A few weeks ago we received a message on Instagram from Henry Kvietok, introducing us to his product the Shoulder Saver. The Shoulder Saver takes a common problem with skiing and provides a solution: helping to alleviate the pain that comes with slugging a pair of skis over your shoulder and carrying them around.
While the product itself is a welcome comfort for a day on the slopes, even more interesting is the story behind the Shoulder Saver. Henry designed this product in high school and, as a Sophomore in college attending CU Boulder, he has launched the Shoulder Saver and is already selling it in multiple retail stores in the greater Denver area.
Wanting to learn more about Henry’s story and how the Shoulder Saver came to be, we had a chance to talk with him and ask him a few questions.
Give us a quick background on who you are and what life currently looks like for you.
Currently I am a sophomore at CU Boulder. I’m majoring in a program called Technology, Arts & Media, so I take it you probably haven’t heard of it, because I had no idea about it when I originally entered CU. Originally I entered CU as a mechanical engineering major and I actually had an internship the summer before entering CU doing a lot of computer aided design. Now, nothing against mechanical engineers, but what I was more interested in was the artistic side of design, so I came across this program and it’s within the school of engineering, so it’s still a bachelor of science degree and I take the core classes, so the calculus, the physics, computer science, and after that I take a lot more creative focused classes.
Last semester for instance, I was in two classes, one called Image and the other Form. The Image class was all about photography and Illustrator, Photoshop, and Lightroom, and then in the Form class that was all about computer aided design and was more artistic than pure engineering. They were a lot more creative focused classes. The best way I can describe it is a mix between engineering and art. I generally refer to it as product design and there’s a lot of diversity within the program.
Right now I’m taking a web development class and a sound class. So I’m learning HTML and CSS and also learning how to design my own synthesizer to make music. I would say an ordinary day is pretty varied with that kind of schedule.
The nice thing with the classes I’m taking is that it’s a lot of project based work and a lot of critiquing and building up a portfolio, because ultimately with a degree like this, it’s not like an engineering degree where you graduate with an electrical engineering degree and show that to the company you want to work for. With my degree its more about showing an employer this is my style, this is what I’ve built, these are the skills that I’ve assembled throughout my time in the TAM program. A lot of it is working on projects, a lot of it revolves around the design process, so that’s something that they really hone in on in the TAM program – that kind of iterative process of ‘you make the product, you get critiques, you get feedback, then you make it better.’ It’s that constant cycle.
In these classes, do they give you criteria for these products? Or do they say ‘go create something’ then go through the critique process from there?
The program is evolving a lot and it’s only about 5 years old and one of the things that they’ve done really well this year is making the assignments more open ended. For instance, in my photography class last semester, one of the assignments was ‘go create a photobook of at least 30 images on a topic that interests you’. Instead of the professor telling us to take 30 images of trees, and make it into a book, it was just something that interests you. And that was so much fun because it has structure, but you can tailor it to what you’re interested in. People did everything from taking pictures of strangers, or cats, and I decided to do mine on what it’s like to ride your bike up Flagstaff Mountain. One of my other hobbies is fitness so I wanted to kind of showcase that with the wildlife, the exotic cars that people race up, and what have you.
Kind of going off that, more with what does a day look like for me, I would say I’m definitely a morning person. I have a gym partner and we are usually at the gym at 6 am, bright and early, which is quite rare for college students. I just find it helps with a routine and releasing stress and it’s a good start to my day. Then throughout the day I have classes and then I’m also involved with a club on campus. It’s called Get Seed Funding and what we do, we’re a committee of 5 students, and I’m the leader, and we listen to students’ pitches every single week. We hear four student pitches every week and we have the funds from the university to award up to $500 to each student who pitches. We have a budget of $12,000 for the entire year. Last fall semester was when we kicked it off and we ended up awarding around $4,000 and we’re going to award the remainder of it this semester.
That’s really fun because the whole goal of the program is getting students off the ground to have ideas for businesses. We’re not looking to tear them apart or make sure they have a 5-step business plan, but we provide advice, guidance, and feedback and at the end of the day we want to see students get their ideas going and experiencing that kind of iterative process of taking $250 and going off and making the prototype they need to make a product and put it in front of a user and see where it goes.
With the funding, do they get some sort of mentorship or is there a team that supports them? Or are they given the funding and expected to continue on their own?
It’s a little bit of both. The Get Seed Funding committee is underneath a university initiative called the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative, but basically our goal from the CU chancellor is to make CU a leader in innovation and entrepreneurship. Under that network we have mentor matching, various events that students can go to to validate their idea and meet face to face with mentors here in Boulder, and then our team also follows up with the people we award money to to see how things are going and provide advice. When we award them money, we give it with a specified thing to purchase or use it on. That way it’s not just giving them money for a cool idea to do whatever. Instead, they get, let’s say, $100 to register yourself as a LLC, buy pizza for some user testing, and build the website.
Does the person pitching define what those things are they’re going to spend the money on, or do you guys help with that?
When students apply there’s an application process that kind of vet outs students. They have to provide the itemized budget, then we’ll generally determine through their pitch and their discussion after which items are most pertinent or whether they deserve the full funding amount. That’s been a really, really awesome opportunity because I’ve gotten so much better at being able to quickly assess an idea and determine what its weak points are. And it’s just fun for me since I get to see what other students are working on, just like myself.
It kind of keeps your creativity going since you’re getting inspired by what they’re doing.
Yeah, exactly. And the variety of things that we see. Last week we had a girl who was making micro plastic free glitter, someone who had a media business for cars, a new restaurant reward app, and even someone wanting to build the next satellite shielding device. It’s all over the board.
So when I talk to people about stuff, I define the three categories of what my time is usually spent doing. It’s either Get Seed Funding, the Shoulder Saver stuff, or classes. Then, any other time I have, obviously I love spending time outdoors skiing, most weekends I’m up skiing somewhere. Whether it’s backcountry or downhill.
When did your passion for the outdoors start? Was it when you were growing up as a kid, was it later in life? Was it inspired by your family or did you find it on your own? How did that come about?
A lot of it was inspired by my Dad. He’s a big outdoorsman and he grew up camping and skiing with his family. Basically as soon as I could walk I was in a pair of ski boots. I was actually born in Ohio, so I learned how to ski at Perfect North Slopes which is a super small little ski resort in the midwest. Then we moved here to Colorado when I was 4 or 5 years old, so Colorado is home for me. I’ve always grown up with taking the mountains as a given and as I grew up and matured I’ve realized just how lucky we are to live here in Colorado. I mean, I’ve just grown to appreciate all the different activities that the mountains offer. It’s obviously super fun to ski, but it’s also my kind of mental release. If I’ve had a stressful week or something, going skiing is the medicine that I need.
Throughout my teenage years I was pretty involved with Boy Scouts. I wasn’t super keen on the whole rank and troop and selling popcorn kind of thing, but I was more into the camping, backpacking, climbing fourteeners – all the outdoors stuff. I was involved with a program where I got to teach scouts how to build a snow shelter called a quinzee. You basically pile up a 10 foot diameter, 6 foot high pile of snow, let it set, then hollow it out. It’s like an igloo and you can sleep in it overnight. I was a staff member for that for a few years, so that was kind of how I got into the outdoors. Even in high school I started the outdoor club and got kids out snowshoeing and hiking and one of the great things about the outdoors is sharing it with other people. For me, as someone who grew up with a Dad who always took us hiking, camping, backpacking, it shocked me to meet friends in high school who had never gone hiking. And not to say everyone has to like it, but for how much positivity it’s brought to my life, I wanted to share that with people. And when we’re out hiking or I’m bringing new people outdoors, to see them fall in love with it, and to hear them say they’re going to bring their family on a hike next week, that’s like the greatest feeling – to share that with people.
Are you able to do that pretty regularly? With your friends and family – go on group events, camping trips, even though you’re not in Boy Scouts or in any sort of structure anymore?
I try to as much as I can. With a busy schedule it’s a little bit trickier, but this past weekend I was able to get out with a good friend of mine and my dad and we went on a hut trip up to the Section House, which is a 10th Mountain Hut outside of Breckenridge.
I know people typically call Boulder a party school, and while that certainly is partially true, my version of partying is skiing. I do all the work during the week so I can have fun on the weekends.
So your life is split between the outdoors and adventures and skiing and fitness, then the other side is entrepreneurship and design. Shoulder Saver has kind of become a blend of those. How did that start? Where did the idea come from – through a class or on your own?
This requires a couple of years of backtracking. I was in a class in high school called Design Technology. It was with a teacher whose name was Paul Clinton, I still list him as a reference on my resume, and it was a class that centered around the design process and it was in the engineering department at my high school. The whole goal of the class was to learn about the design process, learn about material science, and come up with a invention that you take through the process of user research, market research, and prototyping. Then you end with a final prototype and a written up design process of all the steps you went through.
I was thinking of ideas and one of the common ways of generating ideas is a ‘bug list’. It’s a list of little things that bother you. I wanted to do something that is personally interesting to me and I might end up using. Carrying skis really sucks and hurts and it digs into your neck and it’s just overall painful. I don’t know how many times I’ve walked from my car up to the lodge at Loveland, through the parking lot, and that half mile walk or so is just agonizing with the skis digging into your shoulder. I decided to go about solving that problem and I didn’t immediately think of the foam pad design. I went through a bunch of different prototypes. At times I was considering some sort of air bag cushion that you could blow up and it would go between your skis and your shoulder. I also thought of different foam prototypes, then I eventually settled on the rectangle square design after some testing, just more out of simplicity and cutting down on manufacturing costs, and it provided a similar level of comfort. It was also able to fit into the pocket.
For testing, were you creating the prototypes yourself – getting the materials, sewing it yourself, and putting it together?
Very early on I had approached a foam company in Aurora called Foam Fabricators and back then I was a high school student working on this class project. I called them and asked if they had any scrap foam and they gave me some scraps because they work in huge quantities and they oftentimes have little pieces from the ends. I got a bunch of different densities of foam to test out and then a lot of the testing was done in the Loveland parking lot with people I just asked or friends and family. I literally just carried skis around with different densities of foam and different shapes to determine what the optimal one would be.
How many different designs or prototypes did you go through?
Initial concepts? I probably had at least 10 and then for testing I believe I tested probably 5 different ones. The final prototype from that class is so ugly and I hate to look at it. That thing does not look anything like the current Shoulder Saver. So after the class, to continue the story, I thought that this was becoming a viable idea. I had identified the best foam and I also got permission from Colorado Ski & Golf to stand outside their store and interview customers that were walking in to gather data on price points to validate the need and want for a product like this.
It kind of sat on the backburner awhile and Freshman year of college I was busy and not really thinking of entrepreneurship all that much. Then around the spring of freshman year, spring of 2018, I decided to see what I could do with it. I had some money put away in savings and I’m also going to school on a full ride scholarship. It’s called the Boettcher scholarship and it’s awarded to 40 different high school seniors in Colorado to get them to attend any school in Colorado. The goal is to keep Colorado’s talent in Colorado. So I had some savings and I envisioned myself going into product design as this TAM major. So I thought why not give it a shot? Why not try it out?
Through some connections with my Dad I was connected with a guy who had some experience with getting more professional prototypes made here locally. I met this guy named Jorge based in Louisville and he helped me to sew the covering for the pad because in High School I literally just had the exposed foam velcroed to a ski strap, there was no covering. It was quite primitive. So Jorge helped me from the perspective of someone with a lot of experience with sewing because that was an area I didn’t have expertise in or much experience in. He was aware of what different patterns would work and helping with the design of what is essentially a pocket that you can squeeze a foam block into. Originally I was toying with the idea of using a zipper or more velcro, but all of those things add more cost to a fairly simple device.
We ended up going with the pocket design and I knew that I needed the cover for durability and it also added some color to the product. After that he made about 10 of them. With those ten I was able to start showing them more seriously to different companies, skiers, and getting more feedback on designs and any changes. Over the summer was when I got connected through another contact to a cut and sew manufacturer here in Denver. They’re called Hookfish Manufacturing. They primarily do a lot of sublimation printing on t-shirts and other garments, so that’s how I was able to get the Colorado flag on the product. If you look closely it’s not stuck on top of the fabric. The fabric is actually dyed that color. It’s super high quality which is important to me and is an advantage of having it done locally right here in Denver. I can see the process, I know everyone by first name.
I approached Hookfish with the design and asked if it was something they could do. We then began talking prices and quantity and I placed the order with them around July or August and it was around a month turn around. They made and assembled it all together. They had a couple of subcontractors they worked with and I had the Shoulder Saver logo in white that’s on the strap part printed on by the company that makes the velcro. Then they assemble it all together.
That ended with the launch in early September.
Last year? 2018?
Yeah, so just this past fall in 2018.
Were the velcro straps manufactured by someone else other than Hookfish?
Yeah, it was a different company I found online. I really tried hard to find someone here in Colorado that could do that hook and loop printing, but I believe the company is based in Florida, so I just had them do the printing and Hookfish assembled it all and sewed it all together.
I’m looking at it now and all the different pieces you’re talking about. Does Hookfish put the foam inside of it, or do you do that?
They do that. That was kind of a bump in the road a little bit. I learned a lot from that first run. One improvement might be making the covering for the foam just a slightly more stretchy material so that it’s easier to insert the foam afterwards. It’s fully possible to pull out the foam block and put it back in, it’s just quite difficult. For the sake of most users, I mean I’ve been using mine non-stop, and it’s been totally fine.
It’s not getting used the whole time you’re skiing, it’s 15 minutes as you walk from the car to the lift. That foam can rebound.
When you launched it, what kind of marketing did you do? Was it a lot of word of mouth, I see you have your social channels, how did you use those and how did it go?
I have learned a ton about different things that either do or don’t work. I came into this whole entrepreneurial journey more from the product lens, so the design aspect, and everything I’ve learned about, even small things like getting a sales tax license or creating a business Facebook page, or creating a Facebook ad, were all new to me. A lot of my marketing right off the bat was word of mouth and sharing on social media. I sent out several free samples to different individuals that had blogs. There was this one woman on instagram who is based in Grand Junction who made a post about it. I also sent it to the company Blister Gear and they made a holiday gift guide and featured the Shoulder Saver in it.
The retail store channel was my first target with it and I did a ton of driving around to different ski shops in the Denver, Boulder, and Castle Rock areas. A lot of cold calling and a lot of rejections. But surprisingly, I was able to get it into 8 different stores. We have one up in Vail, 2 here in Boulder, one in Golden, one in Denver, one in Aurora, one, in Evergreen, and one in castle rock. Just recently, I sold some to the online retailer Garage Grown Gear. They partner with outdoor gear startups like my own and they have a huge following and email list and they’re basically another retailer with more exposure.
Another thing in the fall was a lot of in person events because one of the things that I found was that there are products like this that exist, like sling devices and roller wheels for your skis, which are all devices that intend to make carrying skis easier. But what I find when you’re carrying your skis, and I’m curious to hear your thoughts, is that I like to carry them on my shoulder because it keeps everything out of the way and it’s just the way everyone does it.
It gets them higher up and usually they’re angled so if you’re turning or walking through a parking lot, you’re less prone to whacking someones car.
Yeah, when you’re walking through the parking lot and you turn and hit someone or something. So I found that the best way to sell the Shoulder Saver was to go to ski season kick off events at Bent Gate Mountaineering or Neptune Mountaineering or different ski clubs in the Denver area. I’d bring my pair of skis, a few Shoulder Savers, and have people test it out and carry my skis. That let them feel it first hand. One of the reviews I commonly get is that it’s something people didn’t even know they needed. When people try it out and feel how comfortable it is and how much more enjoyable it makes the whole skiing experience, they realize they need one.
There’s also no weight penalty since you can take it off and throw it in your pocket.
Yeah, you can throw it in a pocket, or if you’re someone who boots up at the lodge you can just throw it in your bag. I also like to do side country skiing at the ridge at Loveland so if you pop it in a pocket and you have a 15-20 minute hike it makes it that much better.
With this design, did you have different size foam blocks, or is that what you settled on at the start?
One of the main debates I was going through while testing different prototypes was that I could make an extremely comfortable, cushy, pillow that goes on your shoulder, but size is going to be sacrificed. And as you mentioned, one of the most important things was portability and having it be small enough to fit in a pocket. So I settled on that size intending to find the happy medium of providing enough comfort to make it worthwhile to skiers, but still being small enough to have it not be a big burden.
Let’s talk about the future of it. Will there be the option of different sizes or styles, or do you think you’ll move on to another product to move to add to your portfolio?
I’m not 100% sure. I really hope that I can continue with the Shoulder Saver and by all means at the end of this ski season I intend to reassess how things are going, how sales have been, and make changes accordingly. If I do choose to continue with it, which I hope I do, I will most definitely be offering different sizes and also different design schemes. I chose the Colorado flag because I wanted to start local, everything is made in Colorado, so I wanted to capitalize on that aspect, and also the Colorado flag is a pretty awesome design. It’s eye catching and colorful. But with that said, to appeal to out of state audiences or international audiences, I want to offer more designs that wouldn’t just appeal to Colorado residents.
To answer the other question, I have an ongoing list of ideas, potential ideas for different inventions relating to skiing and also relating to other things. I’m working on some of these side projects, but I hope to expand the portfolio of things that I can offer.
With all these side projects you have, how do you self-validate or figure out which direction to go? What’s your criteria for figuring out what is actually feasible and what is not?
There’s a couple of methods that I use. Sometimes something can just be a weekend project and its fun, but I realize that it’s not feasible as a business when I’m going through the initial analysis of ‘is there market demand for this’ or ‘is there competition already out there’. A lot of the ideas I come up with or prototype end up being shot down for one reason or another just because there’s no need for it or it’s solving a problem people don’t have. A lot of it is talking with other people. One of the greatest resources and pieces of advice I would have for fellow entrepreneurs would be to get out of your own head. Some of the assumptions I’ve had, I mean you talk to someone for 5 minutes, and you realize ‘why didn’t I think of that’. Talking to other people and validating your ideas is super helpful.
Once school is done and you’ve moved on and graduated, do you have a plan yet, or are you just figuring it out as you go? Will you pursue Shoulder Saver and your other ventures full time or will you get a job first and get some experience there?
A lot of it is still in the works. What I’m hoping right now is to get a job at a product design firm, whether my role is something in 3D printing, prototyping, or user research or more industrial design, I’m still kind of exploring different options. One of the pieces of advice I got from my Dad and a lot of other people is the value of experience at a very established company. That would let me see how processes work in a corporate setting. I don’t at all assume that just because I have a business going that I know everything or think I can make it on my own. I want to learn as much as I can, so I’m hoping that even this summer – I applied to several different internships at design firms – to get that experience. After a couple of years in the industry, whether my side projects have taken off or are worth pursuing full time, that might be something that I go after. We’ll just have to see where the journey takes me.
Outside of entrepreneurship and school, and other big adventures or plans to finish off ski season?
This weekend I’m going to ski Granby. We won a few lift tickets to go there. It’s a small resort near winter park that I’ve never been to, so I’m looking forward to that. I also have another hut trip planned for my spring break up on Vail pass that I am so stoked for. Hut trips are the best. Have you been on one before?
I have not, but I’ll be going on my first next weekend.
Oh man – it’s so much fun. The people you meet…I don’t know if the huts are self selecting because you have to snowshoe or ski a couple of miles to get back to them, but just interacting with the people is the best part. You meet the most unique characters, you’re out in nature, you’re melting snow for water, it’s magical. I’m going to be doing hut trips for the rest of my life.
It definitely takes a certain mindset to ski through the snow for a few hours and sleep in a hut, then head back. Takes away all those creature comforts.
I’ve never met someone who was a jerk or mean or anything at a hut. It always just works out.
Any final thoughts or anything else you want people to know about the Shoulder Saver?
I mentioned it before, but I think it’s worth saying again, but that review of ‘I didn’t know I needed it until I tried it’. It makes carrying skis so much more comfortable and it just really enhances the whole experience and makes skiing more enjoyable and more fun overall.
If you can start the first 10 minutes of your day on the mountain without pain, that’s a good day. Well, we’re looking forward to seeing where things go for you and Shoulder Saver and what’s next.
Yeah, recently I got in contact somehow with Lindsey Vonn’s manager or media person and she sent me an address to send the Shoulder Saver to. I sent one earlier this week, and haven’t heard anything back yet, but if I could get a shout out from her, that would be insane. It’s a shot in the dark, but we’ll see what happens with that.
We’ll keep an eye out for that Lindsey Vonn instagram post.
That would be awesome!