It’s rare to use the words “hot tub” and “great idea” in the same sentence. But those two seemingly incongruous terms came together on a pivotal day in August 2010. Lem James relaxed in the hot tub with his son discussing business and life, which wasn’t unusual for the pair.
Lem had spent the last several years seeking the perfect startup idea—a niche idea to be exact, so the conversation focused on startup ideas to opportunities. He had watched and compared businesses inside very competitive markets and niche markets. But nothing had quite fit the mold.
All it was needed was a spark.
“Hey Dad, why don’t you build those concrete ping pong tables you saw in Germany?”
And that was all it took.
Lem recognized a viable product and innovative idea. Permanent, outdoor table tennis tables took something familiar and turned it on its head. Lem liked the purposeful creativity of combining ping pong and concrete—two things that didn’t seem to mesh—to create a new outdoor experience in public places.
But this would be more than a niche market; it would be wide open without any competitors and an immediate customer focus; Parks & Recreation.
From a fleeting idea, a permanent table
Normally, “outdoor” ping pong tables need to be set up every day and put away at night. This, combined with play, causes them to wear out every few years. Left outside, table tennis tables deteriorate rapidly.
A concrete table, however, can stay outside through harsh weather and doesn’t need to be set up and taken down at all. This was the key.
Concrete tables could save money for parks, military bases, community centers, and even home owners. Using concrete completely redefines where table tennis works. Instead of backyards and garages, tables can be installed in parks and outdoor school yards.
Forming a business as sturdy as its product
Within a week, Lem had AutoCAD sketches and plans to build forms. As he shared his idea, however, others raised concerns. Who would buy these concrete tables? Wouldn’t shipping costs eat up any profit? Who would even think to search for a product like this? America just wasn’t familiar with the idea. It was a luxury item and, in 2010, we were in a recession.
With his work experience, Lem knew parks across the country and beyond would be interested, and he knew the channels to reach them. As for shipping, that’s a normal cost of doing business. Even when others shared their concerns, the passion grew.
“Every once in a while, we had to do a gut check because they were putting out a few quotes but nothing was selling yet,” said Lem. “We had to hone in on our product and our marketing to put our products out there to our target markets without traditional advertising. We began selling a table here and there. Then, once we could put enough story and photographs together to show tables in parks, schools and nice backyards, sales started rolling.
“It’s frustrating to watch potentially good businesses start and poke around, and then evaporate before they even get the traction to move forward. I’ve watched several businesses fail to launch in this manner. Many times so much time gets spent on making a perfect product that marketing and sales get ignored.
“A lot of these businesses get launched by very smart successful people, but people who don’t need the business to succeed. They have other successes that are easy to fall back on. Early on, a friend asked what my back up plan was. I said plan A was to succeed wildly, and plan B was to succeed mildly. There was no backup plan to fail. If we ran into failure, we would plan around it and continue. Don’t quit.”
During the first year, the company focused on developing and improving the tables, adding steel nets, integral concrete dye to offer color options, and making other refinements. Concrete chess tables were a natural addition to the product line, and these weren’t as foreign to the American market. The playing squares are marble inlaid tiles in a background of polished, exposed aggregate concrete in an array of color options, including recycled glass.
The entrepreneurial community in Oregon supported Bravado from an early stage, including the Roseburg Small Business Development Center and Young Entrepreneur Society (YES), a Roseburg group that supports new innovation.
These groups provided the cross pollination of ideas, which has been central to Bravado’s product development and marketing. In addition, they provided crucial support to a founder with a unique concept. Lem was able to pitch ideas and get feedback from a unique cross section of business thinkers and fellow entrepreneurs.
Oregon is also home to an array of groups, like Portland based City Repair, who are great supporters of the placemaking movement. City Repair builds community projects—like turning an intersection into a public park. They describes placemaking as “a multi-layered process within which citizens foster active, engaged relationships to the spaces which they inhabit, the landscapes of their lives, and shape those spaces in a way which creates a sense of communal stewardship and lived connection.”Permanent outdoor games—especially table tennis—fit in perfectly with placemaking by providing the community a gathering point where everyone can play.
Best of both worlds
As Lem perfected the engineering and production of the ping pong tables, his mind began to turn to other product opportunities based on the company motto, “Everybody plays!”
Cornhole, a simple, but not very well known game immediately came to mind. The bean bag game was easy to adapt to concrete and place as a permanent feature in parks, while also creating a more entry level product line. Foosball was added to the product line after a table tennis fan sent a picture of a similar table in Paris. While the actual forming and production took some fine tuning, the actual game itself is to pick up and learn.
Foosball and cornhole allow almost anyone to begin playing and then develop mastery over time—just like the sport that inspired the original product.
Work that inspires activity
Lem shares a contagious enthusiasm for his products and the games they facilitate. it’s not just about selling something and making money. These tables are on the cutting edge in concrete work, the placemaking movement, and the sport of table tennis.
Bravado Outdoor’s table tops are recognized in the concrete industry for design and finish work and have been featured by different suppliers. The tables are another example of combining two different disciplines: concrete engineering and concrete countertop finish work.
These publicly available tables support the developing of ping pong in America, and integrate into the urban placemaking design movement; where sidewalks, corners or small urban spaces are turned into an oasis where people can gather. Where an old empty lot can become a miniature neighborhood gathering spot with ping pong and chess as the focal points.
The sport of table tennis, in particular, has been a second tier sport in North America, usually played in garages and basements. But Bravado is taking table tennis into the outdoors and public places, putting the sport front and center and giving more people across America and the chance to hone their skills. The Bravado team strongly believes that by making table tennis more accessible, the level of play will be raised—ultimately helping the US become more competitive on the international scene.
Lofty goal? Sure. But the accessibility of basketball courts in parks and urban areas has definitely played a central role in the development of many top players, and while there is a big difference between basketball and table tennis in regards to the idea of being a competitive sport, accessibility and awareness are still critical development steps.
And once in place, these tables will be around for years to come. No nets to replace or backboards to repair. No play structures to fix. No swing chains to replace. Just hours of enjoyment by kids and adults alike.
And much like the products they have developed, Bravado has created a solid company, firmly grounded in the community that supported them from the beginning.