Chairman of the (electric) board
Geoff Larson, inventor of the ZBoard electric skateboard
Geoff Larson never rode a skateboard before college, but then, as a college student, he helped invent an electric skateboard. The co-inventer and co-owner of ZBoard (along with Ben Forman) grew up in Sacramento's Woodlake neighborhood before earning a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering (and a minor in entrepreneurship) from the University of Southern California. There, he built an electric skateboard prototype as part of a class project before graduating in 2010.
In 2012, ZBoard took off after a successful campaign on the crowd-funding website Kickstarter, and it produces boards inside a huge, multi-tenant industrial Modesto warehouse. In October, the company produced a limited-edition model based on the Back to the Future Part II hover board—with proceeds benefiting The Michael J. Fox Foundation (no, it doesn't actually hover, but it's painted to look like the film's board). On a recent weekday, Larson let SN&R ride a ZBoard and talked about inventing the board, selling them to capitol workers and being on the Today morning TV show.
So, you heard about the owner of Segway who died after driving one off a cliff, right?
That was an unfortunate accident with the Segway. But there's something in many ways more intuitive—and less risky, even—riding a ZBoard than a Segway. Plus, you can hop off it.
ZBoard was your senior project in college. Where’d the idea come from?
I did not have a skateboarding background, so to speak, going into college. But I started longboarding at USC—or at least attempting to—because I had three bikes stolen in roughly a semester's time. And I started longboarding, and then once the project started, I started riding electric skateboards to get a feel for them [and] do some firsthand research.
I didn’t know there were other ones.
There are other electric skateboards, but we're the only one that doesn't use a remote control. So, having a little bit of [radio-controlled] car history as a kid, I saw the inherent flaws in having to hold a remote control while you stand on a platform that has a big motor on it. So we came up with this idea, and the name of [ZBoard's parent] company is Intuitive Motion, which describes how you ride the ZBoard. What we did is to make the lean forward cause the [board to] go forward, so you naturally [balance] back to center.
So, did you get an A on the project?
Yes, actually (laughs). They had this class that [required] a group project between mechanical and electrical engineers. And [we were supposed to] come up with an idea, submit a proposal for up to a $500,000 grant to build it. And we built it. We went way over budget. Not by today's standards—what [ZBoard has] to deal with for inventory—but for broke college students, way over budget. We got an A, and we were dubbed honorary winners of sort of an informal competition. And we got refunded the money we spent out of pocket as our prize.
When we were riding it around, working on it, or trying to film something, people would just stop and ask: “What is that? How does it work? Where can I get one? How much and when are they on sale?” And we didn't have the answers for some of those questions. And that's where the minor in entrepreneurship came in. We were getting this response, so I decided to start taking some business classes, did a feasibility study, wrote a business plan, and by the time we graduated, gave business-plan pitches.
When did the company actually start?
We started it in 2010 formally with the paperwork, and that's when we began the process of getting our trademarks and looking at how to file a patent and all that. And we actually made significant changes to the design throughout that whole time; we spent about two years working on that.
And there's this thing called Kickstarter out there. And we knew what it was, but we didn't have a firm grasp on it. And [we] just kind of went into it thinking, “OK, so a friend of a friend's start-up company in the Bay Area raised, like, $100,000 for an iPhone mount,” or something like that, and we were like, “Whoa, let's give it a shot.” We put [our campaign] up on Kickstarter looking for $10,000—starting with a $500 board, wanting to sell 20 of them. We thought we might sell a few more than that, but we wanted to hit our goal, ship in the parts and build [the boards] in the garage, and use that to get some funding to make the company out of it. And we ended up almost getting like, 3,000 percent of our goal. We raised almost $280,000. And that's what set everything in motion and why we're here [building boards in a warehouse in Modesto].
Who’s the ideal consumer for ZBoard?
The ideal person or use for a ZBoard is short-range commutes—especially in an urban kind of environment. It's perfect for teenagers, college students and young professionals, in particular. Around the Capitol, it would be excellent to get around, because you don't have to deal with parking, and you won't break a sweat when you're wearing a suit.
Best moment for ZBoard?
It was definitely a highlight going on the Today show. But mostly, it's been the people we've met. We're part of a traveling museum exhibit put on by Tony Hawk called Rad Science. It's mostly been the opportunity to have a lot of fun, and I had never been to New York before just over a year-and-a-half ago. Now, I've gone [four] times.