• Brett Bothwell

OUT OF THE BLUE: and into the market

It's natural to think creative problem solving and groundbreaking innovation come from big corporations. A corporate entity may have the resources and power to develop products, yet company boardrooms are not great incubators of revolutionary ideas. Company founders may begin as innovators bringing a new product to market, but once the company gets large, responsible to stockholders, stakeholders and maintaining consistent investor returns, appetite for risk can quickly shift away from creative development and research to a reliance on an established business model.


When an innovative product is put on the market by a big corporation, the origin of the product does not often come from within that corporation. More often, the passion to make something radical and game-changing falls on an individual or a well-focused group of individuals with a mission. Great examples exist of the surprising intellectual origins of breakthroughs in computer technology, automobiles — and even the tennis industry.


Big Blue Machine

One of the most familiar illustrations of radical innovation is the birth of personal computers. In the early 1970s, the king of the fledgling computer industry was IBM. Just as its name implies, International Business Machines was a giant operation facilitating businesses across the globe. Known as Big Blue, the anchor of its business was its enormous centralized main frame computer capacity. IBM was a remote computing center that customers could tap into for computing services from far away places. The main frame was powerful but extremely large and cumbersome, so the idea that every business, let alone every person, could have their own computer was not in the future plans of IBM. The executives of the Big Blue machine were perfectly satisfied in having the world rely on them for computing power. Though it began as a pioneer in computing technology, by the time IBM had become a major corporation, sustaining the business upon which its success was built was the focus — not innovation or meeting new market needs.

While Big Blue was busy maintaining its business, a group of college dropouts were busy re-imagining computers as manageable desktop tools for home and office. The idea of a personal computer was radical, a world away from the giant remote enclosures of IBM main frame computers. No doubt IBM was loaded with talent, with many years of experience in computing technology and yet, in the midst of robust growth, Big Blue executives were not motivated to innovate beyond that realm. Meanwhile, in makeshift workshops on the West Coast, the college dropouts had ideas and time to develop them. They didn't have the responsibility or distraction of growing a business model, but they had the know-how, the smarts and the passion to build a home computer — and to change an industry.


Big Brands Left Behind

The burgeoning electric car market provides another example of risk-averse corporations being late to embrace significant new technologies, losing opportunities for improvement, growth — and revenues. It might be natural to think that the most advanced and experienced automakers in the world would be leading the charge into the future of electric vehicles. If their leaders had been alert to the changing economic and climatic landscape, and the changing needs of drivers, certainly the big brands could have had a huge head-start. Lost opportunities in a changing market didn't occur because the big brands don't have a lot of very smart people on their teams, they just weren't in the business of innovating beyond internal combustion products. The auto industry had been profitable for a century and there was no reason to believe it would change. That's not how it has played out. Just ask Elon Musk.


From Kitchen to Boardroom to Market

The same kind of corporate risk aversion is prevalent in the tennis industry. Tennis is an industry led by large corporations throughout the world, but game-changing ideas aren't coming out of established product boardrooms. The original Wilson Profile "wide-body" racquet is a good example of a popular product from a big brand that didn't originate in its boardroom. The Profile was made using a technique developed by one man in a kitchen. An experiment with sheets of carbon fiber, resin and balloons, combined together and baked in an oven, resulted in one of the first ever hollow tube carbon fiber racquets. Still the manufacturing process used today.


The T-2000, the first steel racquet in the US, was originally developed and made by the well-known French tennis player of the 1920s and 30s, Rene Lacoste. He was a particularly creative thinker, responsible for numerous tennis related inventions and innovations, including a ball feeding machine, the classic collared tennis shirt, as well as progressive racquet construction techniques. For Wilson, already well established at the time, the T-2000 was a radical departure from the wood racquets it had been manufacturing for many years.


The idea of an oversized racquet that has become the standard racquet size today was first developed not by the Prince company and Howard Head, but by Tad Weed, an individual working in his home. Mr. Head then adapted the idea, applying the use of aluminum to make the design lighter, which made the design commercially viable. Another long accepted technology, Kinetic from Pro Kennex, originated in the home workshop of a retired aerospace engineer. Equipped with a wooden racquet, a power drill, a small quantity of metal micro-beads and a roll of duct tape, Roland Sommer gave birth to a vibration dampening design still on the market today.


Racquet factories also have become more involved in design conception and development. After working with big brands over many years to develop racquet designs and manufacturing methods, it makes sense forward-thinking factory technicians would have ideas for new designs and improvements. They've already developed the know-how in making standard high-performance racquets. Without being tethered to a marketing plan or brand image, or even to a deep knowledge of tennis itself, the designs tend to be more innovative than industry standards. The majority of high-performance racquet production is in Asia, so it's not surprising that a number of the most radical racquet designs in recent history are based on ideas hatched by researchers and inventors in that part of the world. Triad, for example, a racquet design in which rubber gaskets separate and buffer major parts of a racquet frame, was conceived by factory technicians. Another design called "rollers", which could be considered the most radical design to hit the modern marketplace, also was conceived by factory technicians in Asia.


Innovation — and acceptance of new ideas to make the game better for pros and recreational players alike — is an important issue in the current tennis marketplace. Tennis, just like any other form of entertainment or activity, needs to continue to improve and enhance the experience in order to remain competitive. Resistance to change is natural and reluctance to experience change is natural too. It’s one of the most common responses encountered in BOLT play-testing sessions, particularly with professionals and more experienced players.


Apprehension to Acknowledgement

A common scenario: A coach or pro steps onto the court and begins hitting with a BOLT. In the case of an experienced professional, the start of a play-testing session is often awkward. The pro may have a racquet sponsor deal and, even if play-testing a different racquet isn't a breach of contract, it can still make them nervous and feeling disloyal. Some pros may not want their colleagues to see them hitting with an unknown-brand racquet. For most coaches, professional credibility is wrapped up to some degree in the equipment, so the uncertainty of whether or not BOLT is credible can weigh in as well. All around, there's a natural edginess and skepticism in the initial moments after picking up a BOLT.


It's never too long before a professional recognizes the unique hitting qualities of a BOLT. At first, there is a moment of denial built in from expectation of failure by a brand they've never heard of, but that denial inevitably fades as they hit more balls. Eventually, even the most skeptical and doubting professionals give away some clue of acknowledgement that the BOLT is different. It may be a subtle smile of surprise, a comment, or maybe even a wise crack about how BOLT performance is a "trick", but always followed by a quick and tangible shift away from denial. After more hitting, the smile fades, and the play-tester realizes the BOLT difference is not a trick: it's real.


For some professionals, the unwilling smile fades to genuine concern as their understanding of the racquet and its performance deepens. That concern comes from not knowing — and as professionals they believe they should know — about a racquet out there that performs unlike anything they've hit with before. Concern may stem from their interest in using a racquet by a brand not commonly known, coupled with the apprehension of becoming attached to something new and not widely used by their peers. Using a BOLT may even stir up uncomfortable sentiments regarding brand loyalty established as a kid playing juniors. Players can be connected to their racquets in all kinds of ways, especially a professional or experienced competitive player, and being tempted by a new racquet can cast doubt on a long-term attachment.


Following the stage of genuine concern, a professional play-tester either embraces the moment and the racquet or they shift to disbelief, followed by mild skepticism about suspension technology. In lieu of previous knowledge about suspension in racquets, the thinking skeptic will ask, "If suspension technology is so good, why aren't the big brands doing it?" And there lies the dilemma and the frustration and the obstacles to innovation. In technology, in car manufacturing and in tennis.

The answer for tennis skeptics is that the BOLT Zipstrip design is too revolutionary to have originated in a corporate boardroom, where ideas can be bogged down by a reluctance to change. BOLT was born in an apartment in New York, free of the need to adhere to a corporate balance sheet, shareholders or an established business model. Exactly where new ideas come from and exactly where game-changing design like the Zipstrip naturally emanates. Given the history of big ideas — personal computers and electric cars — isn't it logical that an upstart company like BOLT, founded by a tennis-playing engineer, is the pioneer of modern racquet suspension design?


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