In past centuries, countless inventors attempted to create a perpetual motion machine. With FluidStance, modern-day entrepreneur Joel Heath has come close to achieving this elusive goal by helping knowledge workers stay in motion while rampaging on their laptops or endlessly scrolling on their phones.
FluidStance’s flagship product created a new category – a skateboard-like deck upon which workers balance while whiling away their workday. Joel has built upon the breakout success of his decks by expanding the definition of ‘fluidity’ to include keeping workers’ minds sharp during their workday. The company now boasts tens of thousands of customers with some of the biggest tech firms working on FluidStance’s platforms to keep their employees moving.
Perpetual Motion = Sharp Minds & Good Health
John Greathouse: Thanks for making the time Joel. You’ve been a lifelong entrepreneur, starting in high school tuning skis in Colorado. Your dad also had a business, and your mom was a social venture entrepreneur who inspired you to follow an entrepreneurial path. What do you do to encourage your children to express and flex their startup muscles?
Joel Heath: An astounding 35% of entrepreneurs are dyslexic like me, but you obviously do not need a diagnosis to benefit from the upside of being dyslexic.
Dyslexics see the world a little differently than the masses and I try to help my kids, who are not dyslexic, see the alternative storylines that the masses do not necessarily see at first glance. When we find new perspectives, we find new solutions. I find the best way to do this is through questions and exploration to help my kids understand that “gifts” are not always wrapped in pretty packages.
My mom always said boredom is where we find our creativity, so helping my kids embrace empty spaces is the biggest gift I can offer towards finding their own questions, ideas, and paths.
Greathouse: Good for you. Too many of us become anxious when presented with quiet time away from our phones, especially young folks…
Starting a career in a services business, which exposes you to numerous companies, is a great first job for entrepreneurs. You did a long stent at marketing agencies, including your own. How did your agency experiences shape your startup career?
Heath: My agency life gave me incredible exposure to a myriad of brands and their specific opportunities and issues. I am not classically MBA educated, but I would guess the work within MBA’s case studies are similar to what I experienced in my agency life, just within the niche that I was most interested.
Over the course of a day, I would get to be inside a candy bar company trying to help them move into the health and wellness space or a bank trying to figure out how to say, “yes and no,” to the thousands of charitable requests they get for event sponsorship or donations each week.
The hardest part of agency life for me was that I craved wearing a “jersey” – a single uniform of sorts, something I stood for 24/7/365. In fact, I remember one trade show I was working in my agency days where I was carrying two different pairs of shoes in my bag to go along with the brand I had on my feet. In one meeting, I was with Nike, in another Teva and in my third, a non-descript brand for future solicitation. Through that work, I loved the exposure, but I found out that I like to be a one brand guy.
Greathouse: The real question is, “Which shoe did you wear when you spoke with the non-descript brand? …”
So, how did FluidStance evolve from your corporate/agency worlds? What is FluidStance’s origin story?
Heath: While I loved my time as President of Teva (Deckers Outdoors, NASDAQ: DECK), I feel at home building new brands and ideas.
FluidStance came from my own personal pain point in the corporate world of being on my butt way too much for a guy who built his first company ([GoPro] Mountain Games) on the backbone of adventure. I needed a way to stay active while productive in the confines of a corporate desk.
I started tinkering in my garage afterhours with concepts and 27 prototypes later I found the right formula to begin the FluidStance journey. I do laugh, and at times miss the days when the receptionist had to call me to remind me that I had paychecks waiting for me at the front desk. I know it sounds crazy, but when I first entered the corporate world, I would forget that people would pay you just because a week went by, not because you did something that would alter the future.
Greathouse: . Many people like the idea of being an entrepreneur, but most folks would have given up long before prototype number 27.
So, your initial launch was via Indiegogo in early 2015. Have you launched subsequent products using the crowd? What advice do you have for folks contemplating a crowd launch – what “do’s and don’ts” should they keep in mind?
Heath: We launched successfully on Indiegogo in 2015 with our first product, the Level. It is what propelled the brand and created the amazing community we still design for today. I have done two more crowdfunding campaigns to much lesser success. In fact, one campaign featured The Grade – a classroom mobility pod for getting kids more active in the classroom – and I pulled (it) a couple weeks early because it was not headed in the right direction.
Back in 2015 when we launched, I thought crowdfunding was an amazing tool to launch a product, but the real work is making a product into a brand. In hindsight, I do not think crowdfunding is a model you can go back to multiple times if you are looking to be brand, not a collection of items. I know many people have had success with multiple products, but I am not a big believer in drawing on this tactic beyond the first launch.
I was telling a friend the other day, “Your first campaign feels like something you are so excited to tell everyone about and they really want to support you – kind of like seeing a new up and coming band.” Subsequent launches felt like I was a businessman on the corner begging for support who just got out of a cold pool naked. It just didn’t feel right. Maybe I would feel different if our second and third raise would have been better.
I would encourage existing brands considering their “sophomore” release to keep the momentum inside their own platform and make it an amazing product launch rather than a crowdfunding campaign.
Greathouse: You’ve been granted multiple utility and design patents. I’ve found that emerging entrepreneurs sometimes seek protection too early, before their product’s design is fully baked. What do you feel is the most appropriate timing for an entrepreneur to pursue IP (intellectual property) protection?
Heath: Patents are amazing, but their weight is only as good as your ability to enforce. I have been told that total enforcement is a one-million-dollar game if it goes the full distance, so you have to ask yourself what you could do with one million dollars in time and resources. Could you be faster to your 2.0 and ahead of anyone that is going to knock you off? Maybe, probably.
I have adopted a hybrid scenario. For big innovations, I take the time and resources to get a patent, but there needs to be the threshold to meet that $1 million standard in internal versus legal investment. For smaller, more nimble ideas, I file design patents for a level of protection and build my mote through unique design, brand story and speed to market. This journey has worked out for us as we have been knocked off and are paid royalties for their use of our IP while we focus on more nimble concepts to stay fresh.
Greathouse: I’ve been fortunate to work from home for decades and I do most of my calls while walking. As such, I can totally relate to your value prop.
What’s the most surprising use case your users have shared with you?
Heath: This is not a WFH (work from home) specific reference, but a Principal at a school uses our balance boards for conflict resolution. If students or staff have issues, he puts them on our decks and asks them to talk it out. He has found that the movement deescalates the conflict to a quicker resolution.
As for WFH, beyond the traditional desk use, it is an amazing tool for binge zooming or streaming. A body in motion, stays in motion. I have been told by customers who watch TV on our decks, they tend to watch less TV over time, because they do not get stuck in the abyss of the cushion. Their subtle movement leads to moderation. A true definition of balance.
Greathouse: Nice. I can picture a couple of agitated kids getting on your decks and getting off of them with smiles on their faces. That’s one smart Principal.
I’ve heard you say that entrepreneurs should, “Find a niche where you can be the expert and it is large enough to matter.” What advice do you have for entrepreneurs who haven’t yet discovered their “niche?”
Heath: One of my colleagues at Deckers Outdoor, Jessica Buttimer, burned this line into my brain and I believe it is one the best things to pursue in building a business. A niche should simply be your passion. Sure, there are market niches, but ultimately people buy from people, so business in its simplest terms is people sharing each other’s passion. When people sell authenticity, they win. The system around that authenticity is what will make it “matter,” aka scale.
Greathouse: You created a new product category – which is good news and bad news. In retrospect, is there anything you would now do differently to maximize your first mover advantage while minimizing the difficulty of missionary selling?
Heath: After making shoes in China in my previous career, I was hungry to make a product where I could walk my own factory line and be able to put my kids to bed the same night. So, I built FluidStance with local sourcing and eco-minded products and processes at its core. This was the primary driver of our position as a premium brand while we created the category.
It would have made financial sense to knock myself off with a parallel brand with an overseas production partner to capitalize on our IP at a lower price point built for Amazon only distribution. The Amazon only product would not have required the same amount of brand development resources, while I could have amortized the design and intellectual property cost over more volume. In the same “hindsight breath,” I spent more time with my kids in the first year of my startup than I did in the previous three years of my corporate gig when all production was overseas. While the cost of local sourcing is a premium on my P&L (profit and loss), I am confident the ROI (return on investment) will be seen in my long-term legacy as a father, brand builder and a fellow steward of local resources.
Greathouse: Another great reason to think “local.”
In addition to “keeping it local,” I admire how you’ve woven philanthropy into your venture’s mission. Can you share how and why you’ve done this, even though it costs you real money?
Heath: FluidStance donated 1% of the equity of our company and 1% of all annual profits to the charity First Descents – an adventure experience for young adults surviving cancer with free weeklong adventure experiences all over the U.S.
I am a founding member of First Descents and helped its Founder, professional kayaker, Brad Ludden, launch the organization back in 2001. I remained on the board until I was term limited in 2008 but (I) wanted to continue my support and saw FluidStance as a vehicle to continue to drive their mission. We include First Descents information in most of our packaging, on our site and pay our employees to volunteer with up to 1% of their time.
Greathouse: Joel, lastly – what are your goals for FluidStance over the next five years?
Heath: We launched with two balance boards and added a third to bring an entry level price point for Amazon the following year. At our foundation we are focused on keeping people moving while they work. However, in the last 18 months, we expanded to help our raving fans find that same sense of fluidity on top of their desk with products that help you stay hydrated at your desk and improve mind flow with creative hardware tools like our Slope, Raise and Lift products.
Just in the last year alone, our desktop products have become 35% of our revenue, we have added Crate & Barrel as a partner, and we continue to put human-centered design at the center of our brand. We will continue to drive fluidity within the desk’s domain through innovation on the ground, desktop and in the near future, the ether. We are just getting going. Stay fluid my friends.