With innovation built into the company’s core values, Airush has been on a tear, releasing a number of highly targeted products that shave off extraneous features and focus in on pure functional performance. You can see it in the evolution of their single strut kites, but also in their minimalist harnesses, paired down twin tip bindings and Ultra control bar that incorporates a long throw and no ‘on-the-fly’ power adjustment. Removing hallmark features may seem like absolute heresy in the minds of beginner and intermediate riders, but for advanced kiters focused on feel and performance, these refined products fill an important void and perhaps provide a glimpse into our future.
We caught up with Airush’s Brand Manager, Clinton Filen, to discuss the culture of innovation at the company, their reductionist approach as well as the increasing value of high-performance niche products in a growing mass market.
As the Brand Director driving the product development at Airush, how does innovation figure into your job?
As a designer, pushing the boundaries has been something that I have always been passionate about, and that has continued as my focus became broader within the company. I enjoy working to establish a clear objective or benchmark in performance—focusing on ideas such as building the lightest product on the market or the strongest product and giving the customer a completely new experience.
As a simple example, some time ago, we were the first to offer a two-year breakage warranty in twin tips, which was us setting out to create a benchmark in reliability. The objective can be completely different based on the product and the different characteristics that are relevant to customers. Innovation isn’t always focused on cutting-edge performance or making things more expensive. Making something simpler and easier to use can be even more challenging than something lighter and more expensive. It’s those pet projects that get me up in the morning and motivated to push the envelope. Often those narrow experiments can easily flow into design outcomes that have a bigger range of use for the broader market.
What are the biggest roadblocks to innovation?
Innovation is extremely hard, and many times our ideas don’t work. You need to embrace that failure and it can be very challenging to the motivation. We probably see one out of 10 theoretically ‘good’ ideas actually make it to market, and even then, sometimes the market timing is wrong. Therefore, having a team that can deal with this and keep pushing is critical. As an example, we began working on single strut and zero strut kites, minimizing the airframe 10 years before we released the Ultra kite. Our first single strut kites did not sell for us at all, however, over five years later, the Ultra became one of our all-time best sellers. There’s a much longer backstory, but when the Ultra finally came out, it made sense to riders on hydrofoils and larger surfboards, which people were not riding much during the initial period.
Innovation also doesn’t happen in 6-month cycles, and that is why we avoid the yearly product cycle as this dilutes your resources away from the hard stuff. If you look forward and take another obvious concept like high-pressure kites, we’ve spent an infinite amount of time exploring leading edge and bladder materials that would make this technology work. We’ve tested multiple iterations and got to a point where the material manufacturers say that it’s just not feasible with what we have today. Then slowly, there have been key breakthroughs that start to make things possible.
There are instances when you design a product and you end up feeling the retail market isn’t ready for it. The first Livewire Team was a sub 1.5-kilo freestyle board, which was super light, but it had no graphics. Dealers said, “You can’t sell that if it doesn’t have a graphic,” yet, Alex Pastor had just won the world championships on it, so in our eyes, the design was proven. In the end, we had to find a compromise, but it ended up being a big challenge in manufacturing and market acceptance.
The other big roadblock we encounter is the industry’s obsession with ‘tech washing,’ which dilutes market awareness and reward for true innovation. If the industry plays up something basic like adding an extra ripstop yarn into a canopy material, which has minimal effect on performance, this distracts from creating real technological improvements in gear. Why claim a huge breakthrough when there’s no clear, measurable advantage? If the market is saturated with superficial tech hype, there’s less incentive to invest in the long-term R&D cycle. Developing new technology is expensive and time-consuming, and while the race to out tech wash is typically more cost effective, it doesn’t add any value to the end user’s experience or the evolution of the sport.
Looking at Airush and AK more broadly, with products like the Ether Harness, Aero Spreader Bar, Ultra Bar and the stick-on Ether Bindings, you are taking a minimalist, lightweight, adjustment-free approach that focuses more on the needs of high-performance riders. How do you slip these niche products past a sales team that is fixated on broader mass appeal?
Luckily, a lot of our sales team are avid riders and very passionate, so they are suckers for pure performance! If you take a look at the framework of our product lines, you will see our offerings are often grouped around three themes that narrow in on the key demand areas: value, features or purist performance.
For example, if you look at twin tips, the Switch board targets the best value and ideal level of comfort for freeride-oriented customers. Then we have the Apex that allows more advanced riders to find their fit for performance. These core ranges offer more feature-rich products that have a lot of key selling points or functional features. That third category would be a product like the Livewire Team and the products you have mentioned, which focus on chasing absolutes with minimal compromises of the product. For this segment, we need to say ‘no’ to many things to get back to the essence of performance.
We tend to think about how our various customer groups connect to our products—some people like the benefit of all the features—the extra details and adjustments bring a level of joy which generally coincides with riders that need all-around performance. Then ultimately, with our high-performance concept lines, we’re trying to create a product for the purist, which sometimes ends up being something people didn’t even know they wanted.
How do you maintain a culture of innovation in a windsports business?
Starting from the top, Airush is part of a company called Sestar, a group of brands including Starboard and Severne Designs. The group CEO, Svein Rasmussen, has made it his life’s work to bring market-shaping ideas to wind and watersports for over 25 years. I have worked with him for 15 years and there is a lot of shared ideology. The push for innovation comes from within, with full support from our management team, and the company is structured to chase the long game. I view us as a technology company; if you compare our products from 10 years ago to what we are building today, many of the key technologies and products did not exist.
The culture of our designers has always been super important. When we hire, we might ask a very simple question like, what will kites look like in 10 years? The answer is tough, but it gives us an insight into how open a person is to look at things differently. I also strongly believe that as a designer, you cannot be cynical. People pay you to create the future, and so deep down, we look for the optimist.
Our current design team is a mix of personalities. For example, our kite designer Mark Pattison is pretty open to crazy ideas, while our engineer, Dave Kay (DK), is more structured and focused on how to solve concrete problems through systematic, iterative design. Even then, those roles often shift around when somebody has an inspirational thought or really questions something. This collaboration is supported by a strong test team and great designers in other areas of the business. Part of our culture is also that we are not just focused on kiteboarding; we design products for the entire watersports space and beyond, so there is a lot of cross-learning and challenging each other’s ideas.
Maintaining a culture of innovation in the product development pipeline is important, but it’s also key to instill these values on the sales side. That’s why we spend time clarifying the various pairings of products into the distribution and retail networks; this helps them become more tolerant of the high-performance products that break the mold.
As the individual kite designs in your kite line portfolio evolve, how do you manage the convergence in the feel and proliferation of models?
As product lines mature, they tend to become much more versatile because everything gets reengineered. The sweet spots get bigger, the range of use expands and styles and riding levels evolve. Due to this, you have to confront creative destruction, where one product’s evolution cannibalizes another, so it’s important to take an approach where nothing is sacred.
We are also not afraid to service a niche. The Razor line of kites is a constant discussion because many of our retailers consider park and freestyle to be off-trend. Pure commercial brands may see this smaller segment as irrelevant. If you take a long-term view of the sport, we feel that park and freestyle have a future, and there are riders who are super passionate about this style of riding. While it’s important to drive access to the sport through freeride, it’s also very important not to lose sight of the youth customer, evolving niches and knowing there is always something new around the corner.
There have been a lot of brands making first-to-market claims, but you’ve advocated for a ‘simultaneous invention’ perspective of design evolution. How does this collective evolution of design theory interact with the technology patents that are frequently used in kiteboarding?
The desire to do things first is a great example of that optimist mindset! But it should also be tempered with the idea that ultimately the customer does not care as much about who came up with something first, they just want the most well-resolved product on the market.
Patents can be used as both a sword and a shield; we generally view them as shields. For example, we had early provisional patents on no strut and single strut inflatables, but those patents were primarily used to establish ‘prior-art,’ which means no one can stop us from using our own designs later down the line. Our goal is not to cash in on a single great idea or prevent others from pursuing similar designs—that approach isn’t good for the culture or the progression of the industry.
It is pretty fun to look back on the evolution of a product, but I wish we were better at documenting our ideas, the early development process and competitors’ products. I truly believe that innovations can be relatively obvious to various groups of people around the world, as we are all looking at the same problem during the same time. The result is the simultaneous invention that you mention, as opposed to a single hero theory which is way less common.
So, what becomes really interesting are the details of how the designers solve the problem, and as we see through evolutionary theory, there are always different solutions. Therefore, the challenge is to never completely commit to one idea. No matter how much energy you have put into it, question everything and always maintain an open mind.
This article was featured in our fall 2021 issue, Vol. 18, No. 3. To read more, click here.