The Invention of the Snowboarding Industry

Brunswick Snurfer (1966)

Brunswick Snurfer (1966)

As the ski season opens in North America, let’s take a look at the innovation that started the snowboarding industry, which has blossomed into a $500 million market.

The inspiration came to Sherman Popper on Christmas day, 1965. With two snowed in, housebound, restless kids, he lashed together an inexpensive pair of skies; put a rope on the nose so you could stand up, and the precurser to the modern snowboard, the ‘snurfer’ was born. Here’s a video of one in action. 

The product was patented and licensed to Brunswick which resulted in an utter market failure. Then in 1979 a guy name Jake Burton Carpenter came to compete in the annual snurfer contest with a new design which included a foot binding. The design was so radical he was relegated to the open category, which he won, notably as the only contestant. From there he founded Burton, an iconic, trend-setting snowboarding company.

The innovation lessons in all of this? First, home-brewed solutions are a significant contributor to innovation, and in Popper’s case, the spark that created an entire industry. Secondly, it takes time and persistence for innovation to stick. From Popper’s inspiration to Burton’s first volume production run was close to two decades (1965 to the early 1980’s). Today, even at the end of 2016 it can be argued that the sport is still regarded as not main-stream, since several premier ski resorts, notably Alta, Deer Valley and Mad River Glen still ban boarders. Third, the life cycle on boarding rises and falls with every other generation as kids now prefer skiing – ironically because their parents are boarders.