Recon Instruments Ski Goggles | BCBusiness

Recon Instruments Ski Goggles | BCBusiness
Recon Instruments creates a widely distributed GPS device while maintaining ownership of the technology.

Local inventors crack the global sports accessory market on their own terms.


The common business advice for startups is to target a narrow market and product niche so they won’t be crushed by bigger companies that control a wider market. However, as one young Vancouver company is proving by developing products for a wide market, there are incongruities within this general advice, and if you know how to manoeuvre between them, you can achieve success on a larger scale.

The Problem

In 2006, four MBA students at UBC put together a business plan for a design they had prototyped for a device that would supply competitive swimmers with real-time data via a pair of goggles. They wanted to turn it into a widely distributed product and create a business that retains ownership of the technology.

The Solution

By 2008, three of the students, including CEO Dan Eisenhardt, had formed Recon Instruments Inc., and the device had morphed into a platform that would display GPS-enabled data in ski goggles. While it was a revolutionary concept, it required financing and distribution to make the product scalable to a large market.

Eisenhardt, who is originally from Denmark, initially got the cold shoulder from investors in Vancouver who didn’t believe there was a market for it, but found some angel money from 45 different investors around the world, including one who happened to be standing next to him one day in a bar in Australia.

The Recon team began developing their product, but when they started searching for manufacturing and distribution partners they ran up against an ingrained system. Established ski equipment makers and distributors saw it as anti-fashion, which is important in the industry, and shooed them away.

Eventually, in 2010, Recon found Zeal, a small maker of goggles and sport sunglasses in Colorado that took a chance on the new technology. It launched the Zeal Optics Z3 GPS Goggle after Recon presented the “world’s first Micro Optics Display (MOD) for alpine goggles” at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Thrill-seeking skiers loved it, buzz spread rapidly and the device sold 10,000 units in the first year.

Suddenly, large equipment-makers were interested, but most wanted proprietary control over the Recon-equipped goggle. Recon stood its ground and insisted that it would control the device, and that all makers must adapt their goggles so the device could be fitted into it. By so doing, Recon forced the other companies to be distributors of the Recon device, instead of virtual owners. According to Eisenhardt, Recon could have made millions quickly by linking exclusively with a large equipment-maker, but would have eventually been edged out. This way, it retained control and could create a larger community.

Today, the Recon MOD is installed in goggles made by several equipment-makers, has created an Android app that broadens its reach socially and has an online community of devoted users. Also, it is plowing every dollar into R&D so it can expand into other verticals such as motocross, kite surfing, endurance running and military and industrial applications. It wants to create many communities instead of just one.

Lessons

• Don’t tie up too quickly. Many new businesses look for a larger partner to help them get off the ground, but that can limit them from ever getting others.

• Don’t get too complex. Strive for simplicity in device development and choice of distribution methods.

• Don’t look for the quick buck. Serving a big partner exclusively may enable your company to grow quickly, but in the long-run could result in the death of your business if that partner decides to go in a different direction.