Dancefloor maker wants to get on right foot in US
Dancefloors created by an Australian company help prevent the shock on ballerinas' feet when they land. Photo: Supplied
Ballerinas look graceful, but when they land they put a huge amount of force on their feet and legs.
For the team at set builders Show Works, the problem presented a business opportunity that's paving the way for the company to start exporting to the US.
Show Works builds sets for many of the major shows put on in Australia, including in the last few years Wicked, Love Never Dies, Rock of Ages, and most Australian Ballet and Victorian Opera productions. “If there's something on stage that hasn't got a heartbeat, we've probably got some involvement,” says Tim Blaikie, the business development manager and one of four partners in the business.
Set building makes up about three-quarters of Show Works' business, but it's seasonal, so the company also builds dance equipment like ballet bars and rehearsal mirrors.
It also makes sprung rehearsal floors for dancers, which have enough give or springiness in them to help lessen the shock on dancer's feet when they land and reduce injuries. While the product was successful — the Australian Ballet takes one on tour when the company travels overseas — it was too expensive for all but the large professional companies.
Small dance schools were unable to afford sprung flooring and often had students rehearsing on what were little more that covered concrete floors in industrial sites out in the suburbs. “Until we came onto the market there were very few alternatives to dancing on a concrete slab unless you had an awful lot of money to spend,” says Blaikie.
“We felt that if we were smart we could invent a floor that would have a very nice profit margin in there for us but would also provide a really affordable option to people.”
The result is a product called Sprung Floor by Show Works, a modular dance floor with interlocking rubber pads underneath to help absorb the shock. Most importantly, it costs only about a quarter of the $45,000 to $50,000 that a traditional sprung floor costs.
The floor has been a considerable success since it was launched two years ago, selling twice as many units as forecast each year, says Blaikie.
The Show Works management team had a long-term ambition of exploring export markets, but wasn't planning to do anything this year until it was approached by Mark Gustowski of business consultancy Pyksis to take part in a Victorian government export development program.
“The opportunity to go over and do this fell into our lap,” says Blaikie.
The program took Blaikie and representatives of several other businesses to San Francisco to explore export opportunities and for some mentoring from successful US businesses.
Blaikie says he was sceptical about the opportunities when he went on the trip, thinking that the floor was too large to transport economically. But while he was in the US he formed an alliance with an American manufacturer who could make the product there, putting Show Works on a level playing field with local competitors.
“The great thing that happened while we were over there was that it became abundantly clear that there was a huge market over there and that we were right in the ballpark as far as our pricing model was concerned and [the mentors] gave me nothing but encouragement to go and target out product into that market,” Blaikie says. Indeed, the company even picked up a sale during the two week trip.
Show Works went to the US with help from the Victorian government's First Steps Exporter program, which covers half of the expense of exploring an export market up to $10,000.
It is also has plans to tap into the federal government's Export Market Development Grant, for aspiring and current exporters. This reimburses up to 50 per cent of export promotion expenses above $10,000 provided that the total expenses are at least $20,000.
The government assistance covers only exploring the market and trade promotion. The expense of setting up in the US has to be borne by Show Works.
“The long-term gains are significant but it's a huge rise and we're all putting our houses on the line to do it. There's no magic pot that we can draw funds from, so it's a little bit scary,” says Blaikie.
So despite the initial enthusiasm for the product in the US, Show Works is going to move slowly and cautiously into exporting. The company plans to continue researching its options and take at least a couple of years to get established in San Francisco before potentially taking on the US east coast and, if all goes well, Europe.
“We don't want to get there and find that we've forgotten one or two things,” says Blaikie.