Switch Kites sells online in 65 countries and says it has up to 4 per cent of a global market that is worth $321 million.

If you think you have to be an expert in a sport to sell gear for it, think again. Jacob Kajavala, co-founder of Switch Kites, a manufacturer and online retailer of boards and kites for the international kitesurfing industry, claims he doesn't know any more about the sport now than when he started the business two years ago.

Fortunately his San Francisco-based designer, Bill Hansen, does understand the extreme sport, which combines wakeboarding, windsurfing, surfing and paragliding.

As does Kajavala's co-founder, Ralph von Brause, and the 500 Switch "team riders", or expert surfers who act as ambassadors for the Switch brand around the world.

Some team riders have gone so far as tattooing the brand on an arm or writing the Switch name on their cars. And handily, one of the world's top kitesurfers is Tauranga boy Marc Jacobs, 23, a high-profile member of Team Switch.


Kajavala, who has a forestry contracting business in Kawerau with his brother, Daniel, was looking for a new challenge three years ago. He heard about a kitesurfing gear company, Eclipse, being up for sale and looked at buying it but it didn't make it through the due diligence.

He did, however, meet the brains behind the brand, designer and aeronautical engineer Bruce Hansen, so he hired him for his own start-up. They spent more than a year designing a prototype and establishing a global network of suppliers and distributors before launching in June 2011.

Switch manufactures in China and warehouses in Hong Kong. It's what Kajavala calls a virtual company.

The co-founders have set an aggressive price structure.

"We realised that this was a busy market. We needed a point of difference so we decided to manufacture and sell online direct for half the price, more or less, and go global immediately," says Kajavala, who has done an owner-manager course with The Icehouse.

From the beginning Switch has set out to be disruptive, urging brand followers to "join the revolution". Its goal is to make kitesurfing "accessible to all". On the website it describes the company as being from "Wind Heaven AKA New Zealand".

Kajavala says Switch Kites has the largest Facebook following of any kitesurfing brand, with about 14,500 fans. All marketing is online and, when competitors pour out bile about the brand, its loyal supporters will defend them online. "We have had global buy-in," says Kajavala.

The online retailer understands that many customers like to see, touch and feel the gear and has found a solution. Customers can go to a world map on the website and send an email to a team rider in their area asking for a "demo" of the product at a local beach.

In return, team riders get a discount on their gear. "The discount is worth something but the vast majority do it to be cool. We give them special clothes, they get their face on the website," says Kajavala.

Switch is selling in 65 countries. France, Italy and North America are its three largest markets and the company is a finalist in the Bay of Plenty Export Awards this Friday.

Kajavala claims to have 3 to 4 per cent of a global market that is worth US$250 million ($321 million). "If we don't get to 15 per cent I will feel we have failed," he says.

Top tip

Challenge everything and don't ask your mates - they are not the market. Get data that is meaningful and sacrifice the sacred cows quickly.

Best business achievement

We have absolute disciples for the brand in countries we've never even been to.