Monday, October 14, 2013

Interview with John Robinson, CEO of KEE

A rare treat for y'all today. This is part of the 'Unnatural Selection' series of miscellaneous musings.
What better way to get the inside info on the SplatMaster effort to date and the plans for the future than to go right to the top--and ask? Probably against his better judgment, John Robinson, the CEO of KEE Action Sports, has generously agreed to answer a few questions.

VFTD: Am I correct in saying the SplatMaster products are aimed at a pre-paintball age demographic, say 6-10 year olds?
JR: The target was really 9+ as the packaging suggests. That said, we believed that with parental supervision younger kids would play as long as they could cock the markers. In our testing 6 and certainly 7 year olds could accomplish this. It was definitely targeted to pre-paintball kids.
Our view is paintball has two great components to it that are hard to match in other shooting sports:
· The Splat itself – instant gratification of the mark that you don’t get with airsoft or BB
· the adrenalin rush from the act of playing versus paintball

VFTD: While SplatMaster can stand alone as a safe fun for kids activity don't you see it as more than that?
JR: The vision was to portray SplatMaster as a backyard, target activity that highlighted the “Splat”. We also focused more on the skills side because Paintball is a dirty word to most Mom’s. We have a lot to overcome in perception, which is unfortunate because our industry has a great safety record. We knew that if we could get kids to pull the trigger, they would ultimately gravitate to versus play. So yes, we view SplatMaster as the T-ball of paintball and our on-going goal thru things like First Shot is to create the SplatMaster (T-Ball) to PSP Pro Player (MLB) connection.

VFTD: Is the concept behind SplatMasters to provide a fun less intense paintball lite if you will to kids in order to introduce them to paintball later? Or ease the transition when they're older?
JR: Yes – We (KEE) are focused and committed to paintball. The step from back door to .68 cal is too far for many and again, we have a perception that paintball hurts, etc. SplatMaster was created to make that first step manageable and let people who are cautious grow to paintball. As an industry, big box is important in that step because there are people who don’t currently play or consider paintball.

VFTD: How is it working so far? Are the numbers meeting your expectations?
JR: Here are some numbers:
· We have sold over 150,000 markers
· We are currently in 4,000 mass/sporting goods doors
· We are in 200 traditional fields/shops
· SplatMaster is offered in nearly 150 fields in the US.
I believe as a stand-alone product SplatMaster has been a success. That said, the goal was .68 paintball growth, so it has not met my exceptionally high expectations. To grow paintball, we need more mainstream acceptance.
Internationally, it is doing great and experiencing the fastest growth curve. Many countries have laws that prevent paintball or limit the age (18 in Australia). Country by country we are gaining acceptance from local and national authorities to get SplatMaster in or younger where .68 cal cannot. Again, we believe/hope that a kid in Australia who plays SplatMaster at 12 will ultimately play paintball at 18.
There are countless US fields who are reaching a younger audience with SplatMaster. You can speak with Sean Walker about his success with it. He does a great job and as you know, he is not necessarily in the “KEE fold”.
I wish it was doing better at places like Walmart, but a lot of that is merchandising. For places like Academy that take our POP displays it does great. SplatMaster is a hard story to tell at retail because they just throw it on the shelf. It needs to POP behind it to tell mom and dad the full story. At Walmart where it is one or two items, not always placed together and many time on the bottom shelves, it hasn’t done as well.

VFTD: Given the goal of expanding the player base isn't the ultimate success or failure of SplatMaster yet to be determined? As you've described it the process is both an ongoing one and also one that covers a number of transitional years.
JR: Correct, it is a long process and we really have to see those younger players, matriculate to the .68 fields. We are fully committed to continuing to push it as well as adding product between SplatMaster and .68 cal (see note below). You will see us re-load the marketing spend in 2014 to continue to reach the masses who are not currently paintballers.

VFTD: SplatMaster is available in a number of the so-called big box stores (and chains) like Walmart. Are those outlets reaching the bulk of the target audience or is KEE using other avenues to reach the intended market?
JR: That may have been true last year when we launched or TV campaign, but now the focus is clearly on trad and international at field level. Its grass roots. Its why Rich Telford, Thomas Taylor and Nicky Cuba were hired to be spokesmen. We have a 100x50 mega arena and other shooting booth assets we send to large non paintball events across the country and now world to provide a free shooting experience to raise awareness. The “Pros” are our link to .68 cal and promote the larger mission.

VFTD: Do local paintball fields have a place in the process?
JR: Absolutely, as mentioned above. Those that understand it gives them a new, younger customer are doing exceptionally well and are very happy. Those that are dug in on what they have always done, have either not taken it or haven’t marketed it. The reality is a field can get a new customer and start people on a paintball path earlier if they want. It’s more of a bowling alley model that actually provides fields better margins if they choose the path. There are so many great stories about younger brothers who couldn’t play, dad’s wanting to introduce their kids to paintball, but couldn’t… If you look at on line reviews, the product is still exceptionally well received. My mission, again, is more broad based awareness. If we can get them to pull the trigger, they always love it.

VFTD: Does introducing SplatMaster at the local field level open the door for full on 50 cal paintball for a growing player base that may have a different set of expectations?
JR: Using the T-Ball to MLB analogy, I believe paintball should have:
SplatMaster – spring loaded (no air/gas ever) shooting up to 170 or so fps
.50 cal aired product, shooting between 200-250fps
.68 cal – as we know it today
To me this provides the natural progression for the player. I am not dug in fps necessarily, I just believe .68 at 280+ will never appeal broadly to some people who are afraid or have a low pain tolerance. Like other sports, people will drop out at various times and that is normal. I would just like to see our sport offer more options for games, activities that require one to pull a trigger and a paintball (of any size) come out the barrel. Ultimately, I believe if we are successful with Level 1 and Level 2, .68 cal will grow. Though the consumables are more expensive than airsoft or BB, the experience is what we have to sell and in my mind paintball is far superior to airsoft, so we have to be committed to telling the story and getting people in at whatever level they choose.

VFTD: Keeping in mind this audience has ADD I think we'd best call it a day. Thanks, John.
JR: Sorry to be long winded, but I am passionate about this and First Shot. Our industry was down another 10-12% during 2013 and while we were once a $700 mil industry, we are now closer to $225 worldwide at wholesale. For too long our industry has not focused on the one critical issue that has faced us since 2005 – new player participation. I hate all the other drama that gets in the way of the one issue we all must address.

VFTD: No such thing as long-winded around here. I am confident the readership will appreciate your candor--and long-windedness, if that's even a word--in providing an inside industry view. Thanks again.


dan. said...

Thanks VFTD and Thank You John for more real insight.

NStoer said...

Great read, ditto with what Dan said

Reiner Schafer said...

So if Splatmaster is T-ball and PSP Pro is MLB, John’s level 2 (50 cal at 220-250 fps) would be Little League? Would organized, competitive 50 cal at 250 fps with limited paint (to keep it affordable) be something parents could get behind and sustain? I think so. But can fields offer it at a profit (or at least breakeven). This is where the analogy between little league baseball and little league paintball parts ways. Little league baseball is run by volunteers on fields usually supplied by the city for free (or next to free). Operational costs are very low with labour supplied by volunteers and money raised by fundraising. Paintball doesn’t have that going for it.

I know firsthand that 50 cal. at 250 fps is hugely popular with 10 to 14 year olds. I have no doubt whatsoever that if local leagues were available at that level, there would be more than a few kids willing to take part. Games every two weeks with costs held to $25 or less (limited paint and limited technology), and you might have a chance to grow competitive paintball into a household sport.

Borr said...

Great read.

Reiner I think the analogy doesn't have to be that close - the point is to keep people playing whether competitive or not, and in this regard .50 fits perfectly as a rental option for fields. Heck I'd run it exclusively if the support was there.

Which makes me hope John will put his money where his mouth is and make a viable 50 cal solution available at some point. A smaller lighter 50 cal Slice type rental marker along with plentiful paint would be just the thing for a field.

Reiner Schafer said...

I hope John's solution for fields isn't buying Kimgmann and trying to flog Spyders, because I also know firsthand that would be a horrible solution. Rumour has it that GOG is coming out with a 50 cal version of the Emney, which would be better than a Spyder by a long shot. I know I would be making the switch in a heartbeat. So let's hope KEE puts their money where their mouth is and provides the fields with a viable option.
And yes, switching all our rentals to 50 cal would be something I would look at very seriously.

Anonymous said...

Reiner, why not offer the 'Little League' type of model at your field? If you could get half a dozen teams worth of people you could run shorter team vs. team events so the players are only at the field for an hour or two (like a little league game) once every week or two and bundle the cost together for the season as one price considering a limited paint format. If you picked the right time of the year, you could even offer the events on a weekday evening (like little league) when you wouldn't normally even be open.

Anonymous said...

The private party games playing splatmaster at my local field seem to be having a lot of fun. They also tend to move around the field more since they aren't getting a 15 bps rope of paint flying their way every time they stick their head out of a bunker.

Reiner Schafer said...

Yes, although our facility does not have an airball field (no room for it), we are still looking at doing just such a thing on one of our fields. Just waiting for a reliable 50 cal marker that is light enough for the kids. The Opus's (Spyders) don't meet the criteria. Once we have a more reliable marker, the Opus's will be tossed into the ocean (it's nearby and handy).

Missy Q said...

It seems to me that if step one and step 2 are successful, then why do you even need step 3....

"OK, now you're playing paintball - now go out and play a different size of paintball!!Surprise!!"

And Reiner - the answer to your question is 'yes' Kee will buy Spyder to access that market sector, and then sell 50cal Spyders.
My money says you hear the announcement on this sooner rather than later. Personally I think it's a shame. Spyder are making some great guns this year - the MR5 EMR5 & Hammer 7 have sold better than any Spyders for years - I would prefer to see them continue as an independent entity, but I think they will get swallowed up by Kee as Kee continue to have the need to show their owners 'growth' sectors. 50 cal will be the latest 'growth sector' claimed.

You heard it here first.

Reiner Schafer said...

"Missy Q said...

It seems to me that if step one and step 2 are successful, then why do you even need step 3.... "

From a paintball field business perspective, you don't need step 3. But step 3 is what this blog is all about, and what Baca was fishing for in the interview, so we gotta talk about it. And I do believe if you do steps 1 and 2 right, there will be a certain number of kids hungering to get at step 3, just like there is in any other sport where the younger, less skilled players look up to the big leagues and hope that one day they can be there.

Missy Q said...

Not if you make a step 2.5, where they can use their 50cal guns in competitive 50cal play. At the point where the fields are 50cal, that's also where the money is. If the money is in 50cal. someone will start making competition-level 50cal guns and hey presto - 68cal is a dinosaur.
I think Kee are focused on the money, which means step 1 and 2 are for sure, and step 3 would be a real inconvenience - Just from a financial point of view.

Reiner Schafer said...

Missy Q, although that is a theoretical possibility, I think 68 cal is much too entrenched to be dropped by fields and leagues completely. Besides, from a retail standpoint, would it not be to their advantage to sell every up and coming competitive player various steps of markers along the way. Kids will start off with the rental 50 cal markers in step 2, step 2.5 may be higher tech 50 cal markers with a higher paintball limit or possibly no limits for 14 to 16 year crowd and then step 3 would be much like competitive paintball is today with high tech limit 68 cal. Along the way, KEE (and others) are selling upgraded gear at each step.

Missy Q said...

Actually from a retail standpoint it would be a nightmare if 50cal got that much traction.
Having to stock 2 sizes of ball in the various grades, a selection of 50cal guns with the relevant accessories, loaders etc, plus the usual line of 68cal stuff, is beyond most stores capabilities in terms of inventory dollars.

Anonymous said...

It may be that there is no step 2. Or step 2 is 68 cal at tuned down velocity. Step 1 (spring loaded 50cal) wouldn't be concerned about multiple grades of paint, or even a wide range of markers.

Borr said...

If .50 is kept primarily reserved for rentals that's far less of an issue. When people want to buy their own guns, that can be when they hit level three.

Anonymous said...

The reality is that Kingman have thousands, maybe 10's of thousands, of 50cal guns in their inventory. If that inventory becomes Kee's inventory, Kee will need to turn those units and as a result, we will see a push to 50cal at the field level, if only as a way of clearing that inventory.
Step one and 2 are therefore already initiated. Step 3 is a placebo offered to the 68 crowd so that they don't feel too threatened.
Tippmann sold a lot of 98's at retail, because people would play at a field, and then go to a store and for their first purchase they would buy the gun they recognised - the 98. 50cal fields would only have 50cal paint, so people that want to play at that field with their own equipment, would need to buy a 50cal gun in order to do so.

I'm not against change, but lets not pretend that a move to 50cal at a field level would not influence 68cal, or that 68cal would be an 'extra step' that people would take later in their hobby-path, for no reason other than 'that's what the pro's use'. 80% (or more) of the buying demographic have no idea who the Pro's are..
I think a disconnect between rental play and retail sales could be bad for the retailers, who already have a tough-enough time.

Reiner Schafer said...

Anonymous, I don't totally disagree with you. However our field offers both 50 cal and 68 cal rental games. The 50 cal is set at a lower velocity and specifically marketed as a "Low Impact" alternative to conventional 68 cal paintball. It's mostly attended by younger players (10-14, mixed groups with a high percentage of females, and oddly enough, stags). There are still plenty of people who opt to take part in our "Hi-Adrenaline 68 caliber games, including many gear owners. Our Low Impact games do not allow for players to bring their own gear. They MUST use our 50 cal renters (keeps the playing field even). As the kids age, they will no doubt stop playing the "wimpy" 50 cal version and will opt into the 68 cal games. Those that want to take up paintball as a more regular past time will be purchasing 68 cal markers. For me, this is a logical way to use 50 cal's lower impact as a middle ground, or stepping stone, to conventional paintball. I really can't see how this will affect the sales of 68 gear at the retail level. There will always be people who will want their own gear and if we're smart, we'll steer them to 68 caliber and leave the 50 caliber as a milder version of paintball.

If fields allow players to use their own 50 cal markers, then that's a different ball game altogether. Then we would be splitting retail between 50 cal and 68 cal and I don't think that's a smart road to go down. But hell, who said anything about the paintball industry being smart?

Anonymous said...

The number of 68cal markers that people play with is much greater than whatever is in Kee's inventory for 50cal markers.

It is not an issue of 68cal being 'that's what the pros use' it is an issue of 'that's what pros plus the tourney players plus the guys in the woods use' basically for 68cal 'that's what all but a very small minority use'.

Dislodging an entrenched standard is difficult. When it happens, it is usually from the bottom up, not the top down.

Reiner Schafer said...

Exactly. It was established in 2009 when Italia tried in vain to get 50 to catch on, that gear owners want to stick with 68 caliber. 50 caliber has disadvantages over 68 cal, so not very many gear owners are going to want to put themselves at a disadvantage. It's always about Demand by the consumer. There is a Demand for 50 caliber at the rental level (not by every field, but by enough to create a viable Demand that needs Supplying). But unless a field wants to keep all gear owning players away (that is a viable business model, but that's another discussion), those fields will continue to supply 68 caliber play.

50 cal rentals provides a good middle step between Splatmaster paintball and conventional 68 cal paintball. Now, 68 cal at a greatly reduced velocity can also be used as that middle step, but I believe it is inferior. The velocity has to be turned down so low to be comparable to 50 cal at say 250, that the 68 cal balls would seem like they are being lobbed. You would need very small fields, and player would need to adjust their trajectory quite a bit to reach a target at the right height. You would also need very expensive tournament type balls in hopes that some will break at those speeds. It's doable, but it's not as good, in my opinion, for that middle step purpose.