On the surface, John West doesn’t seem like a man who’d design a small, cheap jet ski for urban millennials. The 68-year-old has no formal engineering education, lives in rural Wisconsin, and comes from a generation known to hanker for “big” everything—from cars to motorcycles, houses to boats.
But West has, in fact, developed a modular jet ski that young people can store in their apartments and transport in the trunks of their compact cars. West believes that millennials can and will afford the product’s $3,495 price tag, versus at least $12,000 for the typical jet ski, according to his company and competitors’ websites. And although it’s an ambitious goal that would take years to achieve, West envisions his “kick-ass waterkart”—dubbed BomBoard—inspiring in millennials the type of cool rebel ethos and lifestyle that nearby motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson so successfully ingrained in West’s baby boomer generation.
“I’ve had some people say, ‘a guy your age is developing this product for the younger generation?’” West says, seated at a table in BomBoard’s headquarters and workshop in Whitewater, WI, an hour southwest of Harley-Davidson’s hometown of Milwaukee. “I’ve had that same need for speed my whole life. That doesn’t go away even though I’m an old, grey entrepreneur.”
West, BomBoard’s founder and CEO, has always had an affinity for anything with a motor in it, particularly boats. As a child growing up in a Chicago suburb, he often occupied himself in the bathtub with toy tugboats. At age 10, using a blueprint in an issue of Popular Mechanics, he built his first boat in his basement from two sheets of plywood and an outboard motor, he says.
Years later, a successful career as an executive and entrepreneur with two engineering technology companies, Numeridex and Cimlinc, gave him the financial means to buy much bigger toys, from jet skis to sailboats to 48-foot motorboats, he says.
“If it was out on the water, I had to have it,” West says.
After selling Cimlinc in 2000 for an undisclosed sum to Boeing, West moved with his wife to Whitewater, about 35 miles southwest of his alma mater, Carroll University, where he studied business.
About six years ago, West got the “entrepreneurial itch” again and decided to start tinkering with motors and see what sorts of product ideas he could come up with. He had watched as the big jet ski players—Sea-Doo, Yamaha, and Kawasaki—made their machines larger, heavier, and more expensive, so West decided to create something that was smaller, lighter, and cheaper, he says. Along the way, he hatched a plan to break the craft into four “bite-sized chunks” so customers wouldn’t need a trailer to transport it.
It took plenty of sweat and blood to create a prototype that West was satisfied could attract investment. (He says he’s got the bruises and scars to prove it, including one on his finger from a table saw.)
BomBoard has two issued patents and three more pending for the modular watercraft, a single-seater that measures 7-foot-by-3-foot and weighs 150 pounds when assembled, West says.
The center “power pod” section contains the seat, engine, pump, and electronics. Two foam-filled side sections snap on to the center segment and keep the craft afloat. The fourth piece clamps to the front of the craft and contains the steering, fuel tank, fire extinguisher, battery, and storage compartment.
These four pieces of the BomBoard can be assembled in just a minute, the company says. So once that’s done, what kind of ride will it deliver?
With its 250cc engine, the BomBoard has a top speed of 40 miles per hour. A typical jet ski has an engine size of at least 1,000cc, according to competitors’ websites. Although competitors don’t disclose their products’ top speeds, BomBoard estimates that more than 80 percent of currently registered jet skis and 40 percent of the 2014 models have a maximum speed of between 40 and 50 miles per hour with one rider on board.
Since BomBoard riders will be closer to the water’s surface on a machine that responds to the slightest tilt of the handlebars, it will feel like the BomBoard is going faster, West says. And its handlebars, which are connected to the rest of the craft by a long, slim aluminum bar that the rider can move up or down while zooming across the water, allow for sitting, kneeling, or standing.
“For an action sport, we don’t need to go up to top speed,” West says. “We want to do tricks and stunts.”
BomBoard’s nearest competitor is Sea-Doo’s Spark, which was announced last year and has a starting price of $4,999. Spark comes in two- or three-seat models weighing more than 400 pounds. Though that’s heavier than BomBoard, it’s light enough for compact sedans to tow, Sea-Doo says. Most jet skis on the market exceed 700 pounds, according to company websites. (A Sea-Doo spokesman declined to comment for this article.)
BomBoard and Spark are riding an industry wave of less expensive—and often smaller—power sports products aimed at young adults.
“Big picture, there is a clear trend in power sports favoring more affordable products,” says Craig Kennison, a financial analyst with Milwaukee-based Robert W. Baird & Co. Sea-Doo parent company “BRP has the Spark at under $5,000, which looks like a game-changer. Harley just launched the Street lineup, which gives young riders a more affordable bike to join the Harley family. Brunswick is also working to lower the cost of ownership, with lower-priced boats and engines. The Bayliner Element is doing well for them.”
The time could be ripe for a shakeup of the jet ski industry, as annual sales of new jet skis have plummeted from a mid-1990s peak of more than 200,000 to fewer than 40,000 now, BomBoard estimates. The question is whether or not an upstart like BomBoard can scale and compete with the big players.
That will be tough, says Bob Van Zelst, owner of Don & Roy’s Motorsports dealership in Brookfield, WI, near Milwaukee. He pointed to the 1980s, when there was a flood of new jet ski manufacturers, most of whom eventually sputtered out of business, he says.
“I’ve been doing this for 40 years,” Van Zelst says. “I’ve seen them come and go, these off-brand things.”
And BomBoard intends to sell through direct online sales, with no dealership network. Van Zelst says that’s a mistake that is intended to lower costs but will lead to poorer customer service and headaches for BomBoard and consumers.
West says online sales directly to consumers is where the world is headed, pointing to examples like Tesla in the automotive industry. Though Tesla has faced regulatory barriers and pushback from car dealerships in places like New Jersey, West doesn’t anticipate the same resistance with BomBoard.
“I think Tesla will win, ultimately,” West says. “Every industry is being assaulted by direct to consumer. It’s just a matter of time before the consumers will rise up” and demand it.
As for customer service concerns, BomBoard intends to eventually open more than 20 repair depots in major metropolitan areas around the country that will guarantee repairs within 24 hours, West says. Customers could drop off the craft at the shop, or pay BomBoard to send someone to pick it up.
The company will try to boost sales through a network of young hires who ride BomBoards and wear BomBoard clothing. These “brand ambassadors,” who will be contractors, are intended to show off the lifestyle without aggressively pushing peers to buy a BomBoard, since many young people have never been to a car or power sports vehicle dealership and might be intimidated by that process, West says. If an ambassador’s referral leads to a sale, he or she receives a commission.
“We call them salesmen in sheep’s clothing,” West says. “We don’t want to hard sell.”
BomBoard doesn’t intend to pump dollars into marketing efforts like its bigger competitors do. Instead, it will rely heavily on word of mouth and Internet videos going viral, West says. That strategy was put to its first test when the company was featured in Gizmag last week. Since publication, BomBoard has received more than $1 million worth of pre-orders, says Anders Stubkjaer, chief financial officer and chief operating officer. BomBoard’s promotional video on YouTube has exceeded 20,000 views since being posted in late February.
“Today, to get the word out on a product, a GoPro video can get you more reach than all the money that [competitors] spend on marketing,” West says. “It’s not just a product, it’s a lifestyle. … We’re selling fun.”
But first, BomBoard must secure the money to start production. The company raised $1.3 million in seed funds over the past four years from West’s family and friends; West himself contributed to the round as well. Now BomBoard is eyeing a $2 million Series A round, and has raised $160,000 so far, Stubkjaer says.
Funding has been the biggest challenge for BomBoard, West says, because most investors these days are putting money into software or life sciences companies.
“This is not a typical business that a venture capitalist would be interested in,” West says. “What we’ve found are [water sports] enthusiasts, people that maybe in their personal life are excited about us.”
After that initial hook, BomBoard will reel in investors with its technology, market strategy, and projected financial returns, West says. The company, which has published an astounding amount of detail for investors on its website, projects that it will achieve $102 million in sales in the third full year of generating revenue (it intends to hit the market in the first quarter of 2015) and will provide an 18.6 multiple return on investment for participants in the Series A. Other potential selling points for investors include the direct sales channel, which West says will boost margins at least 20 percent versus selling through dealers, and the additional revenue stream from a planned line of BomBoard clothing and accessories.
The Series A money would allow BomBoard to produce about 400 units per month, Stubkjaer says. BomBoard will source parts from domestic and international suppliers, and handle assembly in Whitewater, West says.
But ramping up capacity to meet anticipated demand, at least initially, could also prove challenging, West says. And online commenters have raised questions about BomBoard logistics, such as the potential difficulty for one person of lifting the craft’s 80-pound engine section into a car trunk and whether the BomBoard will leak fuel.
BomBoard says it intends to sell accessories, like a small cart with wheels, that will help customers more easily transport the heavy section. Its gas tanks will have hose couplings that prevent spillage, Stubkjaer says.
West, a former Marine Corps lieutenant who fought in the Vietnam War, is confident BomBoard will be able to successfully execute its plan, and that his “raw tenacity” and passion for this product will continue to carry the company forward.
“I learned in the Marine Corps, when you get ambushed, you charge into the ambush,” West says. “You’re aggressive. There’s got to be a solution.”