Boa was founded on experimentation. When founder Gary Hammerslag made Steamboat his home in the mid-90s, he’d just sold his business that created innovative catheter solutions for angioplasties and was enjoying his free time snowboarding as much as possible. Ever the dreamer, the tinkerer, Gary began to brainstorm ways to improve snowboard lacing and fit, looking to apply knowledge from his time engineering products for the medical field to snowboarding. These brainstorming sessions and prototypes birthed the Boa Fit System, which made its snow industry debut in partnership with Vans and K2 in 2001. Today Boa has over 300 brand partners, and a brilliant new headquarters in Denver’s RiNo Arts District, where I caught up with Associate Marketing Manager Billy Wandling and Global Snowboard Lead and Senior Account Manager Jeff “Woody” Woodard.
The Boa HQ is pretty incredible - an open, two-floor office that houses much of Boa’s business under one roof. We jump right into a quick tour, first running through the many product segments - snowboarding, cycling, golf, football, running, workwear, medical equipment (like prosthetics, for instance) - basically anything that might ever need to be tightened with quickness and efficiency. At the end of the upstairs corridor there is a bar and lounge area with a foosball and pool tables.
We then head off to the sales and marketing floor for a look at the engineering, design and testing areas downstairs. The staircase runs along an atrium fit for hosting speakers, company meetings or other large get-togethers. Just off the stairs, we swing by an impressive testing and inspection lab. Photography is prohibited. Woody explains the sort of precision testing this lab enables, where they can test the endurance of a particular Boa part under specific conditions, like the sub-zero temps one might encounter during a backcountry expedition, or the arid sandy environment of Moab. As we are watching, a machine with a row of levers lifts back and forth, hooked up to computers measuring the durability of different Boa laces. The machines will register how long the materials last, or how much pressure they can withstand over a given amount of time, or any other set parameters.
We move down the hall, past a room of desktop computers manned by designers and engineers to another “testing” room with larger pieces of equipment for stretching the heels or toes of products. On the other side of the building, past a wall outlining the many hues available in this year’s color palette, is the prototype area, all sewing machines, and sample molds. Not far off is an impressively stocked materials library. The facility is like a small factory in itself. If you were with a company and came in to visit, you could leave with a really good idea of what sort of tech you could incorporate into your product, what it would look like, what the hangups might be, what materials are available, what color schemes…etc.
We pass through a set of locked doors to their performance fit lab where Boa conducts their own product research. With an in-house biomechanist they are able to gather hard data on site to quantify how their innovations improve the performance of products or make certain products safer for the athletes using them, for example.
Woody confirms what I’ve suspected is a huge advantage of this new setup: it affords Boa the ability to design, construct, test and analyze prototypes in house, reducing development time and reliance on third-party producers. Another advantage, he points out, is that they have the technical ability to run a rigid quality control of their products once samples return from the factory. When samples arrive they deconstruct the boot and run tests in-house, say for strength or durability, and issue their own internal report back to the factory producing the boots and to their partner brand. This cuts down on turnaround time and establishes a more direct feedback channel, cutting down lead time and miscommunication.
This new HQ allows the creative minds at Boa to continue in the tradition of constant tinkering, experimenting and improving upon which the company was founded. If it can be dreamt up, it can come to life under this roof.
Interview by Mike Goodwin.
Let's talk about a highlight of the Boa snow offering this year - the DC Travis Rice Boa pro model. What tech is in there, and why is it in this boot? How did it come to be?
Woody: On this new Travis boot we have what we would call our high-power focus configuration. Our idea behind it is having a set of ankle guides and tongue guides that are overlapping the upper and lower zones. Basically, we are focusing the closure right around the in-step.
So regardless if you like your upper cuff tighter and your lower one a little looser to give your toes some room, or if you want to switch it up and have the upper cuff a bit looser and the boot tight around the front of the foot, you are still able to have some closure around the in-step, which is typically what you want for that heel-hold.
How does it work when you are working with someone like Travis for the boot? Is there a lot of back and forth with input and ideas?
Woody: With Travis, we haven't had the opportunity to have a ton of direct contact over the years. A lot of it has been through the brand. That is one exciting thing about the Pioneer Program - having an opportunity to maybe get Travis into the office to spend some time down in the Performance Fit Lab, down in prototyping, to get a real good sense of what he is looking for in working with DC, what that next evolution of his boot is going to look like, or what direction the design will be going.
Travis Rice, Boa Pioneer.
A version of his boot has been on the market for years, but this is the brand new update and colorway for Fall ’19?
Woody: Yeah. Travis has had a pro model Boa boot with DC going on nine years, I believe. And even before that, he was rocking Boa boots. A lot of reps ask us, "Well, is Boa durable?” And what I would do is show them some pictures of some of Travis' old boots (Woody shows me pictures right there on the spot). The idea is that we want Boa to outlast the boot itself. So I would show them these photos of the boots just falling apart, with the Boa system still intact. Travis has been a good advocate, even on social media. If someone posts something about Boa not being durable, I've seen him chime in like, “I don’t know what you guys are talking about. I’ve had these things forever!”
I imagine the biggest pushback you get is, “What do I do if it breaks?” Almost an “If it ain't broke don't fix it argument,” in respect to laces. What do you say to that?
Woody: Lately, more jokingly, I am like, “Well…have you tried it?!” That's my first question. Often they have not. The other common response is, “I did, in 2011. I had a pair of boots and they broke or didn't fit right.” To that I respond that a lot has changed. Boa has definitely made some updates and learned a lot. And I think brands have learned a lot, and a lot has been learned in boot manufacturing and development over the course of the last 10 years as well. I think it’s just about getting the Boa boot on someone's foot.
So the initial introduction is often the biggest hurdle?
Woody: Definitely. I think it is. And you know, you do have consumers who are just lace people. I was probably that guy at one point, too. They grew up skateboarding and just have that, “I gotta have laces” mentality. That's where some of the hybrid boots come into play. It's a lace boot, but you are getting the precision fit from Boa. It’s a good way for someone to get introduced to the benefits of Boa.
Why do I want Boa? How is this going to improve my snowboarding experience?
Woody: Some of the terminology that we are using right now is, it’s fast, it’s effortless, and it provides a precision fit. Those are the three bullet points. We want to stay away from beginner “quick and easy” but there is no denying the fact that not having to tie your boots is fast and effortless. And then the true benefit is you can get that customized fit that you really, really want.
Billy: Each click of the dial provides a millimeter of adjustment. And we offer this in multiple zones. To have that sort of precision in the boot is really going to change your overall fit experience.
Say something does break - what does the repair process look like? What is the quickest way to fix the situation?
Woody: We try to make it as easy as possible. For the consumer it's really simple. Globally, all the consumer needs to do is go on the Boa website, determine what parts they need, place an order online and we will ship it out free of charge, pretty much anywhere, within 24 to 48 hours. Then we work with the brands too, to make sure that they have parts in case anything is to happen. Some brands, depending on size, handle their warranty a little differently. Some might want to take it on themselves, some might rely more on Boa to do it. We just try and make it as easy and as simple as possible.
Billy: Even from the retail standpoint, more often than not, you are going to find that you cruise to the bottom of the mountain and the retailer has your parts right there. And they have someone at their shop who has been to a clinic and knows how to repair it. We send those retailers parts free of charge.
That seems like the best case scenario, just like if a binding ladder broke?
Billy: When people ask me, “What do I do if it breaks?" I ask them, “Well, what do you do if your shoelace breaks?” You still have to go to the base and talk to someone at a shop and get another lace. It's essentially the same amount of work. Also, people who are going on big backcountry trips, or multiple day splitboard trips, or even just setting up at the beginning of the season, will reach out to us and say, “Hey, can I get an extra dial and some lace for my pack?,” which is totally cool. Same thing you would do with an extra ladder, or strap or anything else.
Woody: It’s a lot like a binding. Are you going to go on a big five day trip without an extra binding strap or ratchet just in case? But ideally, nothing happens. That's the goal.
Is there a Boa system that you suggest for first-timers or systems that are better as an intro to Boa? Or is it really just based on personal fit preference?
Woody: Good question, just for boots in general. Some of the single-dialed systems live on less expensive, softer flexing, entry-level boots, so that might be the direction that a lot of beginners tend to go. But I do think it really depends on what the customer is looking for: personal preference, what type of riding, where are you going to be spending your time, how many days are you going to get… A lot of it is the same kind of questions that you'd use to try to categorize someone for another product.
Billy: Even if you look to rental offerings - a lot of the rental market is Boa these days.
Is that somewhere where you are focusing? Maybe an indirect way for your product to be introduced to a whole new group of people?
Billy: It’s a great way to get people to have their first time interaction with the boot. Also, I think it's cool for them to see the evolution of it on the boot wall. Like, “Ok, I used Boa on my rental boot, but it’s also on Travis Rice's pro model.” There is that full product segmentation within snowboarding, bringing it full circle.
Good point. It emphasizes the idea that this isn't the step-in binding of boots. It isn't solely for ease of entry or as simply some sort of hack. This tech is relevant and useful across the spectrum, from your rental boot to the boot on one of the best and most demanding snowboarders on the planet?
Woody: Right. That is kind of where we are at right now. When we first started out, snowboarding was different and we were on more entry-level boots. Over the years, we knew we needed to be on that pinnacle product. That drives everything and it all trickles down from there. Now, we are there, with guys like Travis and other pro athletes preferring Boa on their high-end products. Boa is in a really good spot right now in snow. We just gotta keep staying relevant.
Find out more about the Boa fit and technology HERE.