heavy. The Riddell Speed Flex helmet weighs 2.5 pounds more than the Light Helmet LS1.
"Tell me if somebody duct-taped 2.5 pounds to your head, and you walked around with that all day, that you wouldn't notice."
Esayian and his partners at their umbrella business Safer Sports LLC are actually going against the grain on the weight of the helmet being lightweight, another challenge in market disruption, meaning they will have to prove themselves every step of the way. For their team, those initial steps are going to be continuous market education. They're on the ground, in the field houses, in the locker rooms, talking to coaches, teams, players, and equipment managers. I also suggested they talk to mothers- we have a lot of buying power, and are more empathetic to injuries generally.
A Vicis helmet, one of Light Helmets stiffest competitors, comes in just under $1,000. Esayian and his team just released three versions of their first helmet, the LS1, ranging in price from $325 to $550. Due to the lightweight feature of the helmet, they were able to reach tight margins and drop that price point down. In an industry where they are seeking to be innovators and market disruptors, this move is smart. Getting the price point right makes the ask much easier, especially in the beginning.
For all the people that love football, there's at least one parent at the kitchen counter saying no to a child who wants to go out for the football team. Football, at the youth level, is a dwindling sport because the fear of injury is in our faces. For Esayian and his team at Safer Sports, part of their growth concept has everything to do with the fact that their helmets can be adopted and used in other sports. For the fade in football, we're seeing a steady climb in hockey and lacrosse.
When you are new to a market, the best thing you can do is have market proof. And really, if you're an entrepreneur, startup, or product designer- this is also true. Esayian realized he needed to show that what they were using was already working in other arenas. Their design, evolved from a helmet initially designed for racing, mimics more of a high-end motorcycle helmet than a football helmet. The outer shell is composed of Kevlar, a technology we know distributes energy at the initial impact. The interior of the helmet is Armor Foam, a material commonly used in both racing and fighter jet helmets.
Industry Knowledge Makes A Difference
When you are going in with the intention of disrupting an entire market, hope is not a plan. You have to have industry knowledge or expertise of the field in which you're entering. Esayian has the sports background from playing college ball, the racing knowledge from driving pro, and had launched a direct sales and marketing company out of racing. This compilation of experience across these intersecting industries allows Esayian to understand the flow of what needed to happen, and see the gaps of what wasn't happening. He had also been the consumer in these industries, which provided the perspective some in the industry simply did not (and still do not) have. As we continue in this industrial revolution, the changes and innovations on the horizon are seemingly endless, but we can't come into this from the inspired mindset. The mindset required to takeover markets, or create new markets, is one of expert insight, market proof, and high-quality solutions people don't even know they need yet.