Jack TenneyExtra Point

by Jack Tenney, Publisher

March 2004

What's New?

Instant expertise isn't always easy to cash in on.

From time to time, a new invention levels the economic playing field. Suddenly, the old industrial leaders are doomed to protect their old newly obsolete technologies while brash rookies scramble to exploit their leading-edge positions. It's been my lot to be part of several losing sides. Slide rules, asphalt-saturated felt roofing shingles and ski boot presses are three examples of products that went out like candles in a hurricane thanks to handheld calculators, fire-retarding fiberglass and rigid-soled plastic boots.

But not all new ideas are as elegant as the hula hoop, as compelling as the Lazer scooter or as long-lived as the telephone. For every Cabbage Patch doll there's a Tickle Me Elmo. Every Osbourne computer eventually, it seems, gets whacked by a Compac, which gets bought by a Dell and so on.

More than 20 years ago, or BPBP (before publishing Business People), I tried to become an instant expert on wind surfing. It was then a new hot idea, thanks to a universal joint at the base of the mast that allowed any fair-sized pond to replicate the joys of hanging ten off Malibu.

I was attending ISPO, a huge sporting goods show in Munich, Germany (then West Germany). There were more than 20 exhibition halls, many two- and three-story jobs, with outdoor exhibits as well. My tiny Shelburne-based ski products company had a booth (think table, chair and poster) in the U.S. Department of Commerce arcade, far from the titans like Adidas, Daiwa, Wilson, et al, big-time exhibits. My self-assigned task was to walk the show looking for ideas (to rip off) and products (to import) that might allow my company's winter accessory line to be balanced with a contra-seasonal line like, uh, surf board stuff.

I was fairly certain I was in early because, except for a few sunfish tars, Lake Champlain had few wet-suited sailors and none of them were standing up. "Ahh," I thought, "a freaking universal joint will soon change all that."

As I made my way around the halls, I carefully noted what gear was being offered to accessorize the wind-blown boards. Auto-top carriers, for instance, were a natural for my company, which enjoyed a majority market share for ski carriers in the United States.

I spotted an Austrian firm's booth displaying perhaps 150 different sport shoes. Since I was the epitome of the ugly American, I had to page an interpreter to help me shop the site. Pointing to a pair of slippers that looked to be a cross between something to wear in the shower to avoid athlete's foot and those rubbers I used to tear apart trying to pull them over my wing tips, I asked, "Are those wind surfing shoes?"

The translator said something like, "Ich bein stupid schnell actung das klomper snufers?"

Eschewing the translator, the attractive sales rep said to me, "Are you interested in a winter or a summer wind surfing shoe?"

Late again. Oh, well.