Printer Friendly

Sportsvision Inc.

A Trilogy Of Small-Business Tales Cast In Alaska's Interior

For every small-business success story, there are at least as many with unhappy endings. Recent Fairbanks casualties include a diaper service and a peanut shop. Also, a birch-bowl manufacturing operation has given up after two years.

But a wide variety of small entrepreneurial startups are building customer bases broader than local markets. They are increasing sales and expanding operations. Among those successfully tapping new customers are Ken Ulz's Kobuk Fuel and Feed, securing sales to Norway; Earl Romans' Alaska Battery Enterprises, exploring Soviet connections; Arctic-gear manufacturer Apocalypse Design, dealing with Outside distributors; and Shishmaref Tannery, shipping furs to Asia.

Also tapping markets beyond Alaska's borders are three other enterprises each less than a decade old. Selling products they've developed and now are promoting through a variety of distribution channels, these companies - SportsVision, Human Endeavors, and Interior Alaska Fish Processors - are ascending the growth curve through persistence and ingenuity.

Here are their tales.

During instruction, golfers are often told to keep their eye on the ball, something that's easier said than done. Local ophthalmologist Sam McConkey hopes his recent invention, the newly patented Headlok, can help.

"Keep your eye on the ball. That's what everybody tells you," McConkey says. "But nobody can tell you when you're doing it. This does."

Less than three years after McConkey began development of his product, it is for sale in a number of pro shops and sports stores in Alaska and Outside. McConkey's company, SportsVision Inc., also has been able to tap the international market and boasts connections in Japan that could make his product a household word among golfers throughout that country.

Headlok is a "self-training aid for control of head movement," according to a product pamphlet. It consists of three pairs of color-coded, self-adhesive plastic tabs that are pressed onto a golfer's glasses or sunglasses. By placing the tabs on the lenses, the golfer sets up an optical system in which the ball appears to "jump" whenever the head moves, disturbing the direct focus through the colored tabs.

Additional applications for McConkey's invention include bowling, croquet and other sports requiring precise focus. McConkey has approached local military officials about using a version of his product for weapons training. As in golf, specially sized and shaped tabs could help soldiers improve their accuracy, he believes. "They were willing to look at it," he relates.

McConkey, 51, stumbled upon his unique optical system while practice-putting in his basement one day. A long-time golfer, he had given up the game when he first moved to Alaska in 1968. "I sold my clubs," he says.

McConkey decided to take the sport up again in the summer of 1988. Immediately, he noticed the bifocals he was wearing had changed the game for him. McConkey found that if he let his eyes wander too much, the ball would jump around, because he was looking at it through two different focal powers. "I saw it as a unique application of what most people would just consider to be a problem," he says.

Applying his knowledge of physics and the optics of ophthalmology, along with his experience on the the golf course, McConkey developed his training aid. Headlok tabs, which are reusable, are sized to correlate to the amount of head movement acceptable with each kind of swing. The smallest tabs are for putting and chipping; the middle-sized tabs are for short-iron swings; and the largest tabs are for long-iron and wood shots. A golfer switches tabs when he switches clubs.

Using the tabs repeatedly is supposed to teach muscle memory." For practice use only, the tabs would be banned as artificial aids in tournament play, McConkey explains.

McConkey manufactures Headlok in a small, family-run operation. He buys sheets of polyvinyl chloride in bulk from a California company, then cuts and dyes the tabs. To date, he estimates he has produced about 1,000 sets. SportsVision's Headlok sets retail for $24.95.

Product brochures and plastic cases also are produced in Fairbanks, while the cards to which the tabs are affixed are plastic-coated Outside. "They don't do that kind of lamination here," McConkey explains.

McConkey's invention is one in a long line of golf training aids already on the market. Items intended to keep arms straight, knees bent, eyes focused, and swings in line range from inflatable arm-straighteners and head-holders to tilted shoes and knee-benders.

McConkey expects his product to sell well to international markets. In particular, he's confident because of results obtained in a mail-order marketing test, in which he sent several thousand flyers to known golfers. According to marketing experts, if 1 percent of those solicited buy the product, it has potential on the general market. McConkey will say only that orders exceeded 1 percent.

According to recent U.S. Department of Commerce figures, there are 23 million golfers in the Unites States and 50 million in Japan. "If we get 1 percent of those, that's 750,000 (sales)," McConkey says.

"Anything over that, who knows? In Europe, there's certainly a vast market, particularly in Western Europe. They're even building golf courses in the Soviet Union," he adds.

McConkey may have taken his biggest step toward international recognition last year, when he signed on with XPORT Trading Co., the export marketing arm of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. He says the trading company helped him to link up with a Japanese law firm last summer to get assistance applying for a Japanese patent. MCconkey doesn't know how long it will take to get the patent approved, but his attorneys tell him the paperwork is on track.

XPORT also introduced him to potential distributors. Among them was a Japanese company that imports American-made golf clubs. The firm ordered a gross of his tab sets, to be sold in selected pro shops and sports equipment stores throughout Japan. The same company gives golf lessons and is considering making the tabs mandatory for all its students, McConkey says. The tabs already are used by the Professional Golfers' Association schools in the United States.

To build U.S. sales, McConkey has signed on with the Network for Golf Salesmen's Association clearinghouse, an association that has provided an inroad to salesmen and trade journals. Following mention of SportsVision's introduction of Headlok in numerous publications, potential customers from across the nation and around the world have called and written, asking for more information or placing orders.

According to McConkey, a successful promotion relies more on making connections than on the location of the selling firm. "If you get into the right network, I think you can market from Alaska," he says.

With help from the Small Business Development Center, McConkey has applied for an Alaska Science and Technology Foundation grant for use in automating the manufacturing process. Anticipating the day when Headlok will be mass-produced, he is negotiating with the Private Industry Council to hire handicapped workers to help package the product. The PIC is a federally funded organization that provides job training and placement services to those in search of work, including those with disabilities or handicaps.

McConkey is amazed at how quickly his product has gone from drawing board to pro shop. He received the product's patent last September, two days short of a year after he applied and easily two or three months ahead of schedule. Later in September, the U.S. Patent Office approved the Headlok trademark. His product clearly off the tee and into play, McConkey now can focus on the aim and delivery of his manufacturing business.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Special Section: Small Business; Alaskan company provides unique visual aid for golf training
Author:Martin, Ingrid
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:May 1, 1991
Previous Article:Hatfield at the helm.
Next Article:Human Endeavors.

Related Articles
Closing the tax gap: alternatives to enforcement.
'Worthy' Simulation Reference Now Available.
Alaska Teems With Vacation Options.
A Vacation in Paradise.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters